Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, but they are not entitled to their own facts. This idea animates "The Learning Landscape," a new, accessible, and engaging effort by Bellwether Education Partners to ground contemporary education debates in, well, facts.

A robust document, it’s divided into six “chapters” on student achievement; accountability, standards, and assessment; school finance; teacher effectiveness; charter schools; and philanthropy in K–12 education. Data on these topics can be found elsewhere, of course. Where this report shines is in offering critical context behind current debates, and doing so in an admirably even-handed fashion. For example, the section on charter schools tracks the sector’s growth and student demographics and offers state-by-state data on charter school adoption and market share (among many other topics). But it also takes a clear-eyed look at for-profit operators, the mixed performance of charters, and other thorny issues weighing on charter effectiveness. (Online charters are a hot-button topic that could have used more discussion). Sidebars on “Why Some Charters Fail” and case studies on issues facing individual cities lend the report heft and authority, along with discussions on authorizing, accountability, and funding. In similar fashion, the chapter on standards and accountability summarizes the briefs both for and against various reform initiatives, covering such divisive issues as curriculum narrowing, school closures, NCLB waivers, and the “opt-out” movement.

"The Learning Landscape" will not satisfy those who insist that there’s nothing wrong with American education that can’t be fixed by (depending on the horse you rode in on) more money, unfettered local control, or total teacher autonomy. But it’s hard to imagine, say, a report from Common Core critics taking this much care to explain the case for standards. Too often, when someone promises “fair and balanced” coverage or an “honest and civil conversation,” it’s usually code for “the other guys had their say, so now it’s our turn.” Kudos to Bellwether for this earnest and, to my eye, successful effort to put between two covers what we know about damn near every hot-button issue in education. (And what we don’t know: The section on Common Core implementation, for example, acknowledges that “very little system-wide information exists about how and where districts purchase curricular materials….In fact, in every state except one, it is impossible to find out what materials districts are currently using without contacting the districts individually.” Such Easter eggs are scattered throughout the report, with copious footnotes for further exploring.)

While I was reading this report and preparing this review, a young colleague who recently left the classroom to study education policy in graduate school emailed me to ask for summer reading suggestions to get up to speed. Perhaps because "The Learning Landscape" was open on my desktop, it was the first thing I suggested. Not exactly August beach reading, but this won’t be the last time I recommend it.

SOURCE: “The Learning Landscape: A Broad View of the U.S. Public School System,” Bellwether Education Partners (July 2016).

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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