By John Thompson

I enjoyed most of the submittals in the Fordham Institute’s Wonkathon, but my favorite was Max Eden’s, “Reformer, Heal Thyself. You’ve Ruined High School.” I don’t agree that all of high school has been ruined, but technocratic reformers did wreck my Oklahoma City high school, and they did so by ignoring the predictable ways that their data-driven accountability systems would produce huge amounts of unintended harm.

Eden wrote:

The notion that sitting a bureaucrat trained by the Broad Academy in a chair could fundamentally change the life trajectories of thousands of deeply disadvantaged students within just a couple of years is, to put it mildly, willful wishful thinking. On the other hand, the systems, expectations, and professional incentives provide means and motive to commit fraud. In the rare event that reporters ferret out the fraud, technocratic wonks provide alibis rather than accountability.

Our high school first received a Broad Academy–trained superintendent in 2007. Ninety percent of our students were low income, but his only education experience was as a technology director of a school district in which only a quarter of pupils were low income. He told my students that he planned to install television cameras in...

Abbie Forbus

As schools and districts across the country work to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” traditional school model, more and more are moving toward personalized learning. Its benefits are promising, but many people have questions, especially when it comes to the role of the teacher. With new technologies, innovative practices, and students taking leadership in their own learning, the work of teachers looks a little bit different. But it’s more important than ever.

As an educator and someone who is working alongside teachers and district leaders to implement student-centered practices, there’s one thing I know for sure: The role of the teacher is irreplaceable and extremely important in implementing personalized learning. The model allows educators to use data and technology to enhance learning within the classroom, deepen relationships with their students, and empower their pupils to recognize their impact on a classroom community, all while creating personalized pathways for success.

When I was Dean of Culture at Lindsay Unified High School in Lindsay, California, I was charged with maintaining a positive school culture. But I wasn’t doing the work. Our learners were, having been given the tools to take ownership of our culture. And amazing things happened.

Personalizing learning builds a...


Editor’s note: Last week, at the University of Southern California, the annual Education Writers Association conference kicked off with a speech by USC professor Shaun Harper on “Big Ideas on Equity, Race, and Inclusion in Education.” That was followed by a panel on the same topic featuring Dr. Harper, Estela Bensimon, Pedro Noguera, and the Fordham Institute’s Michael J. Petrilli, moderated by Inside Higher Ed’s Greg Toppo. These were Petrilli’s comments as prepared.

Shaun's comments were well said, though you won't be surprised to know that I disagree with many of his arguments. I'm happy to get into that, as Greg sees fit.

But first I want to focus my comments on you, the reporters.

We all know that this is a difficult time to talk about issues of race and class in this country, thanks to the extreme polarization and division, including on this issue. Of course, President Trump doesn't make it any easier, as he shows no interest in bringing us together or bridging divides. In fact, he seems intent on making the divides even larger, with his awful race-mongering at his rallies and in social media, and with many of the actions his administration...


Back at the turn of the millennium, we at Fordham published a paper that urged a stronger focus on phonics. Author Louisa Cook Moates wrote: “Reading science is clear: young children need instruction in systematic, synthetic phonics in which they are taught sound-symbol correspondences singly, directly, and explicitly.” The reading wars—the longstanding debate between “whole language” and phonics proponents—has been mostly settled in the U.S. with phonics playing a key role in the federal Reading First program, and having now been embedded in most states’ English language arts standards, including Ohio’s.

Recently, British policymakers also took bold steps to prioritize phonics, i.e., structured instruction that teaches children to “decode” words. Coinciding with an influential 2006 paper known as the “Rose Report,” which recommended phonics as the principal strategy for early literacy, England began requiring its schools to move away from the nation’s “searchlights” model and instead implement phonics-centered instruction for children aged five to seven.

A recent study by Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally, and Martina Viarengo evaluates the impact of this initiative, which also included government aid allowing schools to hire literacy consultants who supported teachers’ transition to...

Paul Herdman

In the last decade, Delaware’s once very stable economy felt some seismic shifts. The General Motors and Chrysler plants closed, causing the loss of thousands of blue-collar jobs. Dupont, a major employer in Delaware for centuries, was going through a massive merger with Dow Chemical. Couple these shifts with sweeping digital transformations in the banking industry, another staple of our economy, and it was clear: Our once robust economy was now fragile. On top of which, our K–12 system was largely evolving in its own silo, unconnected with these shifts in Delaware’s “real world.” There was a growing gap between what our economy needed and what our kids were able to do.

Fast forward to 2018. All across our small state, young people’s vision of the future is becoming a lot clearer. They’re exploring their passions and matching them to potential careers with the help of a network of expert adults. They have far crisper answers to the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question. And they’re learning more and more each day just what steps they need to take to reach their dreams.

In a few short years, Delaware Pathways has begun to transform...

Alex Hernandez

Some of us were in the mode, ‘Fix it, fix it! Fix it tomorrow!’ You know when you feel nauseated and you just want it to stop. Our Chief Academic Officer, Tracy Epp, did a good job of slowing us down and saying, ‘I’m not going to take forever, but this is important enough that we are going to take a few months to figure this out. And we are going to bring our team together to generate all kinds of ideas and then we’re going to make our bets.’ And I think she slowed us down and brought more people on board to try to get the bets right.

—Dacia Toll, co-CEO of Achievement First

Achievement First’s deep dive into its academic programs led to the following conclusions:

Key lessons learned

  • Picture of instruction: Our instruction was overly-scaffolded for students. We needed to focus more on student thinking. Students needed to do more heavy lifting and struggle more.
  • Curriculum: Curriculum matters—a lot. It needs to be unapologetically rigorous. You need to buy best-in-class resources or have a robust process for internal and external vetting of what you create.
  • Adult learning: Student thinking will only be as good
  • ...

I know nobody who denies that high school education in America sorely needs an overhaul. Achievement scores are flat—whether one looks at NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, SAT, or the ACT. Graduation rates are up—but incidents of padding, cheating, and fraud are appearing more and more often. Scads of kids enter college ill prepared to succeed there. Scads of others enter the workforce without the skills to succeed there, either, at least not without lots of repair work. The military is rejecting many who would like to enlist. Upward mobility is more or less stagnant. And there are abundant signs of social and personal dysfunction among young people during and after high school. And that’s without even getting to the most heinous stuff like shootings.

Yet it turns out to be extremely hard to formulate any sort of coherent plan for reform at the high school level, and harder still to implement it. We’ve tried so many different things: small high schools, virtual high schools, charter high schools, girls’ high schools, early college high schools, thematic high schools, more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment, (a few) more selective-admission high schools, end-of-course exams, statewide graduation tests, personalized learning, alternatives to...


Turning around low-performing schools is hard. Most strategies financed by federal dollars have long shown disappointing results, and states have avoided fundamental reforms, instead hiring specialists and retraining school staff.

But states have the opportunity to do something different under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows them to try creative strategies for fixing their worst schools, and education leaders ought to take advantage of it. As Nelson Smith and I argue in a recent article in NASBE’s The Standard, one promising option is charter school expansion, wherein struggling schools are replaced by charters.

Under ESSA, states must identify and take action on two types of troubled schools: those requiring comprehensive support and improvement (the lowest achieving 5 percent of Title I schools, plus high schools with low graduation rates) and those that need targeted improvement because they routinely fail a particular group such as low-income, minority, or special education students.

ESSA is intentionally silent on what states should do about such schools—even when they require “rigorous intervention” because more timid correctives have not worked. This deference is a major change from the No Child Left Behind Act, as is ESSA’s scrapping of NCLB’s School Improvement...

Dale Chu

With the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 just days away, it felt right to explore another race that featured rip-roaring speed and heart-pounding momentum. In my last post, I called out a few variables that contributed to Indiana’s robust education policy landscape at the beginning of this decade. As I shared in that piece, a confluence of events led to an alignment of the stars, one that’s unlikely to be repeated anytime in the near future. Under the leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett, we proposed and enacted sweeping legislative changes that affected teacher quality, collective bargaining, and school choice (charters and vouchers).

During this period, Indiana was unafraid of education innovation, and had some good results to show for it—a testament to the many educators across the state who embraced these changes, as well as gutsy policymakers. Although we accomplished most of what we initially set out to do, there was plenty more that needed to be done when our efforts were abruptly halted by politics. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the greatest pain is not knowing what might have been. It’s purely conjecture, but...


Virtually every state has moved, incrementally or fully, from administering standardized assessments on paper to online, so there’s been plenty of discussion about whether taking a test on a computer or tablet, versus with paper and pencil, affects student performance. (Recall that the same issue was raised when NAEP scores were released in April, with Louisiana voicing particular concerns.) In other words, is it true that “mode effects”—meaning the physical medium by which one takes a test—can depress scores in ways that have much to do with the medium and little to do with what students know and can do? 

Enter Ben Backes and James Cowan from CALDER who examine, first, whether students who take Massachusetts’s state test online score systematically lower than if they had taken the same test on paper; and second, whether there are any differences across subgroups of students.

Recall that Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016 administered the PARCC test both on paper and online. And in 2015 districts could chose between MCAS (the old state test) or the new PARCC test. During this period of flux, state officials agreed to a hold-harmless provision for all schools administering the PARCC in either year, whether...