By Chad Aldeman and Kirsten Schmitz

We're going to have to update a talking point. Those of us working in the pension world have long used the shorthand that “nine out of ten teachers” participate in a defined benefit pension plan. But on further look, that’s not quite right, and it’s changing faster than commonly recognized.

Like any good talking point, it has some kernel of truth. The stat comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and as of March of 2016 the BLS reported that 87 percent of “Primary, secondary, and special education school teachers” employed by state or local governments participate in defined benefit pension plans (Table 2 here). We could round up that figure and call it a day, but it’s worth digging deeper.

The BLS has tracked retirement benefits of state and local government employees since 1987, and the longer trend line has some interesting nuance. Back then, the BLS only reported a broad category of “teachers” that included all personnel in primary and secondary schools, plus those employed by state colleges and universities. If we follow this broader category of “teachers” over time, here’s the percentage that participated in a defined benefit pension plan by year:

Daniel T. Willingham

I concluded that many teachers believe learning-styles theory is accurate in about 2003. It was perhaps the second or third time I had given a public talk to teachers. I mentioned it in passing as an example of a theory that sounds plausible but is wrong, and I felt an immediate change in the air. Several people said “Wait, what? Can you please back up a slide?”

Since then I’ve written a couple of articles about learning styles, created a video on the subject, and put an FAQ on my website. Last week I was on NPR’s Science Friday radio program (with Kelly Macdonald and Lauren McGrath) to talk about learning styles and other neuromyths.

I put energy into dispelling the learning styles myth because I thought that audience of educators was representative—that is, that most teachers think the theory is right. But with the exception of one recent study showing that academics often invoke learning styles theory in in professional journal articles, there haven’t been empirical data on how widespread this belief is in the U.S.

Now there are.

Macdonald, McGrath, and their colleagues conducted a survey to test the pervasiveness of...

The New York Times ran an interminable front-page piece on Sunday raising doubts about the ethics and propriety of teachers who promote commercial products, especially those from big tech firms like Apple and Google, for use by other teachers and their schools. The example that reporter Natasha Singer focused on—“one of the tech-savviest teachers in the United States”—is an ace third grade teacher named Kayla Delzer, whose classroom is in the hamlet of Mapleton, North Dakota. Her brand is Top Dog Teaching, and she does indeed promote a wide range of instructional strategies and commercial products that range from her own line of tee shirts, to books and newsletters she’s written, to plugs for corporate products like the “itslearning” classroom management system.

That Ms. Delzer is a multi-tasking dynamo is not in dispute, nor is her instructional prowess. What the Times found a bunch of “experts” to huff about is the propriety of public-school teachers serving as “ambassadors” for the corporate world—and getting compensated in various ways for doing so.

It’s not a trivial issue—and never is when professionals who are presumably looking after the best interests of those they serve are engaged by outside interests to promote...

Families who live in urban areas routinely cite school safety as one of their key reasons for seeking out a charter school. What we don’t know with any certainty is whether charter schools actually are any safer than traditional schools.

Enter a new report from the American Educational Research Journal that examines school safety in charter and traditional schools. Analysts focus their study on Detroit, a city with an alarmingly high rate of crime and poverty. Tragically, in 2013, 55 percent of Detroit high schoolers reported being a victim of violence, and 87 percent reported having a relative or friend shot, murdered, or disabled by violence in the past twelve months. In response, the Detroit Public Schools established a school district police department and assigned roughly two hundred police officers and security personnel to work in the city’s traditional public schools.

Nearly half of the all students living in Detroit attend a charter school. Approximately 91 percent of them are African American and 87 percent are economically disadvantaged, compared to 86 percent and 79 percent, respectively, in the city’s traditional public schools. Analysts link student-reported data on school safety from 2014 and 2015 (how safe one feels in...

A study published last month by Hugh Macartney of Duke University and John Singleton of the University of Rochester examines how the political composition of school boards in North Carolina is affecting segregation.

They consider elementary schools under the purview of 109 school boards across the state from 2008–2013. Year-to-year changes in school attendance zones and segregation rates are then correlated with the election of Democratic school board members.

They find that an increase in the proportion of Democrats on an elected school board was associated with a significant decrease in racial segregation in those district’s schools. When Democrats gained a majority on a school board, for example, racial segregation decreased by as much as 18 percent. And when Democrats are elected to school boards—regardless of whether this created a Democratic majority—changes in school assignments increased by 0.19 standard deviations over the following five-year period. In other words, students switched schools within that district at a greater rate—due perhaps to things like changed attendance boundaries, the introduction of controlled choice programs, or other efforts to integrate the schools. (Note, however, that determining specific causes for the observed changes is beyond the scope of the study.)

Macartney and Singleton also find...

After a busy and often fraught summer, this week marks the unofficial start of fall, and the hope and wonder that accompany a new school year. As you settle back in after the long holiday weekend, Fordham thought it worthwhile to catch you up with some of our takes on the key stories of the last few months. Happy reading!


Wonks waited for much of June to see what the U.S. Department of Education thought of the first seventeen ESSA plans. The review process packed plenty of twists and turns, and the plans themselves provided advocates and analysts with plenty of fodder for debate. In Rating the Ratings, Brandon Wright and Mike Petrilli found most of the first seventeen ESSA accountability plans submitted to the Department of Education to be improvements over NCLB-era systems, earning marks for user-friendliness, straightforwardness, and transparency.

2. Debating the language of privilege

Conversations about privilege and access dominated headlines this summer, and included one memorable David Brooks column on upper-middle-class parenting and norms. Robert Pondiscio responded by arguing that fluency in power and privilege is not learned in affluent communities and elite universities, but instead allows access...

When I endorsed the “Dream Act” fourteen long years ago, I introduced “Alex,” the then-very-young lad whom my wife and I were helping to cope with some of the challenges of life in America for an entirely innocent victim of this country’s wretchedly screwed up and inhumane immigration laws.

Today, he’s a beneficiary of DACA, which was one of Barack Obama’s best deeds and which Messrs. Trump and Sessions are now consigning to the tender mercies of a dysfunctional Congress. He’s got a driver’s license and a social security number. He’s got a college degree. He’s a social worker helping counsel elderly people and their families about sensitive, sad, and gnarly end-of-life issues. He’s also become a playwright and actor, with several successes to his credit. His teenage daughter is thriving in a top-notch charter school. His life is together. He pays his taxes. He obeys the law. He’s not only a proper American, he’s the kind we need many more of. (Senator Jeff Flake has written movingly of another stellar example, though now too old for DACA.)

DACA changed Alex’s life—and changed America for the better. He’s had it renewed once. Will he ever have it renewed...

Scott J. Peters

Any educator or parent who has interacted with the field of gifted and talented education has probably come across the “bright vs. gifted” or “bright child vs. gifted learner” checklist. It seems to have first appeared in a 1989 article by Janice Szabos in Challenge Magazine, but was likely around in similar forms long before that. This checklist seems to be one of the most ubiquitous publications related to gifted education. It is included in formal district gifted education plans and even posted to state department of education websites with the implicit endorsement of it and its key distinction as best practice.

The overall suggestion seems to be that as a teacher or even as an educational system, educationally useful information comes from knowing if one of your students is “just bright” as opposed to being “truly” gifted. In other words, if two children are otherwise identical in their level of achievement, aptitude, creativity, and so on, they should still be treated differently if one is “truly” gifted and one is “just” bright. A few years ago, a senior scholar in the field of gifted education, was handed the form as a rationale for why his kindergartener (who...

Tina Long, Dennis Tiede, and Ben Lindquist

Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part series on school startup lessons. Read part one here.

As communities in every part of the nation are being reshaped by such forces as urbanization, gentrification, and immigration, the creation of new public schools is vital. When done right, the startup of new schools fosters innovation, engages parents, empowers educators, unlocks community resources, and creates new options for learners and families with differing needs and preferences.

Between the three of us, we have started ten new public charter schools in three regions of the country, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and the Mid-South. Building on part one in this two-part series, here are six more lessons that we believe are key to engineering a successful school start: 

1. Available cash flow and financial strength matter. One of the biggest impediments to quality school startups today is a lack of flexible funding. If everything falls into place, it is possible to pull off a strong school opening on limited resources. But considering the high cost of failure or consequences of subpar school performance for students, families, and the community, it simply isn’t worth the risk. As access to free...

A recent New York Times analysis suggests that a generation of policies meant to bring racial proportionality to our selective colleges has failed. “Even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago,” declared the authors.

In 2015, black and Hispanic students made up 15 and 22 percent of the U.S. college age population, respectively, but just 8 and 14 percent of the enrollments at top universities. Those gaps are wider today than in 1980—and, in the case of Hispanic students, the gap has tripled over that time.

Yet these higher-education problems are a consequence and symptom of a systemic ailment that is typically caught as soon as students of color enter the classroom. Some, of course, have been immunized before they get there and some were hit well before kindergarten. For many, however, the K–12 system is where trouble begins. “Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities,” writes the Times, citing data from the Office for Civil Rights.

These school-level deficiencies...