Flypaper

Wisconsin is the birthplace of the school-choice movement. In the pantheon of education reform shine names like Wisconsin State Representative Polly Williams, Dr. Howard Fuller, and Governor Tommy Thompson. These pioneers gained bipartisan support by providing a targeted, prudent solution for Wisconsin parents: the educational voucher. This tool has since helped tens of thousands of families take control of education and achieve their dreams. And in Wisconsin, it combines with two other parental choice programs to serve thirty-four thousand students.

Recently, however, some growing pains in the voucher program have knocked some of the shine off of the other two. The hippest policy wonks are enamored with a new set of ideas that are supposed to help parents get the best for their kids. It’s been a while since Wisconsin was on the cutting edge.

During a talk in Milwaukee last year on his book New and Better Schools, Michael McShane was put on the spot by an audience member who asked whether Wisconsin was still a leader in education reform. McShane found a graceful way to say “no.” He pointed to the growth of Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, tax credit scholarships in places like Florida, and the success in...

The most disadvantaged children in Massachusetts stand to benefit most if the state’s tight cap on charter schools is loosened—a policy decision that will face Bay State voters on Election Day. Charters serving poor kids significantly outperform their district-operated counterparts in Massachusetts, and their effects are strongest for students who need them most—low achievers, English language learners, minority youngsters, and special-education students.

Passed in 1993, Massachusetts’s charter school law was among the nation’s first. From day one, the state’s charter sector has had two defining characteristics. The first is high-quality schools. The second is tight limits on how many there can be and how many students can attend them. Partly because the charters are so good, and partly because their current district schools are so unsatisfactory, tens of thousands of Bay State kids are now on charter waiting lists. According to the most recent data, 75 of the state’s 82 charter schools had lists totaling more than 37,000 individual students—more than actually attend the schools today. 

When the need is so great, the demand so strong, and the supply so skimpy, why not allow more charter schools to serve more children? Why has the cap-loosening become...

M. René Islas and Rudy Crew

Imagine being a student who is academically gifted but whose abilities are not easily identified by teachers.

Then imagine that instead of being identified for testing to determine if you are gifted, you are passed over or, even worse, identified as having behavioral challenges and being in need of special-education services.

Sadly, this scenario is the norm for the tremendous numbers of children who have untapped giftedness but who are not afforded access to gifted programs and services simply because they are not viewed as kids who ultimately could benefit from the gifted program.

For too long, policymakers and many in education have turned a blind eye to the reality that gifted students exist in all populations and communities and that giftedness is not determined by one's skin color, native language or ZIP code.

Recent research out of New York University confirmed these biases. In a study where educators reviewed case studies, participants were more likely to spot attributes of giftedness in white students, recommending a referral for gifted education evaluation, than they were for black students with the same characteristics.

Additionally, researchers at the National Research Center on Gifted Education have found that it is virtually impossible for a...

One important decision facing many voters on Election Day is whether to approve their school districts’ tax requests. These referenda represent a unique intersection between direct democracy and public finance; unlike most tax policies, which are set by legislatures, voters have, in large part, the opportunity to decide their own property-tax rates.

Some citizens will enter the voting booth well-informed about these tax issues, but for others, the question printed on the ballot might be all they know. Voters have busy lives and they may not always carefully follow their district’s finances and tax issues. This means that the ballot itself ought to clearly and fairly present the proposition to voters. In our home state of Ohio, State law prescribes certain standard ballot language, but districts have some discretion in how the proposition is written. County boards of elections and the Secretary of State approve the final language. How does the actual language read? Is it impartial? Can it be easily understood?

Let’s take a look at a couple high-profile ballot issues facing voters in November, using the Buckeye State as an example. First, here is the tax-issue posed to Cincinnati...

Ruth Wattenberg

It’s now a fairly well established fact that under No Child Left Behind, and to some extent during the years leading up to it, instructional time spent on reading in schools grew—at the expense of social studies and science (and probably the arts).

There was a certain logic at work. In most states, accountability was based mainly on reading and math tests—not science, history or geography tests. And the reading standards on which the tests were based were typically free of subject-matter content—focusing instead on such generic reading “skills” as syntax, finding the main idea, and identifying author’s point of view. From the perspective of teachers and administrators, focusing precious instructional time on these generic reading comprehension skills rather than the subject matter would seem to make sense.

Unfortunately, as anyone who is familiar with E.D. Hirsch’s work knows, this approach is counterproductive because reading comprehension depends hugely on the background knowledge that the reader brings to the text. Knowledge builds vocabulary, and when the reader doesn’t understand the words in a text, comprehension suffers. More broadly, background knowledge lets us tap into our existing knowledge to make sense of the words we read. To use an example...

Prior research has shown that one of the most important indicators of effective teachers is that they know their subject matter. This study, by American Institutes for Research (AIR), examines whether content-intensive math professional development (PD) can impact that subject matter knowledge, as well as teachers’ instructional practice and their students’ achievement.

Analysts study a popular PD program called Intel Math, which is focused on deepening teachers’ knowledge of K–8 mathematics. It offers ninety-three hours of total PD time—eighty hours of which was delivered over the summer of 2013, with the other thirteen delivered during the 2013–14 school year. The PD focuses on the conceptual foundations of math and its interconnectedness across grades K–8. Teachers also get time to analyze student work on topics covered in the PD and receive video-based coaching during which they get individual feedback, particularly on the quality and clarity of their mathematical explanations.

Roughly 220 fourth-grade teachers from ninety-four schools in six districts and five states participated and were randomly assigned within schools to either the treatment group that received the PD or the control group that did not, receiving instead business-as-usual professional development.

One of the three key findings is that the professional...

Education leaders and policymakers should be just as concerned about what happens to young people after they exit their schools, I would argue, as they are about what happens to these students before they cross the dais on graduation day. Do they have the momentum, the skills, the confidence, and the know-how to stride right into success in postsecondary education or a decently paying job? Are they ready to be engaged citizens in our democracy and good parents? Such leaders should say to themselves: I know I don’t have direct leverage after these kids graduate, but am I doing everything I can during the four or eight or twelve years when I do have some influence to prepare them for the leap into adulthood and—let us hope—the middle class?

If that makes sense to you—if you believe in “beginning with the end in mind”—then Coming of Age in the Other America should be at the top of your back-to-school reading list. To be clear, this is not an education book. Schools are treated superficially, mentioned only in passing; education reform is completely invisible. But educators and education policy wonks should read it nonetheless, because it provides one of the most...

Matthew Levey

Drafting state learning standards is a task simultaneously critical and thankless. In New York, where I opened an elementary school a few years ago, we are once again revising our standards.

This also means that interest groups are assaulting our regulators like rival politicians with a week to go before Election Day. A first grade parent who works for our state regulator told me that, between the drafting of ESSA compliance plans and the revised standards, few can tell which end is up. “Each group advocates for mom and apple pie,” she observed. Sure, poverty prevents kids from succeeding in many cases. “But educators are pragmatic,” she continued. “They want practices they can implement.”

One idea that works wonders is using texts of increasing complexity to push students’ critical thinking. New York’s proposed English language arts standards do not go far enough in underlining the central nature of text complexity to student progress.

An issue brief from Knowledge Matters sums up decades of research: “Preparing students to read college-level complex text is…a challenge for our whole school system. Only a rigorous K–12 education that teaches broad knowledge and skills, and thoughtfully includes a range of texts in every grade...

If there is one thing that has haunted me over the years as an educator (now former) and as a mother, it is the disparity in expectations for students that glaringly breaks down around race and class. And Rhode Island is no exception. While students of means are often pushed to write thesis statements—and defend them!—in the early grades, black and brown children are far too often consigned to years of book reports and worksheets that don’t push their thinking or provide them with the opportunity to prove how incredibly smart and capable they are.

Well, cue the confetti and hallelujahs because Roger Williams Middle School is changing that. That’s right. Sixth grade students on the south side of Providence are part of a pilot program designed to offer advanced coursework—the Advanced Academics Program—and they are proving to be more than up to the task. In fact, the demand is greater than the number of seats available. Students are selected for the program based on attendance, teacher recommendation, and standardized test scores and there are currently more qualified students than there are spots in the program.

Shaking off that deficit mentality

The south side of Providence is known as...

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released the results of its most recent national science test for fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders—the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). There’s a bit of good news, in that average scores are up slightly in the fourth and eighth grades and race-based achievement gaps narrowed slightly since 2009.

This was what Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the agency responsible for assessment, seized on, as reported by the Washington Post. “This is exactly what we like to see,” she proclaimed, “all students improving but students at the bottom of the distribution making faster gains.”

Her statement erred in at least two important ways. First, it’s simply not true that all students improved. Twelfth grade was, regrettably, flat. And more importantly, our development of high achieving students might be, too.

It’s true that in fourth and eighth grade, if you define “high achievers” as those who score in the top ten percent, then the scores of such students have risen, including those of low-income and minority students. But we should be wary of such a definition. Recall that NAEP also reports student and state performance against three “achievement levels,” dubbed Basic,...

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