national newsletter

Thanks, Common Core?

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Sarah Darville and Matt Barnum here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. Sign up for any of Chalkbeat’s newsletters here.

The big story

Did the Common Core work?

A new study finds some evidence that the standards caused modest declines in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores in states that changed their academic standards most dramatically.

The new study has significant limitations, and another study that hasn’t yet been released comes to a more positive conclusion. Still, researchers say the new study — among the first pieces of research about whether the Common Core is helping students learn — is credible.

“I’m not ready to conclude that the adoption of rigorous content standards is bad for student learning,” researcher Laura Hamilton of RAND said after reviewing the study. “But I don’t look at this and think, this looks totally wrong. It definitely looks plausible.”

Even the researcher behind the study say they were surprised. “It’s rather unexpected,” said Mengli Song. “The magnitude of the negative effects tend to increase over time. That’s a little troubling.”

Read our full story here.

Also from the national desk

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, announced late last year that he planned to donate $1 billion to create a network of “Montessori-inspired” preschools. That’s one reason we wanted to talk to Mira Debs, a researcher who has a new book out on the intersection of Montessori and school choice. She discusses how public Montessori programs can be a source of both school integration and school segregation. Read the full interview.

Last week, we highlighted a New York Times article that described the backlash to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative-backed Summit learning platform in two Kansas districts. Since then, the Times has issued a substantial correction to the story: A student was featured because her epileptic seizures may have exacerbated by additional screen time, but the student’s school did not in fact use the Summit platform.

Local stories to watch

  • Newark’s unified enrollment system for district and charter schools may be unraveling. Several charter operators there are accusing the district of tweaking the system to lower their enrollment. (Notably, major networks KIPP and Uncommon did not sign onto this complaint.) The unified enrollment system has been a hallmark of the school reform effort in Newark, and the situation illustrates one reason those arrangements are rare nationwide — they depend on the trust of organizations that compete for students.
  • Colorado, a laggard on early childhood education, is making full-day kindergarten free. Unlike in many states, kindergarten in Colorado hasn’t been funded the way other grades are, leaving many districts to charge parents tuition for full-day programs. The plan won bipartisan support and is now headed to Gov. Jared Polis’s desk.
  • Growth of “innovation schools” has slowed in Indianapolis. The approach — district schools run by nonprofit operators, including charters — is a key strategy of the district, heralded by national reform leaders, but subject to intense local debate. Only one innovation school was opened this year, compared to an average of five since 2015. That may be due to uncertainty in the district, which has an interim superintendent.
  • The school voucher plan being finalized in Tennessee will apply only to Memphis and Nashville students. Lawmakers there appear to be moving quickly toward consensus after the House and Senate both passed bills creating education savings account programs. Leaders of both districts have already said they’ll sue if it becomes law.

Research roundup

  • Reducing school bus emissions can help students in class, says a new study. Aging school buses often spew harmful chemicals, but they can be retrofitted to reduce emissions. Looking at Georgia, researchers found that this improved students’ respiratory health and their test scores, relative to students in districts without the changes. “If a district retrofits its entire bus fleet, the effect on English test scores would be slightly larger than the effect of [a student] going from a rookie teacher to one with five years of experience,” the authors explain. It’s the latest study showing how pollution hurts students’ academic performance.
  • Middle school closures in New York City had mixed effects, according to a new study. Overall, the closures didn’t clearly help or harm students who were displaced or who would have likely attended those closed schools in the future, at least in terms of test scores. The results looked somewhat better for that second group, though, consistent with past research on closures helping future students. The researchers also highlight an interesting divide: low-performing displaced students were harmed by closures, whereas already high-performing future students saw benefits.

DeVos watch

President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attended the National Teacher of the Year ceremony this week. Teachers of the year from two states boycotted the event to protest the administration’s policies.

DeVos is in New York City today to receive an award from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. We’ll be there and will report back if she makes news. Her spokesperson declined an interview request with Chalkbeat, but she did stop by a Fox News radio show.

Tomorrow, she’ll be in Chicago to speak at the conference of the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group she used to chair. And next week she’ll be at the Education Writers Association conference; we’ll be there as well.

The Washington Post describes DeVos as a “Trump cabinet survivor” in a recent story. Although she’s been pilloried, the “president shows no signs of asking her to resign, reflecting in part his lack of interest in the issue of education and the department responsible for it. And DeVos has no interest in departing.”

Last week we mentioned that a group of high school journalists from Kentucky weren’t able to attend an event with DeVos. Now those students have an op-ed in Education Week. “The headlines in much of the media coverage used words like bashing, blast, and slam, suggesting that we were attacking DeVos. We did not want our editorial to be partisan in any way,” they wrote.

House Democrats are proposing a major increase in federal education spending, in contrast the to Trump administration’s proposed reductions.

2020 vision

Joe Biden jumped into the presidential race, and Education Week has a look at his education track record — including his steadfast opposition to court-ordered school integration efforts in the 1970s.

An interesting bit of trivia: with Biden in, three presidential candidates have family ties to charter schools. Biden’s brother, Cory Booker’s brother, and Beto O’Rourke’s wife have all helped start charter schools.

Asked about charter schools recently, O’Rourke said he supported nonprofit charter schools as a “laboratory of innovation” but said we “cannot charter our way out of public school challenges.”

Next week, Kamala Harris — who proposed an ambitious teacher pay increase — will participate in an American Federation of Teachers town hall in Detroit.

Names to note

Julie Jackson was named the president of Uncommon Schools, a charter network with 54 schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Joris Ray will be the next superintendent of Shelby County Schools, which encompasses Memphis.

Boston will choose a new school superintendent from among these three finalists.

What we’re reading

  • Florida is set to expand private school vouchers for low- and middle-income families. Orlando Sentinel
  • Districts are struggling with the high price tag of promised teacher raises. Education Week
  • Teachers in both North and South Carolina rallied at their respective capitals to push for higher pay, causing many districts to cancel school. News & Observer, The Post and Courier

(Photo by Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)