Sally Krisel

The games of the thirty-first Olympiad are over. Maybe now I will be able to catch up on my sleep! For two weeks I stayed up way too late, spellbound by the competition between the world’s greatest athletes. I loved the world records, the close finishes, the upsets, the rivalries, and the camaraderie. I loved the emotion. But even more than these, I loved the stories—stories of athletes who excelled against the odds, who came back to compete after everyone said they were too old, who sacrificed so much to be Olympians. The stories of individual athletes kept me awake even after I was finally able to turn off the TV. As I replayed in my head the accounts of various athletes’ journeys to Rio, I reflected on the parallels between elite-level athletics and gifted education, and I thought how much we could learn about developing exceptional ability from what we saw during those two weeks.

Let’s consider just two of the athletes who delighted us during the games—Simone Biles, now the most decorated American gymnast in history, and Michelle Carter, American record holder and gold medalist in the shot put. At first glance, could two women be any more different? Biles,...

Marc Tucker

Dear Mark and Priscilla:

In a recent open letter, the Fordham Institute's Checker Finn warns you against trying to reform our public school districts, which he describes as impossible to change, even with the scale of funding that you can bring to the table. The old wisdom, he says, was that private foundations could be “pilot fish” for government, charting a path with independent money that could then leverage large amounts of public money. But even when the leviathan Gates Foundation, acting in concert with the Broad Foundation, joined forces with the Arnie Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, trading staff and ideas back and forth, nothing much, he says, was achieved.

Better, Finn says, to “just avoid government entirely.” You should be using your resources to “press for change outside the district structure.” He means, he says, charter schools. But he says you should be thinking about chartering in a larger sense, with entities that will “advance the education of kids with all sorts of different needs, interests, and possibilities…Likewise with alternative pathways into education.” He cites as examples Teach For America and New Leaders.

Finn notes that advocates from both the right and the left lament the separation...

Don Hirsch has done it again. Never mind that he’s eighty-eight. Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, his fifth book on education reform—there were at least five earlier ones in his original field of English literature, criticism, and composition—is as clear and trenchant as Cultural Literacy was in 1987. And it is arguably even more needed, as there’s ample evidence that the “knowledge” part of K–12 education has been backsliding even as we’ve seen slight improvement on the skills side.

There’s the curricular narrowing associated with our reading-and-math obsession and the accountability regimes attached thereto. There’s the perverse effect of Google and other technologies leading us to assume that we “can always look it up.” And most perniciously—it is the theme of Why Knowledge Matters—there’s what Hirsch terms “the tyranny of three ideas” that steer educators in the wrong direction.

Here, in short form, are the mistaken ideas:

  • Early education should be age-appropriate and seen as part of a “natural development process.” (“Early education” in Hirsch’s world isn’t preschool; it’s kindergarten and the first several grades of school.)
  • Early education should be individualized as far as possible.
  • The main aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other
  • ...

The surprising best seller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has become something of a cause célèbre on the grounds that it explains the appeal of Donald Trump to the white underclass (from which author J.D. Vance emerged). Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher aptly notes that the book "does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates's book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square."

The book should also be required reading among those of us in education policy. It reminds us of the roles that institutions play (and fail to play) in the lives of our young people, and further suggests that education reform cannot be an exclusively race-based movement if its goal is to arrest generational poverty. Poverty is a "family tradition" among Vance's people, white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who were once "day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times."

Vance emerges as something of an emissary to elite America from Fishtown, the fictional composite of lower-class white America that Charles Murray described in his 2012 book Coming Apart. This growing segment of American...

Michael B. Horn

In Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools, the Fordham Institute takes a robust, nuanced look at Ohio’s substantial number of e-schools (more commonly known as full-time virtual charter schools). The report paints a troubling picture of these schools’ performance and offers valuable policy recommendations for driving K–12 online learning toward a better future. But readers should note that it also suffers from four significant limitations that are shared by most other studies of virtual charters. This is not the analysts’ fault; it’s intrinsic to the data that are currently available to measure the outcomes of e-school students.

First, the study does not control for course-taking patterns. It usefully reports that students in Ohio’s full-time virtual schools are “more likely to enroll in basic and remedial math courses” than students in brick-and-mortar schools. It would seem plausible—though the authors don’t mention it—that this might have an adverse impact on pupil achievement as gauged by state tests. Determining why so many more students take lower-level math courses in the virtual environment is an important next step to build on this research.

Second, the state tests given in and before 2013—those whose results were used in the Fordham report—exhibit a serious...

In Educational Entrepreneurship Today, edited by Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane, a gaggle of authors examines how entrepreneurship can fuel the engine of educational innovation. The authors paint a complex portrait of risk, reward, and regulation.

The book defines educational entrepreneurship as “risk-taking behavior intended to boost school productivity or offer new services in a manner that makes a lasting difference for students.” The authors remind us that the very premise of entrepreneurship is novel within education. Typical initiatives in this realm are-risk averse because failure may harm children. Yet recent years have provided plenty of examples of entrepreneurial effort.

One theme throughout the book is that the structure of organizations and initiatives matter, although the authors differ on what structure is best. Some favor small, precisely targeted programs like the Tiny School Project, which focuses on testing educational ideas on a micro level. Others focus on scaling successful initiatives, such as the KIPP charter network’s growth from a single classroom to over two hundred schools across the country.

Entrepreneurial ventures like Teach For America, TNTP, the Broad Residency, and New Leaders for New Schools have both grown and become pipelines for educational talent to undertake yet more initiatives. The...

A new Mathematica study examines whether school-level value-added measures adequately capture principals’ effectiveness. Many districts hold them accountable for their schools’ academic performance; this study probes that assumption by asking an important question: Does school-level value added actually reflect the principal’s contribution, or does it mostly reflect other school-level influences (such as neighborhood safety) that are outside the principal’s control?

The authors use longitudinal data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to study school and principal effectiveness for grades 4–8 from 2007–08 to 2012–13. They include in the data set principals who have been involved in a leadership transition—meaning that, during the analysis period, they started leading a school they had not led before or were replaced by incoming principals. The authors compare departing principals with successors who assumed their positions during 2009–10 to 2012–13. (Alarmingly, 41 percent of schools serving students between the fourth and eighth grades experienced such leadership changes during the study window.) To disentangle the principal’s contribution to growth from the effect of other school-level factors, they sought to isolate the portion of the principal’s impact that is consistent across time and across different samples of students—i.e., the effects on student achievement that principals persistently demonstrate.

Here’s the bottom line: School-level...

Felicia A. Dixon

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. — Bill Gates

How do you define success? Is it the accomplishment of one’s goals? Is it the attainment of wealth, position, honors? Is it happiness? Is it all of these, selected from a number of definitions on Wikipedia?

Perhaps more important to teachers of the gifted is this question: How do we view success for our students? Do we see it as an individual entity for each student, determined by the growth in thought and sophistication evident in the work submitted? Or do we have one predetermined definition of success against which each student’s individual efforts are measured? 

On the first day of class with gifted adolescents, do we treat them as successful individuals? Or does the student have to earn success in our class in order to merit such a distinction?   

We all know students who have not been overtly successful. Perhaps they have chosen a less-than-prestigious career and are viewed as not reaching their potential. Counseling psychologist Barbara Kerr attended a prestigious school for the “best and brightest” young people in St. Louis. She was fearful of facing her high school classmates at...

Michael Podgursky

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a D.C. think tank aligned with teacher unions, has released yet another in a series of reports purporting to show that public school teachers are “underpaid.”

Many papers, articles, and reports have been written attempting to compare teacher to non-teacher compensation. Making such comparisons presents many challenges. Obviously, working conditions and hours of work differ (e.g., teachers have summers off and a shorter on-site workday), as do job security and the mix of salary and benefits.

However, in today’s economy, there is one very big difference that is not so visible to the naked eye but was cleverly pointed out in a study by Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs several years ago. The pension benefits for public school teachers (and most public employees) are far more generous than for private sector professionals. Moreover, the way that the U.S. Department of Labor measures those teacher pension benefits greatly understates this gap because the Labor Department underprices the teacher benefit.

The vast majority of private sector professionals have individual retirement savings accounts to which employers make a contribution. These are called “defined contribution accounts” and go by tax code names such as 401(k) or 403(b)....

Michael W. Kirst

I am glad that Finn agrees with my views on the limitations of a single number to report school status. Parents are used to student report cards that have several metrics and do not see the need to oversimplify their child’s performance with a single grade or number.

His comments on the new accountability system for California’s state law on school finance are, however, premature and uninformed. The document he refers to is a preliminary policy document not meant to be disseminated to the general public or parents. The document he cites is similar to the concept of an operating system of a new smart phone. The actual user interface (e.g., a phone) comes later. While California will act on the broad policy dimensions in September, the public reporting design will not appear until later. Some metrics will be top down from the state, but others will be locally designed using, for example, surveys vetted by the state.

However, this is a difficult task and will require continuous improvement. The California accountability law contains eight state priorities, twenty-two metrics, and thirteen subgroups. ESSA has many dimensions and subgroups as well, so some patience with the people charged with implementing...