Curriculum & Instruction

Welders, as Marco Rubio recently reminded us, sometimes earn more than philosophers. But neither of them earn as much as students who receive degrees in STEM subjects. So perhaps the most encouraging bit of data to emerge from the ACT’s “The Condition of STEM 2015” report is this: Of the nearly two million high school graduates who took the ACT in 2015, 49 percent had an interest in STEM.

Interest, however, does not necessarily translate into aptitude. For the first time this year, ACT has added a new “STEM score” to their report—an acknowledgement of recent research indicating that college success in science, technology, engineering, and math classes requires a higher level of preparedness than ACT’s previous benchmarks in math and science alone seemed to predict.

Based on this enhanced measure, a paltry 20 percent of the 2015 ACT test takers were deemed ready for first-year STEM college courses. For reference, readiness is defined as either 1) a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher or 2) a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in freshman courses like calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics. Among students who say that they are interested in STEM majors or...

Success for All specializes in whole-school turnaround for struggling elementary schools. Its 2010 proposal for an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant called for the program, whose primary goal is to ensure that every child learns to read well in elementary school, to grow from one thousand schools to more than two thousand. The Baltimore-based organization was one of only four to grab the shiniest brass ring in the i3 competition—a five-year, $50 million “scale-up” grant. Teach For America, KIPP, and the Reading Recovery program snared the other three.

This third and final report from MDRC looks at SFA’s impacts between kindergarten and second grade in five school districts over a three-year period covered under the i3 grant. A total of thirty-seven schools across five school districts were part of the study—nineteen randomly chosen to implement SFA, along with eighteen control schools that either stuck with their existing reading programs or choose new ones other than SFA.

The report finds that SFA is “an effective vehicle for teaching phonics,” showing statistically significant effects for second graders who were in SFA for all three years. SFA students also performed better than the average in reading fluency and comprehension, though not significantly. The...

A small storm has blown up around the fact that certain math items on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) do not align with what fourth and eighth graders are actually being taught in a few states—mainly places attempting to implement the Common Core State Standards within their schools’ curricula.

NAEP is only administered in grades four, eight, and twelve. So the specific issue is whether the fourth graders who sat for NAEP this spring had a reasonable opportunity to learn the skills, algorithms, techniques—broadly speaking, “the content”—on that test. If their state standards had moved some portion of what used to be fourth-grade math to the fifth or sixth grade, or replaced it with something else entirely, their state’s NAEP scores would likely be lower.

This kind of misalignment is blamed for some of the math declines that NAEP recently reported. Department officials in Maryland, for example, examined the NAEP math sub-scores and determined that many Maryland fourth graders are no longer being taught some of those things before they take the test.

We are left to wonder: Should NAEP frameworks and assessments be updated to reflect what’s in...

This report, recently released by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), explores how states can better prepare students for successful careers by reviewing policies in thirteen states related to career and technical education (CTE). Specifically, its authors look at whether each state has: (1) facilitated collaboration between education and employer communities to promote CTE and close job gaps; and (2) created CTE learning opportunities and credentials that provide students with multiple pathways to gainful employment in high-skill industries.

Nine of these states do both, often by designating or creating groups responsible for providing these services. Some (such as Colorado) rely on state-level actors. Others opt for regional- and local-level institutions. Louisiana offers “Jump Start CTE programs” that are developed by “regional teams consisting of LEAs, technical and community colleges, business and industry leaders, and economic and workforce development experts.”

Ohio has taken a more interesting approach. In the Buckeye State, OhioMeansJobs disseminates workforce-demand data through the K–12 system. Schools then use this information to apprise the students of career opportunities via the Ohio Career Counselling Pilot Program.

Unfortunately, several states in the report fall short. Kentucky has no system in place for schools to collaborate with businesses in need...

  • Getting teenagers to think ahead is basically impossible—just try to persuade your favorite adolescent to file his college applications before the night they’re due, or to quit doing donuts in the school parking lot before he gets a free trip to the ER. So we should be immensely encouraged by the fact that 1.4 million high school students took college courses for credit in 2014–2015. To promote this development, the Department of Education has helpfully pledged to offer some $20 million in Pell grants for low-income students to enroll in college courses while still attending high school. Dual enrollment programs like these are probably the best possible use of Pell grants; right now, as Fordham’s own Checker Finn has observed, such funds are too often used to subsidize remedial education in college for kids who didn’t learn everything they needed to in the thirteen years of K–12. Isn’t it smarter to pay for academically gifted sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to take college courses early, rather than picking up the bill for undereducated college freshmen to finally learn the stuff they were supposed to be taught in high school?
  • Nevada’s move this year to establish $5,000 education savings accounts has
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Last week, in the wake of President Obama’s pledge to reduce the amount of time students spend taking tests, my colleagues Robert Pondiscio and Michael Petrilli weighed in with dueling stances on the current state of testing and accountability in America’s schools. Both made valid points, but neither got it exactly right, so let me add a few points to the conversation.

Like Robert, I don’t see how we can improve our schools if we don’t know how they’re doing, which means we need the data we get from standardized tests. But I also believe that—because we’re obligated to intervene when kids aren’t getting the education they deserve—some tests must inevitably be “high-stakes.” The only real alternative to this is an unregulated market, which experience suggests is a bad idea.

Must this logic condemn our children to eternal test-preparation purgatory? I hope not, but I confess to some degree of doubt. The challenge is creating an accountability system that doesn't inadvertently encourage gaming or bad teaching. Yet some recent policy shifts seem to have moved us further away from that kind of system.

As Mike noted, the problem of over-testing has been exacerbated in recent years by the...

What if federal aid for college students were focused exclusively on those who are truly ready for college? What if we stopped subsidizing remedial courses on campuses and insisted that students pursuing higher learning be prepared for college-level courses (none too strenuous nowadays in many places)? And what if those courses were also made available to young people even before they matriculated to a four-year program?

That would be a revelation and a revolution. But it might also do more to get young Americans and their schools serious about college readiness than anything we’ve dreamed up previously. It would save money. And it would end a great fraud that causes many college students to drop out—usually with heavy loan debts to either repay or default on—when they realize that they’ve been sorely misled as to their true preparedness for advanced-level academics.

Consider the irony: Today, federal financial support is available for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds to study high school math and English after they reach a college campus (a vast percentage of them are required to take these remedial classes); yet such aid is unavailable to academically aggressive sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from low-income households, who could accelerate their academic progress by taking...

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama received high praise from parents and teachers for acknowledging that testing is taking too much time away from teaching, learning and fostering creativity in schools, and recommending that standardized tests take up no more than 2 percent of total school instructional time. Frankly, this is arrant nonsense.

From time to time, I'm asked to give a talk about education. If I look at how I spend my time over the course of a year, giving presentations and speeches is a very small part of my job—less than 2 percent. However, if my effectiveness were to be judged on the audience response to the handful of talks I give each year, I'd spend a lot more time writing and practicing speeches. I'd fret endlessly over my PowerPoint slides and leave-behinds. I'd sprinkle in more jokes to be entertaining; I'd probably say whatever I thought would get audiences to like me more, rather than challenging my listeners. I'd definitely spend a lot more on suits and dry cleaning than I do now.

But most critically, I'd spend far less time on all the other things I do—writing, reading,...

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously posited that whether or not one believes in God, it behooves us to behave as if he exists. What have you got to lose? If you’re right, you wind up heaven and spare yourself eternal punishment in hell. And if not, well, what did it cost you apart from a few earthly pleasures here and there? Pascal’s Wager basically suggests that your upside is infinite, while your downside is relatively small. So do the right thing.

We need a Pascal’s Wager of curriculum. Schools are going to teach something, so it behooves us to ensure that the textbooks, workbooks, and software we put in front of students are coherent and of high quality. As this report from the Center for American Progress shows, crappy curriculum costs every bit as much as the good stuff. The authors found “little relationship” between the cost and quality of instructional products. And switching to a more rigorous math curriculum, for example, can deliver far greater returns on investment than other reforms. “The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost forty times that of class-size reduction in a well known randomized experiment,” the report notes.


  • When the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to fire fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith last week over allegations of sexual misconduct, its members were doubtless aware of the potential for blowback. Esquith, whose myriad awards and world-renowned classroom productions of Shakespeare have made him the district’s most recognizable employee, can count influential friends both inside and outside the school system. And the circumstances of his termination—decided by a closed-door tribunal following an extensive investigation into his private life—do not argue in its favor. Now Esquith’s attorneys have filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against the district on behalf of thousands of teachers, claiming that they were targeted for dismissal because of their age and pending retirement windfalls. The accusations lodged against Esquith are ill defined, but serious. If accurate, they are surely serious enough to merit public examination of his record and methods. But if, as some prominent supporters claim, the investigation was a panicked overcorrection in response to earlier scandals, this story could become more bizarre and tragic than it has already. Either way, this is a disciplinary process in dire need of greater transparency.
  • The saddest and most illuminating thing you’ll read all
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