President Barack Obama last month signed an executive order promising to "improve outcomes and advance educational opportunities for African Americans." The order instructs federal agencies to "promote, encourage, and undertake efforts" to increase "college access, college persistence and college attainment for African American students." Unfortunately, his administration remains opposed to the Opportunity Scholarship program in Washington, D.C., which lets students—mostly low-income and African-American—use a voucher to attend a private school.
Few doubt that education in our inner cities is in desperate need of improvement. Decades after the civil-rights movement began, equal educational opportunity remains more a slogan than a reality. Minority-group students in U.S. elementary and secondary schools continue to learn much less than their white peers, as measured by a wide variety of tests of student achievement, such as the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
All four sectors in K–12 education compete for the support of their customers—that is, the parents of their prospective students. Those parents have more choices today than in decades past: they may send their children to the public school automatically assigned to them by their school district, or opt for a private school, charter school, or district-run school of choice. These choices include a range of cost and convenience—and, not surprisingly, a range of customer satisfaction levels.
Over the past 25 years, charter schools have offered an increasing number of families an alternative to their local district schools. The charter option has proven particularly popular in large cities, but charter-school growth is often constrained by state laws that limit the number of students the sector can serve. In the 2016 election, for example, voters in Massachusetts rejected a ballot question that would have allowed further expansion of charters in communities that had reached the state’s enrollment ceiling.
As the use of technology in schools grows rapidly—whether in blended-learning environments, for project-based learning, or just because it’s the fad du jour—how much time students should spend learning on a computer is a point of contention. More and more people seem to agree that digital learning in K–12 classrooms works best when it is used with the oversight of a teacher. The chants of “teachers not technology” and “laptops for layoffs” increasingly appear to be relics of the past.
Success Academy is a big-time success story, as Charles Sahm makes clear (“What Explains Success at Success Academy?” features, Summer 2015). But what are the general lessons to be learned from the many case studies of successful chartering? Does it take the exceptional leadership of Success Academies’ Eva Moskowitz? Are school uniforms and a “no excuses” ethos the decisive ingredients (KIPP schools)? Are longer school days and an extended school year critical? Is data-based instruction the solution (Achievement First)? How important is a demanding academic curriculum (BASIS schools)?
Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted into federal law in 2002, states have been required to test students in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school to assess math and reading achievement. The federal law also asks states to establish the performance level students must reach on the exams in order to be identified as “proficient.” According to NCLB, each school was expected to increase the percentage of proficient students at a rate that would ensure that all students were proficient by the year 2014.
A trio of experts on international education policy compares the performance of students in American schools against those of other nations and shows the extraordinary benefits that can come from improved student performance.
In the first study, using a randomized experiment to measure the impact of school vouchers on college enrollment, Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University, examine the college-going behavior through 2011 of students who participated in a voucher experiment as elementary school students in the late 1990s. They find no overall impacts on college enrollment but do find large, statistically significant positive impacts on the college going of African-American students who participated in the study.
President Obama staked out a position on education this spring, delivering a radio address that bluntly acknowledged that American high school students are trailing international averages. He sketched out details of a bill his administration would be pushing to revise the No Child Left Behind Act. He proposed to preserve testing requirements but create a better measuring stick, require that teachers be evaluated by performance (not credentials), and use carrots instead of sticks to encourage progress.