High Achievers

Fuzz-free math

CCSS myths, noncognitive skills, Dana Goldstein, and gifted ed.

Amber's Research Minute

Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?, by David Card and Laura Giuliano, National Bureau of Economic Research (September 2014).

Glenn Beck ain't got nothin' on this podcast

Mike and 50CAN’s Marc Porter Magee take on career and technical education, sorting by student achievement, and charter schools’ noncognitive effects. Amber reports on charters’ productivity.

Amber's Research Minute

The Productivity of Public Charter Schools by Patrick J. Wolf, et al., (Fayetteville, AR: School Choice Demonstration Project, University of Arkansas, July 2014).

Mike Petrilli:             Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net. And now please join me welcoming my co-host, the Glenn Beck of education policy, Marc Porter Magee!

Marc Magee:             Thank you, thank you.

Mike Petrilli:             I'm just kidding about the Glenn Beck part, I don't know that you have a whole lot in common with him other than that you are an excellent communicator, you understand social media, you understand the current populist movement in America today...

Marc Magee:             Go on, go on Mike. And it's my first time on the podcast.

Mike Petrilli:             That too, that too. And I mention Glenn Beck because today, or this week, or sometime around now, he is doing his "We will not conform" event about the common core where he is telling all these people, "Conform by coming to a movie theater and paying money" that I assume is going into  his pocket, "Buy my book," which is going into his pocket, and "Rally against the common core." You got to love the guy's gall.

Marc Magee:             Yeah, it's a good gig, I guess.

Mike Petrilli:             It's a good gig. Well, hey Marc, so you're wife, of course, Kathleen Porter Magee, who has been on the show many, many times, this is your first time, and you run a group called 50CAN. Though right now it should really be called, what, 9CAN?

Marc Magee:             7CAN? [crosstalk 01:33] Maybe 9CAN in the future. When we were starting, we started out in two states, Rhode Island and Minnesota, and John Sackler, one of our board members, used to joke that we should be called 2CAN, so we actually had a little toucan made up as our mock logo.

Mike Petrilli:             And we thought it was hilarious a couple years ago in our April Fool's Day Gadfly when we decided he would move to Canada and be called CanCAN.

Marc Magee:             That was a good one.

Mike Petrilli:             That's a good one!

Marc Magee:             One of my favorites is going to South Dakota and we'd be called SodaCAN.

Mike Petrilli:             We kill us! We kill us!

Marc Magee:             Have a little fun with the names.

Mike Petrilli:             Alright, so the thing to know about 50CAN is you are helping to start up the state based education reform organizations to push for things like, what? Accountability, high quality charter schools, teacher effectiveness policies, et cetera...

Marc Magee:             All those things and more.

Mike Petrilli:             And you have become an expert on advocacy in education reform and in fact you're doing some courses very soon that people can participate in!

Marc Magee:             They can! So we took everything that we are learning, across all of our different state campaigns, and organized it into a 3 hour workshop, so you can come and get up to speed on all of the different theories and practices of advocacy, and we are doing this with our friends and partners over at EdFuel. So they're running 2 2 day workshops, July 29th and 30th, and then later, August 6th and 7th. And I know you're going to be joining them as well, so we'd love to have people come out. If you go to the EdFuel website, which is EdFuel.org, they can sign up, and join us, and I believe there's even networking and drinks, so it's going to be fun.

Mike Petrilli:             Let me ask you a serious question.

Marc Magee:             Yes.

Mike Petrilli:             What if you get a mole there at this thing?

Marc Magee:             That is a serious question. So I would say-

Mike Petrilli:             Do we have some kind of now, I don't know, we need some spies in the education reform movement or do some counter intelligence to make sure that we're protected here!

Marc Magee:             When we were doing, we sort of tested this workshop out, we went and performed it for our friends over at grade schools last week, and I was joking at the beginning, "This is a little bit like a magician who's walking through all their tricks." But I think actually we're way too secretive in the advocacy world, and the benefits of bringing more people in and showing them how they could advocate too, far outstrip anything we get from keeping this things close to our vest.

Mike Petrilli:             Well that's good since this podcast will be on the internet! And everybody can have access to it. OK, let's get started, Marc, Pamela, let's play, "Pardon the Gadfly!"

Pamela Tatz:             In this weekend's Wall Street Journal, Tamar Jacoby told the stories of students who sought out quality career and technical education and argued that the nation needs to show respect for practical training. Has the education reform movement been antagonistic to career and technical education?

Mike Petrilli:             Yes? Marc? What do you think?

Marc Magee:             I have a nuanced view on this, which is that I think, if we're trying to push a one size fits all model, where we're saying everyone needs to go to college and therefore all of our schools are going to be structured that way, then that violates the principle of choice. But so does the way we used to do it, where we're tracking kids into programs that closed off the opportunities for college. So I think there's a way to find our way to students really being able to follow what they're interested in, parents having genuine choices for their kids, and that is the way we're going to get to a point where technical education will be embraced and not seen as some kind of second class track.

Mike Petrilli:             Alright, so you're saying the key is the system can't make the choice for the student, it really has to be the student, and the parent, making that choice. Now we're talking about the, once kids are, say, 14, 15 years old, and the challenge is, even for career and technical education, or for a college prep kind of high school, you've got have pretty high level skills in reading, math, writing... that's what we're learning. And what happens to those kids who aren't even anywhere close to having those basic skills for even those kinds of programs, that's a big challenge in education reform. But Marc, don't you think we have been overly obsessed with college prep high schools? I can't think of any high profile charter school chains that are explicitly focused on career and technical education. All of the big name ones that get a ton of funding and a ton of attention are college prep.

Marc Magee:             Yeah, I think that's true in terms of what we as a reform community are holding up as the models we want people to pay attention to. But on the ground, I think you're seeing local reformers doing a lot more in this direction. So one of the earliest portfolio models that we were involved in was in Connecticut under Superintendent Adamowski. One of the first things he did was actually create a nursing academy high school. And a lot of other themed approaches to schools that were different than just, "Oh, you want a choice, here's this one high performing college bound model."

Mike Petrilli:             Very good. Topic number 2.

Pamela Tatz:             An analysis done by WBEZ found that Chicago's school choice system sorts students into separate high schools based on their achievement levels. Is this unintended consequence cause for concern?

Mike Petrilli:             I'm not even sure it's unintended, right? And I'm not sure it should be cause for concern! Here's, again on this same topic here, is this about tracking or is it about trying to make sure that there are good choices out there for lots of different kids. Right now I think the kids that get hosed by our system more than anybody else are low income kids who are high achieving. And they are asked to go into these big urban comprehensive high schools and just sit there and not get challenged. And this, having more selective schools, or some schools where they can be around other kids that are high achieving, it actually means they get to be challenged like the affluent high achieving kids in the suburbs.

Marc Magee:             Yeah, I do think it's really unfair the way we frame up these questions sometimes, where we seem to make the case that the high performing kids in low performing cities need to be sacrificing for everyone else. We really never ask that question of suburban kids. I think, to your question, is it unintended, if we're putting testing provisions on high schools then that probably is going to result in some sorting. I think maybe we were surprised to the degree of sorting. I think in the  story they talk about 96% of the top scoring kids ended up in six of these high schools. And I do think as education reform becomes bigger, and takes on a larger role in designing systems, these questions of what happens to the whole system as these reforms kick in, is a real one. Because I think we can all agree that we should not hold back high performing kids, but if the result is that we end up with a few high schools where all of the low performing kids are pooled, then we've got an even bigger problem.

Mike Petrilli:             I guess, Marc, but I guess that's why we need to be honest about this, and admit that there are trade offs, and an earlier generation of reformers were all about de-tracking, there's that word again, and we understand why, that it didn't feel right for the system to be making those choices, and we also knew that a lot of kids were tracked into what were very much dead end tracks, that weren't going anywhere. So, it's good that we have tried to get rid of those dead end tracks and make sure that even the kids on the... even the lowest performing kids, the schools are expected to get them to some basic literacy and numeracy that's going to help them be successful in their life.

                                    All good! But we have to wrestle with the fact that there is such a thing as pure effects, basically everybody does better if they're around high achieving kids. It helps the low achievers but it also helps the high achievers, and this is one of these things where there are only so many in these systems, high achievers to go around, so you do have to start to make some choices. And you say, "Well, is it more important to give high achievers challenge by putting them around other high achievers, or to maybe help bring up the performance of low achievers by exposing them to the high achievers?" It's kind of sacrificing the high achievers. These are really tough moral questions. I feel like we tends to paper over those issues in education reform with a lot of happy talk  like, "Everybody can get exactly what we need." These are the kinds of questions... and at the very least let's be open about the choices we face.

Marc Magee:             Yes, it's a very economic view. I feel like that's the tough hard trade offs that we often don't confront. We can't just snap our fingers and make it all go away.

Mike Petrilli:             Well, I get the equity push, that feels wrong to say that, "Well, we're going to preference the high achievers." And particularly if you're in a system where the high achievers are also the most affluent, or the... But we're usually now talking about urban systems, where basically, almost everybody's poor, right? And the affluent high achievers, their parents by and large have left the cities and moved to the suburbs or gone to private schools. They have found a way to ensure that their kids are in environments where they're around other high achieving kids. That's our system, I'm doing it with my own kids, there you have it, right? So I just think sometimes the equity advocates, they just lose the forest for the trees. What they don't see is their advocacy for equity is actually hurting a class of low income kids.


Marc Magee:             Yeah. And I think we would all feel better about providing these high achievers with these exclusive opportunities if we were doing a better job of making progress in the rest... This goes on if we didn't see low performers getting concentrated into a couple of neighborhood schools that are getting left behind.

Mike Petrilli:             Alright, Pamela, topic number 3!

Pamela Tatz:             A UCLA and Rand survey finds evidence suggesting that attending a high performance charter school reduces the rates of high risk health behaviors among low income teenagers. Do you think this is evidence of charter effectiveness or skimming?

Marc Magee:             One of the things I thought was really interesting about this story is I've thought for a while that while we often point to test scores to say charter schools are doing better with kids, when you go and visit these high performing charter schools, you see them going way beyond just what it would take to get the test scores right and engaging the parents, engaging the communities, really changing life courses and behavior. So it's great to see us widening our view to see that there actually are bigger impacts than just test scores.

Mike Petrilli:             Yeah, and it was interesting. Specifically what they looked at were risky behaviors, like having unprotected sex, or binge drinking and the charter school kids were self reporting to do those things less frequently. They're self reports, in these schools they were not randomly assigned to these schools, so we really can't look at causation. And it's an interesting questions. You say, "Are these kids engaging in fewer risky behaviors because something they've learned at their charter school, or is it that kids who engage in less risky behaviors to begin with were the ones that were interested in these charter schools?" In other words, is this some indication that, aha, these schools, these kids, even though they may be poor, they may be eligible for free lunch, they might be in some way more advantaged than the other kids. Their families might be more intact or functional or whatever, and that's showing up in the data.

Marc Magee:             Yeah. We've started to... that's the perennial question we've had even with test scores is selection bias.

Mike Petrilli:             Selection bias.

Marc Magee:             And we've largely started to solve that question with more sophisticated studies, more experimental studies, tracking kids over time. I'd love to see us start to fold in these larger questions about outcome variables, and answer, "Is it really changing... giving kids so much more than just the basic knowledge?"

Mike Petrilli:             Absolutely, and the studies that have been out there that are quite rigorous, there have been a few looking at charter schools and at voucher schools, and what they tend to show is that the long term outcomes far outpace what you'd expect just from the relatively small improvements in test scores. In other words, the charter schools and the voucher schools do better on test scores, but they do way better on some of these other long term outcomes, and that might be the non cognitive stuff, the character stuff, all this other stuff that we talk about.

Mike Petrilli:             Absolutely. So we do this survey that couple months ago we put out, and we asked parents, what do they care most about in long term effects of a school? Setting their kids up for a job came in fourth, number one was character, number two was leadership. So, I think we'll go much further in really understanding how to give parents the education they want for their kids, if we can speak to these values issues.

Mike Petrilli:             Absolutely. Alright, excellent Marc! Well played! That's all the time we've got for Pardon the Gadfly, now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute! Amber, welcome back to the show!

Amber Northern:      Thank you Mike!

Mike Petrilli:             Amber, before the whole common core thing, I'm just curious, did you like Glenn Beck?

Amber Northern:      I did. I kind of liked him, and now he's just gotten too... I guess I didn't realize he was extreme and didn't really look at data too much, I don't know. I just feel like I've had a change of opinion about him, and I really liked him, so I feel like I'm now leery of him. Because of this whole issue, it's raised my suspicions about him and how much he really looks into issues instead of just relying on the rhetoric.

Mike Petrilli:             Yeah, it's interesting, my mom, of course, is very angry at Fox News for being so anti common core all the time, thank you Mom, and I think it has raised some questions for her about some of the other Fox News reporting. Starts to think about maybe on these other issues that we don't follow as closely, are they being unfair on some of those things?

Amber Northern:      Right.

Mike Petrilli:             Not that this doesn't happen on the liberal side of the aisle either, Marc.

Amber Northern:      That's right, that's right.

Mike Petrilli:             Alright, so Amber, what you got for us this week?

Amber Northern:      We have a new report out from the University of Arkansas that compares the productivity of public charter schools and traditional schools, both in terms of their cost effectiveness and return on investment, or ROI.  For the cost effectiveness analysis, they consider how many test score points students gain on the NAPE 2010-2011, for each thousand dollars invested in their public education in the charter compared to traditional sector. You got that?

Mike Petrilli:             Yes, sort of.

Amber Northern:      Key finding, for every thousand dollars invested, charter students earned a weighted average of an additional 17 points in math and 16 additional points in reading on NAPE compared to traditional district students, controlling for student characteristics such as poverty and special ed status. This translates into charters nationwide being 40% more cost effective, according to their calculations. And then a little bit about the return on investment, that calculates ROI by converting the learning gains over time by students in charter and traditional sectors into an estimate of the economic returns over a lifetime. This is Eric Hanushek's stuff, OK? In comparing those returns to the revenue amounts invested in their education. Key finding... I know, it's a...

Marc Magee:             Should we high five now?

Amber Northern:      Using Eric Hanushek's estimates on lifetime earnings and productivity, we find that public charter schools delivered a 3% increase in lifetime economic gains, was the terminology they wanted to use, they didn't want to just say salary for a bunch of different reasons. For a student who attends a charter for one year, they look at how long if you're in a charter one year, six years, however years, a 19% increase for students who attend half of their K12 education. So bottom line, this obviously looks pretty good for the charter sector but they end with a discussion that I think makes a lot of sense, which is, "Does a higher productivity rest on the fact that charters get less funding to begin with? And they're therefore more disciplined in how they use these dollars, and if they were funded equally, which is what a lot of folks have been wanting, would we actually see these same productivity patterns?

Mike Petrilli:             Right, that nationally, at least, it looks like the charters are pretty similar to traditional public schools, in terms of test score gains, but they are 30% cheaper. Right?

Amber Northern:      Right.

Mike Petrilli:             So the point is not so much that they out perform traditional public schools, they do maybe by a little bit, but really where this all is coming from is they're much less expensive.

Amber Northern:      Right, per dollar.

Mike Petrilli:             They're getting a lot less money. And so what... I saw Bruce Baker from Rutger's got something up online about this, I haven't had a chance to look at it closely yet, what are people going to say? Are they going to just question the...

Amber Northern:      Yeah, so Bruce is going to say it's because they have... it's going to be a difference of the sped kids, and it's going to be a difference in the disadvantaged kids, but they spend a lot of time at the front end of the report saying, "guess what? The charters tend to reflect the demographics of the area," and so these charters are actually serving more disadvantaged kids. So that doesn't hold water.

Mike Petrilli:             Alright, let me push back on one thing, though. So let's say we know that there's other traditional public schools that tend to be low spending schools. Let's say rural schools, tend to spend less than other schools, and you control for demographics and all of that, and even though they spend less, the results look pretty similar to other similar schools in the state, right? You could make the same argument for them, and it may be simply that because spending doesn't matter.

Amber Northern:      Could be.

Mike Petrilli:             Right. So we just don't know.

Marc Magee:             When you have it, you spend it. Sometimes you spend it on things that actually help kids, and sometimes you don’t.

Mike Petrilli:             Right. So maybe the answer here, Marc, I know, I've a great idea for you for advocacy. You should go out and advocate a 30% cut for all traditional public schools.

Marc Magee:             We just want kids to do better. And the efficiency argument is great, but hopefully we're figuring out a way, we got so many gains we need to make. If we're going to put any extra dollars into the system, how do we learn from this so that it actually gets results?

Mike Petrilli:             Very nicely said.

Marc Magee:             What do you think, Amber, are you convinced? Is this important? Certainly people like Marc are going to use it for advocacy.

Amber Northern:      Yeah, I think it's important, but you're right, at the end of the day, we care about the gains. The money matters, it's important to look at this stuff. But I don't know, it's hard to parse, because you can roll out a study that says that really shows that money matters, and you can roll out a study that says that it doesn't. So I think this is still in dispute, this whole question.

Mike Petrilli:             You know, one thing that is cool is they're basically combining their previous analysis on charter spending and the credo results in terms of achievement, and you put that together, and a few cities really do pop out as doing something very well. Like D.C...

Amber Northern:      D.C.

Mike Petrilli:             They spent a ton of money, but compared to the D.C. Public Schools, they spend less and they get a really strong results. Few other states that have a strong showing. Our home state of Ohio looking pretty mediocre as they have on other measures. But again the lesson we looked at this in the Walkathon, Marc, is that some states are doing the charter thing much better than others. That's an issue about policy, authorizing, spending, it's also an issue about...

Amber Northern:      Operators.

Mike Petrilli:             Being able to do operate... recruiting great people. So this is where we inside the reform movement need to keep learning, is saying, "What do we keep doing to get those laggard states and cities to look a lot more like the D.C.s, or the Tennessees, or the Rhode Islands, and less like...

Marc Magee:             Rhode Island! [crosstalk 19:44] Little Rhodie, always overlooked!

Mike Petrilli:             Little Rhodie! I did that for you, Marc.

Marc Magee:             Thank you.

Mike Petrilli:             And less like the Ohios, and the Texases of the movement.

Amber Northern:      Good summary.

Mike Petrilli:             Excellent. Alright, well, that is all the time we've got for this week! Until next week...

Marc Magee:             Hi, I'm Marc Porter Magee.

Mike Petrilli:             Almost a little bit early there, Marc, a little too...

Amber Northern:      Jumping the gun.

Mike Petrilli:             Too fast on the draw. Marc Porter Magee, thank you for joining us! I'm Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Education Gadfly Show, signing off.

In its “Room for Debate” series recently, the New York Times published a quartet of opinion pieces discussing the value of gifted and talented programs. New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña prompted this discussion by promoting the faddish and contradictory mantra of “gifted education for all,” downplaying the role of the city’s current programs for high-achieving students. But in the end, the opponents’ arguments simply don’t hold any more water than the Chancellor’s banal but unactionable formulation.

The overarching theme of the two critics of gifted programs is that they lead to inequality. Authors of the first piece point out that such programs are disproportionately comprised of white and Asian- American kids. This is true and is surely something to work on. But then the authors suggest replacing these separate-and-distinct programs with “gifted education for all” (that phrase again…) because some research has found that ability grouping might worsen the educational outcomes of lower-achieving students. Moreover, say the authors, students in gifted programs are missing out on the benefits that diverse classrooms provide. (Shouldn’t their parents decide whether that outweighs the benefits...

The World Cup vs. Underwear Models

Amber and Michelle talk teacher tenure, selective high schools, and the stunning upset of Eric Cantor. Dara takes over the Research Minute with a study on whether vouchers "cherry pick" the best students.

Amber's Research Minute

Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” by Cassandra M. D. Hart, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

The #Kimye edition

After discussing what the research says young North West’s likelihood of educational success are, Mike and Michelle get down to brass tacks on Oklahoma’s possible Common Core repeal, the value of a college degree, and what makes Boston’s charter sector so high quality. Amber grades America’s public pension plans.

Amber's Research Minute

The State of Retirement: Grading America's Public Pension Plans by Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, and Benjamin G. Southgate, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2014).

We know from international data—PISA, TIMSS, and so on—that other countries produce more “high achievers” than we do (at least in relation to the size of their pupil populations). And it’s no secret that in the U.S., academic achievement tends to correlate with socioeconomic status, hence producing far too few high achievers within the low-income population. But is this a uniquely American problem? How do we compare to other countries?

To begin to answer these questions, Chester Finn and I looked more closely at the PISA 2012 results (in conjunction with a study we’re conducting on how other advanced countries educate their high-ability students). The OECD has a socioeconomic indicator it uses in connection with PISA results called the Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status (ESCS). Like most SES gauges that depend heavily on student self-reporting, it’s far from perfect, but to the best of our knowledge it’s no worse than most. In any case, it’s one of the few socioeconomic indicators that allow for cross-national education comparisons. It is derived from parents’ occupational status, educational level, and home possessions,[1] and it can be split into quartiles...

Now Look What You’ve Done

Mike and Michelle acknowledge that school board members, for better and sometimes worse, affect student outcomes in their districts. But they don’t have to accept the misleading headlines on Indiana’s standards debacle (a case study in the hazards of politicization if there ever was one), nor must they wholeheartedly back Arizona’s ESA program. Amber wonders if high-flyers maintain their altitude—and has déjà vu all over again.

Amber's Research Minute

The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?” by Eric Parsons, Working Paper, July 2013.

Editor’s note: This article wades into the ongoing debate over private school choice and public accountability. For background see here, here, here, here, and here.

Policymaking usually involves trade-offs, finding the right balance between competing objectives and even principles. This is especially true in education, where so much is at stake, both for vulnerable children and for the health of society.

One of the principles that should guide education policy is that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in San Francisco in 1948). Officially, at least, this right is acknowledged by almost every nation and is enshrined in many of their constitutions; it has been settled law in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510).

Americans agree, as Terry Moe showed in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. This is especially true of parents for whom public-school provision is of inadequate quality. “Among public [school] parents,” Moe wrote, “vouchers are supported by 73 percent of those with family incomes below $20,000 a year, compared to 57 percent of those with incomes above $60,000. . . .75 percent of black parents and 71 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 63 percent of white parents. . . .72 percent of parents in the bottom tier of districts favor vouchers, while 59 percent of those in the top tier do.”

Moe also found, however, that “enthusiasm for regulation is remarkably uniform and cuts across groups and classes—including private [school] parents, who appear quite willing to see the autonomy of their own schools compromised in the interests of public accountability.” This expectation of government oversight is also well established in international law, as well as in the Pierce decision.

On the other hand, if the regulatory hand of government is too heavy, the right of choice becomes meaningless: what’s to choose among schools that are forced to be alike?

Excessive regulation not only makes parental choice meaningless, it also blocks the possibility of making teaching a true profession, attracting and retaining highly talented individuals into careers in education. Many Teach For America alumni/ae go on to establish charter schools where they will enjoy the autonomy to shape a community of educators with a shared vision.

My Belgian colleague Jan De Groof and I have for a decade been studying how different national education systems are organized to support the competing goals of freedom and justice. The third edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education has about a hundred contributors from around the world and chapters on sixty-five countries.

Bottom line: the most successful models have clear and measurable expectations for academic outcomes, while leaving individual schools wide scope for defining the “soft” outcomes related to character and worldview, as well as for organizing instruction and selecting teachers and other staff.

Our analysis of policies receives research support from a research-based essay by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann, included in volume 4 of Balancing Freedom. They conclude,

Studies using student-level data from multiple international achievement tests reveal that institutions ensuring competition, autonomy, and accountability within national school systems are associated with substantially higher levels of student performance. . . . the international evidence suggests that policies that allow parents to choose privately operated schools, give schools autonomy, and provide parents with information on student performance have an important role to play (290-1).

While I find their research thoroughly convincing, my own commitment to strong outcome measures and consequences based upon them, paired with wide latitude to create and maintain truly distinctive schools, is also based on pragmatic considerations. Both as a parent of seven children and as a state equity and urban education official for more than two decades, I’m not willing to see educational freedom turn into a free-for-all in which schools compete through flashy promises that are not backed up by the sort of evidence on which parents can rely, particularly when tax dollars are in play. Such a flawed system, especially likely to mislead unsophisticated parents, would sacrifice justice for freedom.

Sound education policy sacrifices neither justice nor freedom but finds a dynamic balance between them, holding schools accountable for academic outcomes (so no child would attend an inadequate school, as too many do today), while encouraging great diversity in the means taken to achieve those outcomes. Educators with a distinctive pedagogical, religious, or secular vision for education that attracts a sufficient number of parents should be free to shape the school on that basis, unencumbered by government, unless of course there is convincing evidence that children are being harmed, in which case (as with families) society must intervene.

Freedom, then, with justice, and justice with freedom. Finding the right balance!

Charles Glenn is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University. From 1970 to 1991, he was the director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Greg Weiner

This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative encourages all this; we can thank No Child Left Behind for it, too. Enormous resources are being invested to lift those at the bottom who are unprepared to learn, have difficulty taking tests, and so forth. This is unsurprising: what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets done faster. It is difficult to believe the effect is not positive: that learning to do better on math tests, for example, does not at some level teach some students to do better at math.

The problem is that there’s only so well bright kids can do on these exams, and the incentive to invest in them beyond that point vanishes. Since they max out at the ninety-ninth percentile, they are, as it were, fully capitalized businesses with limited growth potential. Raising an intelligent student’s score marginally yields far fewer rewards than improving a less capable student’s score substantially. The result—there are, for example, myriad programs for struggling students but none for gifted ones at my local schools, and parents around the country have been driven to the manifest absurdity of demanding IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to obtain services for uniquely bright children—is less a race to the top than from the bottom.

Tocqueville nailed this as so many other things, noting democracy’s propensity to lift the lowest while flattening the elite:

[I]f you meet less brilliance [in a democracy] than within an aristocracy, you will find less misery; pleasures will be less extreme and well-being more general; knowledge not as great and ignorance more rare; sentiments less energetic and habits more mild; there you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.

The United States has been able to avoid Tocqueville’s tradeoff between the greatness of knowledge and the rarity of ignorance through—still generalizing here—ample resources and a rejection of envy. The first is now at risk from the steady conquest of discretionary spending by entitlement spending. It means we cannot invest everything we want at the bottom and still spend all we wish at the top; decisions have to be made and balances struck that no one wants to face but that grownups cannot avoid. As to the second—the rejection of envy—its survival amid conditions of scarcity is less clear. In either case, virtues—thrift, hard choices, and goodwill—are called for. Perhaps a standardized test for character would help.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College on Worcester, Massachusetts, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Online Library of Law and Liberty.

The Education Gadfly

The court case over teacher job protections in California is underway. The plaintiffs argue that the laws hinder the removal of effective teachers, which disproportionately harms underprivileged students. The defendants, on the other hand, argue that there is plenty of time before tenure to remove teachers. While it is true that many schools do not avail themselves of this limited flexibility, the fact remains that the flexibility is limited. What’s more, that argument dodges the problem: if a teacher burns out after obtaining tenure, he will still be teaching children—and how can anyone defend that? Meanwhile, a photo negative of this case is ongoing in Denver, Colorado, in which the district is facing a class-action lawsuit for supposedly dismissing tenured teachers without just cause—because in the unions’ strange world, poor performance in the classroom couldn’t possibly be considered “just cause.” Interesting!

If you’re looking for (1) good news and (2) something to watch during your lunch break, look no further this quick introduction to Pakistan’s Punjab Education Reform Roadmap (which can be characterized as perhaps the world’s largest voucher program). The short film, featuring British education reformer Michael Barber, documents the challenges (and importance) of implementing an ambitious education-reform strategy—and paints an encouraging picture for the future of Punjab’s children. For more to read on the subject, see our review of Barber’s book, The Good News from Pakistan.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña intends to divert $210 million intended for charter schools’ classroom space towards Mayor de Blasio’s pre-Kindergarten expansion. Meanwhile, de Blasio has now stated point blank that, going forward, he will not allow charters to co-locate with traditional public schools. Are those bells tolling for charter schools in the Big Apple? To the ramparts!

With thirty-two cities across the nation placing more than 20 percent of their students in charter schools, it is clear that chartering has changed the face of urban education. But what about students from rural areas? Do charters have the potential to boost their achievement, too? And what obstacles do charters face in rural communities? Andy Smarick explores these questions in a new report. First, he finds that very few rural charters exist; in fact, just 785 of the nation’s 5,000 or so charters were located in rural areas as of 2010—and just 110 in the most remote communities. Meanwhile, the challenges to rural-charter growth are many. Among them are laws that prohibit charters in rural areas, shortages in high-quality teachers, state funding mechanisms that disadvantage charters (often not limited to rural charters), and the logistics of schooling in remote regions. Given the myriad of factors that can stymie rural-charter-school growth, policymakers must enact strong charter policies. To this end, the report offers several policy recommendations, which include undoing policies that restrict growth into rural areas, loosening teacher-certification requirements, ensuring equitable funding, creating opportunities to leverage digital learning, and allowing charters to use vacant, publicly owned facilities. Importantly, the report also discusses the adverse financial impact a single, start-up charter school can have on a sparsely populated school district. The author suggests ways to soften the blow, such as dual district-charter enrollment (and dual per-pupil funding), a pool of state funds to reimburse affected districts, and a legal requirement to conduct a financial impact analysis prior to opening a charter. Charter growth in rural America faces countless challenges, but rural families deserve high-quality choices as much as anyone.

SOURCE: Andy Smarick, A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education (Washington, D.C.: Bellwether Education Partners, January 2014).

A new analysis by Mike Podgursky, Cory Koedel, and colleagues offers a handy tutorial of three major student growth measures and an argument for which one is best. The first, Student Growth Percentiles (aka the Colorado Growth Model), does not control for student background or differences in schools but is calculated based on how a student’s performance on a standardized test compares to the performance of all students who received the same score in the previous year or who have a similar score history. Some like this model because it doesn’t set lower expectations for disadvantaged students by including background measures, but it may also penalize disadvantaged schools, since they tend to have lower growth rates. The second method, which they call the one-step value-added measure (VAM), controls for student and school characteristics, including prior performance, while simultaneously calculating test-score growth as a school average.  This model may detect causal impacts of schools and teachers, but runs the risk of not capturing important variables in the model, which could advantage high SES schools. The third and final model is a two-step VAM, designed to compare schools and teachers that serve similar students. It calculates growth for each school using test-score data that have been adjusted for various student and school characteristics. The analysts conclude that this model makes the most sense, because it levels the playing field so that winners and losers are representative of the system as a whole. What’s more, schools are more apt to improve if they are competing against similar peers—and even when schools are compared to other schools with similar student bodies, there are still differences in growth between them. That said, some worry that this model could hide inferior performance at high-poverty schools, so they suggest also reporting test-score levels, such as proficiency rates, so that folks can see also differences in absolute achievement across schools. Seems reasonable enough, though stakeholders would need to be educated in how to interpret multiple measures. But one small hiccup: Arne Duncan’s ESEA waiver regulations do not allow states to use the two-step VAM in their accountability system—so there’s that.

SOURCE: Mark Ehlert, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons and Michael Podgursky, “Choosing the Right Growth Measure,” Education Next 14(2). 

Like any relic of the industrial revolution, it’s time we took a wrench to the American education system. Or a bulldozer, argues Glenn Reynolds, distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and InstaPundit blogger. In this book, he contends that the system will soon break down and reform will be unavoidable. In the first half of the book, he focuses on higher education, while in the second he touches on the K–12 bubble. Reynolds points out that the cost of education rapidly ballooned over the past few decades, while the substance diminished in value. College tuition has increased 7.45 percent per year since 1978, even outstripping the cost of housing (4.3 percent per year). Meanwhile, the real cost of K–12 education nearly tripled in that time. For all that expense, K–12 test scores have flat lined since 1970, and a study featured in the book Academically Adrift found that 36 percent of students demonstrated no academic improvement after four years in college. Meanwhile, society teaches teenagers to be infantile consumers of an inherently valuable education and blinds them to their potential value as skillful producers. Reynolds concludes that advances in technology and innovations in choice will bring reform and that public schools can either embrace that change or become obsolete. Parents and students will begin to reassess the skewed cost/value ratio and demand fundamental restructuring. While the book offers few substantive suggestions and no timeline, it does serve as a reminder that like any defective product, it is not a matter of if but when it will break.

SOURCE: Glenn Harlan Reynolds, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself (Jackson, TN: Encounter Books, 2014).


Into the messy and political world of teacher-effectiveness research enter Susanna Loeb and colleagues, who examine whether math and English-language-arts (ELA) teachers differ in how they impact students’ long-term knowledge. Specifically, they ask, among other questions, whether ELA and math teachers impact student performance in future years, not just in one—and whether that impact bleeds over by impacting not just knowledge in their own subject area but more generally in both subjects. They use extensive student, teacher, and administrative data from the NYC school system that includes roughly 700,000 third- and eighth-grade students from 2003–04 through 2011–12. There are three key findings: First, a teacher’s value added to ELA achievement has a crossover effect on long-term math performance, such that having a high-quality ELA teacher impacts not only ELA performance in a future year but future math performance, too; yet, math teachers have minimal impact on ELA performance in the long term. This may be due to the nature of ELA, since learning to read and think critically is likely to impact general knowledge, whereas math knowledge pertains more directly to the subject itself and math tests tend to be more aligned in content from year to year. Second, teachers in schools serving disadvantaged kids have less “persistence” (i.e., enduring impact) than their teaching peers with similar value-added scores in other schools, which could suggest that school-level curriculum choices make a difference—or perhaps that teachers in these schools prioritize short-term gains or teaching to the test. Third, within subjects, teachers who attended a more competitive undergraduate college tend to foster long-term knowledge in their students, such that more than a quarter of value-added effects persist into the next year for teachers from these institutions, compared to a rate of less than one-fifth for teachers from less competitive institutions. So in the end, value-added scores continue to be a useful gauge of teacher quality, but let’s not forget that things like subject area, the test itself, school type, and teacher background make a difference in how to think about and interpret those scores.

SOURCE: Benjamin Master, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff, “Learning that Lasts: Unpacking Variation in Teachers’ Effects on Students’ Long-Term Knowledge,” Working Paper 104 (Washington, D.C.: CALDER and AIR, January 2014).


Mike welcomes Ohio's Chad to the podcast to disparage teacher tenure, anguish over the charter assault in Gotham, and debate the realities for charter schools in rural areas. Amber finds value in growth measures.

In this era of results-based academic accountability, teachers and their students spend class time taking—and preparing for—standardized tests. But just how much time? An inordinate amount? Does it vary by locale? What is the ideal amount of prep time? What are the policy implications for districts and states? The curricular and instructional implications? And what are the consequences for children, especially disadvantaged students?
In the largest study of its kind, Teach Plus brings empirical evidence to the table with its new report, The Student and the Stopwatch: How Much Time is Spent on Testing in American Schools? The report examines district- and state-required testing in more than thirty urban and suburban districts nationwide, featuring input from more than 300 teachers.
Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Teach Plus for a discussion on time-on-testing in American classrooms.
Panel I
Joseph Espinosa - Instructional Coach, First Street Elementary, Los Angeles, California
Joe Gramelspacher - Math Teacher, Crispus Attucks High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
Christina Lear - English and Journalism Teacher, Herron High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
Dr. Joy Singleton Stevens - Third-Grade Teacher, Double Tree Montessori School, Memphis, Tennessee
Panel I Moderator
Alice Johnson Cain - Vice President for Policy, Teach Plus
Panel II
Celine Coggins - CEO and Founder, Teach Plus
Dave Driscoll - Chair, National Assessment Governing Board
Andy Rotherham - Co-founder and Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
Panel II Moderator
Michael J. Petrilli - Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

A recent study examined whether gifted programs benefit students at the margin: those who barely “made the cut” for admission into a program and those who barely missed it. The study found that students in both subsets performed approximately equally on standardized tests a couple years after demarcation.

Obviously, this study says nothing about those students who easily “made the cut”—those who are the most gifted. (Other research indicates that these highest achievers do benefit from being around similarly gifted peers.) Instead, the research only looked at whether gifted programs are beneficial to students at the margin. And the answer is actually a somewhat-counterintuitive maybe: gifted programs might be beneficial for students on both sides of the margin. (I explain this below.)

Subsequently, a couple news outlets reported that the findings of this study proved that gifted education programs were ineffective:

“If the gifted and talented programs are effective, then the marginal students should end up with higher test scores than the marginal students in regular classes. If they’re not effective, then both sets of students would have around the same scores.” The Atlantic

“A new...

Nearly three decades ago, 320 students below the age of thirteen took the SAT math or verbal test and placed in the top 1 in 10,000 for their math- or verbal-reasoning ability (some called them “scary smart”). This article details a twenty-year follow up that analyzes their accomplishments by age 38, with the purpose of determining whether they went on to make outstanding contributions to society. And no surprise, they did. Of the total, 63 percent held advanced degrees, 44 percent of which were doctorates—that’s compared to barely 2 percent of the general population who hold PhDs. These students made an average of 20.6 fine-arts accomplishments (music productions, paintings, sculptures), produced 6.6 STEM-related publications, and were responsible for seven software developments and/or patents per individual. The average amount in grant dollars brought in by each was roughly $826,000 (thirty-one of them had received more than $25 million in grants).  Many were employed by Fortune 500 companies, renowned medical hospitals, and Research I universities. Finally, analysts found that students who uber-excelled in math tended to work in computer and informational sciences and engineering, while those who uber-excelled in verbal ability tended towards the social sciences. This was all the more...