I know nobody who denies that high school education in America sorely needs an overhaul. Achievement scores are flat—whether one looks at NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, SAT, or the ACT. Graduation rates are up—but incidents of padding, cheating, and fraud are appearing more and more often. Scads of kids enter college ill prepared to succeed there. Scads of others enter the workforce without the skills to succeed there, either, at least not without lots of repair work. The military is rejecting many who would like to enlist. Upward mobility is more or less stagnant. And there are abundant signs of social and personal dysfunction among young people during and after high school. And that’s without even getting to the most heinous stuff like shootings.

Yet it turns out to be extremely hard to formulate any sort of coherent plan for reform at the high school level, and harder still to implement it. We’ve tried so many different things: small high schools, virtual high schools, charter high schools, girls’ high schools, early college high schools, thematic high schools, more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment, (a few) more selective-admission high schools, end-of-course exams, statewide graduation tests, personalized learning, alternatives to...


Turning around low-performing schools is hard. Most strategies financed by federal dollars have long shown disappointing results, and states have avoided fundamental reforms, instead hiring specialists and retraining school staff.

But states have the opportunity to do something different under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows them to try creative strategies for fixing their worst schools, and education leaders ought to take advantage of it. As Nelson Smith and I argue in a recent article in NASBE’s The Standard, one promising option is charter school expansion, wherein struggling schools are replaced by charters.

Under ESSA, states must identify and take action on two types of troubled schools: those requiring comprehensive support and improvement (the lowest achieving 5 percent of Title I schools, plus high schools with low graduation rates) and those that need targeted improvement because they routinely fail a particular group such as low-income, minority, or special education students.

ESSA is intentionally silent on what states should do about such schools—even when they require “rigorous intervention” because more timid correctives have not worked. This deference is a major change from the No Child Left Behind Act, as is ESSA’s scrapping of NCLB’s School Improvement...

Dale Chu

With the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 just days away, it felt right to explore another race that featured rip-roaring speed and heart-pounding momentum. In my last post, I called out a few variables that contributed to Indiana’s robust education policy landscape at the beginning of this decade. As I shared in that piece, a confluence of events led to an alignment of the stars, one that’s unlikely to be repeated anytime in the near future. Under the leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett, we proposed and enacted sweeping legislative changes that affected teacher quality, collective bargaining, and school choice (charters and vouchers).

During this period, Indiana was unafraid of education innovation, and had some good results to show for it—a testament to the many educators across the state who embraced these changes, as well as gutsy policymakers. Although we accomplished most of what we initially set out to do, there was plenty more that needed to be done when our efforts were abruptly halted by politics. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the greatest pain is not knowing what might have been. It’s purely conjecture, but...


Virtually every state has moved, incrementally or fully, from administering standardized assessments on paper to online, so there’s been plenty of discussion about whether taking a test on a computer or tablet, versus with paper and pencil, affects student performance. (Recall that the same issue was raised when NAEP scores were released in April, with Louisiana voicing particular concerns.) In other words, is it true that “mode effects”—meaning the physical medium by which one takes a test—can depress scores in ways that have much to do with the medium and little to do with what students know and can do? 

Enter Ben Backes and James Cowan from CALDER who examine, first, whether students who take Massachusetts’s state test online score systematically lower than if they had taken the same test on paper; and second, whether there are any differences across subgroups of students.

Recall that Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016 administered the PARCC test both on paper and online. And in 2015 districts could chose between MCAS (the old state test) or the new PARCC test. During this period of flux, state officials agreed to a hold-harmless provision for all schools administering the PARCC in either year, whether...


Teacher quality is acknowledged, nearly universally, as one of the most important contributors to student learning. Debate revolves around how to best train, hire, improve, support, and retain teachers. This last point is especially relevant to a large urban school district like District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), which sees 8 percent of its “effective” and “highly effective” teachers leave every year. This is a significant loss—financially and in human capital. A recent report from Bellwether Education Partners presents results of a DCPS-administered exit survey and extracts recommendations for it and other urban school districts about how to retain quality educators.

The survey was administered to 1,626 teachers departing the district between February 2015 and January 2018 and asked their reasons for leaving, their next career moves, and how DCPS might have kept them. Researchers disregarded answers from teachers who were retiring and moving, and from teachers who said no change would have retained them. Of the remaining respondents, 772 self-reported their last rating according to the district’s teacher evaluation system: 69 identified themselves as minimally effective, 220 as developing (these two categories comprise “low performers”), 319 as effective, and 164 as highly effective (these two comprise “high...

Susan Pendergrass

Can we call a place a desert if we refuse to let water in? The Fordham Institute recently released an interesting look at which communities in the U.S. have a significant portion of low-income students but very few choices when it comes to their education. Fordham calls them “charter school deserts,” and they created interactive maps of each state with the deserts highlighted.

Sadly, these are easy to identify in Missouri. Just find the Census tracts where more than 20 percent of children live in poverty and circle them. The school choice spigot in Missouri is firmly turned off, with little hope that it will be turned on any time soon. The Missouri legislature has refused to transfer any power away from local school boards and into the hands of parents. As a result, students who live in areas of concentrated poverty around Springfield, in the southern part of the state, and in the bootheel have no options beyond their assigned public school. Going by the current laws governing charter schools, you would think that all the parents outside of St. Louis and Kansas City are perfectly satisfied with their children’s assigned public school.

In contrast, our two...

Eva Moskowitz

When my eldest son Culver was in elementary school, he was an avid reader, but I couldn’t get him to touch anything but science fiction. By the time he was eight, I was becoming concerned that he would never read anything else, so I headed to Bank Street Bookstore, a wonderful children’s bookstore on the west side of Harlem. A young woman who worked there approached me to ask how she could help. When I described my dilemma, she smiled, “I’ve seen this before—you just haven’t found the right books.” She asked me more about my son and began picking out books outside of the sci-fi genre, drawing on what appeared to be an encyclopedic knowledge of high-quality children’s literature.

Culver was enraptured with Sarah’s picks. Thanks to her selections, his reading took an omnivorous turn and I regularly returned to the store for more recommendations. Just around that time, in 2006, I opened the first Success Academy and had to stock our classroom libraries. I ordered the pre-set publisher’s collections that are used by so many schools—but I was shocked by how little the sales people knew about what they were selling. My experience buying books for my own...

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...