Robert Maranto

As a school board member, I lament that public education is all too partisan. 

Democrats and Republicans disagree on teacher salaries and benefits, school prayer, discipline, vouchers for poor students to attend private schools, sex education, arming teachers, gender-neutral bathrooms, and saluting the American flag, among other things.

Yet each party mainly likes charter schools.

A brainchild of reform Democrats like Bill Clinton, charter schools are public schools authorized by public bodies. They cannot impose religion, charge tuition, or discriminate in admission. Yet they are autonomous like private schools, chosen by parents, able to focus on a single mission like Montessori schooling, and often staffed by untenured teachers who principals can hold accountable.

In short, charter schools combine public school equity with private school flexibility and customer service. 

Two decades of research finds charter schools excelling on parent satisfaction and graduation rates. Overall results are mixed, but within low-income communities, charters typically show greater test scores gains than traditional public schools counterparts, and far greater success preparing disadvantaged students for college.

This fits with decades of common sense and research, summarized in the late Jeanne Chall’s classic The Academic Achievement Challenge. Chall and a range of other researchers find...

Sam Duell

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a geographical analysis and interactive website recently that shows the saturation (or lack) of charter elementary schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas. The report identifies geographic locations with both high rates of poverty and no charter elementary schools, giving them the title of “charter school deserts.” According to Fordham’s analysis, there are over 500 charter deserts across 39 states. This is a thought-provoking analysis that deserves attention.

First, let’s discuss what this analysis is and what it’s not. “Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options,” answers three basic questions:

  • Where are charter elementary schools located?
  • Where are there concentrations of poverty according U.S. Census data?
  • How do these two areas overlap?

Assuming that families with lower incomes need more educational options, the analysis clearly indicates that America has work to do. With an average of 10.8 charter deserts per state, we can also assume that charter schools have room to grow while serving economically disadvantaged populations. The analysis and interactive website are tools for communities across the country to understand which neighborhoods might want new educational opportunities.

Fordham is clear about the limitations of the report. It’s not claiming that charter...

Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas

The U.S. Department of Education is considering delaying the new “Equity in IDEA” regulations. These regulations expand federal monitoring of whether U.S. schools are over-identifying children as having disabilities based on their race or ethnicity.

The regulations mandate that U.S. states use a standard methodology to examine whether “significant disproportionality” is occurring in school districts. If so, then school districts must reallocate their federal funding to reduce the disproportionality. They must also review their disability identification practices, policies, and procedures.

Although well intentioned, the Equity in IDEA regulations are misdirected. This is because they do not address the true inequity: Federal legislation and policy should be monitoring for under-identification, not over-identification.

Minority children are less likely to be identified as having disabilities than otherwise similar white or English-speaking children while attending U.S. schools. This has been reported across many peer-reviewed studies.

The Equity in IDEA regulations use risk ratios and thresholds to monitor for whether schools are racially discriminatory in how they identify children as having disabilities. Yet risk ratios do not tell policymakers whether schools are being racially discriminatory in their disability identification practices. This is because risk ratios do not adjust for variability in children’s clinical needs for...

Alex Hernandez

I remember this day as one of the worst days of my life. I remember opening the newspaper, looking at the internet and being like…what?!? It was like someone threw a brick at me. And there’s nothing worse in your professional life than working incredibly hard and then getting crappy results. Nothing feels worse than that. And that is what happened.

—Doug McCurry, co-CEO and superintendent of Achievement First

When New York’s first round of Common Core state test results came out in 2013, student results plummeted across all schools; district and charter. The decline was especially pronounced at charter school networks known for their stellar academic programs, names like Achievement First (AF), Uncommon Schools, and KIPP New York.

State tests are not the ultimate measure of a child’s education, but the declining scores were concerning because the Common Core standards asked students in grades 3–8, for the first time, to make meaning of a text, find evidence to support an argument, understand concepts, and apply their thinking. When students were asked to think more deeply, most could not.

Achievement First’s co-CEOs Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry are candid about their feelings in the...


In a recent AEI meta-analysis of school choice attainment literature, Michael McShane, Patrick Wolf, and Collin Hitt use thirty-nine impact estimates from studies of more than twenty school choice programs to argue that standardized-test impacts are too unreliable to serve as the “exclusive or primary metric on which to evaluate school choice programs.” In their words:

Programs that produced no measurable positive impacts on achievement have frequently produced positive impacts on attainment. And on the other hand, null effects on high school graduation and college attendance have been reported from programs that produced substantial test score gains. Across these studies, achievement impact estimates appear to be almost entirely uncorrelated with attainment impacts.

Are they right about that last part? As avid Fordham readers know, my colleague Mike Petrilli has already criticized the authors’ methodology and conclusions at length. But for those of you who don’t have time for Mike’s six-part mini-series, here is my abbreviated critique.

First, for a study’s achievement and attainment estimates to “match” under the authors’ methodology, both the sign and their statistical significance of those estimates must be the same. So, for example, if one estimate is positive and...


The effectiveness of public schools in developing engaged citizens has rarely been examined empirically,” notes a new Mathematica report on the impact on civic participation of Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that educates more than 5,000 students, mostly in New York City. Perhaps not, but it’s certainly been assumed. We remain sentimentally attached to a gauzy myth of the American common school ideal and its presumed role in citizen-making, even without evidence of its effectiveness.

The number of Democracy Prep alumni who are of voting age is relatively small. Founded in 2006, and with twenty-two schools in five cities, the network only graduated its first class in 2013. But Mathematica’s study, using the most conservative interpretation of its data, found that “Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points.” As a summary from the American Enterprise Institute notes, “the raw numbers were even stronger, a twenty-four-point increase in both, which suggest Democracy Prep doubled its students’ likelihood to register and vote.”

Bravo, Democracy Prep. But as a former (and hopefully future) DP civics teacher,...


Last week, I had the privilege of visiting several high-poverty urban schools in Cleveland. Each was serving some of the nation’s most disadvantaged students and beating the odds by arming their pupils with the knowledge, values, and skills they need to succeed.

Whenever I visit a school, I look for the unplanned things that give you a window into hidden vibrancy or challenges in the community. During my visit to one school last week, two unplanned interruptions stood out. First, the assistant principal received a call from her middle school social studies teacher to share some good news: A group of their seventh graders won first place in the John Carroll University “We the People” Call for Action and Social Justice Program, the school’s third first-place victory in as many years.

Not long after, an upper-elementary math teacher stepped out to take a call from the Cleveland Cavaliers. It seems that one of her students is the only student in Ohio to be chosen for the NBA Math Hoops competition, and its organizers wanted to let her know that they were sending the Cavs mascot to cheer on the student.

Was I getting a VIP tour of the latest hot...


Discussions about standards tend to focus on either the caliber of standards themselves or how well teachers understand them, but a third aspect of quality standards-based instruction is the support districts and schools give teachers to implement standards. Good standards-based instruction requires supports like aligned curricula and textbooks, professional development, and knowledgeable leadership. A recent RAND study finds deficiencies in two such supports: school leader knowledge of standards and the quality and alignment of classroom materials.

Researchers Julia Kaufman and Tiffany Tsai surveyed 1,349 members of the nationally representative American School Leader Panel (ASLP) in October 2016, and received responses from 422, or 31 percent. The survey asked what materials schools recommended or required in English language arts (ELA) and math, and compared responses to a report from EdReports, a nonprofit that has reviewed popular instructional materials for quality and alignment with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). RAND researchers used these reviews to calculate a “percent alignment” for all EdReports-rated materials. The ASLP survey also asked questions to assess school leaders’ knowledge about approaches and content in key areas aligned with the CCSS (and most non-CCSS state standards): use of close reading and complex texts for ELA and grade-level...

Travis Pillow

Florida is one of the leading states in the nation for public school choice. Its charter schools are widespread, often serving rural or suburban areas. Nevertheless, the state is home to more than its share of charter school “deserts,” according to a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The charter-friendly think tank used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to map high-poverty areas around the county. It counted a string of three Census tracts with high or moderate poverty levels and no charter schools as a desert. Florida is home to twenty such areas.

Looking at the report and the three urban areas it highlights offers several takeaways for Florida’s charter school movement.

This is why ‘Hope’ matters.

When House Speaker Richard Corcoran started pushing his Schools of Hope proposal, he pointed to the dearth of proven charter school operators in Florida’s most disadvantaged communities. One Fordham map zooms in on South Florida and helps illustrate his point.

Map 1. Charter school deserts in the Miami Metro Area

A star represents a charter school. An oval represents a charter school desert....


For weeks now, I’ve been debating Patrick Wolf, Michael McShane, and Collin Hitt about the relationship between short-term test score changes and long-term student outcomes, like college enrollment and graduation. Most recently I proposed three hypotheses that those of us who support test-based accountability—for schools of choice and beyond—would embrace. Now let’s see how the evidence stacks up against them.

To be clear, this is a slightly different exercise from asking whether test-based accountability policies lead to stronger outcomes in terms of student achievement. That’s an important endeavor too, and studies like Thomas Dee’s and Brian Jacob’s evaluation of accountability systems under No Child Left Behind indicate that the answer is yes.

But that’s not quite what we’re after, because those studies show that holding schools accountable for raising test scores…results in higher test scores. What we want to know is whether higher test scores—or, more accurately, stronger test score growth—relates to better outcomes for students in the real world.

So let’s take it one hypothesis at a time.

1. Students who learn dramatically more at school, as measured by valid and reliable assessments, will go on to graduate from high school, enroll in and complete...