By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
‘Tis a time of celebration, reflection, gift-giving, and—swiftly thereafter—planning and resolving for the year to come.
Let’s include in those reflections and resolutions some extra attention to the oft-neglected demographic subset we might simply call smart poor kids. They so often fall through a crack between two common assumptions in American education: (1) that “gifted and talented” education is something that’s mostly about able but also privileged middle class youngsters with pushy parents (i.e., that it’s an elitist thing); and (2) the belief that smart high achievers will generally do fine on their own and hence the formal education system should focus laser-like on the laggards and those on the lower edge of the achievement gap.
What gets left out are millions of able kids who, for reasons entirely beyond their control, aren’t middle class, lack sophisticated and aggressive adults to steer them through the education system, and who therefore depend heavily on that system to notice what they’re capable of and cultivate their abilities to the max. All of which was made worse by No Child Left Behind with its single-minded fixation on getting kids over the proficiency bar.
Why bother thinking differently about it now?
- There’s an equity issue here, of course: These kids, like others, deserve an education that meets their needs.
- There’s an upward mobility opportunity here: The poor kids with the greatest potential to rise out of poverty—and bring subsequent generations with them—are high-ability poor kids.
- There’s a personalized-learning challenge (and opportunity) here: These kids would benefit greatly from a K–12 system that truly made it possible for them to progress at their own speed.
- And the nation’s future is an element here, too: These young people, provided that their talents are properly developed and their aptitudes cultivated to the max, have much to contribute to the country’s prosperity as well as its civic and cultural lives.
This last point was underscored in an important recent study from The Equality of Opportunity Project, the ambitious “big data” initiative led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and others. They examined a million American inventors—people who have actually filed patents—and discovered “large disparities…by socioeconomic class, race, and gender” although “differences in ability…explain very little of these disparities.” More precisely, “Children at the top of their third grade math class are much more likely to become inventors, but only if they come from high-income families” (emphasis added).
Consider the implications for American society—for equity, for mobility, for prosperity—if its inventors and innovators continue to come almost exclusively from wealthy backgrounds. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt refers to the “lost Einsteins” and quotes AOL founder and venture capitalist Steve Case, who reminds us that “creativity is broadly distributed. Opportunity is not.”
Turning this situation around is going to require forceful and sustained attention to the education of the kids at greatest risk of becoming more lost Einsteins. That’s the gist of what I hope will be many people’s New Year resolutions—the kind that get kept, please, and refreshed through the year and well beyond, not the kind that resemble promises to go to the gym more often or quit eating candy.
Yet there’s also cause for celebrating at this holiday season. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created a fresh opportunity for states to pay attention to the achievement of all their students, not just those below the proficiency bar. And, according to Fordham’s careful analysis of the accountability plans that states (and D.C.) have submitted to Washington under ESSA, twenty-three jurisdictions intend to make commendable use of this opportunity and fourteen more are at least moving in that direction.
Several states and districts are going further. The huge Miami-Dade district is making great strides in identifying high-ability low-income kids and English language learners and getting them into gifted classes, accelerated programs, and Advanced Placement. New York City is striving to bring AP into all its high schools, including those in Gotham’s poorest communities. Early-college high schools are springing up all over. Several forceful nonprofit groups, such as the National Math and Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and MassInsight Education, are doing excellent work in pushing AP into kindred high schools in lots of places—and changing educator expectations and school cultures to cause more disadvantaged youngsters to enter and succeed in such rigorous classes. Several Wisconsin legislators have proposed that the Badger State create a first-of-its-kind “Gifted and Talented Education Savings Account.” We’re also seeing more scholars and advocacy groups elevate these issues on their agendas.
Bravo and thanks to them all and others not mentioned here. The gifts they are bringing have value far beyond the children who will benefit from them in the near term. They’re gifts to the nation as well.
So far, however, that’s still a small pile of gifts when placed alongside the need at hand. So please don’t fail to make—and keep—those New Years resolutions, too. And in the meantime have a happy holiday.
Earlier this month, Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success released a report assessing states’ ESSA plans. As The 74 reported, their reviews found them “largely lackluster,” a judgment that, at first blush, seems to conflict with Fordham’s own generally positive review of all fifty-one ESSA accountability plans. But don’t rely on first blushes.
The key word in the preceding paragraph is “accountability,” which distinguishes our report from theirs and mostly explains why ours was more positive. Although both reports looked at accountability, Fordham’s looked only at accountability—and only at select aspects of it—and we had good reasons for restricting our analysis in this way.
Both projects assessed “Consolidated State Plans” that states sent to the U.S. Department of Education as part of their obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act. These submissions were typically more than one hundred pages long, and each set forth its state’s intentions in myriad areas, including assessments, accountability, long-term goals, school turnarounds, instructional support, teacher equity, programs for at-risk students, rural education, and much more.
One problem with reviewing everything in these plans—and a reason, we suspect, why neither report did—is that they’re basically big, complex compliance exercises. They comprise lots of blather and paperwork that culminate in pretty words across many realms, words that often don’t amount to much. The trick, then, is to pluck, analyze, and evaluate the parts that do matter.
The Bellwether and Collaborative authors, smart folks we know and respect, identified nine such parts: goals; standards and assessments; indicators; academic progress; all students; identifying schools; supporting schools; exiting improvement status; and continuing improvement.
Fordham, however, went at this differently. In our view, the part of ESSA plans that will matter most is the design of state accountability systems—in particular the ratings or labels that states place on their individual schools, the components and weightings that go into those ratings, and the methods used to develop them. We based this on rigorous and well-respected studies from the NCLB era showing that such ratings can and do drive behavior in schools.
We therefore gauged whether state accountability plans achieved three objectives:
- Did they assign annual ratings to school that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public?
- Did they encourage schools to focus on all of their pupils, not just their low performers, by measuring achievement via average scale scores or a performance index, and by giving substantial weight to a measure of annual academic growth for all students?
- Did they fairly measure and judge all schools, including those with high rates of poverty, by basing ratings on how much students learn while in their classrooms, not on pupils’ performance level on the first day of class?
In these crucial but limited areas, the Fordham analysis actually has much in common with the Bellwether/Collaborative report. We found that just nine states lacked clear and intuitive annual ratings; they pegged that number at fifteen. We applauded states’ widespread use of growth measures and metrics that look beyond proficiency rates; and they noted that a bright spot in state ESSA plans was their widespread inclusion of “year-to-year student growth, which gives schools credit for how much progress their students make over time, rather than static determinations about where students are at a given point in time.”
Yet Fordham’s selective approach meant that we ignored much of what Bellwether and the Collaborative assessed. We did not, for example, look at long-term state goals, most of which we fear represent lofty, unrealistic, and functionally meaningless promises.
Neither did we assess consequences and interventions for chronically failing schools. Improving the educational outcomes and opportunities of students attending such schools is indeed important, but research to date offers little hope of success by intervening in the ways that ESSA seems to intend and that states are proposing. There are, however, a few promising strategies, and we’ve come to believe that the best fix may be to let chronically failing schools die, mostly by giving their students better school options, especially new high quality charters. Still, we’re not surprised that even choice-friendly states opted not to put that politically dicey approach explicitly in their ESSA plans.
Moreover, chronically failing schools are just a sliver of the total, and Fordham chose to focus on components of state plans that affect all schools. That's where annual summative ratings like A–F grades come in. For the 80–90 percent of schools that will never receive a failing grade, we think transparency can do a lot of good.
We also skipped state’s plans for subgroup performance. We concede that it's possible that some states to which we gave high marks may end up labeling schools as great even if they do poorly by one or another subgroup. But we doubt that this will happen very often because those would have to be schools where poor and minority kids make up a small percentage of the total—or else their poor performance would drag down the entire school grade—and, given patterns of racial and socioeconomic isolation, there aren't that many such schools. Furthermore, we assess whether states emphasize a measure of growth for all students, and doing so means, well, focusing on all students, including those in subgroups.
In the end, the Fordham analysis is based on a trio of objectives that we believe states ought to take seriously when designing their school accountability systems. We’re clear about those objectives and why they’re important. But we don’t claim that there’s any one best way to construct these frameworks. And there are certainly tradeoffs. Focusing on all students, for example, could mean that schools and teachers will pay less attention to their low performers. We understand that risk, but there’s also a great risk to the country’s future when we neglect the education of higher-achieving students, especially those growing up in poverty. This is a normative value, and we don’t assume that everyone will share it.
None of this is easy or argument-free, but we stand by our methodology as well as the conclusion that a surprisingly large number of state accountability plans are good news for students. And when it comes to school ratings, student growth, and looking beyond proficiency rates—the basis of our positive outlook—we think Bellwether and the Collaborative actually agree.
The past year has been frantic and fraught, and that was no less true for education. Politically charged debates raged over perennial contentious issues like school discipline and school choice, as well as newer topics like the Every Student Succeeds Act and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
These topics and more show up in the two lists that follow, which comprise fifteen of our most-read articles. The first ten articles come from Fordham staff members, and the last five were written by guests.
The top ten Fordham-authored posts of 2017
1. David Brooks and the language of privilege, by Robert Pondiscio
Responding to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Robert Pondiscio challenged the assertion that the parenting styles of privileged Americans, the so-called “pediacracy,” is ruining America for the rest of us. This provocative piece also prompted a conversation around privilege in education, with responses on Education Post, Joanne Jacobs’s blog, and Fordham’s own Flypaper.
2. Counting down the top 5 education issues for 2017, by Aaron Churchill
Readers’ top five issues were school accountability, e-schools, the new federal administration, ESSA, and charters and choice—predictions that turned out to be rather prescient.
3. Schools are still peddling the self-esteem hoax, by Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Checker Finn’s post on the “faux psychology” that undergirds social-emotion learning stoked a spirited debate, with a host of responses submitted to Education Week, as well as responses and commentary from the Bluegrass Institute, Charles Barone, Joanne Jacobs, Marc Tucker, and Peter DeWitt.
Mike Petrilli examined why upper-middle-class parents often put other considerations ahead of school diversity. For more reading, check out his book The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools.
5. Betsy DeVos's team stumbles on ESSA, by Michael Petrilli
As the initial feedback of the Every Student Succeeds Act state plans came through, the Department of Education’s review of Delaware’s plan raised some eyebrows, as Mike explained.
Following the House of Representatives vote to gut Obama-era ESSA regulations—which, as predicted, led to a full repeal—Brandon Wright argued that the Department of Education ought to replace them with new regulations immediately or risk chilling state innovation and opening the door for future administrations to pass rules that go against today’s non-binding assurances—sowing even more chaos down the line.
7. Has the high school diploma lost all meaning?, by Brandon Wright
Following the graduation scandal at D.C.’s Ballou High School, Brandon lamented a situation that’s grown absurd and untenable: We’ve simultaneously lowered the bar for high school graduation while pushing for more high school graduates to attend college.
8. What teens want from their schools, by Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli
Tying in with Fordham’s report on what truly motivates and engages high school students, Amber Northern and Mike explained the many engagement profiles of high school students and what they mean for educators. This one also made the Education Next top-ten list for 2017.
9. Don't let personalized learning become the processed food of education, by Michael Petrilli
With the ever-growing popularity of personalized learning, Mike cautioned against its “mass production,” warning that “personalization” might paradoxically encourage a reductionist type of education that breaks learning into little scraps of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.
10. The collapse of academic standards, by Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Checker warned that colleges are increasingly forgoing remedial education for unprepared freshmen and instead conferring degree credit for what used to be the kinds of high-school-level content and skills that one had to master before gaining access to “credit-bearing” college courses. These lamentable bridge classes, called “corequisites,” are similar in their standard-lowering effect to K–12 grade inflation and credit recovery.
Our commentary benefits from the diverse thoughts of engaged guest bloggers. Their contributions are invaluable, and we’re grateful they graced our pages. Here are this year’s most popular articles.
The top five Fordham guest posts of 2017
1. 3 reasons most teachers still believe the learning styles myth, by Daniel T. Willingham
Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and former member of the National Board for Education Sciences, explained how the myth of “learning styles” remains pervasive among teachers and why the belief should be thoroughly debunked.
Alli Aldis, daughter of Fordham’s vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy, wrote about her personal experience with AP U.S. History and how to engage students in subject areas that they otherwise may not appreciate.
3. 40 ESSA rules endangered by Republicans' repeal efforts, by Anne Hyslop
Anne Hyslop, an education consultant and former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama Administration, described forty rules endangered by the repeal of Obama-era ESSA regulation.
4. The lasting value of a classical liberal arts education, by Dan Scoggin
Dan Scoggin, the co-founder and chief advancement officer of Great Hearts, argued that America is facing a crisis in educating students to meet an increasingly complex world. He said the best way to develop our graduates’ skills and talents for an evolving twenty-first-century economy is a classical liberal arts education.
5. Connecting psychology research to gifted education practice, by Matthew C. Makel, Rena Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Jonathan Plucker
Organized around a set of twenty research-based learning principles for gifted education, this synthesis introduced readers to each principle and how it’s relevant to teachers, and provides a list of actions that teachers can take to incorporate these principles into their classroom to promote learning and development.
Congratulations to all of our bloggers. And a very special thanks to our readers! We look forward to writing about the education policy, news, and challenges of 2018.
On this week’s podcast, special guest Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to compare Fordham’s ESSA review to that of Bellwether and the Collaborative for Student Success. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines educators’ political persuasions and their potential effects on classrooms.
Amber’s Research Minute
Educator Political Perceptions: A National Survey, Education Week Research Center (December 2017).
A new working paper from the Stanford Graduate School of Education uses roughly 300 million state math and English language arts test scores from 2009–15 for students in third through eighth grade in over 11,000 school districts across the country to take a really-big-picture look at patterns of academic achievement. The analysis allows users to compare the growth rates across U.S. school districts, a view of educational quality that is rarely seen at a national level. The findings—broken down over time, by geography, and into various subgroups—should be of interest to all education stakeholders.
The data come from NAEP and state assessments via the National Center for Education Statistics and exclude only the smallest districts for whom data on test scores and/or socioeconomic status (SES) are not available due to small sample sizes. Data on students in bricks-and-mortar charter schools are also included, rolled into the data of the district in which each school is located. Data on students in online charter schools, which enroll without regard to district boundaries, is excluded. The author of the study estimates that the data account for almost 99 percent of all public school students.
The best news comes from the temporal analysis: How a child scores at the end of eighth grade has more to do with the academic growth rate he attained between third and eighth grade than where he may have started in third grade. Third grade test scores—the starting point for each cohort—showed gaps that correlated strongly with the socioeconomic status of the community in which schools were located, indicating that education outcomes between pre-K and third grade are heavily influenced by resources available to students—in school, in families, or both. Lead researcher and author Sean F. Reardon then looked at where those same students finished up at the end of eighth grade, trying to pinpoint the contribution made by a child’s educational experiences between grades three and eight. Reardon’s findings indicate that average third grade scores do not predict the rate at which average scores change between third and eighth grade. Starting out ahead was no guarantee of superior growth; students who started out behind could catch up and exceed the growth rate of their peers. What’s more, students in low-SES districts showed high growth rates somewhat more often than did students in high-SES districts.
All of this points to the fact that living in poverty does not axiomatically guarantee poor academic outcomes for students, even if it’s commonly associated with starting from behind. However, Reardon’s geographic and subgroup analyses bear out that poverty often does equate to poor academic outcomes. Taking a wide-angle look at the areas where third grade test scores start out high and are followed by high growth shows a concentration in areas one might expect: suburbs and exurbs in wealthy areas of the northeast and California, for example. But low scores followed by low growth patterns are more common in the Deep South and rural areas in the West. There are also many districts across the country where high scores are followed by average or below average growth. Importantly, tracking the districts where third grade test scores start out low but are followed by high growth picks out some areas of Tennessee and the city of Chicago, among others. (Check out this nifty tool from the New York Times based on this analysis, with which users can compare the growth rates of various districts across the nation.)
It cannot be overstated that this is a very-high-level analysis. A school district is too large an entity with which to make meaningful determinations of school-level quality, charter schools are lumped in with districts, and Reardon creates a single score aggregating both math and English language arts test scores as a means of comparison. But these design facets should not take away from the overall message: Quality education matters at all ages. High quality early education can give young children a firm foundation for learning, but that foundation can be eroded by lower quality education going forward. Similarly, low quality early education or socioeconomic challenges can result in a poor start, but steady doses of high quality education over time can help those students make up ground.
To get a clearer view of school quality, users need to dig into finer-grained data to uncover those places—individual schools or classrooms—that are providing the most beneficial education. In short, good schools matter. Those providing both a firm foundation and strong continuous growth must be identified and their practices replicated. But figuring out which districts are having the greatest success lifting achievement and where they are located is a good start.
One final note: Continuous growth in higher grade levels appears to be Reardon’s holy grail, but his analysis offers no indication of how many of the students’ test scores approach proficiency at any point in time. Growth matters, without question, but it must have a proper end goal—what a student must know and be able to do at any given end point. Growth by itself is not a worthy enough benchmark.
SOURCE: Sean F. Reardon, “Educational opportunity in early and middle childhood: Variation by place and age,” Stanford Graduate School of Education working paper (December, 2017).
Charter opponents have long argued that school choice increases racial isolation in America’s public schools. Earlier this month, for example, the AP released an unsophisticated analysis that supported this hypothesis. (That misleading story was swiftly discredited.) Related to this issue, Brookings has followed up a previous report, “Segregation, race, and charter schools: What do we know?,” with a study comparing the racial compositions of schools with their surrounding neighborhoods. It’s more rigorous and nuanced than the AP report, although it also risks further confusing the rhetoric in such an important and politically charged debate.
The analysts created their own measurement index for their comparison, using 2013–14 NCES Data for student enrollment and demographic information and 2010 data from the National Historic Geographic Information System (NHGIS) to determine neighborhood composition. NHGIS data are broken down into small census blocks. For purposes of this study, a school’s neighborhood includes all census blocks within two miles of a school that are also within the same school district. These demographics are then compared to school demographics to determine the “racial imbalance measure.” Each school has a racial imbalance score for white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and other race students.
The analysts determined that, unsurprisingly, U.S. schools typically have similar racial compositions to their surrounding neighborhood. Yet one third of schools were labeled “outliers,” meaning they had significant over- or underrepresentation of one or more race/ethnicity, when compared to other schools in their state. The most common types of outlier schools were those with higher black representation than the surrounding neighborhood and schools with lower white representation.
Charter schools were substantially more likely than district-operated schools to have student bodies significantly different than their neighborhoods. This was true of for white, Hispanic, and black students, but the difference was highest for the latter group: Nationwide, charters were 4.1 percentage points more imbalanced, and three times more likely to be outliers, than district schools when it came to African American pupils.
Some readers will likely interpret these data to mean that charters are more racially isolated than TPS—but that’s not necessarily so. Because the report simply compares a school’s racial composition to the surrounding neighborhood, a racially imbalanced school could actually be less racially isolated than the surrounding neighborhood. The report itself is clear in this distinction, but the headline on Brookings’s website (“60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, how racially balanced are America’s public schools?”) is decidedly less cautious.
The other major problem with the study is that it doesn’t consider the fact that most charter schools—by design—are located in urban communities. By definition cities have more population density, making it more feasible for parents to choose schools outside their immediate neighborhoods, and making a mismatch between neighborhood demographics and school demographics more likely. That’s just not the case in the spread-out suburbs or in rural areas. Thus the analysts erred in comparing charters nationwide and statewide to traditional public schools, since the former are mostly located in cities and the latter are located everywhere.
Indeed, using Brookings’ data, table 1 shows average racial imbalance scores for the largest county in each of the ten most populous cities, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Together, these urban counties showed significantly larger imbalances for white and black students in both charter and traditional public schools than in non-urban counties. Because charters are significantly more concentrated in urban areas than TPS, this skews charters’ nationwide averages when compared to traditional public schools. Urban charters also often simply take the place of struggling district schools, thus potentially artificially shifting to charters racial imbalances that were present in the shuttered, low-performing TPS.
Finally, charters are more likely to serve higher proportions of low-income students than traditional public schools, which the Brooking study doesn’t control for but could also affect the data. In other words, if one compared charters to similarly urban, high-poverty traditional public schools—especially those that charters have replaced—the racial imbalance differences between the two school types might largely disappear.
Table 1. White and black imbalances in charter and traditional public school in highly populated and non-highly populated areas.
*Urban is defined as all schools within the largest county associated with the ten largest U.S. cities (2010 US Census).
The study also includes a number of its own caveats. Charter schools naturally have wider enrollment areas than traditional public schools, which predisposes them to racial compositions that differ from the surrounding neighborhood. Additionally, the data cannot attribute a causal relationship between charters and racial imbalance. The authors note that the relationship between racial imbalance and charters is “complicated.”
As is true with much in American education, this report underscores the dangers of generalization and oversimplification. Understanding how race and charters intersect is important for the future of school choice. But policymakers and reformers must take great care to not misinterpret or misuse these data.
SOURCE: Grover J. Whitehurst, Richard V. Reeves, Nathan Joo, and Edward Roudrigue, “Balancing Act: Schools, Neighborhoods and Racial Imbalance,” The Brookings Institution (November 2017).