What does it take to engage all students? How feasible is it for a teacher to have a classroom full of diverse students all actively engaged and paying undivided attention? As a prior high school teacher, my inclination is to say that it can be done—but it takes lots of planning. Here are three strategies that I found successful in engaging students as a mathematics and physics teacher at Lawrence High School (through MATCH Education) and UMass Boston Upward Bound, respectively.

First, make the content relevant to students’ lives. Whether working with small groups of three to four students or teaching a full class, I quickly realized that students love to learn about things that relate to their own lives. For example, instead of giving my students a math word problem about an auditor in New York trying to check a firm’s financial statements, I replaced those details with scenarios that would have more relevance to my students. As many of them loved baseball, I would tweak obscure word problems to reflect innings, number of pitches, and runs to better engage my students. As another example, at Lawrence High, many students I worked with were from the Dominican Republic and...

The longtime Democratic lawmaker John Vasconcellos is resting in peace since his death in 2014, but the educational disaster he laid on California in the 1980s is far from gone. Indeed, its likeness thrives today across a broad swath of America's K-12 schooling, supported by foundation grants, federal funding, and both nonprofit and for-profit advocacy groups. Only its name has changed—from self-esteem to social-emotional learning.

If only the trend had stayed in the Golden State.

Younger readers may not remember Vasconcellos, the late assemblyman and state senator whom one obituary described as a "titan of the human-potential movement." In 1986, Vasconcellos managed to persuade California's conservative GOP Gov. George Deukmejian to support a blue-ribbon task force to promote self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. The ensuing hoopla loosed a tsunami of enthusiasm for building self-esteem as a solution for almost everything that ails an individual, including low achievement in school.

The task force's final report, in 1990, ascribed (as I wrote at the time) "near-magical powers to self-esteem, characterizing it as 'something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and...

Since 2002, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has published yearbooks on the state of preschool education. These reports examine state-funded pre-kindergarten education programs that meet specific criteria outlined by NIEER; besides being state-funded and directed, for example, the programs must serve at least 1 percent of the three- or four-year-old population within that state. This excludes children who participate in federally funded Head Start and special-education pre-K programs. The most recent report, chock-full of interesting data points on the national and state landscapes, focuses on three areas: enrollment, funding, and quality.

Across the nation, nearly 1.5 million children attended state-funded preschools during the 2015–16 school year. That number includes almost 5 percent of three-year-olds and a third of four-year-olds. Total enrollment rose by more than 40,000 children over the previous year, with D.C. serving the highest percentage of both three- and four-year-olds. Seven states don’t offer any state-funded programs that fit NIEER’s criteria: Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Total state pre-K spending totaled nearly $7.4 billion, up by more than half a billion (adjusted for inflation) from the previous year. The average state spending per child was $4,976. D.C....

Max Eden

At the National Charter Schools Conference, Betsy DeVos, channelling Rick Hess, warned advocates against becoming “the man…just another breed of bureaucrats—a new education establishment.” In a new book, Charting a New Course, Jeanne Allen, Cara Candal, and I, tie together essays echoing that warning, cautioning against regulatory creep and making the case for a more flexible and parent-driven charter sector.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t universally well-received.

Here at Fordham’s Flypaper, Checker Finn wrote that the volume was one-third useful and “two thirds of a very dumb mistake.” According to Finn, the book aims to “abolish” results-based accountability, “scrap” authorizer vetting, and charter schooling into a “free-for-all” in which authorizers don’t close schools. This, Finn says, is “idiocy.” Mike Petrilli agreed, saying “to call for basically ZERO screening on the front end, and NO closures on the back end is naïve, if not, well, the i-word.”

It’s unfortunate that my friends at Fordham have resorted to an old straw man fallacy, all too common in political rhetoric (and these days in education reform): “If he says he’s for less (spending/taxation/charter regulation), then he must be against all of it!”

But, fortunately, they have opened the Flypaper forum...

Boredom. We’ve all experienced it many times. Though we tend to think of it as unpleasant but endurable and harmless tedium, some research now suggests boredom may be harmful to our health—it is potentially linked to everything from weight gain, to depression, to physical pain—even to cheating on one’s spouse!

Boredom may exist in elementary or middle school, but it is endemic to high school. Indeed, it’s practically a rite of adolescent passage to profess one’s perennial state of ennui—as if no one or nothing is cool enough to sustain the interest of a sixteen-year-old.

What educators need to take seriously is the distinction between typical teenage whining and signs that students are actually disengaging from their formal education. Such disengagement is a portent of trouble, and not just because student engagement is closely linked to academic achievement.[i] Among high school students who consider dropping out, half cite lack of engagement with the school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the schoolwork they are asked to do.[ii]

Teachers, of course, play a central role in engaging students in learning. A...

Rekha Balu and Barbara Condliffe

With the expansion of school choice systems, policymakers and researchers are increasingly focused on making the school choice process accessible and clear for families. From prekindergarten to high school selection, school districts and third-party organizations have revamped their school-finder websites to introduce more graphic displays of information and changed the kinds of information they present to include factors beyond academics (such as travel times).[1]

Essentially, school district offices of enrollment and outreach are acting as “choice architects” for parents and students: those who design the environment or organize the context in which people make decisions. This brief offers guidance for current and aspiring school choice architects, including school districts and external support organizations that help families with the school selection process. It draws on insights from MDRC’s extensive work with nearly thirty government agencies, nonprofits, and educational institutions around the country testing different choice architectures—the presentation and framing of choices—and distills key lessons for school choice.

1. Present school choice as a sequence of decisions

School choice is not just one choice. It is a multistep process that requires families to move through increasingly complex decisions: (1) when and how to start the process, (2) where...

Lisa Graham Keegan

In my home state of Arizona, our students have benefitted from an emphasis on different aspects of choice and accountability at different times and for different reasons. Usually, changes are made in reaction to whatever policies were most recently in place.

Nevertheless, I agree with and applaud recent comments from Checker Finn regarding the need for publicly transparent and sound information about school quality. Over the past decade, we have found Arizona’s A–F school grades—which rely heavily on academic growth—to be critically important to authorizers, board members, legislators, and hopefully also parents. These ratings inform choices and inform the opening and closures of schools. In other words, Arizona is not a “live and let lousy live” charter school state, and our state assessments and the National Assessments of Education Progress prove it, as recounted here by Dr. Matt Ladner.

But before we had school grades, and before our state authorizing board developed its own strict performance requirements, we had pretty massive growth in choices. Many called us the “wild west” and claimed we gave out charters like candy. I'd say we started with a lot to learn and allowed more than we prevented. That has led to some...

Alli Aldis

I despised history, until I took AP U.S. History. From my elementary and middle school years, there remains a paper trail of get-to-know-you surveys for which I indicated that history bored me to tears, and doodles on notes of the Monroe Doctrine that subtly communicate the same reaction.

The U.S. history class I took in eighth grade is a perfect example. Almost every day consisted of hurriedly copying notes from a dim image projected on the board as the teacher read aloud the words we were inscribing. There were no lectures of substance; we were spoon-fed worksheets pulled from the dry pages of a textbook. The tests were a contest that determined who could regurgitate the highest percentage of memorized facts. Little to no analysis was ever done. We never focused on comprehending the cause and effect of critical movements or comparing past time periods to the modern era. Apparently, it was far more important to know the names of all the generals in the Civil War.

On the occasion that our daily work did not entail unhelpful note taking or memory-based testing, we took part in such educational activities as watching National Treasure or working on a slightly more...

Thomas W. Carroll

As the Senate continues to attempt a fix of Obamacare, debate continues on the contours of a sweeping federal tax reform to be acted upon once health care is put to bed. The idea of a national K–12 scholarship tax credit continues to gain steam as a key aspect of overall tax reform and as a measure that would put a human face on an otherwise arcane bill. But important disputes remain over what a national K–12 scholarship tax credit might look like. The two key areas to be decided are faith and federalism.


Bills recently re-introduced by Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) include a key provision that has inflamed much of the faith community. Under their bills (H.R. 895 and S. 148), faith-based scholarship organizations would be placed in the untenable position of only being able to participate if they agreed to award scholarships to students attending any private school, regardless of its religious affiliation or lack-thereof.

The bills specifically prohibit scholarship organizations from limiting their scholarships to being redeemed in a “group of schools.” Every collection of religious schools is by definition a “group of schools.” Thus, religious scholarship groups would face the...

By Charles Barone

Those not familiar with the history of the social esteem fad of the 1980’s should read Checker Finn’s brief and appropriately scathing review of it over at Education Week. Finn’s right on target in asserting that self-esteem, as a catalyst for improving children’s academic achievement and a remedy for social ills, such as crime and substance abuse, was at best oversold and at worst deliberately misrepresented, in terms du jour, as being “evidence-based.” Finn’s on more shaky ground, however, in attempting to draw a line between the self-esteem movement of the 1980’s and the current, increasingly prominent field of social-emotional learning (SEL).

The social esteem movement was centered around making children and young people feel better about themselves. It sounds nice, but it had insidious effects on attempts to boost academic achievement and build competent and high-functioning young adults. It, in effect, became an argument against delivering any news to students that they were anything but absolutely wonderful and perfect. It became better to find something nice to say about a student essay rather than point out spelling or grammatical errors, preferable to stress the effort a student made on a math problem rather than to point out that...