Here’s a simple thought experiment:

Sam and Ben are eight-year-old identical twins. Like most identical twins, they are the same in almost every way. They do, however, differ in two important respects: Sam is smarter than Ben, but Ben is naturally a harder worker. So here’s my question: All other things being equal (in this case, quite literally), which twin is likely to be a more successful adult?

The answer is Ben, the harder worker. Ben has a far greater chance of achieving success than does Sam. And this is an unacceptable consequence of our country’s inadequate education system, particularly its ineffective education of higher-ability students.

Hard work is a more learned characteristic than is intelligence. Circumstances can easily lead someone to work harder; intelligence is a more fixed attribute (if not fixed entirely). But BOTH of these attributes—hard work and ability—are vital for success.

Let’s look at two possible outcomes for the stars of our story. In this instance, Sam and Ben are in the same math class learning long division. They have four days to learn it before they’re tested. Sam can learn long division in two days; Ben can grasp the same concept in four.

Outcome 1: Sam only wanted to work for one day; Ben toiled for all four. Regardless of ability, Sam is now behind Ben.

Outcome 2: Both twins put in the required time to learn long division. And both do well on the test. BUT Sam’s time was wasted for two days


In June, NPR wondered if “Michigan Might Provide a Template for States Hoping to Leave Common Core,” but now things seem to have changed. Has Michigan found a winning legislative strategy for keeping the standards?

At the risk of speaking too soon, it's possible that Michigan has struck the right balance to allay concerns (mostly, but not entirely, concerns on the right) about the Common Core with a resolution that just passed the House after modifications were made by the Senate to the original House version. Following a “pause” of the standards that effectively defunded their implementation beginning October 1st, State Representative Tim Kelly sought—and seems to have found—a workable solution. The deal passed via a voice vote (no one officially registers a vote in support or in opposition) in the Senate on October 24 and in the House today. This development should make most proponents happy: A state has successfully defended the standards while—perhaps—calming many of the criticisms.

To be clear, though, Common Core aficionados will not be entirely pleased. For while the standards themselves seem safe for now, whether Michigan will actually administer the Smarter Balanced assessments seems far from certain. The House-approved language directs the State Board of Education and the Education Department staff to issue a report by December 1st that will essentially contain a menu of options relating to student assessments for the Legislature to consider...

David M. Steiner

Given the highly favorable reviews and rave blurbs from such diverse figures as former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, one might expect Amanda Ripley's new book on international educational practices, The Smartest Kids in the World, to offer arresting revelations about how to improve America's education system.

Currently, at least as measured by the Program for Student International Assessment (PISA), America's students from each level of family income perform more poorly than students in the most educationally successful countries. Ripley thus sets out to draw lessons from Finland, South Korea, and Poland, which have achieved strong educational gains for their students. Certainly, as we digest—year after year—data on our own students that attests to their middling performance on international comparisons, tragic and persistent learning gaps among different segments of the population, and depressingly high college remediation rates, lessons from the best-performing countries in the world could not be more welcome.

What is thus surprising about Ripley's book is how little it contains that is really news; instead, it serves to remind us in powerful terms that we simply haven't acted on what we already know. Education systems work when

  • Students are challenged with demanding and coherent curricula;
  • Teachers are recruited from the top echelon of college graduates;
  • We tell the truth to students about their performance; and
  • Teachers, students, and parents are all committed to the difficult work of constant educational progress.

I over-simplify, but...


Dear Deborah,

Over the course of our dialogue, we've written a lot about children living in poverty and about inequality. But you've been practically daring me to engage on the question of the other end of the spectrum: the children of the rich. OK, fine, I see that resistance is futile!

In your most recent post, for instance, you argued,

Children are born into whatever they are born into.  That some start the six-mile foot "race" at a mile behind the starting line and others a few miles ahead is not fair, not a level playing field. A few in the bottom quintile (3 percent?) overcome the odds.  But it would be a lot easier for the message of hope to reach the other 97 percent if they were closer to the starting line, and the rich weren't so incredibly far ahead, looking back at them with disdain.  If my childless, working-age grandchildren aren't too proud to take a "hand-out" from their parents, why should the adult children of families who have experienced a lifetime of poverty and racism feel otherwise about taking a helping hand from a society they didn't ask to be born into poor?  Alas, many do feel shame.

This reminds me of the old joke about people who were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple.

If you recall, we started our discussion last spring with a debate about Sean Reardon's finding that, in recent decades, affluent children...


Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on dinosaurs; the American foundersaquatic life; the Maya, Inca, and AztecNative American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of Discovery; and movie adaptations of classic children’s books. Thanks to research interns Melissa Reynolds and Singer Crawford for their help in compiling these lists.

What do Meryl Streep, Reading Rainbow, and the French all have in common? They all love bugs, apparently. This week’s offering of free streaming videos on Netflix and Amazon explores the world of insects—just in time, as an early freeze in much of the nation is surely killing off many of the creepy-crawly critters. Enjoy!

The 10 best streaming videos on insects

1. DisneyNature: Wings of Life

DisneyNature: Wings of Life

Full of intrigue, drama, and beauty, this mesmerizing documentary looks at bats, butterflies, hummingbirds and bees—increasingly endangered little creatures that a third of the world's food supply depends on. Meryl Streep narrates.

Length: 80 minutes

Rating: G

2. Microcosmos


Employing unique microscopic cameras and powerful...


Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

But something important seems to go hand-in-hand with our rooting for the underdog—what might be described as the chip on our collective shoulder, a bit of disdain for those seen as undeservingly advantaged. Our Founders cast off the crown, the nobility, and the haughty pretentions that go along with class privilege. We rebel against not...

Tim Shanahan, Ann Duffett

As forty-six states and the District of Columbia implement the Common Core State Standards, questions abound regarding implementation, including the implications for curriculum and pedagogy. In Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments, researchers analyze what texts English teachers assign their students and the instructional techniques they used in the classroom. This “baseline” study—with a follow-up slated for 2015—shows what the very early stages of CCSS implementation look like:

Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and an overwhelming majority of teachers say that their schools have already made significant progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development.

But the findings from this survey also show that, for the most part, the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS still lies ahead:

  • The CCSS emphasize the centrality of texts in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still report that their lessons are dominated by skills and that they are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching.
  • The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess.
  • The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including
  • ...

As a born optimist, I don’t generally enjoy being “against” reforms. This sometimes makes playing the role of gadfly challenging. If only I had the curmudgeonly qualities of Checker Finn, my mentor and boss, it would be so much easier. (Even Rick Hess, for all of his straight talk and fun-loving, bare-kneed exploits, is much more the natural cynic.)

So it brings me no pleasure to predict, as I have on multiple occasions, that the project to create rigorous teacher evaluations by fiat is likely to fail. But read this passage within a recent post by Megan McArdle (on Republican states actively working to torpedo ObamaCare implementation), and see if it rings alarm bells for you, too:

Obamacare is in jeopardy, and Democrats are casting around for a way to blame this on Republicans. The answer they have settled on: It's their fault because Republican governors did not set up exchanges.

Think about what they are actually saying: “We passed a law that was so incredibly fragile that it was destined to fail unless all the state governments controlled by the party that opposed this law worked hard to make the system a success.”


As anyone who has ever implemented a new program (corporate or government) can tell you, one of the biggest hurdles is getting people who don’t care about your program, or who actively oppose it, to make their piece work. Even if they’re trying in good faith,


Dear Deborah,

You might be right that our differences are too big to bridge; perhaps the generational divide is part of the problem. I'm a child of the 1980s and the Reagan Revolution. The idea that unions are essential to democracy, for instance, never made much sense to me; by my time, they seemed like one more interest group. Nor does the "soak the rich" class-warrior rhetoric ring my bells. Maybe because I don't live in Gotham? Maybe because I worry that any effort to confiscate wealth will backfire (in terms of lower economic growth) and will only end up hurting the poor?

I don't think it's just us, though. What's been instructive about our discussion is that it shows how deep the divides are when it comes to social policy in America. (Of course, anyone following the news out of Washington could have told us that.) I totally understand the frustration of educators who complain that policymakers put all the problems of the world on their shoulders and want to see "broader and bolder" efforts to fight poverty, too. But there's a simple reason that education has been in the spotlight for so long: It's one of the few things upon which the politicians—and the Americans they represent—can agree.

The left, after all, views poverty as the result of structural changes in the economy, systematic inequities (including inequities in school funding), and the lingering effects of racism. It wants a...


Throughout his tenure as Secretary, Arne Duncan has often told audiences, “Hold us accountable.” It’s an honorable sentiment from a public servant.

But it’s also a model of good behavior for those of us currently in the chattering class—commentators, pundits, critics, etc., who hold forth instead of fighting in the arena.

For some time now, I’ve been giving the Department a hard time about not releasing enough data on the performance of the SIG program—I’m trying to hold them accountable for the Secretary’s talk of turning around 5,000 persistently failing schools over the course of five years.

I suppose they will eventually give us some results, and I’m certain that I’ll have something to say about them.

But in the spirit of the Secretary’s refrain, I should be held accountable, too.

I publicly predicted—on numerous occasions—that SIG was not going to produce anything remotely close to the results the Department and others were promising. I was alarmed at how much we were spending on SIG and the awful track record of previous turnaround efforts, and I was sure that districts would pick weak interventions and that kids were going to continue languishing in these schools while we went about this misguided adventure.

Ultimately, the results will speak for themselves. But until then, here is a sampling of what I wrote more than four years ago. I caused a fuss about this program. If I got it...