Ohio Policy

In a provocative headline, a recent Wall Street Journal article proclaimed that “ Rural America Is the New ‘Inner City.’ ” The...
This blog originally appeared as an editorial in today’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch. The Ohio Senate just voted to allow...
Despite their pronouncements to the contrary, many of Ohio’s affluent suburban school districts are about as “public” as a gated...
Recently, several school districts asked to be repaid a chunk of the money that the state of Ohio is attempting to recover from...
John Zitzner
NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest...
When it comes to high standards and accountability, Ohio talks a pretty good talk. Many of the most popular education reforms of...
Some Ohio lawmakers and educators recently proposed to roll back the state’s social studies exams, which presently include tests...
The best advice my wife and I received on how to manage daily life with newly born twin daughters was from our pediatrician: get...
When I was growing up, “fake news” was the black-and-white photograph of the infamous bat child. Staring back at me in the...
Greg R. Lawson
NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest...
For years, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has released reports that rate and compare hundreds of teacher...
Tom Gunlock
NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest...
Bernie Moreno
NOTES: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest...
Stéphane Lavertu
NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest...
Interdistrict open enrollment allows students to attend public schools outside their district of residence. It is among the...
A college degree is becoming increasingly necessary in order for young people to attain the jobs they want, and yet getting to...
In April, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured the Van Wert school district in rural northwestern Ohio along with American...
Posted just six hours after the close of Mother’s Day, this eerily titled article, “ Some school districts tail parents to check...
Performance-based funding in the public sector has begun to take root in recent years, most prominently in higher education and...
Back in February, U.S. News and World Report named Massachusetts the top state in its Best States rankings . Though the Bay State...

Boredom. We’ve all experienced it many times. Though we tend to think of it as unpleasant but endurable and harmless tedium, some research now suggests boredom may be harmful to our health—it is potentially linked to everything from weight gain, to depression, to physical pain—even to cheating on one’s spouse!

Boredom may exist in elementary or middle school, but it is endemic to high school. Indeed, it’s practically a rite of adolescent passage to profess one’s perennial state of ennui—as if no one or nothing is cool enough to sustain the interest of a sixteen-year-old.

What educators need to take seriously is the distinction between typical teenage whining and signs that students are actually disengaging from their formal education. Such disengagement is a portent of trouble, and not just because student engagement is closely linked to academic achievement.[i] Among high school students who consider dropping out, half cite lack of engagement with the school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the schoolwork they are asked to do.[ii]

Teachers, of course, play a central role in engaging students in learning. A recent study showed that when students have a more engaging teacher, their attendance increases and their chances of completing high school improve. The authors found “engaging teachers are approximately as influential on high school completion as teachers who are highly effective at improving students’ test performance.” That’s a very important thing to know.

Yet teachers aren’t the only sources of increased—or diminished—student engagement. Other factors include the subject matter itself, particular instructional strategies, extracurricular activities and sports, peer groups, and a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn.

We wondered how much these various elements of the overall high school experience matter when it comes to engaging students. Common sense says not every student will be motivated to learn in the same ways. In a 2009 report, The New Teachers Project (TNTP) showed that teachers are not interchangeable “widgets.” Neither are kids. We wondered, then, if there was a way to characterize and quantify such differences for various types of students.

Which is exactly what we did, with the help of an ace research team headed by John Geraci, president and founder of Crux Research. John and his team surveyed a nationally representative sample of two thousand students in grades 10–12, exploring such topics as participants’ backgrounds and characteristics, school and classroom experiences, and overall educational preferences. We also embedded questions from engagement instruments developed by our expert advisors.

After calculating individuals’ scores on each set of items (or factors), we placed students into groups based on which factor they scored the highest. In this way, we identified their dominant, or primary, mode of engagement. Crux also convened several focus groups of high schoolers to hear more about what engaged them in school.

The result is our newest report, What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement. Here are the highlights:

Most high school students report being intrinsically motivated to learn. The vast majority (83 to 95 percent) report being motivated to apply themselves in school by thinking deeply, listening carefully, and completing assignments. In the student engagement literature, this is known as “cognitive engagement” and includes mostly internal behaviors such as asking yourself questions, figuring out where you went wrong, and going back over things that you don’t understand. It’s encouraging that most students report doing these things in school, for it’s unlikely that educators will maximize student potential if they don’t tap into pupils’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

In addition, many students report that teachers are central to their sense of connectedness and engagement in school; they highly value time with and connecting to peers; and they enjoy lessons and projects involving technology.

Beyond these welcome commonalities, however, we identified six subgroups of students with varying engagement profiles:

Subject Lovers (19 percent) generally enjoy school and feel engaged when they perceive what they’re learning to be useful, interesting, and relevant to their daily lives. Compared to their peers, they are more likely to report that academic classes are their favorite thing about school. They are motivated by learning new and challenging things, and many expect to go on to attend four-year colleges.

Emotionals (18 percent) are students who convey many positive emotions when in the classroom. While they are not the top academic performers, Emotionals nonetheless often report not wanting to stop working at the end of class. They have a need for connection at the school level (such as smaller schools), and without it, may run the risk of dropping out.

Hand Raisers (18 percent) are “in the moment” students who apply themselves in class during the school day, but appear uninterested in the other things that school has to offer them. They do fairly well academically and are generally satisfied with their school, but don’t report spending much time on homework or in extracurricular activities.

Social Butterflies (16 percent) are much likelier than their peers to report feeling like they belong at school, that they matter to others, and that they are generally understood and respected. They most enjoy the social aspects of school (such as sports and hanging out with friends), and tend to be average performers academically.

Teacher Responders (15 percent) value close relationships with teachers and other adults in their school, and thrive when they feel that adults are invested in them academically and personally. These students forge tight bonds with their teachers and benefit from strong relationships that help them cultivate a connection to the subject. They are likely to choose their current school even if they could go elsewhere.

Deep Thinkers (15 percent) listen carefully, like to figure things out on their own, think deeply when they take tests, and complete their assignments. They do well in school, but not as well as one might expect from a group that is intrinsically motivated. Interestingly, how a student engages in school is not strongly associated with his or her gender, race, current school type, or socio-economic background; In other words, students of all backgrounds fall within each of these engagement types.


What does this all mean? We see three takeaways.

First, the vast majority of American high school students say they are trying hard and want to do their best in school. Somewhat counterintuitively, our results indicate that most high school students want to work hard in class and figure out things on their own if possible. They ask themselves questions, check their book or other materials when things don’t make sense, and try to pay attention to things they’re supposed to remember. Teachers should support and maximize this hard-wired desire on students’ part to think and reason autonomously—and policy types should be encouraged to see that even if we’re not satisfied with current levels of achievement, students seem to be willing to do better. It’s also heartening that the desire to learn and do well cuts across all types of students.

Second, distinct groups of students are primarily engaged in school through different levers. For some, the relationship with the teacher is key; for others, it is the subject matter or the social aspects of schooling. For still others, the level of engagement varies based on the extent that their emotional needs can be met in the classroom—or the extent that they actively participate in class. Tailoring schooling and instruction to such needs, preferences, and tendencies has the potential to pay dividends in greater engagement—and ultimately in achievement gains.

Third, engagement and choice go hand in hand. We’ve heard it a million times: A one-size-fits-all education system all but guarantees that some students will be left out—and eventually left behind. Both engagement and choice take many forms. In this case, choice does not have to be among schools (though more of that would surely help). It can also be among teachers, among courses, among delivery options, among instructional strategies, among programs, and among schools-within-schools.

The bottom line is this: To address the needs of students who are engaged in multiple ways, the supply side needs to offer choices at multiple levels that are genuinely different, not just multiple versions of essentially the same thing. What we’re recommending is a kind of customizing. That’s because student engagement and student choice—in all of their assorted forms—are truly two sides of the same coin.

[i] Lahaderne, “Attitudinal and Intellectual Correlates of Attention: A Study of Four Sixth-grade Classrooms,” Journal of Educational Psychology 59, no. 5 (October 1968), 320–324; E. Skinner et al., “What It Takes to Do Well in School and Whether I’ve Got It: A Process Model of Perceived Control and Children’s Engagement and Achievement in School,” Journal of Educational Psychology 82, no. 1 (1990), 22–32; J. Finn and D. Rock, “Academic Success among Students at Risk for School Failure,” Journal of Applied Psychology 82, no. 2 (1997), 221–234; and J. Bridgeland et al., The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts (Washington, D.C.: Civic Enterprises, LLC, March 2006), https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/documents/thesilentepidemic3-06final.pdf.

[ii] Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, “Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement” (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, 2010), http://www.wisconsinpbisnetwork.org/assets/files/2013%20Conference/Sessi....


The longtime Democratic lawmaker John Vasconcellos is resting in peace since his death in 2014, but the educational disaster he laid on California in the 1980s is far from gone. Indeed, its likeness thrives today across a broad swath of America's K-12 schooling, supported by foundation grants, federal funding, and both nonprofit and for-profit advocacy groups. Only its name has changed—from self-esteem to social-emotional learning.

If only the trend had stayed in the Golden State.

Younger readers may not remember Vasconcellos, the late assemblyman and state senator whom one obituary described as a "titan of the human-potential movement." In 1986, Vasconcellos managed to persuade California's conservative GOP Gov. George Deukmejian to support a blue-ribbon task force to promote self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. The ensuing hoopla loosed a tsunami of enthusiasm for building self-esteem as a solution for almost everything that ails an individual, including low achievement in school.

The task force's final report, in 1990, ascribed (as I wrote at the time) "near-magical powers to self-esteem, characterizing it as 'something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure.' "

Yes, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and others made fun of the trend, but the self-esteem movement had legs, and not just in California (where, reportedly, more than 80 percent of local school systems launched programs to promote it after the report's release). New York state's education commissioner and board of regents picked up on the trend and tucked self-esteem into the mandate and recommendations of their own task force on inclusion. Endorsements of the task force's report came from such eminences as Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas; first lady Barbara Bush; and retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell.

What gave strength to those legs was the assertion that a panel of prominent scientists at the University of California, having examined all relevant studies on the relationship between self-esteem and major social concerns, had validated the task force's findings and recommendations. A quarter-century later, an investigation published this month by The Guardian newspaper claims that none of this was true. According to journalist Will Storr, the determined Vasconcellos had first browbeaten the university to engage a platoon of scholars by suggesting the damage he could do to its budget, over which he had control, and then—even more astonishing—radically reframed a key quote to bolster the scientific credibility of his cause.

The professors found that the correlation between self-esteem and its expected consequences—though positive in a few areas, such as academic achievement—were fundamentally "mixed" or "absent." To hide this truth under the rug, one task force member told The Guardian's Storr, a more positive report was published first. The task force member termed it the kind of lie that can only be described by a four-letter expletive.

Today, few people talk explicitly about self-esteem or other kooky curricular enthusiasms of the past, but the worldview and faux psychology that impelled them have never gone away. Of late, they've reappeared—and gained remarkable traction—under the banner of social-emotional learning, which claims to build the ways by which children learn and apply skills necessary to understand and manage their emotions, make decisions effectively, sustain positive relationships, and practice empathy.

The notion has attracted much buzz, thanks in part to its very own advocacy organization—the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL—which is backed by many high-status funders across the country. The National Education Association climbed aboard as well. Social-emotional learning also enjoys a high-profile national commission under the aegis of the Aspen Institute.

Adding fuel to the social-emotional-learning bonfire is its recent association with hot-button issues, such as reforming school discipline into restorative justice. Another major push comes from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act's encouragement of states to include school quality in their rating systems, with school climate as a key metric in many jurisdictions. Another current education enthusiasm, known as 21st-century skills, also contributes to social-emotional learning's popularity.

There's nothing exactly wrong with many of these ideas, some of which partake of legitimate performance-character traits such as impulse control and self-discipline. But social-emotional learning also smacks of the self-esteem mindset, with entries such as "self-confidence" and "self-efficacy." Dig into social-emotional learning's five core competencies, as laid out by CASEL, and you'll spot—among 25 skills students are supposed to learn—just one feeble mention of ethics and none whatsoever of morality. You won't even find such old-fashioned virtues as integrity, courage, or honesty, and certainly nothing as edgy as patriotism.

Though its partisans will contest the point, social-emotional learning does not seem intended to build character in any traditional sense, nor is it aimed at citizenship. It's awash in the self, steeped in the ability to understand one's own emotions, thoughts, values, strengths, and limitations.

All good things, up to a point, but note how far they are from the traditional obligation of schools to impart academic skills and knowledge. Think how many other vehicles American society has for advancing social-emotional concepts—the Girl Scouts, religious youth groups, Little League, swim team—while we have essentially no others that will teach children to read, write, or compute.

Like Mr. Vasconcello's self-esteem edifice, social-emotional learning will almost surely turn out to have no real scientific foundation—just a lot of much-hyped "qualitative" and "anecdotal" studies that nobody could replicate via gold-standard research. Indeed, those who are still sentient a quarter-century later may well read an exposé of social-emotional learning by a journalist, perhaps containing another telling quote that one isn't supposed to utter in front of one's students.

Editor’s note: A version of this article was first published by Education Week.

Among high school students who consider dropping out, half cite lack of engagement with the school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the schoolwork they are asked to do. In What Teens Want: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Crux Research tackle the question of what truly motivates and engages students in high school.

Our nationally representative survey of over two thousand high schoolers in traditional public, charter, and private schools finds that nearly all students report being motivated to apply themselves academically, but they also primarily engage in school through different levers. Specifically, we identified six subgroups of students with varying engagement profiles: (Hover over each illustration to read their characteristics!)

Subject Lovers


Hand Raisers

Social Butterflies

Teacher Responders

Deep Thinkers

We’ve heard it a million times: a “one size fits all” education system all but guarantees that some students will be left out and ultimately left behind. Given that students are motivated to learn via different levers, student engagement and choice—among schools, teachers, courses, delivery options, instructional strategies, and so on—need to go hand in hand. 

This report was made possible through the generous support of the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, and our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

An average of forty-four million unique visitors use GreatSchools every year to check out schools in their area and elsewhere. A new study analyzes searches conducted on the website to learn whether changes in the local school choice environment are reflected in the information that parents seek about school quality.

Analysts link monthly search data in census-defined cities and towns to information on changes in six types of school choice policies: intra- and inter-open enrollment, tuition vouchers, tax credits for donations to private scholarship charities, tuition tax credits, and open enrollment for Title I schools specifically mandated by NCLB sanctions. The researchers analyze over one hundred million individual searches between January 2010, and October 2013; they combine those data with state-level measures of school choice policies that relate to the six areas above to see how changes in those policies relate to changes in search behavior on GreatSchools. They also examine how charter school openings and closings relate to online activity.

Their primary finding is that, for most policies, there’s an uptick in search frequency tied to increases in the prevalence of NCLB-induced choice (measured as when schools receiving Title I funds fail to meet annual yearly progress for two consecutive years and must offer the option of students transferring out to another non-failing local school). In other words, when parents learn that their kids have a choice, they go searching for information about those choices. Specifically, a 10 percentage-point increase in NCLB-choice-based eligibility increases the number of searches by 7.2 percent. They find similar patterns for intra- and inter-district open enrollment (specifically, when these policies are put in place by state law allowing or mandating them), and private school tuition vouchers. But there are small to negligible relationships between search frequency and changes in tuition tax credits or charitable tax credits, perhaps because parents are less likely to understand how these options might benefit their child, or because GreatSchools has less information on private schools. They also find a strong relationship between charter school openings and searches; specifically, adding one more charter school to an area is associated with a 5 percent increase in online search activity.

In short, creating more school options appears to drive demand for information. Availability of data is essential—but a parent needs a reason to hunt down and use such information.

SOURCE: Michael F. Lovenheim and Patrick Walsh, “Does Choice Increase Information? Evidence from Online School Search Behavior,” NBER (May 2017).

The latest study from CREDO explores the student growth outcomes of charter networks in twenty-four states, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Overall, it includes 3.7 million students, 5,715 charter schools, 240 Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), fifty-four Vender Operated Schools (VOSs). And like previous CREDO studies, it relies on the virtual control record (VCR) method, which compares each charter school student to a statistically constructed “virtual” peer with similar attributes.

In the study, the authors identify three types of charter networks: CMOs, VOSs, and Hybrids. They define a CMO as an organization that oversees the operation of at least three charter schools and is the charter holder for those schools. In contrast, a VOS is overseen by an organization that operates at least three schools but does not hold their charters. Hybrid charter schools have aspects of both a CMO and a VOS.

Based on these definitions, the authors estimate that approximately 68 percent of charter schools are independent, meaning they don’t belong to any network, leaving 22 percent that are part of a CMO, 8 percent that are affiliated with a VOS, and just 1 percent that are Hybrids. On average, the authors estimate that independent charters have almost no impact on student learning gains relative to traditional public schools. However, CMOs achieve an additional seventeen days of learning in both math and reading, while VOSs achieve an additional eleven days of learning in reading, and Hybrids achieve an additional fifty-one days of learning in math and an additional forty-six days of learning in reading. On a related note, nonprofit schools, which include most independent schools and CMOs, perform ever-so-slightly better than for-profits, which include most VOSs.

Like previous CREDO work, the study uncovers dramatic variation in charter performance at the state level. For example, CMOs in Massachusetts produce an additional 177 days of learning relative to traditional public schools and an additional 125 days of learning relative to non-CMO charters. In contrast, CMOs in Nevada lose ninety-one days of math learning relative to non-CMO charters and 131 days relative to traditional public schools.

In addition to these state level differences, the study identifies some truly outstanding networks, including multi-state “super-networks” such as Uncommon Schools (plus 155 days in math) and KIPP (plus 51 days), as well as local standouts like Amethod (which achieves an astonishing 275 days of additional learning in math), Tekoa Academy, American Indian Public Charter School, and this year’s Broad Prize winner, Success Academy, which achieves an additional 200 days of learning in math.

Consistent with CREDO’s previous research on charters, which suggests that they provide greater benefits to minority students, the results also show that CMOs serve poor, black, and non-ELL Hispanic students much better than traditional public schools do. However, relative to traditional public schools, they achieve less progress with white, SPED, and ELL students. Overall, charters also achieve the strongest results in middle school and high school. For example, middle schools that belong to CMOs achieve an additional fifty-seven days of learning in math. Finally, despite the generally positive effects associated with brick-and-mortar charters, like previous CREDO studies, this one finds that online CMOs have a worryingly negative impact on the average student, equivalent to the loss of approximately 120 days of learning in math each year.

While management structure isn’t the catchiest angle from which to look at school success, this research is an important addition to the evidence of what works for charter school students.

SOURCE: James L. Woodworth et al., “Charter Management Organizations 2017,” Center for Research on Education Outcomes (June 2017).

Since 2002, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has published yearbooks on the state of preschool education. These reports examine state-funded pre-kindergarten education programs that meet specific criteria outlined by NIEER; besides being state-funded and directed, for example, the programs must serve at least 1 percent of the three- or four-year-old population within that state. This excludes children who participate in federally funded Head Start and special-education pre-K programs. The most recent report, chock-full of interesting data points on the national and state landscapes, focuses on three areas: enrollment, funding, and quality.

Across the nation, nearly 1.5 million children attended state-funded preschools during the 2015–16 school year. That number includes almost 5 percent of three-year-olds and a third of four-year-olds. Total enrollment rose by more than 40,000 children over the previous year, with D.C. serving the highest percentage of both three- and four-year-olds. Seven states don’t offer any state-funded programs that fit NIEER’s criteria: Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Total state pre-K spending totaled nearly $7.4 billion, up by more than half a billion (adjusted for inflation) from the previous year. The average state spending per child was $4,976. D.C. spends the most per child at $16,812, while Mississippi spends the least—less than $2,000. Eighteen states benefited from nearly $210 million in federal Preschool Development Grants (PDG), intended to help states build their capacity to provide high-quality programs and to expand access for high-need communities. NIEER estimates that these funds supported more than 30,000 children via new seats or quality improvements, with approximately 19,000 of those children served by state preschool programs.

NIEER uses ten quality benchmarks to rate state preschool programs. These ten benchmarks include requiring site visits at least once every five years, the use of comprehensive early learning standards, and a minimum of fifteen hours of teacher in-service a year. For years, those benchmarks were almost entirely about inputs, which NIEER declared were sound proxies for program quality. This year, they’ve taken a positive step with several revised benchmarks meant to focus more specifically on classroom practices that research has shown to boost children’s outcomes, such as the continuous improvement of teachers. Thus one revision changes the site visit benchmark into a requirement for a continuous quality improvement system that includes structured classroom observations and ongoing coaching and feedback for teachers.

For the sake of continuity, the report grades states on both the previous and the revised benchmarks, with many states faring worse on the latter, a development that NIERR believes reflects its increased rigor. Alabama and Rhode Island, however, pulled off perfect scores on both the old and new benchmarks, while Arizona and Indiana were in the rear with a dismal 3 out of 10 on the previous benchmarks and an even worse 1 out of 10 on the revised set.

The authors conclude with a call for a more detailed look at classroom quality. Specifically, they recommend a nationally representative study of pre-K classrooms in state and locally funded preschools as well as child care centers and Head Start programs with a focus on the quality of experiences provided to children. Although this move toward measuring quality should be celebrated, it’s also important to remember that the best types of measurements will focus on outcomes; namely, how well each program prepares students for kindergarten.

SOURCE: W. Steven Barnett et al., “The State of Preschool 2016,” National Institute for Early Education Research (May 2017).

On this week's podcast, special guest Joshua Starr, CEO of Phi Delta Kappa International, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss Fordham's new report What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Engagement. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines early results from Joseph Waddington's and Mark Berends's ongoing study of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program.

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