William Torrey Harris warned against “hothouse” education in the 19th century, and the New York Times is on it!

Science writer David Kohn has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Let the Kids Learn Through Play. For historians, the first three words ring alarm bells:

Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing… [emphasis added]

Great: another Myth of the Golden Age. Maybe my memory is flawed, but Google Books and I both agree that the early 1990s was a time when “child-care crisis” was on the tip of many tongues, or at least on far more tongues and keyboards than before or since:

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Deist school reform and teacher evaluations

As my colleague Audrey Amrein-Beardsley pointed out earlier today, there is a battle royale coming up this week in New York, with a hearing on the changes in state teacher evaluation policy mandated by this year’s budget agreement in Albany. Amrein-Beardsley sees the issue focused on value-added measures, in part because that is the obsession of Governor Andrew Cuomo and a number of his policy allies in teacher valuation. I see things a little more holistically, because teacher evaluation becomes much more interesting when you broaden the scope a bit.

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Marc Tucker and the declension myth in American education debates

This month, Marc Tucker has written two blog entries for Ed Week that together present a frequently-used argument about the decline of America’s schools.1 On April 16, Tucker argued that a reduction in the difficulty level of high school senior textbooks has led to the watering down of college curriculum. Here’s the argument and payoff in a nutshell:

Could it be that many community colleges and even four-year colleges are really offering what used to be a high school college-bound curriculum and many college students cannot even successfully complete that? If so, it would go a long way toward explaining the slowdown in wage growth in the United States.

In other words: We used to be great, but now we are an aging superpower with sagging muscles–uh, brains. We coulda been a contender!  The human-capital explanation of wage stagnation and inequality is common, and would be plausible but for a few small, inconvenient facts, especially this one: the bulk of recent inequality growth is at the very upper reaches of the income and wealth scales. Mr. Tucker, do you really believe that the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 0.1% of Americans is better-educated and more knowledgeable than the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 5%, and that the highest-earning 5% truly knows less than the highest-earning 5% from 50 years ago? This argument feeds into the dynamic of seeing education as the solution to inequality. Jacob Bernstein argues that the primary problem with wage growth in the short term is weak demand. And a bunch of smart economists are worried about secular stagnation in the longer term.2

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  1. While such claims are sprinkled through the last 100 years, the modern progenitor is the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, with its claims about “a rising tide of mediocrity.” []
  2. This complex picture does not mean that education is unimportant, but that the economic argument for education reform is overstated. In education policy, as in Facebook relationship statuses, life can be complicated. []

What do doctoral admissions committees look for?

Last week, I was in Portland with a chance to rub elbows with some very important people–no, not anyone who is likely to attend Davos next year but Gates Millennium Scholars. These students are on an alternative-spring break week engaged in service in Oregon. Most are undergraduates, with a sprinkling of masters and doctoral students. It’s a great opportunity to see the future of the country, as well as talk a little about my college’s graduate programs. Other schools are here, as well as non-academic opportunities after graduation, such as City Year, TFA, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. I want to see several of these students at Arizona State in the future, but I am sure this cohort will have a substantial impact on the world no matter where they end up.

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Different ways to think about the “Florida package”

My second email Q&A over Florida’s recent reform history is up at Valerie Strauss’s blog. I’m flattered that she calls me an expert on Florida reform. I’m more of a scholar of accountability who was also a local observer for 18 years, and one of those who have written about the state’s education reforms. (See a January 2013 blog entry by the Shanker Institute’s Matt DiCarlo for a discussion of and links to much of that body of research.) Many of my comments in that blog entry are going to strike readers as similar to another email Q&A with Strauss from 2010. We have more data from NAEP this time, and the use of a smoother graph-cutting tool available on the NAEP site. I very much appreciate that Strauss printed the caveats I wrote about using NAEP point estimates; it’s rare when reporters let us get in our quibbles. Strauss was also patient with the weeks when I was too crazy-busy to respond to a question, including a stretch when I realized I had a few errors in a table introduced by rounding errors and asked her to hold off posting anything until I could cross-check it against the tables that NAEP’s server could generate.1

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  1. The blog entry showed some of the NAEP figures comparing Florida scale score means to the country’s, and I have added all of them below: reading and math in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. You can also look at reading in 8th grade and math in 4th and 12th grades. And the NAEP gap tables FL 4th grade reading for reading 4th grade.

    NAEP Reading Grade 4 FL vs US

    NAEP Reading Grade 8 FL vs US

    NAEP Reading Grade 12 FL vs US

    NAEP Math Grade 4 FL vs US

    NAEP Math Grade 8 FL vs US

    NAEP Math Grade 12 FL vs US

    Source: NAEP “Nation’s Report Card” website section on reading and math scores by state. []