Archive for ‘K-12 education’

November 11, 2015

The myth of excessive testing

by Grace

We don’t test students as much as people think we do. And the stakes aren’t really that high.

The facts do not support President Obama’s declaration”that schools in this country are over-testing” according to former Tennessee commissioner of education Kevin Huffman.  But in response to complaints from parents and teachers about over-testing, the Obama administration has come out with a recommendation for “a cap on the amount of time that students spend testing at 2 percent of overall instructional time”.

… the dramatic flair of the president’s announcement and the elated response from many critics of education reform obscured some important truths. First, students are tested less than many people believe. Second, in places where students spend too much time taking tests, local schools and districts — not federal or state policies — tend to be the culprits. And third, the notion of standardized tests as “high stakes” is vastly overstated.

Is this recommendation relevant?

Contrary to the exaggerations, though, most states already are under the 2 percent testing cap. A Center for American Progress analysis of 14 districts in seven states found that testing consumed an average of 1.6 percent of instructional time. …

Excessive testing time is usually based on decisions of local school districts.  Perhaps they feel pressured, but so far schools and teachers have suffered few consequences from poor test scores.

The truth is, it’s nearly impossible for a teacher to get fired because of poor test scores. And for schools, significant interventions generally happen at just the bottom 5 percent of campuses. Poor test results may be embarrassing when released publicly, which can lead schools to scramble into drill-and-kill test-prep mode. But the claims of massive stakes driven by federal or state law are overwrought.

For those parents whose children are spending excessive time involved in standardized testing, the logical recourse would be to take it up with the local school.  Unfortunately, changing school policies is an uphill battle and parents often find they are powerless to make meaningful changes for their own children.  More school choice would give families more options in cases where over-testing is a problem.

July 2, 2015

Teen employment rate continues to decline

by Grace

Teen summer employment has been in steady decline since the 1970s.


To understand what’s happened to the Great American Summer Job, we looked at the average employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds for June, July and August (teen employment typically peaks in July of each year). Since 1948, which is as far back as the data go, through subsequent decades, teen summer employment followed a fairly regular pattern: rising during economic good times and falling during and after recessions, but generally fluctuating between 46% (the low, in 1963) and 58% (the peak, in 1978).

That pattern began to change after the 1990-91 recession, when the teen summer employment rate barely rebounded. Teen summer employment again fell sharply after the 2001 recession and again failed to rebound, and fell even more sharply during and after the Great Recession of 2007-09. After bottoming out in 2010 and 2011 at 29.6%, the teen summer employment rate has barely budged – it was 31.6% last summer.

For younger teens, the summer-jobs picture is especially bleak. Last year’s summer employment rate for 16- to 17-year-olds was 20%, less than half its level as recently as 2000. For 18- and 19-year-olds, the summer employment rate last year was 43.6%, still well below the 62.6% average rate in the summer of 2000.

Why the decline?

… Researchers have advanced multiple explanations for why fewer young people are finding jobs: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs than in decades past; more schools restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not consider being employed.


Drew DeSilver, “The fading of the teen summer job”, Pew Research, June 23, 2015.

May 28, 2015

‘Good riddance’ to school days!

by Grace

Joe Queenan holds no nostalgia for his children’s school days.

… From the moment my children left school forever ten years ago, I felt a radiant, ineffable joy suffuse my very being. Far from being depressed or sad, I was elated. There was a simple reason for this: From that point onward, I would never again have to think about the kids and school. Never, ever, ever.

I would never have to go to the middle school office to find out why my child was doing so poorly in math. I would never have to ask the high-school principal why the French teacher didn’t seem to speak much French. I would never have to ask the grade-school principal why he rewrote my daughter’s sixth-grade graduation speech to include more references to his own prodigious sense of humor and caring disposition, and fewer jokes of her own.

I would never have to complain that the school had discontinued the WordMasters competition, the one activity at which my son truly excelled. I would never have to find out if my son was in any way responsible for a classmate damaging his wrist during recess. I would never again have to listen to my child, or anyone else’s, play the cello.

As I look forward to my youngest graduating from high school next month, Queenan’s words strike very close to home.  I feel relieved that my years of awkward questions and uncomfortable conversations with public school bureaucrats are ending.

Of course, it was not all bad.  Some administrators and teachers are memorable as standing head and shoulders above the crowd in offering the very best to their students.  For them I will be forever grateful.  But to the rest, I find myself nodding in agreement to Queenan’s words.

… The ordeal had ended; the 18-year plague had run its course; the bitter cup had passed from my lips. I would never quaff from its putrid contents again. Good riddance.


Joe Queenan, “School’s Out Forever”, Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2015.

May 22, 2015

New York Governor Cuomo pushes tax credits for private schools

by Grace

New York Governor Cuomo has proposed a “Parental Choice in Education Act”, a $150 million tax credit benefiting private schools.

… The Act provides for $150 million in education tax credits annually that will provide:

  1. Tax credits to low-income families who send their children to nonpublic schools,
  2. Scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend either a public school outside of their district or a nonpublic school,
  3. Incentives to public schools for enhanced educational programming (like after school programs); and,
  4. Tax credits to public school teachers for the purchase of supplies.

It’s no surprise that teacher unions oppose these proposals, while religious leaders support them.  The outlook is uncertain for passage, and the outcome may give a clue about the strength of the school choice movement in New York.

May 4, 2015

Pending version of NCLB bill removes pressure on states to use Common Core Standards

by Grace

The pending successor to No Child Left Behind that is the latest version of the reauthrized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will take federal pressure off states to use Common Core Standards.

The latest bill, known as the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), was unanimously approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee and appears to have a good chance of approval by both houses.  It does not incentivize states into adopting CCS.  Committee chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R) described it this way.

… our proposal would end federal test-based accountability and restore state and local responsibility for creating systems holding schools and teachers accountable. State accountability systems must meet limited federal guidelines, including challenging academic standards for all students, but the federal government is prohibited from determining or approving state standards or even incentivizing states into adopting specific standards. In other words, whether a state adopts Common Core is entirely that state’s decision. This transfer of responsibility is why we believe our proposal will result in fewer and more appropriate tests.

Our proposal allows, but does not require, states to develop and implement teacher evaluation systems that link student achievement to teacher performance. States will be allowed to use federal funds to implement evaluations the way they see fit.

Without knowing more details, it’s difficult to know if there will be much pressure for states to establish and maintain high academic standards.  How individual states react may be at least partly determined by how much pressure they feel from teacher unions and parents, many of whom have opposed CCS implementation.

Jennifer Rubin sees a compromise that partially placates several groups..

… The president will get NCLB reauthorized, conservatives will make sure the feds’ role is properly restricted, conservative activists can chalk up a win and backers of high standards can disentangle that issue from NCLB.


Jennifer Rubin, “A big legislative win on education”, Washington Post,  April 24, 2015.

April 23, 2015

Success Academy is not for everyone

by Grace

After a New York Times critical piece on the “Polarizing Tactics” of Success Academy charter schools, its founder and supporters come to its defense.

SA teachers “who do well can expect quick promotions” while those who struggle may be demoted if coaching is ineffective.  With tough workloads and high pressure, it would not be surprising to find high teacher turnover, although exact figure for both SA and traditional NYC schools are in dispute.

SA’s policy of publicly posting grades is harsh punishment for some students, but apparently others thrive under that system.

SA is certainly not typical of most public schools today.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Yet waiting lists of thousands of students indicate many families want an atypical public school, as noted by school founder Eva Moskowitz.

Your article acknowledges Success’s 9-to-1 application ratio but fails to draw the obvious conclusion: that parents of the more than 22,000 applicants — as well as those of our current 9,000 students — plainly disagree with your dreary portrait of our schools.

Parents should have school choice, writes Education Week blogger Walt Gardner.

In the final analysis, Success Academy Charter Schools underscore the need for parental choice. For some families, the network is a virtual godsend, while for other families, it is truly anathema. But the same thing can be said about military, Catholic and Montessori schools, as well as for traditional public schools.

Parents know their children’s needs and interests better than anyone else. That’s why efforts to provide them with greater opportunities are more important today than at any other time in the history of education in this country.

Charter schools like Success Academy give poor minority families an alternative to the dismal options among failing traditional schools in New York City.  Not all families find SA to their liking, as demonstrated by some of the follow-up “Stories From Current and Former Success Academy Parents”.  But many students thrive at SA, and feel thankful for having school choice.


Kate Taylor, “At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics”, New York Times, April 6, 2015.

April 17, 2015

Traditional public schools are a “strange value system for the left to embrace’

by Grace

Is Neighborhood-Based Education Liberal?

Jonathan Chait tarnished his liberal credentials by arguing that traditional public schools are actually less progressive than charter schools.

… Traditional, neighborhood-based schools are limited to local residents and pay their teachers based on length of service. Charter schools are open to students regardless of what property their parents can afford, and (generally) have non-unionized teachers with more flexible, merit-based pay scales. Unions care a great deal about preserving traditional tenure systems, so they lionize the neighborhood-based system that comes alongside it. But it’s a very strange value system for the left to embrace.

It is an interesting point to consider.

However, apparently Chait cannot be trusted to uphold traditional liberal values in the area of education because his wife “holds a high level position at the Center City Public Charter Schools and … a chunk of his family’s income is dependent upon the charter school movement”.  That’s interesting to know, and is duly noted.


Jonathan Chait, “Is Neighborhood-Based Education Liberal?”, New York Magazine, April 14, 2015.

April 9, 2015

School choice may follow from opting out of Common Core testing

by Grace

If opting out of Common Core testing is increasingly approved and even promoted, can school choice be the next cause for supporters of parental freedom?

The logical next step for the anti-Common Core ‘opt-out’ movement is opting out of entire schools.

Teacher unions strongly encourage opting out of testing.

… To be clear, the opt-out movement is not some organic happening. National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García tried to claim it was during a discussion I moderated a few weeks ago at the Council of Chief State School Officers legislative conference. When I asked her about the millions of dollars some of her state affiliates are spending to encourage test boycotts she didn’t have a response. That’s not very grassroots. In New York the state teachers unionis openly encouraging opt-outs and some PTAs are circulating warmed-over versions of union talking points….

Teachers who promote opting out may be paving the way for expanded school choice.

Fundamentally, the call for opt-outs is a call for more parental freedom. In contemporary America, accountability is usually regulatory-based (think financial markets), choice and market-based (for instance clothes) or some combination of the two (like restaurants). It may well be that test-based accountability has run its course in public education. If so, the opt-out movement – ironically fueled by self-interested teachers unions – may be pointing us to what’s next: a lot more choice and unbundling of services in public education.

That might not be so bad. If it turns out we can’t come together around school accountability schemes that look after the poor – especially while the same elite progressives boycotting tests can’t stop talking about inequality – then we at least ought to give the poor real choice about the schooling of their children given how crucial education is to social mobility.


Andrew J. Rotherham, “‘Opting Out’ Into School Choice”, U.S. News & World Report, April 7, 2015.

April 3, 2015

Some things about education have not changed

by Grace

While I disagree with the title of a recent Huffington Post article proclaiming that “Everything is Different Now” in parenting, I do agree that many things have changed.

•  A higher level of parent involvement is required for academic success.

In the old days, the primary educational duties for parents were reading to your kid and making sure they got into a good school. There was a high level of trust and respect for external authorities -you assumed that teachers and principals knew best and operated with the best interest of your son or daughter in mind.

With sophisticated Internet “research” projects assigned in elementary grades and developmentally inappropriate organizational skills required in middle school, the student whose parents don’t step in to offer hands-on guidance may easily be left behind academically.

•  A college degree offers diminished opportunity for a secure middle-class life.

In the old days, if your kid got into college they could probably find a job. These days it’s not just about grades, SAT scores, and college admissions-the level of young adult underemployment and debt suggests that bargain is broken.

•  Children are more sheltered and given less freedom to learn independence.

… there is a lot less unsupervised play and less unstructured summer roaming. Given rational safety concerns, most kids are more sheltered and scheduled and less like to explore and learn independence….

I disagree that this trend has been driven by “rational” concerns, unless he means the concerns that parents will run into trouble with CPS.

•  Learning options have expanded.

… There has been a linear increase in formal education options and an exponential explosion of informal learning options.

•  Higher education costs have exploded.

… The bad news is that most post-secondary education is more expensive than ever. The good news is that there are more options….

The message of the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed is that these and other changes cry out for “another transformation” in education.

“What I find shocking is that schools aren’t preparing our kids for life in the 21st Century. Surrounded by innovation, our education system is stuck in the 19th Century,” said Ted Dintersmith, producer of Most Likely to Succeed. “The skills and capabilities our kids need going forward are either ignored or outright trampled.” Ted’s movie outlines the broken bargain of a traditional college prep education and employability.

Dintersmith criticizes that students have to learn “regurgitated facts” and take traditional tests like the SAT.  He offers alternatives.

Invent a science experiment, write a creative essay, come up with an interesting historical perspective on an event they care about.

But facts are important.

The point that Dintersmith and others seems to miss is that facts serve as the basis for innovative scientific experiments and knowledgeable historical perspectives.  This inconvenient truth is at the core of the trouble with many education reforms.

Students need a broad base of knowledge before they can become critical thinkers.

Indeed, evidence from cognitive science challenges the notion that skills can exist independent of factual knowledge. Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a leading expert on how students learn. “Data from the last thirty years leads to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not only because you need something to think about,” Willingham has written. “The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”


Tom Vander Ark, “Everything is Different Now: Parenting for Powerful Learning”, Huffington Post, March 25, 2015.

Tom Vander Ark, “Most Likely To Succeed: A Film About What School Could Be”, Education Week, March 6, 2015.

March 27, 2015

Achievement gap cripples opportunities for minorities in nation’s increasingly diverse workforce

by Grace

The stark differences that show blacks and Hispanics trailing in academic achievement indicate a growing problem for our country’s future economic health.

Primary working-age population in the United States will experience a net loss of 15 million whites between 2010 and 2030.

Who has the skills to prosper, or even survive, in our knowledge economy?



By 2044, people of color will account for a majority of the U.S. population. In the newest Brookings Essay, Jennifer Bradley examines efforts in U.S. metropolitan areas to prepare a more diverse workforce, with a particular focus on Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Minnesota reflects the achievement gap common throughout the United States.

With most of the future growth in the labor force coming from people of color, it’s alarming to have to acknowledge how profoundly the existing education and training systems have failed them. Statewide, 85 percent of whites graduated from high school on time in 2013, compared to 58 percent of Hispanics, 57 percent of blacks (including both U.S.-born African-Americans and African immigrants), and fewer than half (49 percent) of American Indians. The gaps are slightly larger at the metropolitan level, and wrenching for the largest city, Minneapolis, where just 51 percent of Africans, 41 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of African-Americans, and 34 percent of American Indians graduate from public schools on time.

Business leaders have become heavily involved in trying to find solutions.

It’s a matter of pure business necessity. “This is not just about charity or being nice to people of color.”

Some employers have initiated training programs geared toward helping low-skills workers develop into self-sustaining employees.  But that doesn’t blunt the recognition that K-12 education is at the core of any solution.

Still, Rybak understands that it all comes back to education. To take on leadership positions and help companies compete globally and engage with many different cultures, children first need to succeed in primary and secondary school, which is why, after his last term as mayor, Rybak signed on as executive director of Generation Next. This is a coalition of leaders from universities, city and county governments, city school systems, major companies, local philanthropies, and non-profit organizations who came together in 2012 to try to eradicate the achievement gap among students in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He sees the education gap as the hardest thing to overcome in the region, and also the most important. Fortunately, the interest in doing something about it crosses party lines. Republicans who control the state House of Representatives have called for education reform to help deal with the gap, and the head of the state Republican Party calls it “arguably the defining issue of our time in Minnesota.”


Jennifer Bradley, “The Changing Face of the Heartland: Preparing America’s Diverse Workforce for Tomorrow”, Brookings Institution, March 17, 2015.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 220 other followers

%d bloggers like this: