Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?

Vertical Tabs



Sheila Byrd

Lucien Ellington
Paul Gross
Carol Jago
Sheldon Stern

Foreword by:
Chester E. Finn, Jr. and
Martin A. Davis, Jr.

Over the ten years of Fordham's modern existence, we have panned vigorously for gold--curricular gold. This quest has frequently left us disappointed, as our reviews of state standards have consistently shown that expectations for American primary and secondary students are typically weak and watered down. This has been especially the case with high schools. Recently, however, there has been a proliferation in high school students taking courses offering rigorous pre-college curricula. In particular, enrollment in the Advanced Placement (AP) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs have skyrocketed. Fordham's latest report, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?, by Sheila Byrd, examines whether the reputation the programs have for academic excellence is truly deserved. Our expert reviewers looked at the four AP and IB courses most similar to the core content areas in American high schools—English, history, math, and science—and found that, in general, the courses do warrant praise. In a few cases, they deserve gold stars. 

See also the "In a Nutshell" brief of the report.

The Proficiency Illusion

Vertical Tabs

The Proficiency Illusion reveals that the tests that states use to measure academic progress under the No Child Left Behind Act are creating a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades.

The report, a collaboration of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association, contains several major findings:

  • States are aiming particularly low when it comes to their expectations for younger children, setting
    elementary students up to fail as they progress through their academic careers.
  • The central flaw in NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes "proficiency."
  • By mandating that all students reach "proficiency" by 2014, it tempts states to define proficiency downward.
  • Although there has not been a "race to the bottom," with the majority of states dramatically lowering standards under pressure from NCLB, the report did find a "walk to the middle," as some states with high standards saw their expectations drop toward the middle of the pack.
  • In most states, math tests are consistently more difficult to pass than reading tests.
  • Eighth-grade tests are sharply harder to pass in most states than those in earlier grades (even after taking into account obvious differences in subject-matter complexity and children's academic development).

As a result, students may be performing worse in reading, and worse in elementary school, than is readily apparent by looking at passing rates on state tests.

Individual State Reports

Related Resources

In A Nutshell brief of the report

Slideshow of the report's findings

Alternative Certification Isn't Alternative

Vertical Tabs

At first glance, the explosive growth of "alternative" teacher certification--which is supposed to allow able individuals to teach in public schools without first passing through a college of education--appears to be one of the great success stories of modern education reform. From negligible numbers twenty years ago, alternatively prepared candidates now account for almost one in five new teachers nationwide. That's a "market share" of nearly 20 percent. As longtime supporters of alternative certification, we should be popping champagne, declaring victory, and plotting our next big win, right? Not so fast. As the old cliché says, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

"Alternative Certification Isn't Alternative" reveals that alternative certification programs, contrary to their original mission, have not provided a real alternative to traditional education schools. In fact, they represent a significant setback for education reform advocates.

Here are the report's main points:

  • Entry standards are abysmally low: Two-thirds of the programs surveyed accept half or more of their teacher applicants; one-quarter accept virtually everyone who applies.
  • Rather than providing streamlined and effective coursework, about a third of the programs require at least 30 hours of education school courses-the same amount needed for a Master's degree.
  • Most disturbing, nearly 70 percent of alternative programs studied in the report are run by education schools themselves. Education schools have kept their market monopoly by moving into the alternative certification business.

In short, policymakers, reform advocates, and philanthropists who think they have "won" the battle in favor of alternative certification should think again. Twenty-five years later, concerns about the quality of education schools remain--as does the need for bona fide alternatives: swifter, better, surer, cheaper ways to address teaching aspirations on the one hand and workforce quality and quantity problems on the other. So put away the champagne. Much heavy lifting lies ahead.

Related Resources

In A Nutshell brief of the report

2006-07 Ohio Report Cards

Vertical Tabs

Despite a decade of significant school reform efforts in Ohio, students in the state's largest cities still struggle mightily to meet basic academic standards and are nowhere close to achieving the goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to an analysis of the latest Ohio school report-card data.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute found 46 percent of 183,000 public and charter school students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton are attending schools graded either D or F (officially "Academic Watch" or "Academic Emergency", respectively). That compares to about 75,000 students in D or F schools in the entire remainder of the state.

See the full press release here.

City By City Analysis:





Analysis of District and Charter School Performance in the Ohio 8:

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute also commissioned Public Impact to conduct a brief analysis of charter school performance in 2006-2007. See their findings here.


Vertical Tabs

Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children

Vertical Tabs

The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it's going to be in terms of creativity and innovation. America has always had a capacity for hard work and stamina, but those qualities of creativity and ingenuity are not being nurtured and fostered by our current educational system.

- Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

History offers many explanations for why people should acquire a broad, liberal-arts education. Prominent thinkers and leaders over the centuries have expounded on the virtues of such learning. Aristotle said liberal education is necessary if one is to act "nobly." Franklin said it was needed to cultivate "the best capacities" in humans. And Einstein found in liberal learning the locus for imagination.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, however, liberal learning is on the defensive. Federal law mandates academic gains only in reading and math, and its sanctions and interventions are triggered only by failure to make gains in those two areas. States, school districts and individual educators have understandably responded by ramping up the time spent teaching those two sets of core skills and prepping students to take tests in them, to the detriment of "broad" and "liberal" and "arts."

Recent months have brought yet another challenge to liberal learning, as well-meaning business leaders and policy makers, rightly concerned about American competitiveness, are pushing "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) training. Yet America's true competitive edge over the long haul is not its technical prowess but its creativity, its imagination, its inventiveness. And those attributes are best inculcated not by skill-drill but through liberal arts and sciences, liberally defined.

This volume argues that case. It emerges from a Fordham-sponsored conference in December 2006 (underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Louis Calder Foundation). It develops the rationale for liberal education in the primary and secondary grades, explores what policymakers and educators at all levels can to do sustain liberal learning, and sketches an unlovely future if we fail.

Contributors include Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Diane Ravitch, Fordham trustee and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; E.D.Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation; David J. Ferrero, senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Martin West, assistant professor at Brown University; Matthew Gandal (executive vice president), Michael Cohen (president), and John Kraman (senior policy analyst) of Achieve, Inc.; Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality; Sandra Stotsky, member of the Massachusetts Board of Education; Joan Baratz-Snowden, former director of Educational Issues at the American Federation of Teachers; David Steiner, dean of Hunter College's school of education; John Holdren (Senior Vice President of Content and Curriculum) and Bror Saxberg (Chief Learning Officer) for K12. Inc.; Aaron Benavot, a senior policy analyst with UNESCO; Matthew Bogdanos, New York Prosecutor and Marine officer; and venture capitalist John Backus.

Individual chapters 

Golden Peaks and Perilous Cliffs

Rethinking Ohio's Teacher Pension System

Vertical Tabs

Dating to 1920, Ohio's State Teacher Retirement System (STRS) is the oldest of the Buckeye State's five public pension systems. It now covers close to half a million members--active, inactive, and retired--or one member for every ten Ohio households.

Despite its long history and prodigious size, all is not well with Ohio's teacher pension system. In this Fordham Institute report, nationally renowned economists Robert Costrell and Mike Podgursky illuminate some of the serious challenges facing STRS.

Among the report's findings are serious questions about the system's long-term health and sustainability. STRS is becoming increasingly expensive for all contributors. Employees contribute 10 percent of their earnings to the pension fund and employers contribute 14 percent, for a total contribution of 24 percent. This total has drifted up from 10 percent since 1945. Yet this is still insufficient to meet the state's funding goals: the system's unfunded liability is $19.4 billion, which represents a debt of over $4,300 per Ohio household. This liability far exceeds that of the state's other four public pension systems combined, despite the fact that STRS's membership is little more than one-third of those systems.

A system that is so large and increasingly costly should meet basic public policy requirements of transparency and efficiency. Sadly, the system fails to meet either requirement: it lacks transparency, and its incentives are perverse. As a result, Ohio's pension system almost certainly hinders rather than helps in the recruitment and retention of a highly qualified teaching workforce.

Related Resources

See the press release here.

See a supplementary PowerPoint presentation here.

Ohioans' Views on Education 2007

Vertical Tabs

Between April 29th and May 8th, 2007, the FDR Group conducted a telephone survey of 1,000 randomly selected Ohio residents (margin of error +/-3 percentage points). The survey covers such topics as school quality and funding, academic standards, school reforms, proposals to improve how the public schools are run, teacher quality, charter schools and school vouchers. Additional interviews were conducted with residents from five of Ohio’s largest cities to enable a reliable comparison of their views. This survey is a follow-up to one conducted in 2005 and many of the questions are repeated, allowing us to gauge whether attitudes have shifted over time.

Related Resources

See a summary of the findings here.

See a PowerPoint presentation on the survey here.

The Autonomy Gap

Vertical Tabs

Public school principals encounter a sizable gap between the autonomy they believe they need to be effective and the autonomy that they actually have in practice, especially when it comes to hiring, firing, and transferring teachers. That's a key finding of this report from the Fordham Institute and the American Institutes for Research, which is based on a series of interviews with a small sample of district and charter-school principals. Regrettably if understandably, many district principals have also come to accept this "autonomy gap" as a fact of life. They learn to work the system, not change the system.

Full reports on each state in the study as well as just charter schools across all three states are available only online:

Crystal Apple: Education Insiders' Predictions for No Child Left Behind's Reauthorization

Vertical Tabs

January 8, 2007, is No Child Left Behind's fifth birthday. This isn't just another milestone to be celebrated (or mourned). It also marks the time that the law is due for an update from Congress. But will NCLB be reauthorized on schedule? And what changes are likely? No one knows for sure, but some might be in a better position than others to cast prognostications: the ubiquitous 'Washington insiders.' So we asked for their predictions. While not a 'representative sample' of thousands, these experts do have inside knowledge and bring a variety of perspectives. They span the ideological and political spectrum and work as lobbyists, association leaders, think tank analysts, and scholars.

Whole-Language High Jinks

Vertical Tabs

If you thought whole-language reading instruction had been relegated to the scrap heap of history, think again. Many such programs (proven to be ineffective) are still around, but they're hiding behind phrases like "balanced literacy" in order to win contracts from school districts and avoid public scrutiny. Louisa Moats calls them out in Fordham's new report, Whole-Language High Jinks.

Moats, a psychologist and widely respected authority on early reading, authored a previous Fordham report in October 2000 called Whole Language Lives On. In it, she revealed that what was going on in many classrooms in the name of "balance" or "consensus" was harming students.

Seven years later, such programs still exist-and still try to pull the wool over educators' eyes. Worse, major school systems, including Denver, Salt Lake City, and New York City, continue to adopt them, misled by materials that "talk the talk," touting the five elements of effective reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel, but which are actually just whole-language programs in disguise.