Dr. Bennett recently spoke at the Fordham Institute on the state of American education.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
William J. Bennett, former U.S. education secretary (and former NEH chairman, drug czar, widely published author, radio host, and political commentator) recently spoke at the Fordham Institute on the state of American education.
On the thirtieth anniversary of A Nation at Risk (watch our video retrospective on the paper here), Dr. Bennett talked about where we’ve come with NAEP scores and other indicators—with real gains in fourth grade, modest improvement in eighth, and none whatsoever in twelfth. (That’s true of other high school indicators, too.)
Bennett noted, too, that school choice has made great strides, technology is playing a promising (but as yet unfulfilled) role in education, and Americans now know the difference between teachers and teachers unions. Mostly good news—but not all. Our worst subject, he made clear, is history (U.S. history in particular), as well as civics—and offered the excellent work of E.D. Hirsch and the Core Knowledge Foundation as at least a partial solution to this acute problem.
Michelle Rhee is, without a doubt, America’s best known education reformer. Her new autobiography, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, chronicles her upbringing as the daughter of Korean immigrants, her career trajectory from Teach For America corps member to Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and now as founder and CEO of the political advocacy group Students First.
In this installment of the Education Next book club, host Mike Petrilli talks with Michelle Rhee about becoming Michelle Rhee, what she’s learned over these last tumultuous years, and what she thinks the future holds for education reform in America.
Additional installments of the Ed Next Book Club podcast can be heard here.
This post originally appeared on the Education Next blog.
Over the last few weeks, we've witnessed the spectacle of “outrage” at learning that two major figures in the school reform wars (Leonie Haimson and Michelle Rhee) send their children to private schools.
I'm not interested in rehashing all of the usual debates. I do want to point out that there's public, and then there's “public.” In other words, some of the people expressing indignation, I suspect, may send their children to “public” schools that are much more “private” than most private schools. And starting in September, I will be one of those parents (as anyone who has read my book knows already).
Yes, it's true: Wood Acres Elementary, in Bethesda, Maryland, is a “private public school”—a term that Janie Scull and I coined in a 2010 report for the Fordham Institute. These are “public” schools that serve virtually no poor students. They are open to anyone—anyone who can afford to live in their catchment zones, that is.
We found 2,800 such schools in America back then; I suspect the numbers haven't changed much since.
But here's what you might want to consider: New York City, where Haimson lives, has exactly zero such schools. Nashville, Tennessee, where Rhee's daughters live, has exactly zero. The greater Washington, D.C., area, where many of us policy wonks live, has about seventy.
So before we “public school parents” cast the first stone, let's get serious. Public schools can be just as exclusive—often more exclusive—than private schools.
New Jersey just released new report cards for all schools in the state. The information now available, including indicators of college- and career-readiness and excellent “peer school” comparisons, is invaluable. And it is deeply discomfiting for many of the state’s complacent schools and districts.
While the reports reinforce just how tragically low-performing the state’s urban districts are, they also show that the preening of many leafy suburban communities is unwarranted. Said state commissioner Chris Cerf, this data “will make clear that there are a number of schools out there that perhaps are a little bit too satisfied with how they are doing when compared with how other schools serving similar populations are doing.”
In other words, lots of schools and districts brag about their AP and IB programs, graduation rates, and so forth. But when you look at their AP passage rates and SAT scores, you quickly see that things aren’t so rosy. Far fewer kids than thought are truly prepared for post-secondary work.
Then when you compare some of these contented schools to other schools serving student bodies with similar demographics, you see that they are actually significantly underperforming their peers.
This should serve as a wake-up call to lots of New Jersey communities. A number of states with sophisticated school-rating systems, like Florida, have been providing such warnings to middle-class and affluent areas for some time.
I’m hopeful that such efforts will force parents, teachers, administrators, and school
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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