Top Stories — 11/21–26/2013

Jay Greene reviews Diane Ravitch…. Mark Bauerlein reviews Larry Cuban… Andy Smarick reviews everything, including rural eduacation and SIGs….  Arne Duncan insults soccer moms…  Robert Pondiscio wants a Nixon-to-China moment… Frank Bruni says kids are too coddled…  and tests, tests, tests….

Top Stories

Socks Before Shoes: Content before Strategy

Lisa Hansel, Communications Director at the Core Knowledge Foundation, laments the “willy nilly” approach that many schools and teachers still take when choosing texts for English language arts instruction. According to a recent Fordham Institute Report, which surveyed more than 1,000 public school instructors of English, language arts or reading, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary and 56 percent of middle school teachers said they place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers were more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts. “This sounds like a shoes-then-socks approach,” writes Hansel. “I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers tell me it does not matter whether a student reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Hunger Games—all that matters is that they read. I’ve never agreed…. School time is precious. Teachers’ knowledge is valuable. Children have serious questions. How can any book that is less than extraordinary be justified?”


Ed Reform Needs a Nixon-to-China Moment

Can’t we argue passionately and from deep conviction about education reform but still find a way to get along with those on the other side? asks Robert Pondiscio in his first exchange with Deborah Meier in Bridging Differences. Pondiscio, the new executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem, says, “I’m disheartened and increasingly disengaged from the flame-throwing rhetoric of education ‘debate’ and wishing for something of a Nixon-to-China moment, where those of us who disagree about structural reform can at least have the opportunity to learn from each other on instructional reform.”


Arne Duncan Stumbles in the Suburbs

Suck It Up, Soccer Moms

Education Secretary Arne Duncan got himself into a mess last week, when he blamed “white suburban moms” for needless criticism of the Common Core. “It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said at a conference in Richmond, Va. Duncan issued a statement a few days later (whether it was an apology or not is debatable): “I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret—particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success.” 

White Moms or Whitewash? Cunningham v. Kress

There was plenty of outrage—both real and manufactured—over Education Secretary Duncan’s “white suburban moms” crack. But according to a recent post, the real cause of concern is not Duncan’s ill-considered remark, but rather the “whitewash” of the current administration’s “mangled” message. Peter Cunningham, a former assistant secretary for communications and outreach under Duncan, says it’s “more like airing dirty laundry and facing the neighbor’s wrath.”  Cunningham weighed in the comments section of an Eduwonk essay on the fracas. “I seriously doubt you can find any example where Duncan or Obama told middle class parents their schools were just fine and not to worry,” wrote Cunningham. “Duncan’s been pretty clear: set a high bar, let states figure out how to meet it, and hold them accountable.” Sandy Kress, lawyer turned education reformer (and an architect of No Child Left Behind), chided Cunningham on the Eduwonk comments board:  “Accountability is being weakened. Federal policy is being fractured. Commitments are being made that will likely not be kept over the long term. Content standards will be better, yes, but there may be no will to see them through or hold anyone accountable to learning to them.”

Are Kids Too Coddled?

In a New York Times op-ed piece this weekend, journalist Frank Bruni defended Duncan’s “white soccer moms” comment. “Before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms,” he writes, “we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.”


Tests, Standards, the Common Core, and More Tests

Spellings: Assessments are Vital for Healthy Schools

While resistance to standards and tests remains fierce, such accountability measures are nonetheless vital for healthy schools, according to Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education, writing in Education Next. Says Spellings, now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center: “Is learning more than a test score? Of course. Are reading and math all we care about when it comes to student achievement? No. Is there always the promise of better tests and better-prepared teachers down the road? Sure. But does any of this suggest we should we have a moratorium on testing or ‘hit pause’ on school-based accountability? No way.”

Starr: We Need a Testing Moratorium

In the same issue of Education Next, Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, calls for a three-year moratorium from accountability systems based on state tests. While assessment data do provide teachers with the information they need to track student progress, “Current assessments, unfortunately, do not measure what our students need to know and be able to do in the 21st century. Basing decisions on these outdated state test-score data may lead to structural changes that seek to address the wrong problems,” he writes. “Once the CCSS is fully implemented and the new assessments aligned to these standards have been completed, we can begin to construct a meaningful accountability system that truly supports teaching and learning.”

Protest:  Don’t-Send-Your-Kid-to-School Day

On November 18, parents across the country were urged to keep their children out of school as part of a national protest again the Common Core and to send a message to state and local governments that: “We want evidence-based standards that are locally controlled and no more data mining of our children!” The protest was organized by the National Education Association as part of American Education Week, but the absence of post-event news about the protest suggested a muted response.

The John King Tour: Selling the Common Core in the Empire State

More than 100 concerned and frustrated community members attended a recent panel discussion on the Common Core Learning Standards with New York State’s top two educators: Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. The town hall meeting, held at Mountain Lake PBS studios, was the latest in a series of public discussions King has been holding in an effort to open the dialogue with parents and teachers across the state. This video report provides background on the King road show as well as offers a record of the full discussion. Other panelists at the event were a high school superintendent, a middle school principal, a high school English teacher and a mother of two elementary school children. Though the panelists said the goals of the Common Core are well intentioned, they came down hard on the over-reliance on standardized test cores.

NY State Chancellor Tisch Blinks on Tests

Alternative diploma options, which would allow students to substitute an alternative assessment for one of the five required Regents tests, are urgently needed, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said last week. In an effort to ensure that graduates are prepared for college, the state now requires a score of 65 or higher on every exit exam. As an unintended consequence, however, it has left some students stranded without diplomas—sidetracking their plans for college and/or work and leaving it to taxpayers to foot the bill for test-prep classes. Indeed, a 20-year-old student, who remains stuck without a diploma after 11 attempts to pass an exit exam, has become the “poster child” for alternative paths to graduation. The Board of Regents, which sets graduation requirements, has yet to approve any such options, though Tisch says that board members have “enormous interest” in them.

Who Took the Cookies?

Last week, New York State United Teachers, the state’s powerful teachers union, issued a statement decrying excessive student testing and insisting on a moratorium for their use in teacher evaluations. Ironically, however, these same ideas were enthusiastically embraced by the teachers union only a few years ago, write Tim Daly, president of TNTP (The New Teachers Project), and Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, in the New York Daily News. “It’s a little like the Cookie Monster demanding to know who emptied the jar. There’s nothing stopping the state teachers union from taking action to fix this issue tomorrow. Nothing, that is, except the cynical desire to exploit this issue for every last ounce of political leverage.”

Frequent Tests are Good for You

Grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every class, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance, according to a report released last week. This “testing effect” was particularly strong in students from lower-income households. The findings—from an experiment in which 901 students in a popular introduction to psychology course at the University of Texas took their laptops to class and were quizzed online—also demonstrate that the computers can be an aid to teaching, not just a distraction.

Japan: A Cautionary Tale about Testing

In her new book, Precarious Japan, Duke University cultural anthropologist Anne Allison turns her attention to the Japanese education system and how focusing on rigorous student testing can backfire. The Japananese system, which is built around highly competitive and rigorous high-school testing, became the envy of the world after World War II and catapulted Japan “to the heights of global prestige as an industrial power.” For students, high test scores meant a secure income and lifelong employment—until the economic bubble burst in the 1990s. Now, as fewer and fewer Japanese are able to find full-time work, the country’s mood is turning into hopelessness for many. 

From the Archives: In Praise of Bubble Tests

A persuasive 2009 defense of bubble tests from E.D. Hirsch


Civics and the Common Core…

November marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most eloquent speeches in American history, yet most high-school students today are unacquainted with it, according to a Manhattan Institute panel. Even more alarming, many cannot even identify the century in which the Civil War was fought! What’s behind the decline in civic knowledge? How can this be rectified? What role can the new Common Core State Standards play? These and other questions were addressed at Making Americans: Civic Education and the Common Core,” the MI conference, which was co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute.  View the video here.


 A Schooling Mess in the City of Brotherly Love

State budget cuts have resulted in a real crisis in Philadelphia schools—and it’s students who are paying the price. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has cut more than $1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, which has hit the state-controlled Philadelphia district the hardest. In fact, the situation has led to “desperation” in Philly, according to National Public Radio, which ran a three-part series the city’s education woes. The rate of deep poverty is 12.9 percent, the highest among the largest U.S. cities, according to a front-page story published in the Philadelphia Inquirer last March. Even though private foundations have poured millions of dollars into schools, much of that money has gone to the city’s 86 charter schools, like the Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School. A few years ago, it was one of the city and the state’s most troubled, violent and academically underachieving high schools. Today, after becoming a charter, Gratz is on the rebound. But Gratz is just one charter school and many charters have long waiting lists. In the end, critics say, Philadelphia cannot charter its way out of its school crisis. Or can it?


Autism: The Day My Son Went Missing

While “wandering” is usually associated with elderly people who suffer from dementia, a recent study revealed that nearly half of children with autism are prone to the behavior, notes Lori McIlwain, executive director of the National Autism Association in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. Given the prevalence of autism—one in 50 school-age children is affected—wandering is a real concern for millions of parents. Since 2011, 41 American children with autism have died after wandering away from caregivers. And in this year alone, at least 14 such deaths have been attributed to drowning. Given these facts, McIlwain argues, there should be a federal autism program on wandering prevention, or better teacher training to help prevent future disappearances.


College Finances, Graduation Rates, and Readiness

Tuition Crunch for Colleges and Universities

More than 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities are no longer generating enough tuition revenue to keep pace with inflation, according to a new survey by Moody’s Investors Service. This is the fifth year that private schools have endured stagnant net revenue, and the drop is just now hitting public universities. As a result, schools are freezing faculty wages, putting capital improvements and maintenance projects on hold, and rethinking their business models. And as public schools become more reliant on tuition revenue, the market for out-of-state and international students—who generally pay top dollar—is becoming much more competitive.

College Graduation Rates Still Flat

Four and a half years since President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative, college graduation rates remain essentially unchanged, with only slightly more than half of all students finishing four-year programs within six years, according to a new study, reports the Hechinger Report. The study, by the National Student Clearinghouse, found that the percentage of students who graduated within six years after starting either a four-year or a two-year degree program is 54 percent, up only two-tenths of one percent from last year. And 37 percent of community college students completed school within six years—9 percent of them after transferring to four-year institutions. The full college completion report, entitled Signature Report 6, will be released in the coming weeks.

College Readiness Indicator Systems

In this issue of VUE (Voices in Urban Education), researchers from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform reflect on lessons learned from three years of work on the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) project. The initiative, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to identify students who are in danger of falling behind and to develop tools and supports to help them become college ready.


Newark Goes to Common Application

The Newark Public School district and the city’s charter schools are considering a single universal enrollment process for parents, reports Mike Goldstein, founder of the Match Charter School in Boston. Under the proposed plan, there would be one application, one timeline and one central clearing space for information about all city schools. “Essentially, it would eliminate the need for parents to go from school to school filling out applications and participating in separate lotteries in the hopes of getting a spot in a particular school,” writes Goldstein. “The collaborative effort is messy—and even risky—proponents say. Ultimately, they say, it’s the right thing to do to ensure all 44,000 Newark school children have an equal opportunity to attend a good school.”


The State of Rural Schools: Not Good

While most of the nation’s attention has been focused on the needs of inner-city schools and students, educational troubles are not a uniquely urban phenomenon, reports Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Rural students (who make up a quarter of all students nationwide) face challenges as daunting as their inner-city counterparts, he says. In rural areas, half the students come from low-income families and just over a quarter of those graduating from high school go on to college. To help find solutions, an Idaho-based family foundation—the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation—has launched a two-year initiative, Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho (ROCI) to identify best practices, support innovations, and research national trends in rural education. To stay posted on these efforts, visit and follow @ROCIdaho on Twitter.


Education, Downward Mobility and the “Glass Floor”

In the U.S., intergenerational mobility is “sticky at both ends,” meaning that children born to the poorest and richest parents are more likely to remain poor or rich, according to a new paper by Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard of the Center on Children and Families. Among the key findings: Children born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution have a 39 percent chance of remaining there as adults, with a similar ratio for those born in the top fifth. And, lower-income adolescents with the smarts and drive to get into the higher-income bracket have a 42 percent greater chance of making it if they have a college degree. “From a mobility perspective,” writes Reeves, “it would be better if college slots currently taken up by modestly skilled kids who remain at the top were filled instead with the smart, motivated kids who remain stuck at the bottom.”


Rallying for Tax Credits

Nearly 5,000 private school students packed into the Westchester County Center in White Plains on November 19 for a rally to support the “Invest in Education” tax credit, which would give tax credits to private/religious school parents. The legislation, which has been twice passed by the state Senate but not the Assembly, would allow people who donate money to schools—both public and private—to receive a one-to-one income-tax credit. Currently, those who donate money to schools only get a percentage of that donation as a write-off on their taxes. 


 Education Funders Initiative

Over the past decade, as real progress has been seen in increasing high school graduation rates, educators, policymakers, and philanthropic leaders across the nation have turned their attention to an even more ambitious goal: college and career readiness for every public school student. In a report released in October, College and Career Readiness in Context, Leslie Santee Siskin, a research professor at New York University, looked into ways to make this possible. Key recommendations include: extending measures and metrics both up and down the school system; expanding definitions of college readiness to more than academics; enlarging our understanding of what it takes to get there; and engaging partners to create pathways to readiness for college and career—including counseling, mentoring, and technical skills.


 Senator Lee: What Do We Do About Poverty?

We’ve all heard the statistics. Despite trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to eradicate poverty since the late 1960s, the U.S. poverty rate has hardly budged. The problem, writes Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah on his website, is caused by federal government policies that leave low-income children trapped in failing schools and “unintentionally discourage almost every positive step underprivileged families can take toward social mobility and economic security.” Lee argues for eliminating the federal anti-poverty bureaucracy and allowing states to implement their own reforms; expanding access to higher education; and giving students a diverse range of education options, including customized courses, programs and tests, both online and on-campus, and professional training and apprenticeships.


SIG Schools Report: Mixed Results

The Obama administration has handed out $5 billion to states to improve academic performance at about 1,500 School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools since 2009, the largest federal investment ever targeted at failing schools. But according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, students at more than one-third of the targeted schools did the same or worse after the schools received the funding (although SIG schools did show incremental gains in reading and math overall). Andy Smarick of the Bellwether Education Partners, isn’t surprised by the results. “It is too late to save SIG, which may very well go down as the most expensive misadventure in the history of the U.S. Department of Education,” he says. “But we can make use of its lessons.”



Public versus Private: Learning from India

It’s often seen as an either-or debate: Either private schools or public education deliver better outcomes. However, consultant Suvojit Chattopadhyay asks, can’t we find room for genuine partnerships between both?



From the Frying Pan of the Common Core to the Fire of Data Gathering

In a hearing last week in Albany, N.Y., members of the Assembly Education Committee voiced their concerns over student data collection—and their disappointment that the Education Department contractor, inBloom, didn’t bother to show up.


ED Officials Visit and Learn From Principals

Dozens of top U.S. Education Department officials, including Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton, headed to the classroom last week to “job shadow” school principals in Baton Rouge, La., Boston, and Greater Washington, D.C.


Some Advice for de Blasio from the Washington Post: Be Bold, Not Timid

The new mayor-elect of New York should think twice before acting on his promises to backtrack or abandon many of the educational reforms put in place by outgoing Mayor Bloomberg, says the Washington Post.


Boston Faces a Charter School Cap

James Peyser of the New Schools Venture Fund examines why departing Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino opposes further growth of charter schools, despite the fact that Boston charters are exceptionally high performing and wildly popular with voters, business and philanthropy.


Hardware Review: Chromebooks in the Classroom

What happened when one Boston charter school purchased 50 Acer Chromebooks for fourth graders? The laptops proved popular with school administrators and teachers. Plus, the kids loved them. And as everyone knows, happy kids = happy classrooms.


Paul Vallas for – Lieutenant Governor?

The news that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has tapped former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas as his 2014 Democratic running mate is sparking fierce debate in Chicago.


Bloomberg’s Last Report Card

With his 12-year tenure quickly coming to an end, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week issued his final batch of A-through-F letter grades for more than 1,600 public schools.



The Impenetrable Classroom

In his latest book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in the American Classroom, author and retired Stanford University professor Larry Cuban poses the question that has confounded many: Why is it so difficult to implement change in the classroom?  Review by Mark Bauerlein.

Ravitch Trades Fact for Fiction

The University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene slams Diane Ratvich’s latest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to American Schools, saying the author ignores and/or distorts evidence on private school vouchers.


–Elizabeth Janice is an East Coast-based freelance writer who has written for national magazines, including Family Circle , Woman’s Day, All You and Essence. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. from New York University.





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