Simon Whitehead

Editor’s note: This is a lightly edited version of prepared remarks that Mr. Whitehead delivered to senior U.S. Department of Education officials at Friday morning’s listening session concerning the agency’s school discipline guidance. Mr. Whitehead is a retired high school teacher with thirty-seven years of teaching experience, the last twenty-five years of which were in Minneapolis.

I am here today because I am very worried about the direction some of our urban and suburban schools are taking.

Over the past four to five years, there have been strong expectations to discipline students differently depending on their race. We were told that too many students of color were being suspended and this looked bad, especially in the case of African American boys. This was definitely the case in Minneapolis.

However well-intended, this policy actually disrespects a whole class of students by lowering the expectations for their behavior, their work ethic, and inevitably their academic progress. When students walk though my classroom door, I have high expectations for them—no matter what they look like.

Another great area of concern is that students are now increasingly emboldened to get together and collaborate to “get teachers in trouble.” Those teachers can lose...

The controversy brewing over Obama-era school discipline policy has all the makings of a polarizing debate. For progressives, it taps into deeply held beliefs about fairness and justice. And for conservatives, it taps into deeply held beliefs about order and safety. Throw in race, Donald Trump, and Betsy DeVos, and you have a potentially toxic stew.

That’s a shame because this is an issue that desperately needs pragmatism and a good-spirited search for common ground. Let me propose how we might find it.

First a little background: In 2014, the Department of Education and Department of Justice published a “dear colleague” letter addressing discipline disparities by race and special education status in public schools. It was lauded by civil rights groups—and bemoaned by conservatives—for applying “disparate impact theory” to the issue of school discipline. In effect, it said that districts could be investigated for violating students’ civil rights if data collected by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights showed significant disproportionality—as would happen when, for example, African Americans were suspended by their schools at higher rates than whites. It also stated that districts could be found in violation of civil rights laws even if...

I write from a place of privilege today. I have never once worried about the safety of my three children at school. The victim of a fatal school stabbing in September at a New York City high school was named Matthew. I have a Matthew too. And I owe it to every parent who does worry to try to put myself in their shoes and then raise my voice on their behalf. I wish I had done so sooner.

Robert Pondiscio and Max Eden have penned a piece about the New York incident at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx for the Daily News that will likely rankle many folks who call themselves education reformers. But no matter how much certain parts of the piece may get under the collective skin of the reform community, I sincerely hope we find it in ourselves to slow down and ask ourselves: What if my child attended the school where this happened? What if that had been my student?

I have spent the morning doing just that.

From the piece:

Abel Cedeno, a bisexual 18-year-old high school student, sits at Rikers Island charged with...

When Congress enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), shifting much education decision-making back to the states, many reformers, especially on the left, voiced concern that states would give up on rigorous accountability systems. “Federal pressure is a hard thing for people to swallow,” said Conor Williams, a senior researcher at New America, “but this law doesn’t give enough federal pressure for enough schools and doesn’t define the guardrails we need.”

That worry wasn’t unreasonable. Conventional wisdom indicated that opponents of results-based accountability—the teachers unions, superintendents, and other establishment groups, especially—wield enormous power in the states. With many of the “guardrails” of No Child Left Behind removed, nothing would keep vested interests in the education status quo from dismantling consequential accountability. In correcting NCLB’s flaws, states might throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We’re pleased to report that such fears turn out to be mostly unfounded. So we find and document in Fordham’s new study, Rating the Ratings: An Analysis of the 51 ESSA Accountability Plans. While there’s still plenty about the accountability systems of many states to criticize—and implementation challenges lie ahead for all of them—the school ratings at least represent more of...

Republicans are steadily moving forward on tax reform, with the House poised to vote on the passage of its version of a bill Thursday morning. The legislation has, of course, been contentious and led to much discussion. And, regarding education policy, one of the areas that’s kicked up the most dust is the proposed expansion, found only in the House bill, of tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans, which would allow families to use the savings for K-12 expenses and not just higher education.

Some believe that this expansion ought to be celebrated because it will allow more families to consider more choices when it comes to which school their child can attend. Others, however, worry the change uses scarce political and financial resources to advantage families with enough money to save for private school. Perhaps, they argue, we should instead invest in ways to give poor and working-class families more options.

To explore the issue in more depth, we’ve featured opposing perspectives from a trio of experts. Praising the 529 expansion is Peter Murphy, the Vice President for Policy at the Invest in Education Foundation. And arguing the other side are Nat Malkus and Preston Cooper, the deputy director of...

A recent study on career and technical education examines whether taking “CTE” courses in high school has any relationship to dropping out of high school and, conversely, going to college.

Data come from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 and follows a cohort of public school students starting in the second half of their sophomore year (2002), surveying them again in both spring 2004 and spring 2006 when they would have been in their second year after high school graduation. Analysts attempt to control for a wide range of demographic, family, academic, attitudinal, and school-level variables, such as parental education, family income, poverty level of school, college expectations, etc. While they have loads of control variables, the study is nevertheless not causal, in part because it is not able to control for all of the unobserved factors that may make students who enroll in CTE different from those who do not.

The key finding is that taking more CTE courses is linked to a lower chance of dropping out of high school. Specifically, taking any CTE course in high school decreases the odds of dropping out by 1.2 percent for each course, so the more the better, but taking a...

“Collective efficacy” is the sense among group members that they have the capability to organize and execute the actions required to achieve their most important goals. Researchers have, for twenty years, tested it as a key factor in explaining performance differences among groups attempting the same task in areas such as healthcare and manufacturing. The literature on collective efficacy in K–12 education is new and growing, spearheaded largely by Roger D. Goddard of The Ohio State University. A new report by a group of researchers led by Dr. Goddard seeks to unite quantitative and qualitative data on the subject.

The quantitative portion of the analysis was fairly straightforward, looking at the math achievement levels of 13,472 fourth- and fifth-grade students on a mandatory assessment given annually in one large district in Texas. Change between the two years of scores was the sole academic measure utilized and researchers looked at achievement gaps between different school buildings and between black and white students. A measure of collective efficacy was derived using a twelve-item survey, which was administered to 2,041 teachers. The survey rated teachers’ level of agreement on a scale of one to five with statements such as, “Teachers are here...

The Every Student Succeeds Act grants states more authority over their accountability systems than did No Child Left Behind, but have they seized the opportunity to develop school ratings that are clearer and fairer than those in the past? Our new report, Rating the Ratings: Analyzing the 51 ESSA Accountability Plans, examines the plans submitted by all fifty states and the District of Columbia, and whether they are strong or weak (or in-between) in achieving three objectives:

  1. Assigning annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public;
  2. Encouraging schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and
  3. Fairly measuring and judging all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

Key findings include:

  • Thirty-five states—69 percent—received a "strong" grade for using clear and intuitive ratings such as A–F grades, five-star ratings, or user-friendly numerical system. These labels immediately convey to all observers how well a given school is performing, and is a major improvement over the often Orwellian school ratings of the NCLB era.
  • The country is also doing much better in signaling that every child is important, not just the "bubble kids" near the proficiency cut-off. Twenty-three states earned
  • ...
Nat Malkus and Preston Cooper

School choice has long been the centerpiece of President Trump’s education policy platform. On the campaign trail, Trump promised $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice. He reiterated this promise in his address to Congress last winter, calling on the legislature to pass a bill “that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth.” Now, with tax reform on Congress’s calendar for the rest of the year, the president has the perfect opportunity to deliver on those promises: a big investment to help poor families by expanding school choice.

Unfortunately, the main provision in the GOP tax reform bill concerning K–12 education falls well short of the administration’s stated goals.

This provision would allow families to use tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans for K–12 educational expenses, such as private school tuition. Under a 529 plan, a family can deposit after-tax dollars into a savings account on behalf of a child or other designated beneficiary. The initial contributions accrue earnings over time, and families pay no taxes on those earnings so long as they are used for educational purposes. Republicans argue this would advance school choice at the K–12 level.

529 plans are well-suited to pay for college...

Peter Murphy

The House Republican tax reform plan, contained in its proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, includes a provision to expand the Internal Revenue Code section 529 savings plans to include expenses for kindergarten-through-grade-twelve education and apprenticeship programs. The maximum annual amount of such expenses allowed from these plans would be $10,000.

Supporters of educational choice should embrace this proposal and advocate for its inclusion in the final, adopted tax bill. Simply put, expanding 529 college savings plans for K–12 education and apprenticeship programs will enable more families to access educational choice before their children enroll in college.

Current tax law restricts 529 savings plans to higher education and allows maximum annual contributions of up to $5,000 per year for each individual account ($10,000 for joint-income tax filers).

While contributions to existing 529 college savings plans are not deductible for federal income tax purposes, the accrued interest is not subject to federal tax.

In the process of proposing to expand the 529 plans to K–12 education and apprenticeship programs, the House GOP tax plan would eliminate Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which is the current savings vehicle for K–12 expenses for up to $2,000 annually, since they would be duplicative.

As a...