By Michael J. Petrilli
It feels more than a little tone-deaf to say this right now, given the dumpster fire that is the current state of our national affairs, but education reform is having a pretty good year.
That’s certainly not what many of us predicted twelve months ago. We worried that Donald Trump’s support for charter schools and school choice would make those issues toxic on the left; growing polarization would sound the death knell for any hope of centrism and bipartisanship, both of which have been essential for the ed-reform project for the better part of two decades; and populist attacks on data and reason would make it that much harder for our arguments to win the day.
And indeed, some of this has come to pass. Reformers on the left, especially, feel forced to declare their allegiance to “The Resistance” on a daily basis, lest Randi Weingarten and others succeed in painting any Democrat for Education Reform as Betsy DeVos in sheep’s clothing.
And yet, in the arena where it matters most, education reformers have had a remarkable year. As one reform funder noted privately last week, “the world is falling apart, and the center is not holding, but 2017 was the best year for legislative victories in history.”
That’s surely true when it comes to charter school policy. Not only did Kentucky finally pass a charter school law—and a good one at that—several major states made huge strides in bringing charter funding closer to parity with traditional public schools. That includes Colorado and Florida, which gave charters access to local property tax levies; Texas, which gave charters state funding for facilities for the first time; and Illinois, which passed a comprehensive overhaul of its school finance system that brought greater equity to school statewide, and created a new tax credit scholarship program to boot. This rightfully earned Illinois reform advocates the coveted “Eddie” award from the Policy Innovators in Education Network for “game changer of the year.”
This is all incredibly important, and promising. Ten years ago, you could argue that the biggest priority for charter policy was improving quality control, especially in a handful of “wild west” states. Since then, there’s been lots of progress, especially in Texas and Arizona, and more recently in Fordham’s home state of Ohio. (Yes, it’s still early there with some bad actors still fighting for survival, but the reforms enacted in 2015 are starting to work.) There are still some states in need of a clean-up, but in most places, the pressing priority is to close the enormous funding gaps between charters and traditional public schools. More than anything else, that’s what’s keeping high quality charters from growing and replicating. It could explain some of the low quality of schools as well. Gaining access to local property taxes has been the Holy Grail of the Indiana Joneses of charter policy. No more.
We are also in much better shape on accountability than we could have expected a year ago. To be sure, some reformers are disappointed with the shape of states’ ESSA plans, and the Trump Administration’s willingness to rubber-stamp them. But they are missing the forest for the trees. States could have eviscerated their accountability systems, doing the bare minimum under the federal law by identifying their very worst schools, and staying mum about the other 90 or 95 percent. And by our count, ten states (out of fifty) decided to do so, opting not to rate any school except for those identified for interventions.
The biggest and most important of these states is California, and other large ones include Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. Reformers in those locales have every reason to be disappointed, and will have to work double-time to inform parents and the public of the relative performance of all of their states’ schools.
But this also means that forty states and the District of Columbia decided to go well beyond the bare minimum and continue to apply ratings to every school. And on the whole these ratings are clearer than ever before, with more states using A–F grades, five-star ratings, or 1–100 scores. And while we wonks will continue to squabble over the minutiae of how these ratings are determined, in every state they are dominated by student achievement. These are huge victories for reformers, and losses for the teachers unions and other advocates of hiding the truth from parents and the public.
And can any reformer look at the coming Janus Supreme Court case and not smile at the prospect of the NEA and AFT having dramatically less money to spend on politicians who put the interests of adults over the needs of kids?
Now maybe our luck is about to run out, as the past twelve months take their toll on the political system and policymaking apparatus. I certainly worry about moderates of both parties getting wiped out in the 2018 midterms, especially gubernatorial candidates and state legislators. The risk is especially high in the few remaining blue states, such as California, where a reform-friendly governor has kept his legislature from going off the reservation. Will his replacement do the same?
So we can’t let down our guard, nor can we ignore the many other problems facing our country, and our kids, today. But we can enjoy some satisfaction in the fact that child-friendly education policies are still winning. Go ahead, let yourself smile.
A recent front-page story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about “teaching social justice” in K–12 classrooms raised interesting, and also troubling, issues regarding the proper mission of schools.
As I wrote in my book, Class Warfare “there has always been the temptation to use schools for purposes other than schooling, for proselytizing and other ends, since children are the ultimate captive audience.” Both conservatives and liberals have engaged in moralizing at various times, from the McGuffey readers introduced in 1836 to inculcate patriotism and traditional values to the more recent efforts of multiculturalists to promote global citizenship.
The Educators for Social Justice described in the article state that they “value the importance of solidarity (in) working toward our mission to develop and support socially just, equitable, and sustainable practices.” They are not alone in this crusade, as similar movements have sprung up all across the country in pre-collegiate education.
Who could be against schools attempting to cultivate virtue in young people? Let me suggest that while there is a place for this in schools, one must tread very carefully in this area. Educators for Social Justice and like-minded groups seem oblivious to the potential problems they are inviting.
First, schools should mainly stick to what they are uniquely entrusted to do—teaching math, physics, English, and other subject matter and, beyond that, a love of learning. Schools should not aspire to be churches or social work agencies. In an already overcrowded school day in which our schools struggle to find the time to get students to become proficient in “the three R’s,” social justice training can be a huge distraction.
Second, more importantly, it is sheer hubris for teachers to bring their own personal political agenda into the classroom. What happened to free inquiry? In my own teaching, I try to keep my ideological dispositions to myself rather than using my lectern as a bully pulpit, if only to promote critical thinking as opposed to indoctrination. I expose students to a wide range of views from left to right. For example, when I teach about multinational corporations and globalization, I have them read everything from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman.
Educators for Social Justice talk a lot about diversity, but do they promote the most important type of diversity—diversity of ideas? Contrary to their claim that they celebrate “disagreement,” they seem to promote only a politically correct, left-leaning perspective. What are the chances they would have their students read analyses about poverty and race written by conservative writers such as Charles Murray (Coming Apart), Thomas Sowell (Wealth, Poverty, and Politics), and Walter Williams (Race and Economics) or—relating to the Stockley verdict and policing—the scholarly work of Heather MacDonald (The War on Cops), which shows “systemic police brutality” to be a false narrative?
The philosopher David Hume said, “Truth emerges from debate among friends.” John Stuart Mill likewise argued that free speech and debate were essential to not only maintaining a free society but also nurturing personal intellectual growth, as only through the competition of ideas could one sharpen one’s knowledge and develop a factual basis for reaching conclusions about race, inequality or any other subject. Educators for Social Justice are disingenuous in posing as facilitators of student-centered learning, when as teachers they have largely foreclosed the discussion or at least steered it toward a preferred outcome.
Third, although Educators for Social Justice express “solidarity,” not only are facts often contested but also values themselves. There is wide societal disagreement today regarding what constitutes “justice” and what are the “right” values, for example whether we should promote an “it takes a village” ethos as opposed to “personal responsibility.” Especially in the public schools, teachers risk usurping parents’ prerogatives in shaping their children’s ethical beliefs. They also risk grossly distorting reality.
It is fine to have students view events through the eyes of marginalized people, but how about also familiarizing students with the empirical, scientific research reported by both liberal and conservative think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution and Heritage Foundation, that if a young person would do four relatively simple things in sequence—get a high school diploma, get a job, get married, and only then have kids—he or she has a more than 90 percent chance of escaping poverty?
I would argue that, if you want to teach social justice, it should be taught not only through reading about poverty in America but also by modeling it first-hand—say, penalizing students who do not complete their homework. Aside from teaching individual responsibility, this gets classmates to understand the concept of fairness, treating all students with the same expectations rather than privileging some by cutting them slack.
Somehow I doubt Educators for Social Justice would agree.
J. Martin Rochester is a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
A slightly different version of this article was first published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
In an era when Americans are chronically dissatisfied with their country’s schools (if not necessarily with the ones their own kids attend) and increasingly anxious about the rise of China, Lenora Chu’s new book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, is timely and illuminating, as it looks at China’s education system through the lens of an American parent who is also a veteran journalist. Chu and her husband live in Shanghai and, as their son Rainey approaches school age, they must decide what type of education they want for him. This personal angle—plus a journalist’s attention to context—provides clarity and nuance that some other recent books touching similar topics, such as Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon and Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, have lacked.
As Chu talks to teachers, observes classrooms, and stresses about her parental choices, she raises timely questions about parenting styles, cross-cultural literacy, and varying approaches to education. She’s often skeptical of the practices and norms in Chinese schools that she visits, but confronting these cultural differences makes her—and the reader—question things that may otherwise get taken for granted.
In some cases, she easily concludes that the Chinese system is plain wrong. After all, this is an authoritarian country with an atrocious human rights record.
She has no problem condemning the country’s hyper-nationalistic curricula, its overwhelming focus on academics for young children (she describes a friend’s child as enrolled in an “early MBA for five-year-olds”), and the country’s exclusion of special needs and migrant students from mainstream education. In some other cases, it is American education trends that, seen from a distance, appear unhinged. When young Rainey returns home every day with worksheets covered in corrections from his teacher’s red pen, Chu recalls the new idea in America that red marks—even in college—are “like shouting” and may “upset” the fragile students.
Some of the best parts of the book are those that explore the pros and cons of the strict, paternalistic schooling models for which East Asia is known, and American readers may see parallels in the debates going on in American and Chinese education circles. As demand rises in China for less severe classrooms, more in the U.S. question our schools’ handing of character education, discipline, and the strict “no excuses” approach. By examining a famously authoritarian education system that is under pressure to reform and relax, Chu’s book offers a valuable perspective on how to balance freedom and structure in childrearing and schools.
Strict and structured classrooms
Despite sometimes troubling excesses, Chu comes to appreciate two qualities of Chinese schools that ours sometimes lack: an emphasis on holding students accountable for hard work and a well-structured school environment. Bathroom breaks are highly restricted, student posture is policed, lunches are to be eaten in silence, students are publicly ranked based on their performance, parents are expected to be actively involved, and the whole system is anchored by high-stakes tests. In contrast to the American focus on sunny attitudes, happiness, and self-esteem, a Chinese “child’s regard for herself is rarely as important as a stark evaluation of performance.”
Such schools are not unknown in the U.S., of course, particularly the “no excuses” kind that generally serve disadvantaged youngsters. This model, most often associated with charters such as New York City’s Success Academy, is known for its tough, no-nonsense culture. Here, too, we can find kids silently marching between classrooms, teachers meticulously regulating student posture, and grueling test prep. As the title of David Whitman’s 2009 book has it, these schools are Sweating the Small Stuff, meticulously managing classroom order—and students’ personal lives—to establish a foundation for learning.
Are strict schools just for disadvantaged students?
But are such strict, almost militaristic schools, ultimately good for their pupils? In a recent article, a former teacher at a “no excuses” school argues that they’re “not helping” disadvantaged students. Comparing the environment of her previous school with the progressive school she works at now, the author says that “the way a school treats its students shouldn’t be based on race or class.” But, whether or not you agree with them, those who see value in strict parenting and highly structured schools, such as Chu, Whitman, and “tiger mother” Amy Chua, aren’t saying they’re just for disadvantaged kids. Rather, they contend that stricter parenting and schools can lead to stronger education and more productive lives for all kinds of children.
Whitman for example argues that, however paternalistic its model, the virtues of a “no excuses” boarding school, such as the SEED school in Washington, D.C., are the same as those of the elite schools where Kennedys and Bushes have traditionally sent their children. Likewise, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was written by and for upper-middle-class American parents, and she contends that what has been branded “Asian” parenting has much in common with traditional mainstream norms in the U.S. For her part, Chu sees both good and bad in strict parenting and education, but like Chua she does not view strictness as a ladder out of poverty so much as a source of benefits for her own child, a boy from a privileged background whose parents have options and resources.
If America’s “no excuses” schools mainly serve historically disadvantaged children, it’s partly because laws, priorities, and philanthropists are most focused on such youngsters and partly because the stakes are so high for them. For affluent kids, school mediocrity is less of a barrier to success in life. In a country where just 7 percent of black twelfth graders were proficient in math on the most recent “Nation’s Report Card,” advocates for the “no excuses” model believe that order and discipline are prerequisites of school success for young people who face many more challenges than their affluent peers. (Of course, many American advocates for strict schools also believe that, despite the term “no excuses,” both school-level and economy-level changes are needed to improve social mobility.)
This interaction of social class and educational philosophy has parallels in today’s China, where affluent families sometimes reject traditional schooling and parenting models. In recent years, some top schools have been introducing project-based curricula—and, as more families get wealthier, more are opting out of the state system and enrolling in private Montessori and Waldorf schools, signing up for programs that prepare young people to go abroad for college, and even sending their daughters and sons abroad for high school.
In China, as elsewhere, having more money means having more options, and considering how spartan and uniform Chinese schools have always been, more families are able and willing to experiment with some new ideas. That said, China has a long way to go before anyone can say it has foresworn strict parenting and schooling, and not all affluent parents are abandoning the old ways. Just as many middle-class Americans still send their children to religious schools and boarding schools known for being strict and instilling traditional values, most affluent Chinese still value aspects of the traditional models, even if many prefer some changes.
After Rainey had attended his Shanghai school for a few months, Chu and her husband observed him coloring and worried that he may be on the road to soulless conformism because he was keeping everything neatly inside the lines. Even if this might sound like the neurotic worry of the stereotypical helicopter parent, Chu’s broader concern is reasonable: We don't want our schools to be so rigid that they produce children who only paint by number, compose formulaic stories, and apply ready-made solutions to every problem. For Chu, the solution is to have Rainey attend rigorous Chinese schools for a few early years, complement that with a freewheeling home environment, and then switch him to a less structured school in the later grades.
As the U.S. continues to evaluate the “no excuses” model, how schools balance freedom and discipline and how they best cultivate creativity as well as academic skills are questions we will surely continue to debate.
On this week's podcast, Mike Petrilli, Alyssa Schwenk, and Brandon Wright discuss education reform’s surprisingly good year. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines a rigorous new study of career and technical education and its relationship to higher graduation rates.
Amber’s Research Minute
Michael A. Gottfried and Jay Stratte Plasman, “Linking the Timing of Career and Technical Education Coursetaking With High School Dropout and College-Going Behavior,” American Educational Research Journal (October 2017).
Although researchers have yet to render the definitive verdict on preschool as the possible key to Kindergarten readiness, better K–12 outcomes, and life success for children, more findings are being added to the pool every month. One case in point is a new longitudinal study that examines academic and socioemotional outcomes for students participating in a Montessori preschool.
For those not familiar with the method, the American Montessori Society’s list of attributes reads: “Multiage groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity. In addition, a full complement of specially designed Montessori learning materials are meticulously arranged and available for use in an aesthetically pleasing environment.”
For the purposes of the present study, Montessori was chosen as an alternative to what the researchers define as default or “business-as-usual” versions of preschool: “teacher-led and didactic or else…lack[ing] academic content.”
Angeline Lillard and her research team used lottery-based Montessori magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut, to create treatment and control groups. The treatment group comprised seventy students who won the lottery to attend one of two public Montessori schools; the control group consisted of seventy-one students who lost the same lottery and attended a variety of non-Montessori public magnet, traditional public, and private schools over the study period from age three through six.
The study measured students’ academic achievement, theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others’ mental states can be different from one's own), social competence, executive function (via two different tasks), mastery orientation (whether a child is a “persister” at a difficult task or will settle for another, easier task), relative enjoyment of school (as compared to relative enjoyment of more obviously “fun” activities), and creativity (via Guilford’s Alternative Uses task). All students were assessed on all components at four points in time over the three years—once in the first semester after starting school, and again at the end of years one, two, and three of the study.
As might be expected, healthy and growing children advanced in all measured areas. In the areas of social competence, executive function, and creativity, there was little to no overall variation among Montessori students versus “business-as-usual” students. Kids will be kids, perhaps? Montessori students, however, were more likely to exhibit a mastery orientation by the end of their preschool years and to express more enjoyment of school than their business-as-usual peers.
But let’s not beat around the bush: Despite the researchers’ assertion that Montessori education carries no extrinsic rewards and is therefore different than “business-as-usual” preschool, Montessori students did far better on the academic achievement measure than their control group peers. Controlling for variables such as household income and initial executive function level isolated the effect of the Montessori “treatment” as most predictive of academic growth than any other variable. More importantly, income-based achievement gaps were much smaller for Montessori students than for control group students.
By the final measurement point in the study, lower-income Montessori students were far outpacing their lower-income control group peers. The same pattern held true for gaps in executive function: Students with lower executive function at the outset were faring far better academically than were comparable control group students by the final measurement point. Bottom line: two pernicious sources of academic achievement gaps seen in older children—household income and student executive function level—were seen to be ameliorated by the Montessori preschool as studied here. Seems like a big deal worthy of further study.
As for why Montessori preschool have such positive effects, researchers cite specialized materials, multi-age classrooms, the multi-sensory approach to math and English language arts, specialized teaching skills, student-centered activities, and encouragement of activity repetition. But this is just speculation. Variations between Montessori and “business-as-usual” preschools are numerous and would require larger and more focused studies before any answer could be confirmed.
It is important to note, however, that whatever boost Montessori preschools do provide could easily fade out once students move into K–12 schooling if elementary schools are not of the same rigor.
SOURCE: Angeline S. Lillard, et al, “Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study”, Frontiers in Psychology (October, 2017).
A recent study examines how peer achievement and a classroom’s gender composition influence math achievement and student attendance rates.
The author, Ozkan Eren of Louisiana State University, uses data collected from a well-executed randomized experiment of middle and high school students in disadvantaged neighborhoods between 2010 and 2012. The sample included 5,320 students from eighty schools in twenty school districts.
There are three key findings: First, having a higher proportion of female peers in math classrooms improves the math test scores of female students, especially in less-advanced math courses, such as general high school math. A 10 percentage point increase in the proportion of female peers increases the average math test scores by 0.1 of a standard deviation. The gender effects on male students, however, are positive but insignificant.
Second, regarding peer effects, having higher achieving peers has no significant effect on female math test scores, but does improve the marks of males in the bottom two-thirds of achievement: A 1.0 standard deviation increase in peer achievement increases boys’ math achievement by 0.4 of a standard deviation.
Finally, having a higher proportion of female peers in math classrooms decreases the probability of chronic absenteeism among male students, but has no effect on female attendance. A 10-percentage point increase in the proportion of female students in math classrooms translates to 2.5 days decrease in total days absent from school among male students.
Schools should be careful what lessons they take from these findings. But the results do suggests that gender stereotypes of math ability impact girls negatively, especially those in low-level math courses. Therefore, improving female students’ confidence and their own perception of math ability may bolster their math achievement. And teachers may be wise to intentionally alter their perceptions of female students’ math ability.
SOURCE: Ozkan Eren, “Differential Peer Effects, Student Achievement, and Student Absenteeism: Evidence From a Large-Scale Randomized Experiment.” Demography (2017).
Christopher Yaluma is a doctoral student at the Ohio State University.