Republicans are steadily moving forward on tax reform, with the House poised to vote on the passage of its version of a bill Thursday morning. The legislation has, of course, been contentious and led to much discussion. And, regarding education policy, one of the areas that’s kicked up the most dust is the proposed expansion, found only in the House bill, of tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans, which would allow families to use the savings for K-12 expenses and not just higher education.

Some believe that this expansion ought to be celebrated because it will allow more families to consider more choices when it comes to which school their child can attend. Others, however, worry the change uses scarce political and financial resources to advantage families with enough money to save for private school. Perhaps, they argue, we should instead invest in ways to give poor and working-class families more options.

To explore the issue in more depth, we’ve featured opposing perspectives from a trio of experts. Praising the 529 expansion is Peter Murphy, the Vice President for Policy at the Invest in Education Foundation. And arguing the other side are Nat Malkus and Preston Cooper, the deputy director of...

A recent study on career and technical education examines whether taking “CTE” courses in high school has any relationship to dropping out of high school and, conversely, going to college.

Data come from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 and follows a cohort of public school students starting in the second half of their sophomore year (2002), surveying them again in both spring 2004 and spring 2006 when they would have been in their second year after high school graduation. Analysts attempt to control for a wide range of demographic, family, academic, attitudinal, and school-level variables, such as parental education, family income, poverty level of school, college expectations, etc. While they have loads of control variables, the study is nevertheless not causal, in part because it is not able to control for all of the unobserved factors that may make students who enroll in CTE different from those who do not.

The key finding is that taking more CTE courses is linked to a lower chance of dropping out of high school. Specifically, taking any CTE course in high school decreases the odds of dropping out by 1.2 percent for each course, so the more the better, but taking a...

“Collective efficacy” is the sense among group members that they have the capability to organize and execute the actions required to achieve their most important goals. Researchers have, for twenty years, tested it as a key factor in explaining performance differences among groups attempting the same task in areas such as healthcare and manufacturing. The literature on collective efficacy in K–12 education is new and growing, spearheaded largely by Roger D. Goddard of The Ohio State University. A new report by a group of researchers led by Dr. Goddard seeks to unite quantitative and qualitative data on the subject.

The quantitative portion of the analysis was fairly straightforward, looking at the math achievement levels of 13,472 fourth- and fifth-grade students on a mandatory assessment given annually in one large district in Texas. Change between the two years of scores was the sole academic measure utilized and researchers looked at achievement gaps between different school buildings and between black and white students. A measure of collective efficacy was derived using a twelve-item survey, which was administered to 2,041 teachers. The survey rated teachers’ level of agreement on a scale of one to five with statements such as, “Teachers are here...

The Every Student Succeeds Act grants states more authority over their accountability systems than did No Child Left Behind, but have they seized the opportunity to develop school ratings that are clearer and fairer than those in the past? Our new report, Rating the Ratings: Analyzing the 51 ESSA Accountability Plans, examines the plans submitted by all fifty states and the District of Columbia, and whether they are strong or weak (or in-between) in achieving three objectives:

  1. Assigning annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public;
  2. Encouraging schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and
  3. Fairly measuring and judging all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

Key findings include:

  • Thirty-five states—69 percent—received a "strong" grade for using clear and intuitive ratings such as A–F grades, five-star ratings, or user-friendly numerical system. These labels immediately convey to all observers how well a given school is performing, and is a major improvement over the often Orwellian school ratings of the NCLB era.
  • The country is also doing much better in signaling that every child is important, not just the "bubble kids" near the proficiency cut-off. Twenty-three states earned
  • ...
Nat Malkus and Preston Cooper

School choice has long been the centerpiece of President Trump’s education policy platform. On the campaign trail, Trump promised $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice. He reiterated this promise in his address to Congress last winter, calling on the legislature to pass a bill “that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth.” Now, with tax reform on Congress’s calendar for the rest of the year, the president has the perfect opportunity to deliver on those promises: a big investment to help poor families by expanding school choice.

Unfortunately, the main provision in the GOP tax reform bill concerning K–12 education falls well short of the administration’s stated goals.

This provision would allow families to use tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans for K–12 educational expenses, such as private school tuition. Under a 529 plan, a family can deposit after-tax dollars into a savings account on behalf of a child or other designated beneficiary. The initial contributions accrue earnings over time, and families pay no taxes on those earnings so long as they are used for educational purposes. Republicans argue this would advance school choice at the K–12 level.

529 plans are well-suited to pay for college...

Peter Murphy

The House Republican tax reform plan, contained in its proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, includes a provision to expand the Internal Revenue Code section 529 savings plans to include expenses for kindergarten-through-grade-twelve education and apprenticeship programs. The maximum annual amount of such expenses allowed from these plans would be $10,000.

Supporters of educational choice should embrace this proposal and advocate for its inclusion in the final, adopted tax bill. Simply put, expanding 529 college savings plans for K–12 education and apprenticeship programs will enable more families to access educational choice before their children enroll in college.

Current tax law restricts 529 savings plans to higher education and allows maximum annual contributions of up to $5,000 per year for each individual account ($10,000 for joint-income tax filers).

While contributions to existing 529 college savings plans are not deductible for federal income tax purposes, the accrued interest is not subject to federal tax.

In the process of proposing to expand the 529 plans to K–12 education and apprenticeship programs, the House GOP tax plan would eliminate Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which is the current savings vehicle for K–12 expenses for up to $2,000 annually, since they would be duplicative.

As a...

Education reform advocates nationwide are putting together their wish lists for the state legislative sessions that generally start in January. Here’s one for the top of those lists: tackling how state assessments are administered and how kids’ results on those assessments are reported.

Getting this right is good policy, good politics, and a hedge against another anti-testing backlash.

For inspiration note the changes enacted in Florida last year via HB 7069. Its controversial provisions have drawn most of the attention, especially its requirement that local districts give charter schools access to local property taxes. But it also made some worthy tacks on testing. These include:

  • Moving state tests to the last four weeks of the school year to give teachers more time to teach—and reducing dead time at year’s end. (The previous state testing window started in March.)
  • Requiring that teachers receive the scores of their incoming students before the next year starts.
  • Including in the score reports that are sent home to parents:
    • Information about students’ strengths and areas for improvement
    • Specific suggestions for actions parents can take on their child’s behalf
    • Data on proficiency and growth over time, over multiple years
    • When available, projections
  • ...

In this study, the authors examine the impact that being born in the Year of the Dragon—the luckiest and most desirable in the Chinese Zodiac—has on the academic achievement of Chinese youth.

Data for the study come from three sources: the 2010–13 waves of the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS); the China Education Panel Study (CEPS), which includes over 13,000 middle school students from 112 schools in twenty-eight districts, counties, and/or cities; and the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSS), which includes about 5,000 undergraduates from fifteen universities in Beijing.

Based on their analysis of these data, the authors estimate that, relative to individuals born in other years, so-called “Dragons” score about 0.05 standard deviations higher on middle school Chinese and English exams and 0.1 standard deviations higher on China’s National College Entrance Examination, and are 5–10 percentage points more likely to have a college education.

Because parents of Dragons are no richer, better educated, or more likely to have white-collar jobs than other parents, the authors conclude that “the differential educational success of Dragon children is not related to family background.” Moreover, because the CEPS includes questions related to “dimensions of language, perceptions of figures and spaces, and calculations...

Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research has released a study that provides the first look at how Newark schools are faring after the enactment of controversial reforms. Kicked off by an infusion of $200 million from the Startup: Education Foundation (now the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) and other philanthropists in 2010, the reform included curricular overhauls, scaling up charters, dramatic staff changes, and school closures. The initial findings indicate that these disruptive changes are improving student achievement.

The study examines student growth on New Jersey state achievement tests from 2009 to 2016—before and after funding—comparing students of similar academic achievement and demographics to other lower-income districts in the state, as well as to overall state results. Analysts also look to determine which reforms were responsible for the changes in growth. As the scope of reforms is quite large, they break them into two categories: within-school reforms, such as personnel changes, new teacher contracts, and curriculum reform; and between-school reforms, including closing low-performing schools, the expansion of charter schools, and the implementation of a universal choice system that allowed families to submit a single application to attend a district or local charter school.

Analysts find that student growth dropped in the first...

For the first time in their lives, my twin daughters are attending separate schools. It was a hard decision made after a lot of research and soul searching. My wife and I think both schools are good ones, but I’d be lying if I said I was 100 percent confident. The national debate over whether and how parents can know best when it comes to school choice has me wondering if we’ve chosen well. I am somewhat comforted by the fact that we had full information and access to many options, but I know that’s not the same for every family. That should be the debate on parental choice. Perhaps the process that my family went through—and the differences between the schools we ultimately chose—can help shed light on the larger discussion.

The school that both girls attended through ninth grade last year is an odd one, to be sure, and not just because of its sixth-through-twelfth-grade orientation. As a standalone STEM school, it is more like a charter than a traditional school, but it has no sponsor or elected board; it is supported by a consortium of higher education, philanthropic, and district leaders. As...