Flypaper

For as long as I’ve been involved in the sector, friends and strangers alike have frequently asked me what it’ll take to improve education in America? A magic wand is sometimes proffered to make the task more jovial but no less daunting. I got it again last month while on—of all places—the observation deck of the Freedom Tower in New York City. With a backdrop of breathtaking panoramic views atop the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, it reared its familiar head once again.

On its surface, the inquiry is innocent enough. The person asking it usually expects a straightforward response, especially from someone who spends his waking hours ruminating on the subject. And as a parent who is always attempting to break down complex ideas into their simplest terms, I feel obligated to have a pithy one at my fingertips.

To answer it, it’s useful to take a step back and consider an even broader question: “What’s the goal of our education system?” The idea of “improving” anything suggests measurement, and it’s easier to assess progress when there’s a clear end in mind. These days, a popular goal for our schools is workforce preparation, which has been in large...

 
 

“But you support the Common Core!” So said Laura Jimenez of the Center for American Progress on the Education Gadfly Show podcast when I argued that it was a mistake to peg high school graduation standards to the “college-ready” level.

Guilty as charged. I do support the Common Core, which is designed to get students to “college and career readiness” by the end of high school. But I also see that goal as aspirational; I don’t believe we should actually deny diplomas to young people who gain basic skills and pass their classes but don’t reach that lofty level. Nor do I think that we should force all students to take a college-prep course of study all the way through twelfth grade.

How do I square this circle? Am I hypocrite for claiming to support high expectations while not being willing to enforce those expectations when it comes to crunch time?

I’m not the only one struggling with this dilemma. Recently, veteran education policy analyst Marc Tucker, the founder and outgoing president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, penned a long and winding but remunerative essay on the conundrum. In his words:

If you...

 
 

If students are going to get the most out of school, they need to be engaged. Research shows, for example, that disengaged students are more likely to suffer a range of bad consequences, such as failing a course, repeating a grade, and dropping out. Yet however much rhetoric we may hear about building a “student-centered” education system, the education research world spends little time focusing on student perspectives.

To amplify student voices, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute commissioned a survey last year asking high schoolers about their classroom experience. The nationally-representative sample included students from forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, representing all types of schools—traditional public, public magnet, parochial, independent, and charter. The results, published in Fordham’s What Teens Want from Their Schools, gave us a broad portrait of student engagement in the country, and a peek at how students view America’s education system.

As the new school year starts, it’s time to think again about what students have to say. In a series of posts, this being the first, we’ll revisit that report and take a closer look at the results, with an eye towards what information might be useful for reformers and...

 
 
James V. Shuls

How would you respond if you stumbled across a headline that asked, “How much do farmers markets cost Walmart?” It’s a ridiculous question. It presupposes that the customer belongs to Walmart; that any time the individual chooses to buy cucumbers from a local grower or salsa from an aspiring entrepreneur, he or she is “robbing” the dominant grocer. That’s just absurd. Yet this is the standard frame we use when talking about education. We blithely assume that education is wholly different from any other field.

Consider, for example, a recent headline on the Education Writers Association’s website: “How much do charter schools cost districts?” It’s the same question, and it is just as absurd as when talking about groceries. Worse, it is unethical, because it dehumanizes children, reducing them to economic units. In this formulation, neither they nor their parents are individuals with aspirations, endowed with free will and the ability to act in their own self-interest; they are a mere funding stream for public school districts.

This type of headline is all too common. Most people wouldn’t even bat an eye at it. But this isn’t just semantics. It gets at the heart of the way many...

 
 

It’s been almost a decade since governors and state superintendents started work on what would become the Common Core State Standards, and five years since those standards sparked a political firestorm that nearly burnt them to a crisp. Predictably, a recent study of ours found that most states that succumbed to that political pressure ended up with standards that were worse—less rigorous, less clear, and less helpful for teachers, students, and parents. But thankfully, it also confirmed that most states remained steadfast, meaning they still have the Common Core or something very close to it.

To these states we say: Don’t fix what’s not broken. The Common Core standards in math and English language arts are still “best-in-class,” and studies by Fordham and others demonstrate that implementation is still very much a work in progress. So by all means, keep the focus on helping educators understand the higher expectations and providing them with the resources—like subject-specific professional development and content-rich curricula—to meet them.

That said, we understand that some states still face pressure to ditch the Common Core. And eventually all states will face the task of updating them. After all, they weren’t handed down from Mount Sinai,...

 
 
Marc Tucker

A growing number of states are working toward setting standards for college and career readiness. In many of those states, the argument is being made that because all students should leave high school ready for college or career, the high school diploma should be set to the new college and career standard, and no one should get a diploma in the future who does not meet that standard.

At the same time, there is renewed interest in many states in what we used to call vocational education and we call career and technical education (CTE). But giving it a new name has not really changed the widely held perception that—whatever you want to call it—it is the schooling of last resort for students who cannot do academics.

Some states have responded to the baleful status of CTE by creating some CTE high schools that screen their applicants and only take in those who meet high academic standards. Some offer AP courses or an IB program right along with their IT or shop courses. This seems to work, enabling CTE to attract more high-performing middle school graduates than used to be the case. At least in those schools, CTE is no...

 
 

There’s no perfect solution to the quandary that New York City has long faced in trying to inject greater equity into the most meritocratic of its schools: the nine selective public high schools, eight of which (including Bronx Science and Stuyvesant) rely on scores from a single test of interested eighth graders to determine who gets admitted. Exceed the ever-changing cut score for one of these schools and you’re in; fall a fraction of a point below and you’re out.

In one important sense, it’s completely fair, much like a school’s field day. Anyone who wishes to can enter an event, everyone who does is judged on the same metric, the scoring is objective (e.g., stop watches), and the top scorers win. In another important sense, however, it’s not fair at all, because in a city with a high school population that’s predominantly African American and Hispanic, the overwhelming majority of those who win admission to these schools are Asian and white.

That unfortunate circumstance is the result of many factors, some of them beyond the reach of public policy, much less of high school admission procedures. Other key factors, however, are led by the parlous condition of many of...

 
 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the real average cost of one year of college has doubled since 1985. Many worry that climbing prices lock low-income students out of elite schools, but a new study from Jason D. Delisle and Preston Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute finds the opposite. Over the last two decades, as the cost of the most selective colleges has indeed gone up, so has enrollment of students from the lowest income bracket.

Delisle and Cooper attribute their findings to a rarely-used data source: the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative dataset from the U.S. Department of Education. Because NPSAS directly measures family income and contains a much broader sample of students, it provides a more comprehensive view into enrollment trends than most studies allow. The authors divide students into income quartiles and define the bottom quartile as “low income” and the top as “high income.” “Selective institutions” are the 200 U.S. colleges with the lowest acceptance rates and highest SAT/ACT scores over a fifteen-year period (2001–15).

Counter to the traditional narrative, the share of low-income students at selective colleges has actually increased since 1999. That year, only 8.1 percent of...

 
 

Among the most frequently heard concerns around charter schools is that they drain money from traditional districts, potentially harming students who stay behind. Yet another school of thought theorizes that charters encourage district improvements by injecting competition into a largely monopolistic system. A new study conducted by Matthew Ridley and Camille Terrier puts both these claims to the test using data from Massachusetts, a state that recently held a hotly debated and ultimately unsuccessful referendum on expanding charters.

To examine charters’ effects on district spending and achievement, the researchers rely on a 2011 reform that allowed charter school expansion in underperforming Massachusetts districts. They identify nine “expanding” districts, including Boston, where the charter share increased markedly post-reform, and then compare their spending and test-score growth in math and English language arts (ELA) to “non-expanding” districts whose charter share remained flat. The analysts use various statistical techniques, including a “synthetic control method,” to estimate the impacts of charter expansion in the years after reform (2011–12 through 2014–15).

In terms of fiscal impact, their study finds that charter expansions increased districts’ per-pupil expenditures. Post-reform, total per-pupil spending in expanding districts rose at a faster clip than non-expanding ones,...

 
 
Eva Moskowitz

When I graduated from Stuyvesant High School—considered one of the best public schools in the country—I thought I was a great writer: I had received A’s on virtually every one of my high school essays. When I got my first written assignment back as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, however, I was shocked to see a C- on the page, and a note scrawled in red: “You should get help at the writing center.” Essentially, I had been sent to remediation.

“We hold students to high expectations” is practically a mantra in this country—but in truth, we are failing at it. Each year, we send hundreds of thousands of students off to college who, upon arrival, discover they are underprepared. As my own experience demonstrates, the problem is not limited to graduates of low-performing public schools.

When I received that first C- at Penn, I was angry that I had a false confidence. Today, as the leader of almost fifty K–12 schools, I better understand how difficult it is for teachers to consistently maintain high standards for their students. The reality is that holding students to high expectations takes a tremendous amount of work. When teachers give high...

 
 

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