Jessica Baghian

For nearly a decade, Louisiana has assigned letter grades to schools and school systems to focus educators on excellence for every child and to inform parents about school quality. But a recent survey by Louisiana State University indicated just one in ten residents and one in seven public school parents could correctly identify their local school district’s state-issued grade.

Louisiana families needed a more effective method for accessing school quality information. Past report cards were data-heavy and filled with eduwonk verbiage. Furthermore, the report cards could be hard to find in an online search and did not sufficiently help parents new to a community determine their school options.

In late 2017, the Louisiana Department of Education—at which I am the assistant superintendent for assessment, accountability, and analytics—changed this with the launch the parent-friendly Louisiana School Finder, a first-of-its-kind online reporting system that clearly communicates how well schools and early childhood centers are supporting students.

The state’s revamped report card system showcases many of the expected metrics: the school’s overall performance score and letter grade; assessment results and graduation rates; and new data on student subgroups, discipline and attendance, and the teaching staff. In subsequent years, the system will...


Massachusetts has earned well-deserved accolades for becoming America’s highest-achieving state, as measured by national academic assessments. But as Bay State leaders know, behind its accomplishments lurk some of America’s largest achievement gaps. And it’s not just that low-income and minority students do worse than their wealthier and white peers on average; there are also big gaps among high achievers, discrepancies that professor Jonathan Plucker rightly calls “excellence gaps.” One cause may be the state’s severe shortage of programs for gifted students.

The selection of Jeff Riley as Massachusetts’s new education commissioner is a perfect opportunity to do better by high-achieving students of color. His sterling record as a principal in Boston and superintendent in Lawrence suggests that he’s up to the challenge. But it won’t be easy.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, Massachusetts’s white, black, and Hispanic eighth graders reach the test’s highest level in math, deemed “advanced,” at twice the national rate. But this masks massive academic inequalities. Although one in every five white students is advanced, that’s true of just one in every twenty-five black and Hispanic students—a gap that is also twice what it is nationally.

Given this galling rift, you’d hope Massachusetts,...


E.D. Hirsch, Jr. turned ninety years old two weeks ago. And the state of Louisiana has given the Cultural Literacy icon and architect of the Core Knowledge curriculum a belated birthday present. In a little-noticed press release issued Monday, the state’s Department of Education announced its plan, under a provision of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, to develop and pilot a “streamlined English and social studies assessment….that align[s] with the knowledge and books taught in Louisiana classrooms.” Unlike most reading tests, which ask students to find the main idea or make inferences on reading passages about random topics, Louisiana plans to create test items on books and topics test-takers have actually studied in school and try them out in five school districts in the state, including two charter school networks.

If you’re familiar with Hirsch’s work, his many books including The Knowledge Deficit and The Making of Americans; if you understand the connection between background knowledge and language proficiency that he has championed for many decades, then Louisiana’s move is as obvious to you as it is overdue. For the uninitiated, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a recent blog post offered an economical summary...


This is the fifth and final post in a series of commentaries leading up to the release of new NAEP results on April 10. The first post discussed the value of the NAEP; the second looked at recent national trends; the third examined state-by-state trends; and the fourth reviewed urban trends. Also see Ian Rowe’s post making the case that NAEP should track results by family structure.

When the National Assessment of Education Progress results are released on Tuesday, reporters, educators, and policy wonks will have a lot to digest. Over the past several weeks, I’ve examined recent trends at the national, state, and local levels. First let me review the highlights, then identify seven stories to watch when the new data go live.

  • After big increases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in math, especially in fourth grade, and especially for our lowest-performing students and disadvantaged subgroups, national trends have been mostly flat for almost a decade.
  • However, the national picture hides a lot of state-by-state variation. In the past, states including North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts have made big improvements. More recently, the District of Columbia, Indiana, and Tennessee have
  • ...

A new study by Susan Dynarski and colleagues examines the effects of a large for-profit charter school operator. Most existing charter school research is on non-profit operators with very little, if any, evidence at the K–12 level on for-profit outfits (although research findings on for-profit institutions at the college level are downright grim).

Analysts leverage randomized admissions lotteries from forty-four National Heritage Academy (NHA) charter schools in Michigan that were oversubscribed between 2002 and 2012 (NHA is the fourth largest for-profit operator in the country). The dataset includes roughly 27,000 applications, and analysts are able to observe at least one post-lottery achievement score for 90 percent of the students in the sample. Scores are observed through grade eight only, in part because most applicants are in kindergarten or first grade. Analysts are able to verify that the lotteries were indeed carried out randomly so they are essentially comparing the outcomes of lottery winners and losers.

Before we get to the findings, here’s a bit of background on NHA. Unlike other charters, almost half of NHA schools are located in suburban areas, forty percent in urban areas, and twelve percent in towns/rural areas. Their students are also less likely to...


The complaint that kids these days are addicted to their smartphones is a familiar refrain among parents and educators. While some schools try to pry iPhones from their students’ hands, others attempt to embrace the ubiquity of technology by integrating them into instruction with Bring Your Device (BYD) policies. Yet our understanding of how smartphones influence our ability to learn and focus is still limited. So let’s welcome a study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin that examines how our smartphones affect cognition when we aren’t using—or even thinking about—them.

The analysts conducted experiments in which undergraduate participants completed a series of tests designed to measure their working memory, reasoning and problem solving, and sustained attention. The participating students were randomly selected to have their phone in one of three places: face down on the desk, in the testing room but in their pocket or bag, or outside the testing room. They also took a survey about the influence of their smart phones during the test and their personal smartphone dependence. 

The study finds significant differences in students’ capacities for working memory, reasoning, and problem solving based on the location of their phones. Participants whose phones were...

Stephen Parker

Speaking before the Council of Chief State School Officers last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos surprised many in the audience by criticizing a number of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans and pleading with states to aim higher. Broad criticism followed her remarks: DeVos had an opportunity to leverage the enforcement authority of her office to ensure the very innovation she claims is lacking.

However, DeVos’s critics cannot forget that, for the first few plans to receive Education Department responses, her staff read the law, reviewed the plans, and delivered thorough feedback to spur improvements. Chief state school officers voiced their objections, the agency responded and its review process became less stringent.

Given how this developed, DeVos’s criticism was jarring, but perhaps not altogether surprising. Her sentiments about the quality of state plans were shared by governors on a bipartisan basis. Several governors, prior to their states submitting final ESSA plans, pressed state education agencies to bolster plans with bold reforms that would drive improvement.

Governors were not alone. Bipartisan concerns, from independent peer reviews to respected policy organizations, were ever-present throughout the process.

Rather than the panacea many hoped for,...


Like any life transition, preparing for a new job and saying farewell to colleagues and allies offers a bittersweet window of time to reflect. I’m sitting in that window now. Having finished almost a decade in the Ohio K–12 education policy space and my second stint at Fordham Ohio, I’m shifting into the early childhood policy domain.

Here are five essential ingredients for any advocate’s personal tool kit that I’ve been reflecting on and that I’ll be taking with me.

Principles that ground you—deeply

Working in public policy inevitably means you will interface with politics, whether you like it or not. When I began working in education policy at the state level, Obama had just been elected and Arne Duncan was his education secretary. There was a strong bipartisan coalition around charter schools—nationally at least—and I had been living and working in states where charter schools weren’t as partisan or as contentious as they are in the Buckeye State. It was news to me when I arrived back in Ohio and quickly learned that charter schools were almost exclusively supported by Republicans. Moreover, Democrats would be contesting the creation of Teach For America – Ohio, a program I—as a...


In a year of daily surprises and jaw-dropping outrages, even cynical political insiders were rocked by today’s news that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will replace John Kelly as President Trump's chief of staff, after Kelly was fired in the so-called “HAM Incident.” But those of us who have watched Secretary DeVos closely for the past eighteen months understand that this is a rare stroke of genius from President Trump. Here’s why.

First, as I have often noted, DeVos has spent her career as a behind-the-scenes strategist, not an out-front advocate. Though Kelly gave an unusual number of interviews, the chief of staff role is typically one for an insider’s insider. This will fit DeVos’s background and skillset much better.

Second, presidents typically want a savvy political player in this role, and that is where DeVos excels. She and her family have supported Republican politicians and conservative causes for decades. She can now leverage the resulting relationships to get things done on Capitol Hill and in the states. (Republican governors will be especially important to the president in the run-up to the 2020 election.)

And third,...

Yosemite Gam Gam

Ruining the satirical punch of half-rate YA dystopias everywhere, the White House has suggested that teachers be trained to carry firearms in the classroom. Though most pedagogues are understandably horrified, some are thrilled—including a few who might surprise even the policy’s proponents. In a recent interview, education secretary Betsy DeVos noted that she could not imagine her own first grade teacher, Irma Borhoff, “having a gun and being trained in that way.” We checked in with Borhoff, who still teaches six-year-olds, to verify the secretary’s response. She spoke with us while her students finger-painted.

“Betsy was right in a way. Bullets aren’t my thing. But I’m really adept with a fully automated crossbow for longer-range threats, as well as those darn pigeons outside my condo,” Borhoff acknowledged. “And because of my years of ninjutsu training, I have an attachment to the traditional items—you know, shuriken, the katana, or simply a staff. But I’m not getting any younger, and sometimes in the middle of training—” here Borhoff broke off to gently remind one of her students that paint belongs on the paper, not on the floor. “Sometimes after a...