The connection between choice and humility

Over the past eight years, New Orleans students have achieved what few previously thought was possible. In her recent Atlantic article on charter-school discipline policies in New Orleans, Meredith Simons recognizes these gains, noting that “New Orleans’s graduation rate has surpassed the state’s, growing from 54.4 percent in 2004 to 77.8 percent in 2012.”

Yet Ms. Simons, as well as others, believes that these gains have come at a high cost—that the results, while impressive, have too often relied on discipline policies that “feel at odds with the city’s culture.” In her article, Ms. Simons proposes her own ideal solution for melding our city’s culture with a positive school climate. And, to be honest, her vision sounds great. I imagine many parents would (and do) take pleasure in sending their children to such a school. And I’m thrilled that she and her colleagues have created an excellent school.

However, I do wish Ms. Simons had visited the schools she critiqued, as she might have gained an understanding of why parents send their children to these schools.

Because what often goes unexplained in such stories is this: Sci Academy, the flagship school of the nonprofit of whose school culture has come under attack, happens to be the third-most popular school for ninth-grade enrollees in the entire city.

The school that is supposedly inapposite to New Orleans’s culture happens to be amongst the most in-demand high schools in the city.

The reason for this is simple: Sci Academy is a school where students thrive. It’s a place where a student can go from being functionally illiterate to attending college and introducing Michelle Obama at the White House. It’s a school that combines quiet hallways with a loving, nurturing environment that includes band, football, and dance. In a city still terribly plagued by violence,  parents continue to be drawn to a school with strict discipline policies that help accelerate rigorous extracurricular and academic programs.

So what to make of all this?

My takeaway is this: in education—and in all areas of public policy—we should be leery of adopting worldviews that lack humility.

When you possess such a worldview and you see something with which you disagree, your first impulse is to change it. Likewise, if you don’t like a school’s culture, then the instinctive answer is that the school should modify its culture.

Seeing the world in such a manner implicitly rejects the idea that other people might have different desires than do you, that they might have different needs than do you, or that they might want something different for their children than do you.

The beauty of the New Orleans education system is that parents can choose where to send their children to school. There are dozens of different nonprofits operating schools, and each has their own unique mission, strategy, and culture.

In New Orleans, we no longer have to ceaselessly argue about such nonsensical questions as, “What is the perfect school?” The clear answer is that there is no perfect school. At best, there are perfect matches—situations where a student finds that exact environment where she can thrive.

The ultimate goal of the New Orleans public education system is not uniformity: it is diversity. And to misunderstand this is to misunderstand the fundamental design principle of our system.  

So as we move forward with reform, I think we’d all do well to remember this: knowing what is right for you often affords very little information on what is right for others.

If you want to understand why supporters of the Common Core are frustrated—OK, exasperated—by some of our opponents’ seemingly unlimited willingness to engage in dishonest debate, consider this latest episode.

On Monday, EAG News published an article entitled, “Common Core math question for sixth graders: Was the 2000 election ‘fair’?

Would you ever consider the question ‘Whom do you want to be president?’ to be asked of your third grader during a math class (or any class)?

Would you expect your fourth grader to be asked to create a chart of presidents along with their political persuasions? Or, how about a discussion on whether the 2000 presidential election resulted in a “fair” outcome? Or, what if the teacher for your sixth grader was advised to “be prepared” to discuss the “politically charged” 2000 election - all during math.

Common Core aligned, of course.

This was picked up by the Daily Caller’s Eric Owens on Wednesday, who piled on via his article, “Common Core MATH lesson plans attack Reagan, list Lincoln’s religion as ‘liberal’”

Another week has gone by and, like clockwork, some more hilariously awful Common Core math lessons have oozed out of the woodwork.

And the story jumped to cable news this morning on a Fox segment, “Common Core lesson lists Abraham Lincoln as a liberal.”

So this is pretty damning for the Common Core, right?


Let’s start with the lesson about the 2000 election. What is its connection to the Common Core? It’s one of thousands of lessons posted on Illuminations, an NCTM website. Like many lesson-sharing sites, this one appears to have little by way of quality control, though it does attempt to allow teachers to “align” these lessons to standards, including the Common Core. But was this lesson written to the Common Core standards? That seems unlikely—since it’s copyrighted from 2008. Ahem, that’s two years before the Common Core standards were written!

Or what about the now-infamous “Lincoln was a liberal” lesson? This one was copyrighted in…2009! Oh, and the website that listed Abraham Lincoln’s religion as “liberal” (before it was “quietly updated”),, has absolutely zero to do with the Common Core.

This is like the Kevin Bacon game: six degrees of separation from the Common Core.

So let’s get this straight: EAG News found a couple of ridiculous lesson plans on an NCTM website, lesson plans written before the Common Core, and calls them “Common Core math questions.” (Ironically, the author of the article, Renee Nal, claims in her tag line that “her main objectives are to expose media and academic bias and to contribute to a positive shift in culture; where integrity, honesty and independent thought are held in high regard.”)

Then the Daily Caller pushes the story further, which then jumps to Fox News. And nowhere in this chain of events do the “reporters” tell their audience that (a) the lessons were written before the Common Core; (b) the lessons don’t even claim to be Common Core aligned; (c) even if they were claimed to be Common Core aligned, that doesn’t necessarily make them so; and (d) nothing in the Common Core itself promotes this stuff.

And so this morning, millions of people woke up to these claims about the Common Core on Fox News (this is the actual transcript):

Elisabeth Hasselbeck: Was Abraham Lincoln a liberal? That’s what one Common Core-aligned math lesson is set to teach your kids. Take a look. In a recommended link to Lincoln’s biography, which is supposed to provide key facts about him, it lists his religion as liberal. Joining us now with her take on this is the executive director of the Eagle Forum, Glyn Wright. Certainly something shocking to see when kids are supposed to be learning history. Oh wait, but this occurred under a math curriculum?

Glyn Wright: Right, right. This is just more evidence of the poor quality of education found with the Common Core. And even if this were conservative rhetoric we would still be opposed because the root of our opposition lies in the fact that this is a top-down, federally-controlled approach to education. It has started with standards that have already led to national testing which will soon lead to a national curriculum. Can you imagine if these were mandated even to our good teachers?

And it goes on from there.

I agree with my friends on the Right that there are principled reasons to oppose the Common Core. But I hope my friends will understand that a principled debate is not what we’re actually having today—and that this sort of dishonesty deserves to be called out as way, way out of bounds.

The New York Board of Regents has recommended nineteen changes to the rollout of the Common Core in the Empire State, which include the following: a five-year “extension” of the plan to attach high-school graduation to success on the state Regents exams (while students would still have to “pass” Common Core exams, they would not be required to hit the “college-ready” mark until 2022); federal-testing waivers for students with special needs; and—controversially—allowing teachers to contest their evaluation ratings if their districts have done a poor job implementing the Common Core. Governor Cuomo roundly criticized the last idea, condemning it as an attempt to “water down” teacher-evaluation reforms. Oddly, the unions also rejected it—they claimed that it didn’t go far enough. In the end, the Regents backed off, nixing a form of flexibility that many observers believed might actually help the Common Core rollout by making it less unpalatable to New York teachers. Gotta love politics.

Analysts at the American Institutes for Research found that the number of nonacademic professional and administrative employees at colleges and universities in the U.S. has doubled in the last twenty-five years, greatly outstripping the growth in the number of students or faculty. In total, since 1987, universities and colleges added 517,636 administrators and professional employees. Similar disturbing trends can be found in K–12 education; stay tuned for a Fordham report on the subject.

Advanced Placement classes continue to grow in popularity, largely due to efforts to make them widely available to low-income and minority students (the number of low-income graduates who took an AP exam quadrupled in the last decade). Still, 40 percent of public high schools still don’t offer any AP classes. Not surprisingly, as the pool of test-takers has grown, the proportion attaining passing scores has shrunk. What’s unknown is whether the democratization of AP has helped or hindered our highest achieving students, though there are reasons to worry that it’s the latter.

The seventh installment of the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which analyzes and grades state policies bearing on teacher quality, struck a guardedly optimistic tone. Between 2011 and 2013, thirty-one states strengthened their policies on teacher-quality standards. And since 2009, thirty-seven states have raised the bar for teacher qualification. Florida’s B+ earned it the highest overall score, and twelve more states earned a respectable B- or higher. However, not all the news is rosy. Montana earned an F for the third straight year. Worse, there seems to be a widening gap between states at the bottom and the top of the rankings. Still, NCTQ contends that there has been considerable improvement overall, especially in the areas of elementary-teacher preparation (twenty-four states have improved since 2011), evaluation of effectiveness (twenty-two states made progress), and elementary-teacher preparation in mathematics (twenty states bettered their grade).  That can only be good news.

SOURCE: Sandi Jacobs et al., 2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, January 2014).

As the number of chronically underperforming school districts continues to climb, some states are beginning to take control through Extraordinary Authority Districts (EADs). With lessons garnered from five that have employed various forms of EADs (Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Tennessee), this publication from America Achieves and Public Impact provides a how-to guide for any state considering an EAD. It’s organized into a four-part framework. First, the authors address the political and legislative context in which EADs should operate, noting that EADs need the legal authority to fully take over schools and/or  districts. To minimize conflict, they also recommend building strategic relationships with local nonprofits and creating an open dialogue within the community. Second, they outline three strategies that EADs could use to operate their takeover schools: issue charters or charter-like contracts to external operators; run schools themselves, hiring a teachers and school leaders and giving them charter-like authority; and running schools directly, using their own school model built and/or managed by the EAD. When deciding which model to employ, states should consider how many schools an EAD can effectively manage and whether it can hire sufficient talent. Third, the authors note that EADs must also take on the “office role”—controlling schools’ finances, communications, testing and accountability, and so on—and offer suggestions on how to structure these responsibilities. Fourth, they stress the importance of assembling a strong core team and hiring a top-notch leader. In the end, though EADs are a very new strategy for turning around floundering schools and districts, the experiences of the early adopters herald great promise. For further in-depth looks at EADs, take a look at Nelson Smith’s reports on Tennesee’s Achievement School District and Louisiana’s Recovery School District.

SOURCE: Sharon Kebschull Barrett, Christen Holly, and Bryan C. Hassel, “Extraordinary Authority Districts”: Design Considerations—Framework and Takeaways (Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact, February 2014).

In the midst of short-term and mostly small-scale snapshots measuring charter quality, this new Mathematica study brings a more panoramic portrait. Using longitudinal data, the authors sought to determine whether charter-school enrollment is indeed related to student success. As studies based on student test scores have yielded contradictory results,, this one employed other metrics: high-school graduation rates, college entrance and persistence, and students’ eventual earnings in adulthood. The authors gathered information on students in Florida and Chicago from 1998 to 2009, zeroing in on two subgroups: eighth-grade charter students who attended a charter high school and their peers who did not. The study found statistically significant results across all measurements. The students who remained in a charter high school were seven to eleven percentage points more likely to receive a diploma. They were also ten points likelier to attend college, and in Florida there was a significant positive difference (thirteen points) in the number who persisted through two years of college. Regardless of whether their charter education helped them get into college, charter students also had higher earnings by age twenty-five. The researchers contend that charter schools endow students with practical skills that allow them to succeed in college and the job market, long after they’ve left the charter environment. Let’s hear it for multiple metrics!

Kevin Booker, Brian Gill, Tim Sass, and Ron Zimmer, Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, January 2014.)

During this lunchtime lecture, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf will discuss his thoughts on how to improve our current education-governance structure, drawing from his experiences as deputy chancellor of New York City Department of Education, his current role at the New Jersey Department of Education, and his time working for the federal government.

** We had some technical difficulties during the Q&A which is why the video is out of focus. We apologize for any inconvenience.