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The Public School Insights Blog

According to a new report by Arizona’s conservative Goldwater Institute, Arizona’s high school students are woefully ignorant of U.S. history and civics. By now, we’re all used to these kinds of studies, but one finding in particular stopped me in my tracks: The researchers found that only 26 percent of students surveyed could identify George Washington as the nation’s first president.

Twenty-six percent? Can that really be true? That finding just seems hard to swallow—though the media have apparently swallowed it whole.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly do not think American students’ knowledge of civics and history is nearly what it should be. A report by Common Core pointed to very troubling gaps in high school students’ knowledge. But even in that report, 73 percent of high school students could identify George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. If they knew that, they presumably also know he was our first president.

So what gives? Who were these students in the Arizona Study? How many were English Language Learners? How many took the telephone survey seriously? Are Arizona high school students that much more ignorant than students in the nation as a whole? Are the open response questions used by the Goldwater Institute that much more difficult than ...

vonzastrowc's picture

In the Same Boat

The education "establishment" and education "reformers" are not so different from one another after all. Just ask the Fordham Foundation’s Mike Petrilli.

As Petrilli suggests, reformers in the charter school community have received a strong dose of reality: It turns out that it’s not so easy to close achievement gaps and raise student performance. Faced with disappointing news about their schools’ performance, charter advocates have resorted to arguments than have long been anathema to reformers: We need more money! Those standardized tests don’t measure what’s really important!

More recently, charter supporters have been changing their tune about regulation. Reformers are discovering that we cannot use a regulatory vise to squeeze higher performance out of traditional schools while trusting that charter and voucher schools will flourish in boundless freedom. Frustration with both No Child Left Behind and lackluster charter school results has prompted people of various ideological stripes to think more deeply about the benefits and perils of regulation. ...

Yesterday, education blogger Kevin Carey sharply rebuked people who peddle simplistic solutions to difficult problems schools face:

All of this would be merely aggravating if this kind of sad excuse for policy debate didn't have a real, detrimental impact on the lives of students. When you tell people that large problems can be solved with simplistic, nominally clever policy solutions, you're implicitly raising a question: "If it's so easy, why haven't we done it already?" That in turns breeds cynicism and mistrust, a jaded worldview in which large social problems are either fundamentally unsolvable or hostage to venal politicians who won't do the right thing even though the answer is so obvious that anyone with a lick of common sense can see it. And once you get there, the temptation is strong to throw up your hands and worry about something else.

Carey is scolding Tom Friedman for advocating the particularly silly idea that states could address the dropout problem by making driver's licenses contingent on high school graduation. But his comments have much broader resonance than that. Many in the national media have made a habit of portraying popular new reform ideas as sure-fire strategies for dramatic school improvement. People skeptical of those reforms must therefore be obstructionists and villains. As I've noted before ...

Yesterday, we published our conversation with Christopher Cross about the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) Campaign’s new accountability recommendations. Today, we’re releasing an interview with another member of BBA’s Accountability Committee: Diane Ravitch, who followed Cross as Assistant Secretary of OERI during the administration of George H.W. Bush.

Like Cross, Ravitch requires no introduction. A long-time supporter of standards-based reform, she has become one of the nation’s most vocal critics of No Child Left Behind. Here are her thoughts on the BBA recommendations:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You have argued that "a few tweaks here and a little tinkering there cannot fix" No Child Left Behind. How do BBA's accountability recommendations depart from the NCLB model?

RAVITCH: NCLB is a punitive approach to school improvement. It mandates that test scores must increase or else! If they don't go higher, schools will be sanctioned, and the sanctions will get more onerous with each year that the schools fail to meet their targets. Each year, the targets get higher, and the number of schools that slip over the precipice increases. As schools fail, they are threatened with closure, restructuring, staff firings, or other consequences that may or may not improve the school.

In contrast, BBA suggests accountability that goes far beyond test scores. Test scores matter, but so does student engagement in a broad range of academic subjects, as well as students' health, well-being and civic behavior. Where NCLB is punitive, BBA seeks constructive ways to measure the condition and progress of ...

Christopher Cross was an assistant education secretary in the George H. W. Bush administration. He recently spoke with us about new accountability recommendations the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign released today. Cross joined a committee of other education luminaries to formulate the recommendations, which go well beyond the current system and its predominant reliance on standardized tests.

Why do you think we need a new accountability system? What's wrong with the current one?

CROSS: I think there are many problems with the current system. One is that it has certainly not engendered widespread support from the education community. Number two is that it is viewed as being narrow. Third is the question of how the system operates--what the sanctions are, who is held accountable for what and at what level. ...

Recent calls for stronger regulation of charter schools have raised the ire of some charter school movement True Believers. Their over-the-top response says more about the limits of their ideology than it does about the dangers of regulation.

Secretary Duncan, hardly an enemy of the charter movement, called for measures to hold low-performing charter schools accountable for their performance. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools followed suit with recommendations to strengthen oversight of new charter schools.

“Blasphemy!” cried the True Believers.

Free marketeer John Stossel tarred the Charter Alliance people as “bureaucrats” for even entertaining the idea:

National Alliance bureaucrats weeding out bad schools will fail as government bureaucrats failed….

Sure, some charter schools are lousy. But failure is part of innovation. Parents will quickly figure out if their kids’ school is lousy, and if they are allowed other choices, they’ll pull their kids out. The weak schools will die from lack of customers. The best schools will grow, and help more kids.

Of course, Stossel has long cherished sublime free market theories untainted by supporting evidence. He's not so concerned about recent findings that traditional public schools perform as well as or better than 83 percent of ...


While the national debate rages over the benefits of early childhood education, an innovative, district-wide early childhood education initiative is bearing fruit in Bremerton, Washington. Since the initiative's founding, the percentage of Bremerton children entering Kindergarten knowing their letters has shot from 4% to over 50%. The percentage of Kindergarteners needing specialized education services has plummeted from 12% to 2%. And the share of first graders reading on grade level has risen from 52% to 73%.

Last week, I spoke with a woman at the center of the program: Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, the district's Director of Special programs. She described some keys to the program's success. The district:

  • Aligns existing school and community resources
  • Raises the quality of existing preschools rather than creating new ones
  • Focuses on literacy and numeracy
  • Heeds the research, and
  • Holds all providers to high standards of quality


Read extensive highlights from our interview with Sullivan-Dudzic:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What are the major goals of Early Childhood Care and Education Group, and what do you believe you've accomplished in striving towards those goals?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: We have two goals. [The first is] to increase the number of children entering kindergarten with early literacy skills--and now we've added early math foundation skills. And the second goal is to decrease the number of children, students, with learning disabilities or learning differences associated with reading.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And do you feel like you've made headway in reaching your goals?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Yes. In literacy definitely. We're just starting in math. We have decreasing numbers of kids qualifying as learning disabled, and we have increasing numbers of kids entering kindergarten with early reading foundation skills.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So you have all kinds of community partners?

SULLIVAN-DUDZIC: Sure. I started 29 years ago with Head Start, as a ...

A Las Vegas Sun article about Nevada's use of stimulus funds highlights the challenges many states and districts feel as they balance the desire for innovation against the need to fill budget holes:

Although state lawmakers increased basic support to schools by $38 per student — bringing the statewide average to $5,251 for the upcoming fiscal year — local districts will actually see a slight drop in funding over the biennium because of lower-than-expected local property and vehicle registration taxes.

The real difference over the next two years will be that a greater share of the state’s higher education funding will come from Washington, rather than from locally generated taxes. That in turn will mean the state will likely have enough money to meet the K-12 budget obligations.

And although local districts are grateful for the federal help in staunching the bleeding, there is also frustration that the dollars are needed to keep basic services in place, rather than to revive popular programs killed during the early-round budget cuts or to launch new initiatives. ...

Eagle-eyed Alexander Russo spotted the following news item about the Chicago Public Schools: Cash-for-Good-Grades Project Likely Done. Yes, it seems that financial challenges will force CPS to stop paying students for grades. There’s a lesson here about the fragility of incentive-based reforms.

The more successful cash-for-performance projects are, the more expensive they become. When they rely on unreliable funding sources such as foundations or wealthy donors, they live on borrowed time. ...

Do recent NAEP results showing arts education holding steady in eighth grade suggest that No Child Left Behind has not narrowed the curriculum? Not really.

Most evidence points to a decline in arts education at the elementary level, which the NAEP results don't directly address. (See, for example, the Center on Education Policy's 2008 study on the matter.) ...

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