Flypaper

Last week, I argued that the education-policy field has reached a state of homeostasis, “characterized by clearer and fairer but lighter touch accountability systems; the incremental growth of school choice options for families; but no appetite for big and bold new initiatives.” This “end of policy,” as I called it, won’t last forever, but while it’s here, we have a chance to finish what we started and usher in a “Golden Age of Educational Practice.” In other words, to implement the higher standards with fidelity. To improve teacher preparation and development. To strengthen charter school oversight and quality. To make the promise of high quality career and technical education real.

The challenge, I said, is that “while policymakers might be taking a break from education policy, we cannot afford to take a break from educational improvement.”

Unless, that is, we’re satisfied with the results our $650 billion educational system is producing. But we shouldn’t be. It’s not just lackluster student achievement, with barely a third of students reaching “NAEP proficiency” in core subjects. It’s also the 61 percent of students who graduate high school unprepared for what’s next, and the alarming number of young people...

 
 
Jonathan Plucker

Last week, the Twin Cities was the epicenter of gifted education policy and practice as Minneapolis hosted the sixty-fifth NAGC Annual Convention. The convention provided a time for reflection about how Minnesota and the nation fare in supporting the needs of advanced students—and what we can do better.

After years of darkness, we are fortunate that a number of new studies are providing insights into who would benefit from advanced learning, the types of programs that are most effective, and policies needed to support high levels of student achievement.

For example, in a recent study we found evidence that large percentages of students—between 15 to 40 percent—start each school year already knowing most of what will be taught that year. Without access to a more rigorous and advanced education, the odds of them developing their talents are long indeed. Boredom need not be a characteristic of a bright student’s educational experience!

Fortunately, Minnesota has been a national leader in addressing the needs of gifted students. In studies of state-level policies to support academic excellence we identified Minnesota as one of only a handful of states that provide high levels of support for gifted students across multiple criteria. This includes...

 
 
Natalie Wexler

Critics of standardized testing say scores merely reflect family income and other factors beyond schools’ control—while also narrowing the curriculum and warping instruction. Still, the tests have value, and there’s much more that schools could do to address the inequities they reveal.

“Standardized tests are best at measuring family income,” education-reform opponent Diane Ravitch has opined. “Well-off students usually score in the top half of results; students from poor homes usually score in the bottom.”

Similarly, an education policy analyst told the Washington Post earlier this year that test score gains at some high-poverty D.C. high schools didn’t mean much—and neither, presumably, did the fact that at some other high schools fewer than five percent of students scored at or above the proficient level.

“People want to read into these test scores lessons about what the schools are doing,” he said. “But these scores, even the growth scores, depend a great deal on students’ opportunities to learn outside of school. If we address the poverty and racism, then we will see these test scores increase.”

At the same time, many parents and teachers have charged that testing has distorted the curriculum, caused...

 
 

Among postsecondary students who began their studies in 2003–04, 68 percent of those at public two-year colleges and 40 percent at public four-year colleges took at least one remedial course during their enrollment between 2003 and 2009. Of course, we’d prefer that students not need remediation in the first place. But if they do, how effective are these courses?

A report by Tom Kane and colleagues sheds light on the question, examining the impact of a statewide college remediation policy in Tennessee on students’ ability to take and pass college-level math and accumulate college-level credits. The original goal of the program, called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Supports, or SAILS, was to shift the locus of math remediation from college back to high school. The program was gradually rolled out to a majority of Tennessee high schools over the last several years.

It works like this: Students in SAILS-participating schools who score below the remediation threshold of 19 on the ACT math test (that’s roughly half of the seniors in those schools) can fulfill their math remediation by completing an online math course their senior year. If they complete all five online modules, they are exempted from math remediation...

 
 

School choice can only thrive when families are well-informed about their options. Unfortunately, good information about different schools in a district can be hard to come by, and even when it is accessible, how it is presented and the level of detail provided can heavily influence the decisions parents make. To understand how to display data to nudge parents, particularly low-income parents, in the direction of high-performing schools, researchers at Mathematica Policy Research designed a series of school-data presentations and tested their effects on parents’ selections.

For the experiment, the authors designed a hypothetical district with sixteen different schools, each of which had different strengths and weaknesses, and asked 35,000 low-income parents to select a school for their child to attend based on online displays of information about each. The schools and their characteristics remained constant, while the displays varied across five factors: numbers-only format versus a visual one; whether a district average was included for comparison; whether parent opinions were included; low- or high-information summaries; and whether the default sort order was by distance from home or by academic performance. After evaluating the schools, parents picked their top three and answered a few questions about their final choices and...

 
 
Robin Lake

Last week, we at the Center on Reinventing Public Education celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary by hosting a convening of practitioners, advocates, and researchers to take stock of where our education system stands, and how it must change to prepare every child for a future where change will be the one certain constant. We discussed a set of essays focused on ideas ranging from more customized learning and talent development, to innovative career preparation strategies, to out-of-school enrichment, as well as new roles for teachers, community groups, and school system leaders.

I was taken aback that one of the main headlines coming out of those difficult, provocative, and nuanced conversations was that reformers were souring on standardized tests.

Our gathering in Seattle could hardly be described as a representative sample of reformers. We intentionally brought together reform critics, researchers, and others outside the usual education-policy crowd, seeking people who would push each other’s thinking and pressure-test the ideas in our papers. And though there were indeed some vocal critics of test-based accountability within the crowd, the prevailing view was that it’s more essential than ever to measure student academic and other progress, but...

 
 

Almost thirty years ago, in February 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama gave a talk that was later turned into an article that was later turned into a book, with the provocative title, “The End of History?” With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, western-style liberalism had triumphed over Communism, and had already fended off Fascism. As a recent article in the New Yorker noted:

If you imagined history as the process by which liberal institutions—representative government, free markets, and consumerist culture—become universal, it might be possible to say that history had reached its goal…. There would be a “Common Marketization” of international relations and the world would achieve homeostasis.

It’s a strange time to be using The End of History as an analogy because, as we now know, the end of the Cold War was not the End of History at all, but the end of just one chapter.

But it is fair to say that for a decade or two the world did achieve some sort of homeostasis, perhaps a break from history instead of its end. Democracy was on the move, global trade boomed, and the world became...

 
 

You’ve seen plenty of comments and speculations on what last week’s election means for K–12 education (or will mean if they ever finish counting the ballots and filing lawsuits.) But not until this week did you see the conclusion by my friend Jay Mathews that education should be left to the teachers and the politicians should butt out.

Jay is right about more or less everything. But would you really leave war exclusively to the soldiers or entrust health care entirely to doctors? I’ll wager not. Yes, of course they’re on the front lines. They have to do the heavy lifting and incur the casualties—and we should all be grateful, the more so because they (well, infantrymen, not neurosurgeons!) get little compensation for it. That does not, however, mean they should be in charge of the big policy decisions or left to do their own thing without guidance from policy types.

We don’t expect military units to do their own thing in the field, or decide which fields to enter. (If they did, I doubt you’d find them guarding the Mexican border right now.) It’s true that one of the innovations in Iraq was to give...

 
 
Carrie Wagner

For the first three weeks of the year, Erin Woods did not say a word to her students during precalculus class, and they were furious. She was their tutor last year, and they knew she was great at Math, so why would she not help them? In fact, she was under strict orders from me to observe and observe only.

Erin is a Math Fellow at City on a Hill Charter Public Schools, for which I am the Director of Teacher Development and Licensure, and was in her first weeks of City on a Hill’s Urban Teaching Fellowship. As a fellow, her priority for the first three weeks was to learn by watching every move of her mentor, Joanie Decopain. During those crucial weeks of putting in place classroom expectations and the systems and routines that students will follow for the whole year, Erin watched silently and absorbed every detail.

Pure observation—so rare for teachers who have thousands of interactions with their students every day—allows teaching fellows to pause and reflect on “teacher moves” that might otherwise go undetected and unexamined. As an observer, Erin took notes on what she saw and recorded questions to bring to Joanie for...

 
 

When West Virginia teachers walked out on strike this February, education received a lot of attention in the national news media. Reports on strikes around the country over the next few months provided some unusually vivid insight into the way reporters think, talk, and write about education. Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin at the American Enterprise Institute took advantage of this opportunity to publish a study on coverage of the strikes; they found headlines to be “remarkably impartial”—although details embedded later in most of the articles skewed treatment disproportionately in favor of the strike.

To understand how the media presented this story to the nation, Hess and Martin analyzed every article covering the strikes from five national newspapers: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. They evaluated whether each headline and lead supported, rejected, or was neutral toward the strikers’ cause. They also tabulated who was quoted in each article, what position each speaker took, and how much information on teacher compensation was included.

Of fifty-nine total headlines, fifty-six were neutral toward the strike. The authors offer this Wall Street Journal example: “West Virginia Teachers Go On Statewide Strike.” The remaining...

 
 

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