There’s a lot that’s appealing about personalized learning, properly construed. Rather than march a classroom of students through academic material at the exact same pace, regardless of their discordant levels of readiness or their varying degrees of background knowledge, personalized settings allow schools to target instruction to the exact needs of individual children. It’s not meant to be a euphemism for “computer-based instruction,” but a version of differentiation that uses a variety of approaches, from tutoring to peer discussions to teacher-led lessons and, yes, some digital resources. Done right, it doesn’t give up on academic standards, either. Instruction may be personalized but all students are still expected to master all the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for the next step in their learning and for eventual success beyond school.

Hooray for all that. But after seeing a version of personalized learning in action recently, I’m worried that it may be reinforcing some of the worst aspects of standards-based, data-driven instruction. Namely: It might be encouraging a reductionist type of education that breaks learning into little bits and scraps and bytes of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.

Personalized learning enthusiasts might look to the food industry...

The release of this latest report from Bellwether Education Partners is fortuitously timed as school districts large and small reach the end of another school year beset by transportation problems. Authors Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess dissect those challenges and argue convincingly that the difficulties in providing effective and efficient service are the result of archaic structures, bureaucratic inertia, and siloed responsibilities. It is less a question of money, as some would argue, than a lack of wherewithal to change how that money is spent.

The authors begin by describing the main models of student transportation: district-operated, contractor-operated, public transit, and various combinations of the three. While all of these models are decades old, the district-centered model still predominates: school systems own and operate two-thirds of all school buses on the road today. Various state funding models are also described. Some are aimed at maintaining the district-operated status quo, others are more student and family-centric and agnostic on form, and still others incentivize contracting out transportation or seeking economies of scale with parallel public transit systems.

Rural and suburban districts face challenges of distance and inefficient routes. Urban districts face myriad challenges posed by...

The Fordham Institute recently released Three Signs that a Proposed Charter School is at Risk of Failing, a study of over six hundred charter applications that aims to identify risk factors that make a potential charter school more likely to perform poorly during its early years. As the leader of Fordham’s authorizing team in Ohio, I was eager to read the report to see whether it aligns with what we see when reviewing applications and, subsequently, authorizing brand new schools.

Indeed, one or more of the report’s top three identified “flags”—in our experience—are usually present in weak charter applications:

  • Failure to identify a school leader for a self-managed school
  • “High risk, low dose”/misalignment of programming: applications whose target population is “at-risk” youth, yet the application fails to include sufficient academic supports (e.g., intensive small group instruction, extensive tutoring, etc.) to serve that population
  • The use of child-centered, inquiry-based instructional models (e.g., Montessori, experiential, etc.)

These “flags” make sense. Self-managed schools—those not supported by a larger network—typically lack access to deep and consistent talent pipelines, and often have a harder time finding and retaining high quality school leaders. Misalignment of programming is another problem. If an application proposes to serve...

It’s time for charter school advocates who’ve doubled down against private school choice to “see the light.” We need to put aside old grudges and commit ourselves to cooperation.

As a new administration works to make education savings accounts and vouchers palatable to Washington, reform advocates should remember that when any type of educational option is strengthened, all options benefit. Families benefit. After all, freedom isn’t easily taken away once people experience it. So let’s open the floodgates and not argue about whether charters are better than private schools.

The charter/private school divide isn’t new. I remember my first tour of a charter school as the executive director of an organization with “school choice” in its name. The principal greeted me warmly, but was quick to point out, “We’re a public charter school. School choice isn’t our thing.” She would be the first of many to highlight this seemingly metaphysical difference.

What many in the charter camp wish to assert is that there are “good” choices and “bad” choices. And this isn’t a statement about school quality. It’s a position that private school choice in the form of vouchers and other funding mechanisms should not exist. It’s something like a...

Justin Baer and Julie Strawn

Far too few students have access to the kind of high-quality, career-focused high school education that’ll put them on a path to postsecondary credentials connected to high-demand, high-wage jobs. Charter schools, however, may hold the most promise for quickly scaling up these models.

While well intentioned, pushing all students toward four-year college immediately after high school may do more harm than good. Despite rising enrollment rates over the past three decades, less than 40 percent of students who enroll in a four-year college graduate after four years. Graduation rates for minority students are shockingly low: 21 percent for black students and 30 percent for Hispanic students. Those students who do graduate typically enter the workforce carrying significant debt: among the class of 2015, more than two-thirds had student loan debt, and this debt averaged around $30,000.

These statistics underscore the need for robust career preparation and work-based learning in high school that puts students on a path to success in adulthood. The evidence suggests that high-quality, career-focused education in high school can boost graduation rates, increase future employment and earnings, and lead to higher enrollment in postsecondary education and training. Career pathway approaches hold promise for sustaining...

William J. Bennett

Students of history know that governments rarely give up power without a fight. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, those who have been intoxicated with power never willingly abandon it. Yet, last year, the federal government passed a new education law which returns a significant amount of power and decision-making authority to states, districts, and schools.

The bi-partisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act creates a unique and exciting opportunity for improving American education. The law explicitly bars the Department of Education from dictating or influencing standards or curricula at the federal level, and states and districts have a wide range of new liberties when it comes to developing accountability systems, testing, and content.

But with this newfound freedom from Washington comes a newfound responsibility for excellence at the state and district level. We cannot confuse local control with laissez faire. State and local leaders must embrace this opportunity and lift expectations, not relax them.

This is a large task and will require some heavy lifting, though. For years, states have been in compliance mode—overly focused on meeting detailed federal criteria—and that mindset has lulled some states into complacency. But that is the case no longer. Authority over American education has...

Courtney McKinney

When I moved from California to Texas at age four, I was reading full books and writing at a first-grade level. After being iced out of one upscale community that wasn’t keen on having a single black mother as a neighbor, my mom moved us into a different district, specifically for its public schools. But when she went to enroll me in kindergarten, she was told that under no circumstances would I be allowed to enter kindergarten as a four-year-old, no matter what grade level I tested into.

School staff recommended I attend preschool for a year to wait it out. My mom did not accept that recommendation. Instead, she sent me to a nearby private school where I was welcomed into kindergarten with open arms. I excelled, and instead of falling behind a year, I stayed in private school through fourth grade. Then I transferred to public school, where I took part in programs for gifted students. When I graduated from high school at seventeen and went on to the Ivy League, it looked like the public education system had served me well, but the real reason I made it was the commitment of my mother.

Earlier this year,...

A new report examines whether the effect of a teacher’s value added persists over one to two years and across subject areas. In particular, it asks if the impact of an English language arts teacher has any bearing on a student’s math achievement. Prior research has provided some evidence that ELA instructional effects may be generalizable across subjects, given the applicability and transferability of reading and language skills.

Using data from the New York City and Miami-Dade school districts, Benjamin Master and colleagues use student records in grades four through eight, where current and prior year achievement data are available for students. They investigate the persistence of teachers’ value added effects on student achievement in the first and second year after they teach a student, distinguishing between short-term, test-specific knowledge and longer-term, generic knowledge that accumulates. The methods are complex: They attempt to isolate teacher-specific value added that persists both in the same subject and into another subject (either ELA or math), and to isolate this from teacher spillover effects that stem from same-year instructional collaboration with peers—while also estimating how much typical “decay” one might expect of student’s prior long-term knowledge—and also controlling for various student, school, and classroom...

This study examines the impacts of the most recent iteration of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was first established by Congress in 2003 but was allowed to expire in 2009 before being reauthorized again in 2011.

Overall, the study finds that participating in the program for one year reduced achievement in math and reading by 7.3 and 4.9 percentile points, respectively. However, because the study only includes data from the first year of program participation, these numbers should be interpreted with caution.

Interestingly, for the 68 percent of students in grades K–5, participating in the program reduced achievement in math and reading by 14.7 and 9.3 percentile points, respectively; whereas, for the 32 percent of participants in grades six through twelve, it was associated with statistically insignificant increases of 7.6 and 4.9 percentile points. Across all grades, the program had a little apparent impact on the 71 percent of students applying from low-performing “schools in need of improvement” (SINI), who were given priority in the scholarship lottery. However, for the 29 percent of students enrolled in a non-SINI school, it reduced math and reading achievement by 18.3 and 14.6 percentile points, respectively. Finally, on a slightly more positive...

Dear Rick,

Congratulations on your new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. It’s fantastic, and should be read widely by wonks and teachers, young and old, and everyone in between. Its major themes are spot-on: That we in reform need to be more respectful (of reformers who came before us, of the critical role that parents play, and of teachers in the field) and more humble (about what we don’t know, what our reforms might reasonably accomplish, or how they might backfire). I especially appreciate your twenty-five-year-long crusade against hitting schools with one damn reform after another, which breeds cynicism, induces burnout, and ultimately doesn’t work.

So I’m with you on 98 percent of what’s in the book. But I see a blind spot. And it’s a surprising one for you, what with your own considerable prowess as a political scientist, and your previous body of work: Politics. At times you come close to denigrating the people who are doing the work of political advocacy on the reform side. Yet, as I think you would acknowledge, their labors are essential, too.

What’s missing, in particular, is any discussion of the efforts of the teachers unions and their...