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...

Animate Anachronism

For years, we at the Fordham Institute and others have been encouraging educators to find better ways to integrate technology into the classroom, so we were thrilled to see California schools truly moving teaching into the twenty-first century. Students around the state came back from spring break to find Amazon Echos in their classrooms, all spouting the cheery, disembodied voice of Alexa.

The movement started when a few schools near Silicon Valley consistently lacked enough substitutes to keep up with high rates of teacher absenteeism. Their principals observed that Alexa never takes a sick day and can fill any short or long term vacancy with a simple curriculum upload.

Even better, Alexa’s cheap. The highest priced device, the Echo Show, costs just $229. And to the delight of school leaders in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, the money saved can raise remaining teachers’ salaries, demonstrating schools’ appreciation for traditional human educators.

Weird, you say? Unconscionable? Consider this: Parents have been letting their kids “learn” from iPads at home for nearly a decade. So why not on school, too? And unlike iPads, Alexa can manage a classroom with...

George Wilson

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s nascent experiment with “restorative justice” turned into a socioemotional demolition derby on Friday when it was unceremoniously torpedoed by president emeritus and legendary curmudgeon Checker Finn.

Finn, who had expressed his opposition to “the whole misguided exercise” both verbally and in writing prior to the events in question, was engaged in a “restorative dialogue” with a toga-clad, talking-stick-wielding Mike Petrilli when he suddenly lost patience.

“Checker, I feel bad when you call my ideas stupid,” said Petrilli, Fordham’s president, at the urging of facilitator Max Eden, who sat calmly among the crowd in Tevas. “I wish you would use another word.”

“Serves you right for making me engage with this nonsense!” replied Finn. “But OK. Henceforth I’ll refer to your harebrained schemes as ‘materially challenged’—as in they’d be plausible IF you reconsidered their material, starting with the premise...”


“How I managed to get roped into this folly in the first place exceeds all understanding. I feel like a neurosurgeon who’s been appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development!”

“I feel we should just circle back to the question at hand.”

“Maybe. Remind me what...

Potte Keddle

Following a series of high-profile Fordham Institute studies that have tackled such controversial topics as teacher absenteeism, school discipline, and the merits of online charters, staff are urging President Mike Petrilli to take it down a notch.

"Not every report can or should be a five-alarm fire," argued Editorial Director, Brandan Wrong, in remarks that were quickly echoed by several other staff.

“Yeah. Some of us are millennials,” added Communications Associate, Antonio Nguyen. “And this is very not woke.”

"I just want to do something substantive, like the rising costs of pupil backpacks," added Ohio Research Director, Aaron Churchmound. "Why does everything around here have to be such a circus!?”

Like other members of the research team, Danny Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Associate, pointed to Petrilli’s well-documented affinity for the spotlight.

“Mike sees something bright and shiny that’s virtually guaranteed to piss off a bunch of  ‘snowflakes’ and says ‘Let’s do this for all fifty states and then tweet about it, so we can hit our metrics!’” Griffith observed. “The first time, it’s exhilarating—liberating even. But by the fourth or fifth time, you’re like ‘Man, I’m a freakin’ Democrat....

Char Leton

The scandal at D.C. Public Schools and a recent audit in California have brought nationwide attention to inflated high school graduation rates driven by strict accountability measures and unrealistic graduation targets. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A recent study from the University of Oklahoma provides evidence that even preschools are promoting chronically absent students who are unprepared for their next level of education.

The study takes Oklahoma’s preschool graduation data from 2005–15 and compares them to attendance rates and scores on tests designed to determine three- and four-year-olds’ college and career readiness.

Analysts find that pre-K grad rates soared over the decade from 75 to 96 percent—but that this rise didn’t mirror similar improvements in true achievement. In 2015, for example, only 71 percent of students were able to write their name, a ten-year increase of just 2 percentage points. The proportion who were able to fit shapes into corresponding holes in wooden blocks rose just 3 points, to 54 percent. Successful donning of one’s own raingear increased barely at all. And most worrisome of all, attendance rates remained low and flat over the course of the...

Reachy Reconnoiter

Committed to the value of social-emotional learning (SEL) for young people and determined to press the state’s public schools to give it greater emphasis, Oregon education policymakers resolved in 2015 to hold districts and schools accountable for gains in their SEL, and agreed to include two such indicators in the state’s ESSA plan.

The first, called “Creating Really Excellent Emotional Progress,” collects data by randomly photographing students’ faces with cameras mounted at various locations within the school. Expressions are then analyzed on a five-point scale, ranging from Bella Swan to Elle Woods. Schools rated at Katniss Everdeen or lower for two consecutive years are subject to clown interventions.

The second, dubbed “Social-Emotional Learning Found in Student Handiwork,” is based on careful analyses of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other products of a school’s K–8 art classes. Work is examined by experts to see how often it is positively self-referential and self-congratulatory. The more, the better of course.

Systematic administration of the two measures increased the state’s assessment costs by just 82 percent. And Oregon officials are thrilled with the early results, which show SEL tripling in a single year....

Tommy Rot

Pioneers in the field of anecdotal data analysis recently dropped another surefire education policy blockbuster: Surpassing Shanghai 2: Lessons from Lunch. In it, Clark Mucker and Belinda Darling-Sammons build on their first book, Surpassing Shanghai: How America Can Be Like Better Countries.

The innovative methodology they employ, often called “best practices,” is beloved by business leaders, life coaches, and celebrity nutritionists, and its powerful logic can be applied in numerous domains of life. For example, many Americans are aware that elite athletes wear expensive shoes and eat specific breakfast cereals, prompting many of these same Americans to purchase these products for themselves. If following best practices didn’t work, how could the shoe and cereal industries be worth nearly $1 trillion? The beauty of best practices research is that little analytical thinking or understanding of comparative methodology is required of the researchers, and even less is required of the readers.

The new book’s main contribution is to go beyond typical education policies and pedagogical methods to explore customs that Mucker and Darling-Sammons discovered while sitting around lunchroom tables in a handful of top countries: Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai, and...

By Gigi Geeves

Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their new 100-point strategy to transform education. All of us in education-land who have benefited from their largesse waited with bated breath for the unveiling. And we weren’t disappointed. Here’s our initial take.

First, it does a superb job of narrowing down their interests and focusing laser-like on a handful of areas ripe for reform. Besides civics education, helping struggling readers, reforming discipline policy, expanding CTE courses, promoting organic gardens, and improving school lunches, they’ve zeroed in on improving curricula, supporting professional development, rebuilding playgrounds, piloting new governance models, fixing school recess, bolstering student engagement, advancing weighted-pupil funding models, and supporting networks of schools.

Where’s the love for Common Core, teacher evaluation, and small schools, you say? It’s in there, too. See section 111.24 of subsection 233.8, wherein potential grantees are encouraged to submit new proposals in the following areas: new and exciting names for the Common Core that don’t have the words “common” or “core” in them; non-binding, toothless, everyone-gets-an-excellent teacher evaluation rubrics; and schools with tiny rooms, guaranteeing low enrollments.

Clearly, there’s much to like in this new strategy....