Reauthorizing ESEA: a first step in returning education to its roots

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) appears, finally, to be nearing reauthorization. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Congress will, after years of effort, begin to right some of the wrongs wrought by the excessive focus on standards and accountability in No Child Left Behind (ESEA’s current iteration). The draft framework sent to the conference committee swings the pendulum from federal overreach and prescription back toward state and local control. It claws back—but does not eliminate—accountability requirements by striking “Adequate Yearly Progress,” annual measurable objectives, and the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency from the act.

Not only would this ESEA do less wrong, it would do more right; key passages hold promise to return ESEA to its civil rights and antipoverty roots. Informed by rising rates of student poverty, the proposed framework recognizes that poverty poses a major impediment to effective teaching and learning.

It is true that much of the debate around reauthorization has been about testing, funding for charter schools and vouchers, the Common Core State Standards, and a range of other issues worthy of consideration. But these are not central to the core purpose of ESEA, which was originally passed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Over the years, that purpose has been diluted. But as 10 organizations, led by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, wrote to education leaders of both houses last year, Congress has a unique chance to reverse course and bring ESEA back to its roots. We called on Congress to follow five key principles in ESEA reauthorization:

These five principles represent the original spirit and intent of the law, and they give states, districts, and schools the flexibility they need to address their specific concerns and meet the unique needs of their students. We propose that they be at the center of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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Where can we find hope for our schools?

Bringing It Back Homea report issued by the Economic Policy Institute at the end of October, provides a distinct service in reminding Americans that they can learn more about how to improve their schools by looking at successful American states than they can by heading overseas to pry lessons out of foreigners.

The authors, Stanford’s Martin Carnoy, EPI’s Emma Garcia, and Tatiana Khavenson at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, have produced an impressive piece of scholarship. Their work makes a genuine new contribution to the discussion about how to improve American schools.

In considering this study, several points need to be born in mind.

First, the United States has very real problems in its schools. We cannot be Pollyannas about where we are. Average student performance is not where we would like it to be, and the average conceals terrible gaps between students doing well and those bringing up in the rear.

Historically, we have done a reasonably good job with the traditional students our schools were designed to serve. But now we face a new challenge: a student population in which the majority of students are, for the first time in our history, both low-income and children of color.

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Disappointing NAEP scores and the questions they raise

This week we learned that, for the first time in its 20 year history, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) declined or were stagnant in both fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading. Naturally, this is prompting concern and questions. Are current education policies on the right course? Is the Common Core not working? Do these scores indicate “test fatigue” because kids are taking too many tests?

These questions cannot be answered by two years of data, even relatively reliable data like NAEP scores. We should be looking at longer-term trends—this decline may be a blip, even if it was across-the-board. We also need to disaggregate the data and look at not just how the average student performed, but changes among disadvantaged student groups. Perhaps most important, we should always consider these data in a broader context.

Looking at this year’s scores as part of a longer term trend, we see that the past decade (post-No Child Left Behind) delivered much smaller gains than the years prior. Fourth graders gained substantially more in math between 1992 and 2003 (15 points) than in the twelve years since (nine points between 2003 and this year’s 2015 results). In eighth grade, the difference is even more striking—a gain of 15 points from 1992–2003, versus just four since. And while overall gains in reading have been much smaller, the ratio is similar—fourth graders gained five points from 1992–2003, but just one point in the past twelve years.

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Fisher II—Could a Surprise be in Store?

This post originally appeared on SCOTUSblog, as part of a symposium on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the challenge to the university’s use of affirmative action in its undergraduate admissions process. 

The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions have been suffused with hypocrisy. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called them out, with barely more gentle phrasing, in her lone dissent to the seven-to-one majority opinion the first time Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013) was before the Court. “Only an ostrich,” she observed, “could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious,” and only a (contorted) legal mind “could conclude that an admissions plan designed to produce racial diversity is not race conscious.”

The “diversity” standard in college admissions has gained great popularity because advocates of race-based affirmative action, stymied by the Court since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, latched onto it as an alternative that could satisfy strict scrutiny. Many proponents have since persuaded themselves that diversity is, after all, a better approach than race-based affirmative action and that if the Court had not required it, we would have had to invent it. Yet while diversity in college classes is certainly an important educational and social goal, its elevation nonetheless dodges the nation’s racial legacy and avoids our constitutional and moral obligation to remedy the effects of centuries of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation. Without acknowledging we were doing so, we have engaged in a legal sleight of hand, substituting enriching the educational experience for remedying past injustice in designing affirmative action policy.

Underlying all this has been the Court majority’s conviction, most recently in Fisher I, that university officials have not identified specific Fourteenth Amendment violations for which their policies are a remedy, and therefore their consideration of race injects, without constitutional justification, a discriminatory racial consideration into the admissions process. The paucity of African Americans at the University of Texas reflects no de jure exclusion, the Fisher I majority believed, but only de factosocial inequality for which there is no race-conscious constitutional remedy. Therefore, including racial diversity in a scheme of skill-based, interest-based, or economic diversity is suspect, requiring very strict scrutiny. Indeed, the conditions set by the Fisher I majority opinion suggest a scrutiny that is strict in theory but fatal in fact. (I discuss the Fisher cases here only as they relate to the treatment of African Americans in affirmative action plans, not to that of other national or ethnic minorities or of disadvantaged economic groups; each has a different history and status, requires different opportunities to succeed, and raises different social policy and constitutional concerns).

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Time to End the Vicious Cycle of Inequality Begetting Unequal Education

A new EPI study of the academic preparation of kindergartners by social class and race ended up being less about absolute preparation of children at the beginning of school and more about how prepared they are relative to one another. In short, children do not start school as equals. According to Inequalities at the Starting Gate: Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills Gaps between 2010–2011 Kindergarten Classmates, children’s school preparation is highly unequal, and what determines being better or worse off is a student’s social class.

While inequalities in the cognitive abilities of our young people have been documented by previous research (see EPI’s Inequality at the Starting Gate study from 2002 and Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis), our study uses a dataset that allowed for examining how prepared children are in both cognitive (reading and math) and noncognitive domains (social skills, persistence, and creativity, among others). The data set (the National Center for Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011) also offers information on individual and family demographic characteristics and various enrichment activities that parents undertake with their children, enabling assessment of the importance of these variables for children’s preparation. All in all, the data allowed us to understand the broad school readiness of a recent generation of students. These students were born after—and thus presumably benefited from—the spread of prekindergarten education and other advances in school preparedness research and policymaking. But these children were also raised in a context of economic stagnation.

Consistently, results showed that having less money puts children at a relative disadvantage, in terms of the cognitive and noncognitive skills developed by the age of 5, while having more money benefits them, as skill levels increase along with social class. Most gaps are striking in size and appear for all the examined cognitive, noncognitive, and executive function skills. For example, children in the highest socioeconomic group have reading and math scores that are a full standard deviation larger than the scores of their peers in the lowest socioeconomic group. To give a sense of how large this gap is, it would take up to four independent, “substantively important,” education interventions to close the gap, according to a “classification of effects” from the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. The social-class-based gaps in other skills such as working memory, persistence in completing tasks, and self-control are 0.7, 0.4, and 0.5 standard deviations, respectively.

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Head Start’s 50th Anniversary

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start, a Great Society program that despite spotty funding has brightened the lives of millions of preschoolers. My daughter is one of them.

Like three-quarters of the public schools here in Washington DC, my daughter’s school is a Title I school, where 40 percent or more of the students are from low-income families. Her pre-K program is funded in part by Head Start, even though my daughter and some of her classmates don’t qualify as low income. As it happens, my daughter’s school, HD Cooke Elementary, helped pioneer the Head Start program in 1965 (see cute picture below).


DC has a cutting-edge universal pre-K program and also participates in a pilot program where all kids eat free thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. So my daughter not only started attending a great public school at age 3, but eats two nutritious meals a day with her buddies, starting with a meet-and-greet breakfast, the social highlight of her day (and often mine).

DC is somewhat atypical in that there has been an influx of upper-income taxpayers, yet the school system still serves a heavily low-income student body. DC public schools were “majority-minority” before this was true for the United States as a whole.

The growing tax base helped pay to retrofit my daughter’s school to add more natural lighting, a beautiful library and gym, and great playgrounds. In 2010, the school, built in 1909 with an extension dating to 1960, became the first school in DC and one of the oldest in the country to be certified greenProjects like these show how infrastructure and human capital investment can combine with job creation and energy efficiency—a win-win-win unless your name is Koch.

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Taking the Fall in Atlanta

Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education. Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results.

There was little doubt, even before the jury’s decision, that Atlanta teachers and administrators had changed answers on student test booklets to increase scores. There was also little doubt that Atlanta’s late superintendent, Beverly Hall, was partly responsible because she had, as a state investigation revealed, “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that had permitted “cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.”

What the trial did not explore was whether Dr. Hall herself was reacting to a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that her board, state education officials, and the Bush and Obama administrations had created. Just as her principals’ jobs were in jeopardy if test scores didn’t rise, her tenure, too, was dependent on ever rising test scores.

Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.

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An Open Letter to Sec. of Labor Tom Perez

An open letter to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil

Dear Mr. Secretary:

Several newspapers and journals, including Computerworld and the L.A. Times, have reported that Southern California Edison (SCE), a public utility, has laid off hundreds of its U.S. employees and replaced them with H-1B guestworkers employed by the India-based IT services firms Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. As my colleague, Ron Hira, has written, “Adding to the injustice, American workers losing their jobs are being forced to do “knowledge transfers,” an ugly euphemism that means being forced to train your own foreign replacement.”

As you know, the law (the Immigration and Nationality Act) forbids the hiring of H-1B temporary foreign guestworkers whose employment would “adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers comparably employed.” Clearly, taking away the jobs, wages and benefits of the laid-off SCE employees does adversely affect their wages and working conditions.

You have authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to investigate this case, but I have seen no announcement that you intend to do so or that you share my sense of outrage that the H-1B program is being abused in such an egregious way. I hope that we will soon learn that the Department of Labor intends to investigate and remedy this harm to skilled U.S. workers who have pursued education and training in a technical field, worked hard, and played by the rules. Our government should, at the very least, ensure that its programs, including its visa programs, are not used to destroy the careers and financial security of its people.


Ross Eisenbrey
Vice President
Economic Policy Institute

The President’s Twofer

In the weeks leading up to the State of the Union address, President Obama has gradually laid out his vision for America. I am particularly impressed with his proposal to make two years of community college free for students who are willing to work for it. This program would help young adults from lower-income families get a needed start toward a four year college education or vocation training for a career.

Critics have argued it is easy to propose a new program without paying for it. Well, last Saturday, the president said how he will pay for it: raise taxes. What is great about his tax proposal is it is a twofer. First, it would raise needed revenue—$320 billion over 10 years—to pay for the policies that would help low- and middle-income families. Second, it would make the tax code fairer and help reduce the growth in the share of income going to the top 1 percent by increasing taxes on capital income—bringing taxes levied on income gained from wealth closer to income gained from working. The administration estimates that 99 percent of the impact of this proposal would affect the richest 1 percent and more than 80 percent would affect just the richest 0.1 percent.

The main tax proposal is changing how capital gains are taxed. The tax rate on capital gains and dividends is increased to 28 percent—the rate under President Reagan. Currently, the tax rate on capital gains and dividends is 20 percent plus a 3.8 percent surtax. The president’s proposal would increase the tax rate to 24.2 percent plus the 3.8 percent surtax.

In addition, the proposal removes a loophole—the “stepped-up basis” loophole—that allows the wealthiest taxpayers to escape paying tax on inherited assets. We at EPI have been pushing for this change for years. Currently, when assets are transferred, say in a bequest, no taxes are due on appreciated assets. For example, suppose an individual purchases $10 million in stock. That person would have to pay taxes on any realized capital gains when the stock is sold (if the stock was sold for $100 million then the individual would pay taxes on the difference between the purchase price—the basis—and the sales price or $90 million). But if the individual never sells the assets and passes on the $100 million of stock to an heir, no capital gains taxes are due on the $90 million gain. Furthermore, when the individual receiving the assets sells the assets, the basis is stepped-up to $100 million rather than $10 million. The president’s proposals would retain the $10 million basis for the heir (called carry-over basis) and taxes would be paid on any gains when the assets are inherited. In an era with a deeply eroded estate tax, removing this “stepped-up basis” loophole would help us tax large blocks of inherited wealth—essentially adopting some of Thomas Piketty’s ideas for pushing back against rising income and wealth inequality.

Will the Supreme Court Annihilate One of the Most Effective Tools for Battling Racial Segregation in Housing?

The U.S. Supreme Court could be on the verge of issuing a major setback to racial integration efforts. In two weeks, it will hear oral arguments regarding whether the federal government and states should be permitted to pursue policies that perpetuate or exacerbate racial segregation in housing—even where no intent to segregate is proven.

The segregation of low-income minority families into economic and racial ghettos is one cause of the ongoing achievement gap in American education. Students from families with less literacy come to school less prepared to take advantage of good instruction. If they live in more distressed neighborhoods with more crime and violence, they come to school under stress that interferes with learning. When such students are concentrated in classrooms, even the best of teachers must spend more time on remediation and less on grade-level instruction.

The Economic Policy Institute, together with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, have organized a large group of housing scholars—historians and other social scientists—to sign a friend-of-the-court brief urging that housing policies perpetuating segregation should be banned.

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Education Policy is Civil Rights Policy

In an article just published in the journal Race and Social Policy, I reviewed why education policy is inseparable from civil rights policy. Failure to recognize this connection is the greatest impediment to improving the academic performance of disadvantaged African American and other minority and low-income children.

For years now, education policymakers and advocates have attempted to close the black-white achievement gap by reforming schools. The primary vehicles have been greater accountability for schools and teachers, higher expectations for students, deregulation and semi-privatization by charter schools, and more recently, curricular reform with the Common Core.

All efforts, however, have come up short. The racial achievement gap remains.

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What Led Us to the Troubles in Ferguson?

I’ve spent several years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide, motivated in part by convictions that the black-white achievement gap cannot be closed while low-income black children are isolated in segregated schools, that schools cannot be integrated unless neighborhoods are integrated, and that neighborhoods cannot be integrated unless we remedy the public policies that have created and support neighborhood segregation.

When Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August, I suspected that federal, state and local policy had purposefully segregated St. Louis County, because this had occurred in so many other metropolises. After looking into the history of Ferguson, St. Louis, and the city’s other suburbs, I confirmed these were no different. In The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles, the Economic Policy Institute has now published a report documenting the basis for this conclusion, and The American Prospect has published a summary in an article in the current issue.

Since a Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, we’ve paid considerable attention to that town. If we’ve not been looking closely at our evolving demographic patterns, we were surprised to see ghetto conditions we had come to associate with inner cities now duplicated in almost every respect in a formerly white suburban community: racially segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes, and community powerlessness.

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Strong Jobs Numbers for Teachers in September, but Large Jobs Gap Remains

In September, public-sector employment increased by 12,000, with the majority of that growth coming from local government education—an increase of 6,700 jobs. Local government education is largely jobs in public K-12 education (the majority of which are teachers, but also teacher aides, librarians, guidance counselors, administrators, support staff, etc.).

While this is clearly a positive sign, unfortunately, the number of teachers and related education staffers fell dramatically in the recession and has failed to get anywhere near its pre-recession level, let alone the level that would be required to keep up with the expanding student population. The figure below breaks down the teacher gap. The dark blue line illustrates the level of teacher employment. While the most recent positive trend is obvious, the longer term losses are also readily apparently.

Along with dismal trends in public sector employment in general, about a quarter million public education jobs were lost in the great recession and its aftermath. If we add to that the number of public education jobs that should have been added simply to keep up with growing enrollment, then we are currently experiencing a 377,000 job shortfall in local public education. The costs of a significant teacher gap are measurable: larger class sizes, fewer teacher aides, fewer extracurricular activities, and changes to the curriculum.

Back to School: A Useful Guide for Parents and Policymakers to Use School Quality Rankings

The Wallethub state school quality rankings that were released earlier this month add to a growing list of such guides. They join those of the Education Law Center, which has ranked state school systems since 2011 using a four-part funding equity model, Students First’s state report cards, and the Brookings Institution Brown Center’s Education Choice and Competition rankings of large urban districts. There are many others, but these four illustrate some of the diversity in both approaches to ranking schools and types of institutions that rank them.

All four suggest to parents and policymakers that their system identifies the highest quality schools. Yet they produce a very disparate set of “best” and “worst” states (and districts). Two of Wallethub’s top three—New Jersey and Massachusetts—are among two of the the three states that Education Law Center also ranks highest: New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In contrast, two of Students First’s top-ranked three, Louisiana and Florida, are among the lowest on Education Law Center’s sufficiency ranking. The Brown Center gives top billing to the New Orleans’ Recovery School District, New York City, and Washington, DC, and Students First also gives DC high marks, while Wallethub has it dead last, behind Mississippi. And Wallethub ranks Louisiana, Students First’s top-ranked state, 48th of 51.

As the new school year refocuses our attention on education and school quality, what are we to make of these conflicting numbers? Can we use the rankings to help us make good decisions, whether as parents or policymakers?

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Should Race-Based Affirmative Action be Replaced by Race-Neutral Preferences for Low-Income Students? The Discussion Continues

The Supreme Court has nearly abolished the obligation of selective colleges and universities to give an advantage in admissions to African Americans, as a way to compensate for centuries of racially discriminatory public policy. According to the Court, such “affirmative action” violates the Constitution, which requires public universities to be “colorblind”—equally resistant to discriminating against African Americans as to favoring them to undo the effects of past discrimination.

The only race-conscious admissions programs the Court continues to permit is the pursuit of “diversity.”  Universities may seek to ensure that their entering classes include a few violinists, jai-alai players, modern dancers, chess whizzes, computer nerds and, oh yes, some African Americans as well. This is a very small hoop through which admissions officers can jump.

In response, many liberals have attempted to develop a proxy for affirmative action—policy to increase the admission of African Americans by selecting characteristics that are not specifically black, but that in practice heavily favor blacks. The most common proxy is favoring the admission of low-income students of all races, or the admission of students of all races who live in low-income communities. As Justice Ginsburg has observed, “only an ostrich” can pretend that such policy is colorblind, because everyone knows that its true purpose is to evade the Court’s prohibition of affirmative action for African Americans.

But so far, the subterfuge has worked. The academic top-tier public universities in Texas, California, and Florida have guaranteed admission to graduates with the best grade-point averages from each high school in their states. Because large numbers of African Americans in these states are trapped in segregated low-income neighborhoods, the top students from ghetto high schools are guaranteed university admission, even if their academic qualifications are weaker than those of students who are not guaranteed admission but who attend high schools in middle class communities. Some private colleges have also developed policies that favor low-income students and these, too, necessarily enroll a disproportionate number of African Americans.

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History Teaches Us We Need Race-Conscious Policies

In the current issue of The American Prospect, I charge that many liberals and civil rights advocates have been too quick to accommodate to a reactionary Supreme Court plurality that considers the nation’s racial problems to be solved or beyond remedy. The Court now says that institutions of higher education must be “colorblind” in their admissions procedures, because racial preferences are unacceptable unless designed as a remedy for specific state-sponsored acts to discriminate against African Americans. And such acts, the Court says, are no longer responsible for African Americans’ disadvantages.

It may well be pragmatically necessary for universities to operate within the confines of Court rulings by substituting recruitment of low-income students for African Americans and by seeking “diversity” in incoming classes. But necessary though these policies may be in the short term, they are flawed because the descendants of American slaves and the victims of government-sponsored Jim Crow rules, in the North as much as in the South, remain uniquely entitled to affirmative action. And while students from low-income families are easy to identify, it is much more difficult to remain colorblind while continuing to identify working and middle-class African American students who are the most deserving of university admission assistance.

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Teachers, “Tenure,” Due Process, and Truly Helping Disadvantaged Children

This month, a California judge struck down California’s teacher tenure law in a landmark case, Vergara v. California. Proponents claim that eliminating tenure will mean fewer ineffective teachers at low-performing schools. But teacher tenure in the K-12 context does not mean a lifetime guarantee of a job. It means that teachers have basic rights—most importantly, the right to due process if the district wants to fire them. This distinction is critical, both because eliminating tenure does not necessarily make it easier to fire bad teachers, and because tenure can actually help attract good teachers to hard-to-staff schools, retain them, and support their role as voices for student justice in those schools.

There have been many good commentaries on why the Vergara ruling will do little to help students. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell nails the essential point, writing, “Making it easier to fire bad teachers isn’t going to magically cause the educational achievement gap to disappear. You need to be able to attract and retain more good teachers, too.”

New York University professor (and EPI board member) Pedro Noguera notes in the Wall Street Journal that both the plaintiffs’ suit and the judge’s verdict are fundamentally flawed. Noguera agrees that there are disparities in teacher qualifications and quality between schools serving high- versus low-income students, but tenure does not contribute to these differences. The fact is that schools serving low-income students have less funding and fewer resources than schools in more affluent areas. That means they aren’t able to pay teachers as much. It means class sizes are larger, nurses and counselors are fewer, libraries are worse. These and many other factors make it harder for low-income schools to attract and retain good teachers. The due-process protections afforded by tenure, at the very least, ensure that teachers who do stay in high-poverty schools can speak out against these inequities and be advocates for a more just system for their students.

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Looking at Segregation Through the Peer Effects Lens

That our children attend schools that are segregated by race is probably not a surprise for any of us. While, as researchers, we might debate how consequential segregation is, we can likely agree that, on its face, segregation raises some important societal concerns; it challenges our sense of what a moral and fair system looks like. It poses barriers to social cohesion, inclusion, and integration—and their well-known positive impacts on society—and it limits our children’s preparedness for the multicultural world in which they live.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and the declaration that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional, we look back on both progress made in desegregating schools and, more recently, backtracking on those efforts and current initiatives that sideline them.  Although separate but equal is unconstitutional, separate and unequal is very much a reality.

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Beyond Pre-kindergarten: Evidence and State-Level Action

A new policy guide from  the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) and the Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn Campaign shows how to build high-quality early support systems for children that strengthen communities and families, promote and sustain early education, and enable children to thrive. It also covers ways to resolve one of our nation’s most intractable problems: the academic achievement gap.

We know that children arrive at kindergarten with already large gaps that divide them along lines of race, ethnicity, and social class. We know, too, that these gaps prove stubbornly difficult to close, and that they are very often widened by disparities in access to appropriately credentialed teachers, small classes, school resources, health care, nutritious meals, and other related factors.

The Economic Policy Institute, where BBA is housed, has been a leader not only in documenting these gaps, but in producing research showing how to narrow them before they get so hard to tackle. For example, in 2007, EPI calculated the economic and social benefits of investing in a voluntary, high-quality publicly funded prekindergarten program that would narrow gaps by helping disadvantaged students achieve their full potential. Seven years later, this is a cornerstone of President Obama’s proposal for early childhood investments, and of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act bills proposed by leaders in both houses of Congress.

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California School Board Rejects Rocketship Charter School

Last Thursday, the Alum Rock school district, part of metropolitan San Jose, California, voted to reject a charter school application from the Rocketship chain of schools. As I detailed in a recent paper, Rocketship’s model, which relies on cheaper, inexperienced teachers and completely replacing teachers with computer applications for a significant part of the day, is being promoted for poor urban children, but is dismissed as inadequate by more privileged families.

Rocketship is based in the San Jose area, and thus the Alum Rock rejection represents a rebuff in the part of the country with the most first-hand experience of their methods.

The vote at Alum Rock followed a report by school district staff that identified many of the same problems described in our report. Specifically:

  • While Rocketship proposed to serve students from schools that had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, its application failed to mention that nearly all of Rocketship’s San Jose schools have themselves failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for at least two years in a row.
  • Rocketship’s statement to investors proclaimed that “no assurance is given” that Rocketship schools will make Adequate Yearly Progress in future years.
  • Because Rocketship students spend a large portion of their day in computer labs with no licensed teacher, 4th and 5th graders will not receive the minimum instructional hours required by law.
  • Rocketship was “misleading” in not including Learning Lab students in its calculation of student-teacher ratio. When all students are counted, “the true student/teacher ratio is, in fact, 37 students to 1 teacher.”

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EPI Stands By the Rigorous Methods and Findings of Its Report on Privately Run Charter Schools and the Rocketship Company

Last week EPI published the report Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, authored by University of Oregon associate professor Gordon Lafer, an EPI research associate. The paper includes a detailed examination of a “blended learning” model of education that replaces teachers with online learning for part of the school day, long a source of controversy in education policy debates. This approach is exemplified by the Rocketship chain of charter schools, which is being promoted for expansion in Milwaukee.

EPI maintains the highest standards of rigorous research, and this report is no exception. Dr. Lafer’s description of Rocketship’s model was largely based on Rocketship’s own corporate documents, which were cited repeatedly in the report. In addition, the author interviewed Rocketship representatives both in Milwaukee and at the company’s national headquarters, including several top executives.

After the report was published, the author emailed a copy to Rocketship executives, inviting their comment and specifically asking them to identify any particular facts in the report they might believe to be incorrect.

While Rocketship responded by issuing a statement denouncing EPI’s report, the statement is a recitation of talking points rather than a rebuttal of the report’s rigorously researched and meticulously documented findings. Indeed, the company has not identified a single inaccurate fact in the report. Further, neither this report nor EPI as an organization is opposed to charter schools per se; indeed, the report concludes with proposals for accountability standards that would allow charter schools to function on an equal footing with public schools.

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New BLS Data Show College Enrollment Rates of Recent High School Grads Have Been Dropping Since 2009

In this recent post, I pointed out that after increasing for decades, college enrollment rates have dropped since 2012. The data in that post are college/university enrollment rates for people age 20-24—I used those ages because they are very easy to get from the BLS site.

This morning, BLS released their annual report on college enrollment and work activity of recent high school grads.  The figure shows college enrollment of recent high school graduates (specifically, it’s the college enrollment rate in October 2013 of people age 16-24 who graduated from high school earlier the same year).  The data are volatile year to year, but they show that college enrollment of brand new high school graduates has been dropping since 2009.  This is a worrisome trend, particularly to the extent that it is due to students being unable to enter college because the lack of decent work in the weak recovery meant they could not put themselves through school or because their parents were unable to help them pay for school due to their own income or wealth losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath.  Falling college enrollment indicates that upward mobility may become more difficult for working class and disadvantaged high school graduates.

In a couple weeks, we will release our annual “Class of …” report, which will detail the labor market prospects of new high school and college graduates. (Here is last year’s report.) In this report, we investigate the drop in enrollment, including the fact that dropping enrollment rates at a time when employment is not increasing very strongly means that a larger share of young people are “disconnected”—i.e. not enrolled and not employed. This represents an enormous loss of opportunities for this cohort that will have long-term scarring effects on their careers.

October enrollment

Something To Keep An Eye On: College Enrollment Has Dropped Substantially Since 2012

Here is some surprising and unpleasant news: enrollment rates have dropped in each of the last two years, a sharp divergence from several decades of growth. The figure below shows enrollment rates in the first quarter of every year since 1985 for people age 20-24. (Note: enrollment here is technically for college, university, or high school enrollment, but very few people age 20-24 are enrolled in high school.) Enrollment was on a general upward trend since 1985, but peaked in 2012 and has since dropped in each of the last two years. The fact that this is a two-year drop suggests that it isn’t just a one-year fluke in a volatile series.

The dotted line shows the linear trend based on 1989-2007 data (the trend line since 2007 thus shows what enrollment rates would have been in the last seven years if they had simply continued on their long-run path over this period). The data are somewhat variable year-to-year, but this shows that between 2007 and 2013, there was no meaningful departure from the long term trend, but that by 2014, enrollment was substantially below the long-run trend. This drop in enrollment rates is worrisome, particularly to the extent that it is due to students being forced to drop out of school, or never enter, either because the lack of decent work in the weak recovery meant they could not put themselves through school or because their parents were unable to help them pay for school due to their own income or wealth losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath.enrollment rate

College Completion: Why Getting Kids in the Door Isn’t Enough

As we enter graduation season, the media will get flooded with stories of labor market prospects of young people, college graduates, and of course, student debt. EPI will do its fair share of flooding (with a 2014 update to our Class of 2013 paper), but one aspect that often gets overlooked are those who have started college but will never graduate. Young adults with some college but no degree are stuck in a catch-22, without the better employment opportunities and wage increases that comes with a college degree, but with a similar mountain of student debt. The number of people that fail to complete college—and the burdens this places on them—is one of the most corrosive aspects of the higher education system.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released new data from their National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey that follows women and men born between 1980 and 1984 in an effort to provide long-term information on the employment experiences and educational attainment of young people. The educational makeup of young adults by the time they are 27 is such: 28.1 percent have a college degree, 25.5 percent have a high school degree or equivalent with no further education, and 8.7 percent have not finished high school. That leaves nearly 40 percent of young adults who have some college education by age 27 (this includes individuals with an associate’s degree or any enrollment in college after high school). Put another way, of the 66 percent of young adults who began college, 37.5 haven’t completed their degree by age 27.

While it’s encouraging to see that more young adults are getting their foot in the door at colleges, you need to graduate to reap the higher wages of a college degree. This is seen most obviously in the entry-level wages young adults. Currently, entry-level college graduates (age 23-29) make $20 an hour, while young adults with some college (ages 21-27) make $12 an hour. An hourly wage of $12 is much closer to high school graduates’ wages of $10 an hour than to the wages of their college graduated peers.

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Unemployment, Schools, Wages, and the Mythical Skills Gap

Conventional wisdom holds that the American workforce lacks the specialized skills that employers are looking for, and that this “skills gap” is the main, if not the only, explanation for our persistently high unemployment rate—especially our long-term unemployment rate. Paul Krugman helpfully exploded this idea in his New York Times column on Monday, making these key points:

  • The ratio of unfilled jobs to unemployed workers today is quite low by historical standards. There are always unfilled jobs, because workers leave and employers have not yet had time or opportunity to hire replacements. This is a frictional, not structural, phenomenon. There are very few, if any, jobs today that remain unfilled because employers cannot find workers with the needed skills.
  • Today’s long term unemployed have skills comparable to those of recently laid-off workers “who quickly find new jobs.” The long-term unemployed face a shortage of demand for their labor, not skill requirements beyond their education and training.
  • If there really were a skills shortage, we would expect to see wages increasing in job categories where skills are allegedly in short supply. But such wages are not increasing.

Nor have wages increased for quite a while. It is especially telling that wages of college graduates, not just those of non-college educated workers, have been flat for a decade, and that young college graduates have been faring poorly, even prior to the 2008 recession. According to a recent report of the New York Federal Reserve Board, the percentage of recent college graduates “who are unemployed or ‘underemployed’—working in a job that typically does not require a bachelor’s degree—has risen, particularly since the 2001 recession. Moreover, the quality of the jobs held by the underemployed has declined, with today’s recent graduates increasingly accepting low-wage jobs or working part-time.” In other words, “skills gaps” are responsible for neither our unemployment problems nor our wage problems.

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Socioeconomic School Integration Is a Worthy Goal, but Racial Segregation Presents Added Challenges

Are African Americans disadvantaged—for example, having lower school achievement—because they have lower family incomes, on average, than whites, or because they continue to suffer from an American caste system based on race?

Both are involved. Certainly, in a color-blind society, African American students would have lower average achievement simply because a higher proportion of African American than white students have income and other socioeconomic disadvantages that depress their ability to take full advantage of schooling.

Therefore, policies that attempt to offset the disadvantages that impede the success of all lower class children, regardless of race or ethnicity, can benefit black children disproportionately. But we should not delude ourselves that by narrowing socioeconomic inequality, we have also significantly addressed racial subjugation, the continuing American dilemma.

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A Strong Precedent for a Better Accountability System

Education policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations has suffered from failure to acknowledge a critical principle of performance evaluation in all fields, public and private—if an institution has multiple goals but is held accountable only for some, its agents, acting rationally, will increase attention paid to goals for which they are evaluated, and diminish attention to those, perhaps equally important, for which they are not evaluated.

When law and policy hold schools accountable primarily for their students’ math and reading test scores, educators inevitably, and rationally, devote less instructional resources to history, the sciences, the arts and music, citizenship, physical and emotional health, social skills, a work ethic and other curricular areas.

Over the last decade, racial minority and socio-economically disadvantaged students have suffered the most from this curricular narrowing. As those with the lowest math and reading scores, theirs are the teachers and schools who are under the most pressure to devote greater time to test prep, and less to the other subjects of a balanced instructional program.

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African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational

In the current issue of The American Prospect, I review Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place, a 2013 book that helps explain the persistent failure of educational policy to spur the upward mobility of low-income African American youth.

It is now well understood that many characteristics of children from low-income families—poor health, housing instability, inadequate pre-literacy experiences when young and inadequate after-school enrichment opportunities when older—make it difficult to take advantage of even the best classroom instruction. A quarter of a century ago, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged showed that the harm is magnified when children with these disadvantages are concentrated in urban ghettos where jobs have vanished, violence, drugs, and stress are commonplace, and there are few adult role models of academic success.

Building on Wilson’s work, Sharkey demonstrates that the harm is exacerbated when families live in such low-income neighborhoods for multiple generations. Indeed, a child’s chance of success may be harmed as much or more by having a mother who grew up in a poor neighborhood than by growing up in a poor neighborhood him or herself. And, Sharkey shows, between black and white children who live in poor neighborhoods, blacks are more likely to have done so for multiple generations.

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Truth As Well As Reconciliation

In the last week, we’ve paid great attention to Nelson Mandela’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation between South Africa’s former white rulers and its exploited black majority. But we’ve paid less attention to the condition that Mandela insisted must underlie reconciliation—truth. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela established, and that Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired, was designed to contribute to cleansing wounds of the country’s racist history by exposing it to a disinfecting bright light. As for those Afrikaners who committed even the worst acts of violence against blacks, they could be forgiven and move on only if they acknowledged the full details of their crimes.

In the current issue of the School Administrator, I write that we do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality. We have many celebrations of the civil rights movement and its heroes, but we do very little to explain to young people why that movement was so necessary. Earlier this week, the New York Times described how the Alabama Historical Association has placed many commemorative markers around Montgomery to commemorate civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, but declined—because of “the potential for controversy”—to call attention to the city’s slave markets and their role in the spread of slavery before the Civil War. Throughout our nation, this fear of confronting the past makes it more difficult to address and remedy the ongoing existence of urban ghettos, the persistence of the black-white achievement gap, and the continued under-representation of African Americans in higher education and better-paying jobs.

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The Stem, the Flower, and Corporate Greed

In his New York Times column this morning, David Brooks uses a garden metaphor to instruct us on the different functions of the public and private sector. He writes that the government is like the “stem,” providing us with the essential but rather uninteresting infrastructure to allow the “flower” of private life to bloom. Thus, we need parks, public transportation and public safety, but people can provide their own picnic.

Putting aside that there might be other things we need for a picnic—such as safe food and a job with a day off—Brooks’ division of responsibility is reasonable. But the political context of his column is nonsense. What we face today is not some theoretical ignorance of the right balance between things that are private and things that are public; all but the most libertarian understand the public’s role in providing “stem” functions. The reality is that everywhere we look, essential public functions are being undermined, if not destroyed, by privatization.

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EPI research on Education

  • Bringing it back home: Why state comparisons are more useful than international comparisons for improving U.S. education policy

    October 30, 2015 | By Martin Carnoy, Emma García, and Tatiana Khavenson | Report
  • Laws enabling public-sector collective bargaining have not led to excessive public-sector pay

    October 16, 2015 | By Jeffrey H. Keefe | Report
  • Child care is out of reach for working families earning the minimum wage

    October 7, 2015 | By Elise Gould | Economic Snapshot
  • Parents’ Non-Standard Work Schedules Make Adequate Childrearing Difficult: Reforming Labor Market Practices Can Improve Children’s Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes

    August 6, 2015 | By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein | Report
  • Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Kindergartners Lag in Reading Skills

    June 23, 2015 | By Elaine Weiss and Emma García | Economic Snapshot
  • Testimony before the District of Columbia Council, Committee on Education

    June 22, 2015 | By Mark Simon | Testimony