Tim Marzullo

I remember a meeting when Backyard Brains was just beginning in early 2009, when we were receiving guidance from the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. We were just finishing up graduate school and learning the actual mechanics of forming a startup company, something very new to us—the basic things: how to incorporate, how to find customers, how to scale a prototype into a product, and how to raise funding with government technology grants or venture capital. We were two recent PhDs with a couple prototypes, some cockroaches, a bit of presentation chutzpah, but not much else than that.

During a meeting on ideas to formalize the business and begin sales, an engineering advisor said, “I love the cockroach, but you guys need a better logo. Engineers are not creative, so hire a design student to help you with it.”

Working with designers to develop a logo is useful and certainly uncontroversial advice, but the comment that “engineers are not creative” hit me like a punch, and I remember little else that occurred in that meeting.

Engineers are not creative? And this was an engineer saying this?! Any time I look at any machine that does its function...

David Osborne, known for his best-selling Reinventing Government, is out with a new book, Reinventing America’s Schools. To promote it, he is blitzing the country and filling the nation’s newspapers with an argument that is familiar yet powerful: High quality charter schools are the best hope for urban education, so states and cities should do everything in their power to allow them to grow and prosper, and school districts should embrace them as well.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is out with a strategic plan that is also familiar and powerful, but not exactly aligned with Osborne’s vision. That’s because it doesn’t embrace charters, or even charter-like, schools. Though Wilson hints at granting principals more “autonomy to innovate,” there’s no “portfolio management” or talk about the system “steering instead of rowing.” Rather, in its call for “excellence, equity, and love,” it seeks to maintain DCPS’s reputation as one of the fastest-improving urban districts in the land—one that embraces the kind of systemic, top-down approach that Osborne abhors.

The question, for me at least, is whether D.C. and its recent success is sui generis, or is an exception that proves that...

Three years into his first gig as a recruiter/trainer at a job skills program in San Francisco, Mauricio Lim Miller recognized a striking contradiction that changed the trajectory of his life and work. As a person whose family had overcome great personal hardship and who was now trying to help others do the same, he could not reconcile the way he ran his own life with the way he was expected to run a social service program. The proscriptive, top-down structure of so-called benefits programs like his emphasized the “deficits” of their clients and often sought to substitute narrow program rules for individual options. Those rules were sometimes contradictory (as when multiple programs were involved) and sometimes self-defeating (e.g. child-care subsidies that lapsed if a program participant earned a little too much money from work). Even worse, he became convinced that such service programs were conferring greater benefit on their employees than on their clients.

When he was invited to attend President Clinton’s State of the Union address as recognition for his work, Miller says he nearly declined out of guilt. As soon as he was given a chance by California Governor Jerry Brown to reshape the assistance available to...

It’s no secret that high-quality early childhood education can lead to significant and positive short-term impacts for children, particularly those from disadvantaged circumstances. Unfortunately, much of the current research also points to a troubling “fade out” trend—the academic gains that students make in preschool gradually decrease until they disappear completely.

A recent study from Mathematica seeks to add to this discussion by investigating whether the pre-K programs offered by some KIPP charter schools produce more lasting impacts. Researchers selected KIPP for several reasons, including the fact that it employs several practices that are considered high quality (such as well-educated teachers and low teacher-child ratios). Most significant, though, is that many KIPP pre-K students continue their education in a KIPP elementary school—increasing the probability that their elementary school experience will align with their pre-K experiences, and thereby potentially lead to longer-lasting impacts.

The study explored three research questions and used slightly different methods to examine each. The samples were relatively small, but the analysts were able to employ experimental methods that allow us to draw stronger conclusions about the effects of KIPP pre-K. A series of achievement tests (like the Woodcock-Johnson III) were used to measure both academic...

Andrew Broy

Last week, major education policy news came from an unlikely source—Illinois—as Governor Bruce Rauner signed significant school funding reform. For a state that has struggled for more than two years to pass a budget, this was especially noteworthy. It also serves as an object lesson in the importance of ongoing advocacy work.

The package of reforms overhauls overall education funding for the first time in thirty years. The new law provides a fair funding system for children across the state—whether they live in Champaign, Collinsville, or Chicago—and, for the first time in state history, equitable funding to those who attend charter schools.

This is the result of years of work, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, paired with a coordinated political strategy that was aligned with strong policy advocacy. We at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools are proud to be a part of this push and congratulate the advocates, parents, teachers, and elected officials who made this victory possible.

Here’s what this new law does:

Reforms statewide K–12 funding formula: Illinois has historically been either forty-ninth or fiftieth among states in two key school funding metrics: state support provided to school districts statewide and equity among districts....

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...