Flypaper

Last week, the Department of Education released the 2015 Nation’s Report Card for twelfth graders. As with the fourth- and eighth-grade scores provided last fall, there was little to celebrate. In the core subjects of math and reading, average scores held firm at the same unimpressive level they’ve been at since 2009. The scores of low-performers—whether defined as the proportion of students “below Basic” or those in the bottom decile—actually declined for the first time in at least a decade.

There was one glimmer of good news: High-end reading scores (whether defined as the top decile or the percentage of students at NAEP’s “Advanced” level) rose by a statistically significant margin—the first time that’s happened since 1998. Indeed, this qualified as only the second such upward bump ever for high-end twelfth graders. (Since 1990, there has never been a statistically significant jump at the high end in math or science for high school seniors.)

Moreover, this year’s high-end reading gains occurred despite all other scores (average and low-end reading and math, as well as high-end math) being down or flat across all core subjects in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. That fact that is itself rather unusual. High-end fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores,...

Next week, in a series daily blog posts, Jay Greene and I will explore areas of agreement and disagreement around the issue of school choice and school quality. In particular, we will address the question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results?

The school choice tent is much bigger than it used to be. Politicians and policy wonks across the ideological spectrum have embraced the principle that parents should get to choose their children’s schools and local districts should not have a monopoly on school supply.

But within this big tent there are big arguments about the best way to promote school quality. Some want all schools to take the same tough tests, and for low-performing schools (those that fail to show individual student growth over time) to be shut down (or, in a voucher system, to be kicked out of the program). Others want to let the market work to promote quality and resist policies that amount to second-guessing parents.

Look for the first post, from Jay, on Monday....

In 2014, we hosted our first-ever Wonkathon, which was dedicated to the subject of charter school policy. Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation was voted the wisest, wonkiest wonk of all.

Last year, we returned with a sequel focused on the implementation of education savings accounts in Nevada. Seth Rau, then at Nevada Succeeds, took home the big prize despite (or perhaps because of) his colorful analogy.

For 2016, we’re taking a look at the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and its potential for expanding parental choice. We’ve asked a select group of education policy wonks to respond to the following prompt: 

Many observers credit No Child Left Behind with contributing to the significant expansion of parental choice in American education over the past fifteen years. It wasn't necessarily the school choice provisions contained in the law (which were limited and poorly designed), but what its passage did to shine a spotlight on school failure and create a sense that better schools were desperately needed.

Likewise, some in the school choice movement are disappointed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't do much legislatively to promote choice. But are they overlooking the law's potential?...

A new, somewhat unsettling NBER working paper by Thomas Dee and colleagues examines the prevalence and implications of teachers tampering with student test scores on New York State Regents exams.

The analysts focus on exams taken between the 2003–04 and 2009–10 school years in New York City, which can be reliably linked to students. To qualify for a “local” diploma, the lowest degree available in New York, students entering high school before fall 2005 had to score at least a 55 on all five core Regents exams (English, Math, Science, U.S. History/Government, and Global History/Geography). In fall 2008, local diplomas were eliminated, and students were required to receive at least a 65 score on all five tests.

Up until 2012–13, Regents exams were graded by teachers from students’ own schools, and a policy was in place that required exams with scores just below the cutoff to be re-scored by the schools. The analysts document clear spikes around the cutoffs in an otherwise smooth test score distribution. In other words the scores immediately below the cutoffs appear less frequently than expected from a “well-behaved empirical distribution,” and the scores at or just above the cutoffs appear more frequently than expected, suggesting that scores just below...

Choice as a means to drive school improvement is a simple enough idea: If parents are permitted choose where to send their kids to school, they will (in theory) maximize what they value—good schools, presumably—while minimizing their effort and risk to get it. And (also in theory) no one should be more motivated to get what they value than those who currently can’t gain access to it.

As the authors of this paper note, however, studies have tended to find that this simple idea doesn’t always play out that way in real life. The students most likely to move to a higher-quality school are typically already higher-achieving and less likely to live in poverty.

Post-Katrina New Orleans turns out not to be an exception to the rule. On average, the authors find, high-achieving NOLA students switch to high-quality schools, and low-achieving students transfer to low-quality schools. This is “suggestive evidence of a stratified school system and may lead to increased student segmentation based on student achievement and school quality,” they note.

The study, one of the first on student mobility in post-Katrina New Orleans, examines student-level data from 2007 to 2011. “It is clear some students are taking advantage of...

We have many reasons to be troubled by the Left’s push to dramatically reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions by public schools. At the top of the list is the worry that disorder and violence will return to high-poverty schools across the country, putting the safety and learning of poor and minority students at even greater risk. This is hardly hypothetical; it’s already happening, report teachers in New YorkMinnesota, and elsewhere.

But an even more fundamental question is whether school discipline reformers are diagnosing the problem correctly. Many analysts and activists look at national, state, and local data illustrating large disparities in discipline rates between racial subgroups and interpret them as proof of racial discrimination or bias. Why else would African Americans and Latinos be suspended or expelled at much higher rates than whites or Asians?

In a system of fifty million children and one hundred thousand schools, instances of minority children being treated unfairly will undoubtedly occur. A white teenager pulls a fire alarm and gets a slap on the wrist; a black ten-year-old does the same and gets a week’s suspension. That’s wrong and is a legitimate target for civil rights enforcers.

But discrimination isn’t the...

Rob Kimball

Outliers make for great stories and headlines, but they don’t do much for policy discussions—particularly school choice policy. Recently, there has been a flurry of headlines citing tales of “extreme sacrifice” by Detroit students in their efforts to commute great distances to the schools of their choice. The reality is that the majority of Detroit students, charter or traditional, don’t travel farther than four miles or ten minutes to school.

Using 2013–14 data from over one hundred thousand Detroit students’ homes and enrolling schools, Data Driven Detroit conducted a study with the Skillman Foundation and Excellent Schools Detroit to better understand the school commute. They grouped students’ residences into census tracts and measured the driving distance to schools, finding that the average K–8 charter school commute was 3.53 miles. The average high school commute was 4.92 miles.

With Google Maps’ new Direction and Distance APIs, we can estimate commute times and the most direct street routes with updated streetscape data. Using a sample of home addresses from 9,579 Detroit students enrolled in eighteen charter schools authorized by Grand Valley State University, we found that the typical student travels 3.5 miles and 8.9 minutes to school. This trend is consistent with...

Whether the goal is to enhance instruction, create a culture of excellence, or broaden educational options for parents, it’s nearly impossible to improve schools without strong leaders. This is hardly news; for decades, unambiguous evidence has proven the importance of effective principals. Yet reform strategies have largely lacked a coherent plan to upgrade leadership, even though it’s clearly a fundamental piece of the school improvement puzzle. This neglect is likely unintentional. Many states simply don’t know how to strengthen their cadre of leaders.

This is understandable. Most of the action around school leadership takes place at the local level, far from state capitals. It is, after all, districts (and charter schools) that recruit, select, and place school leaders—and develop their expertise (or not). It’s easy for state officials and advocacy groups to prioritize leadership. Knowing which policy levers to pull is a lot harder.

That’s where A Policymaker's Guide to Improving School Leadership comes in. This online resource was designed to help policymakers and advocates focus on what makes a great principal—and how to get more of them in the schools that need them most. We teamed up with our friends at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) to produce the toolkit and recruited author Eric...

School leadership is one of the keys to making our schools stronger and giving every student the educational opportunities that prepare him to succeed. That’s why the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Center on Reinventing Public Education recently released A Policymaker’s Guide to Improving School Leadership for state policymakers and advocacy groups interested in improving school leadership policies.

Much attention has been focused on teacher effectiveness, but there has been too little discussion about the role that principals play in ensuring that educators have the support, tools, and working environment they need to provide high-quality instruction. Education advocates need to understand which state policies most impact principal quality and how they can strengthen or alter them to benefit schools.

As with any proposed reform, however, advocates are likely to encounter some pushback from institutions and individuals resistant to change. Yet many of the arguments against changing school leadership policies are not founded on a full understanding of the research and facts. What follows are rebuttals to five common justifications for maintaining the status quo.

1. Improving the principal training pipeline

Argument: It’s not clear that preparation programs are the problem. And even if they are, we can’t fix them by...

In the wake of Prince’s untimely death on Thursday, the world marks the passing of a multi-talented performer and musical polymath. Prince Rogers Nelson was one of his generation’s most gifted songwriters; a virtuosic guitarist; a compelling (if somewhat enigmatic) screen presence; and a champion for the sartorial cause of purple. Even his most dedicated fans may not realize, however, that he leaves behind a legacy in the realm of education as well.

The High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), located in St. Paul, Minnesota—essentially Prince’s backyard—is a charter school focused on project-based learning for students interested in music and recording. Among other perks, it boasts a student-operated record label and a weekly timeslot on local radio, all with the goal of leading at-risk kids from idleness and poverty to lives of creative fulfillment. The school released a statement today mourning the musician’s death and discussing his influence on its mission. “The history of the charter school is inextricably connected to the artist known as Prince, and his spirit has always permeated through the music studios, classrooms, and hallways of HSRA,” it begins.

HSRA’s founder, David Ellis, was a troubled student himself. In the 1980s, he toiled fruitlessly at the...

Pages