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Commentary | Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Here, under the “Commentary” tab, you will find analyses and summaries of education research that could have major policy implications. We highlight research that has been under-reported, research that suggests that widely held assumptions within education are wrong, and research that calls attention to interventions that narrow the achievement gaps between educationally advantaged and disadvantaged students.


Please find here a glossary of specialized terms used by education researchers. The glossary is designed to give readers a quick reference guide to such terms, enabling us to post commentaries that require the vocabulary of education research.

Coleman, Culture, and Reading Comprehension Tests

November 9, 2016

By Lisa Hansel

Advisor, Knowledge Matters

On October 5 and 6, Johns Hopkins University commemorated James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (1966) with scholars and policymakers who have studied and addressed America’s persistent achievement gaps. The speakers included United States Secretary of Education John King and Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD; their remarks may be found here. Hansel’s piece is offered in light of Coleman’s groundbreaking work.

Imagine that scientists discover a cure for cancer. The treatment regimen is complex, but doable: For several years, teams of health care professionals must coordinate their efforts and stick to the long-term plan, even as they respond to differences in patients’ short-term needs. Outcomes are not identical, because of people’s underlying health differences, but virtually everyone who gets the full treatment goes on to live a longer, more enjoyable life. There’s just one catch: Hospitals are rated on short-term outcomes, so resources are not allocated to the multi-year planning needed to accomplish outstanding long-term results.

This isn’t just a thought exercise. It’s a pretty accurate summary of the state of affairs with reading comprehension.  Read more. 


The Promise of Curriculum: Recent Research on Louisiana’s Instructional Reforms

November 3, 2016

By Ashley Berner, Deputy Director

Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy


American policymakers seldom view the curriculum as a serious lever for change. This is unfortunate, since national and international research finds that a challenging curriculum contributes to student learning and narrows the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. I examine the research record in depth in Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (released next week by Palgrave MacMillan), but here are a few examples.

  • International Baccalaureate in Chicago. In 1997, Chicago Public Schools introduced the International Baccalaureate Program (“IB”) and a pre-IB program into 13 low-performing public high schools. A study that matched students who enrolled in the four-year program with peers who did not found that the IB students were 40% more likely to attend a four-year college, 50% more likely to attend a selective college, and significantly more likely to persist through college than their peers. Why? The research team notes that the rigorous 4-year program had enabled students to develop a “strong academic identity” and to understand the “need for an academic community.” Research undertaken by the U.S. Department of education confirms this finding: “‘The intensity and quality of one’s secondary school curriculum’ is the strongest influence not only on students’ college access but also of college completion (Coca and Consortium on Chicago School Research 2012).’”  Read more.


Do Formative Assessments Influence Student Learning?: Research on i-Ready and MAP

November 3, 2016

By Alanna Bjorklund-Young and Carey Borkoski

Research Fellows

Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy


In an era that is seemingly saturated with standardized tests of all stripes, it is easy to forget their varying functions. Formative assessments, or assessments that are given while the learning is taking place, can serve as valuable tools for increasing students learning if they give educators insights into what students know or don’t know. Teachers can subsequently address gaps in understanding or misperceptions, while continuing to build on the knowledge students have demonstrably gained. It is through such feedback and changes to the teacher’s actions that tests improve student learning, not through giving the test alone (Black, 2015; Heitink et al., 2016). The formative tests must therefore impart timely and relevant information that the teachers can interpret and deploy (Heitink et al., 2016).  Read more.


Moving the Needle:

Five Cities that Shape the Educational Landscape[1]

September 2016

By Al Passarella

Research and Policy Analyst Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy  


Strong schools are an important indicator of a city’s vibrancy and desirability. Five cities - Denver, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Detroit, and Indianapolis - have looked beyond traditional models of public education towards innovations that have the potential to move the needle for their youngest citizens. While such innovations never occur without struggle, these cities have demonstrated that shifting power away from the central administrative office to the community can bring distinctive benefits. The briefings that follow illustrate ways in which civic leaders can influence public education outside of the district and participate in changes that can lead to demonstrable learning gains for their students and renewed civic engagement for families and businesses.  Read more.


Supporting the College and Career Readiness of African American Males:
Policy Implications for School Counselors

October 4, 2016

By James L. Moore III
EHE Distinguished Professor of Urban Education
Executive Director, Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male
The Ohio State University

and Lamont A. Flowers
Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership
Executive Director, Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education
Clemson University

The Issue

An evolving global economy has generated an immense demand for highly skilled workers in the United States and other parts of the world. By 2020, nearly two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary education or training, with 30 percent requiring a bachelor’s degree and 36 percent requiring at least the equivalent of an associate’s degree (Carnevale, Smith & Strohl, 2013). Accordingly, a high school diploma no longer guarantees access to stable employment and a living wage; a college degree is increasingly necessary to secure career opportunities that promote financial security (Donohue & Heckman, 1991).

African American males struggle more than other groups to reach this goal (Ford & Moore, 2013; Jackson & Moore, 2008; Moore, Henfield, & Owens, 2008). High school drop out rates are highest for African American males (Lee & Ransom, 2011). Of those who do enroll in four-year colleges and universities,  the most recent data show that only 35.3% earned a degree, compared to 48.9% of Hispanic males and 60.1% of white males; in two-year colleges, only 19.8% earned a degree, compared to 28.6% of Hispanic and 30.4% of white males (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). 

Multiple out-of-school factors influence these low rates of college completion. Research suggests that many African American males experience difficulty in formulating their academic and social identities in the context of complex and ambiguous psychosocial interactions with their families, schools, communities, and society (Moore & Lewis, 2014; Noguera, 2003). The communities in which African American males live are characterized by some of the highest concentrations of poverty and family instability in the country, and African American males face media characterizations that reinforce racial stereotypes (Bryant, 2015; Tsoi-A-Fatt, 2010). They are the group least likely to be hired and most likely to be unemployed (Noguera, 2003). Such difficult experiences with the world transfer to African American males’ experiences with schools and other domains of society (Moore, 2006). Read more



Solving Educational Inequities in 2016: A Conversation between Critical Friends

September 20, 2016

Political activists Ben Spielberg and Dmitri Mehlhorn agree that America’s education system reinforces inequities, but disagree about which policies and practices would remedy the persistent achievement gaps. The conversation below reflects their public disagreements and private friendship.

In order to keep the posting of this exchange clear of too many distractions, the references that Ben and Dmitri cite are embedded in hyperlinks in the text. We strongly encourage interested readers to open these links, which are important sources through which to evaluate the claims advanced here. Often those links take you to still further sources: in fact, readers with enough patience to pursue the links to the links will benefit from a very rich set of thought-provoking materials – for example, on the outcomes of urban charter schools reported in the now famous CREDO study and how we should interpret them. In short, this discussion might best be considered the visible segment of a largely submerged iceberg.

In 1966, Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman published the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report, a study funded by the federal government to investigate the varying quality of K-12 education in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. The Coleman Report sparked a national debate Read more


How Can So Many Students Be Invisible?
Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level

August 16, 2016

By Matthew C. Makel, Michael S. Matthews, Scott J. Peters, Karen Rambo-Hernandez, and Jonathan A. Plucker

"Millions of American K-12 students are performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged, putting their intellectual development and the country’s future prosperity at risk."

America’s K-12 education systems place students in grade levels by age and set performance expectations accordingly, using historical, average grade-level performance rather than any specific content students are expected to master. This should not surprise us. Nearly all aspects of America’s schools are built upon age-based grade levels and corresponding grade-level expectations: standards, instruction, curriculum, and assessment, among others. Indeed, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), like the No Child Left Behind Act before it, has a strong grade-level framework running throughout its nearly 400 pages. The stated importance of “getting students to grade level” reinforces the implicit message that doing so is the primary purpose of schooling. This emphasis ignores an important question: How many students already perform one or more years above grade level on their first day of school? Read more.


Spatial Thinking:  A Missing Building Block in STEM Education

July 15, 2016

By Kristin Gagnier
Outreach and Evaluation Specialist, Science of Learning Institute
Assistant Research Scientist, Department of Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins University
and Kelly Fisher
Director, Dissemination, Translation, and Education, Science of Learning Institute
Associate Director, Science of Learning Institute
Assistant Professor, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University

"Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."

President Barack Obama, March 23, 2015

Spatial thinking:  What it is, and why it matters for STEM education

The United States faces two key challenges regarding Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and training: seventy percent of our 15-year-old students score at or below standard levels on tests of math and science (OECD, 2012), and the demand for STEM jobs is outpacing the supply of potential employees (Halpern et al., 2007; U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, 2012). The Common Core State Standards for Math, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the focus on STEM within President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative reflect these concerns.  Read more.


A Third Way: Lessons On The Politics Of School District Turnaround From Lawrence, Massachusetts

July 15, 2016

By Beth Schueler
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

The Institute published an earlier piece on the Lawrence Receivership on May 16, 2016.

Introduction: The Politics of School District Turnaround

Superintendents list politics as the top factor that impedes their job performance, according to a 2015 American Association of School Administrators survey (Education Week, 2015). State interventions in low-performing schools and district turnaround efforts tend to be especially contentious, as demonstrated by public protest in such communities as New Orleans (Buras, 2015; Jabar, 2015), Memphis (Glazer & Egan, 2016), Newark (Russakoff, 2015), and even smaller Massachusetts cities such as Holyoke (Williams, 2015). At the same time, research suggests that the effective navigation of politics is a crucial component of successful and sustainable district improvement initiatives (Honig & Coburn, 2008; Johnson et al., 2015; Jochim, 2013; Stone, Henig, Jones & Pierannunzi, 2001). Unfortunately, the academic literature is short on guidance for leaders looking to implement politically viable district turnaround. Read more.


Public Funding for Private Schools: Recent Research and Larger Policy Implications

July 14, 2016

By Ashley Berner
Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy


Do private school-choice programs in the United States help or hinder the goals of a democratic education? The answer seems to be: it depends. It depends on how the enabling law is structured, which (if any) accountability regime exists, the amount of funding allowed, the subset of students affected, and the number and quality of options within the local educational ecosystem. It also depends on which grade level and which outcomes of interest (test scores, college enrollment, civic values?) we have in mind.

The question itself, however, highlights a larger cultural and political issue: the current way in which our country defines public education. The United States is an outlier among democratic nations in having chosen a uniform, as opposed to a pluralistic, structure for our school systems. The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, and Australia are among the many nations in which governments fund,  Read more.


An Interview with Nínive Calegari, Founder of The Teacher Salary Project  

June 22, 2016 
Conducted By Jane Henzerling, Fellow, Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy
The Teacher Salary Project is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the impact of underpaying and under-valuing educators. The organization works to ensure that teaching becomes the prestigious, desirable, financially viable, and professionally exciting job it needs to be.
JH:  What was the inspiration for The Teacher Salary Project?
NC:  The inspiration for my work with teacher salary issues comes from my personal experience as a classroom teacher.  I felt I had the best job in the world and was really inspired by my colleagues.  In the three different settings where I taught, I was incredibly lucky and had three wonderful principals.  I felt that becoming a teacher was a political act, I felt earnest and patriotic, and I thought the work was noble.  In my twenties, I realized that the core problem with my profession was that not everyone wanted my job. Read More

Florida’s College and Career Readiness Reforms: Are They Helping?

June 10, 2016

By James E. Rosenbaum, Professor of Sociology, Education and Social Policy
and Caitlin Ahearn, Research Coordinator, Institute for Policy Research
Northwestern University


College-for-All (CFA) has become a prominent theme in 21st century education. This movement encourages all students to pursue post-secondary education. Since today's labor market increasingly rewards higher-education credentials, CFA is an appropriate policy.

However, there are two problems with CFA as currently construed: a hefty portion of high-school graduates are not academically prepared for credit-bearing college courses, and high-school graduates who seek entry into the workforce instead of college are under-served by the system.  Read more.


Report from the Field

Lillie May Carroll Jackson School for Girls: Baltimore’s Public-Private School Partnership

June 3, 2016

By Jeannette Karpay, Esq.
Karpay diem, LLC

The relationship between America’s various school sectors - district, charter, Catholic, independent, Jewish, etc. – is complex. District and charter schools contend for public dollars and moral standing, while the worlds of independent and religious schools rarely interact with either. An exception to the rule exists in Baltimore.

Lillie May Carroll Jackson School for Girls is a charter school that came about from a partnership between Baltimore City Public Schools and Roland Park Country School (RPCS), a 110-year-old independent school in Baltimore. The planning process occupied five years and took place across incremental collaborations and mediated conversations between the two communities Read more.


What Do We Know About Developing Students’ Non-cognitive Skills?

June 3, 2016

By Alanna Bjorklund-Young
Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Many states include students’ academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, in their teacher-evaluation systems. IQ and standardized tests measure students’ cognitive skills, defined as the ability to perform higher mental processes of reasoning, remembering, understanding, and problem solving (Bernstein et al., 2007). Research shows that cognitive ability is highly correlated with school success and significantly contributes to future earnings (Cawley, Heckman, & Vytlacil, 2001; Green & Riddell 2003). At the same time, test scores and IQ are not predicative of success later in life. Read more.


Receivership in Lawrence, MA: Problems, Possibilities, and Progress

May 16, 2016

By Carey Borkoski
Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy


Massachusetts is this country’s top-performing state. According to the 2012 PISA results, if Massachusetts were separated from the United States, it would place ninth in math proficiency and fourth in reading proficiency in the world (Crotty, 2014).

Such success, however, has eluded schools in many of Massachusetts’s post-industrial towns such as Lawrence. In 2010, students in Lawrence Read more.


Mapping College Readiness: Are States Building Bridges, Detours, or Roadblocks to College?

April 13, 2016

By Abigail Swisher
Research Associate, Education Policy Program at New America

For many students in the United States, the path between high school graduation and college completion is littered with detours and roadblocks. Low-income students, in particular, encounter obstacles at numerous junctures, from the college admission and financial aid process to their registration for first-year coursework. More troubling still, students often find that they are academically unprepared for college-level work and must therefore enroll in non-credit-bearing, remedial courses. Read more.


High-Quality Curricula: A Cost-Effective Way to Increase Student Learning

April 11, 2016

By Alanna Bjorklund-Young
Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Curricula, or the instructional materials used to teach including teacher’s guides and textbooks (Boser et al., 2015), inevitably influence a teacher’s lesson content and instructional approach (Reys et al., 2003). Despite such obvious importance, however, the academic curriculum is often overlooked as a factor in student outcomes. Indeed, what is striking is the paucity of research on the subject.

There have been a few scholarly forays into this domain. For instance, Grover (“Russ”) Whitehurst found that using higher quality curricula increases student learning more than other, more well-known, interventions such as expanding preschool programs, giving merit pay to successful teachers, decreasing class sizes, and increasing the number of charter schools in a district (Whitehurst, 2009; Chingos & Whitehurst, 2012). Morgan Polikoff argued recently Read more.


What’s the Use of Education Research?:Finnigan and Daly in the wake of ESSA

Finnigan, Kara S., and Alan J. Daly, eds. 2014. Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill. Springer: New York, 194 pp., $129 (hardcover).

March 16, 2016

By Ashley Berner
Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Educators are sitting on more data and research than ever before. It is now possible for districts and states to track and correlate student demographics, teacher qualifications, school climate, and academic outcomes. Domestic and international research abounds, from the findings of PISA to school sector comparisons and analyses of district finances. The United States Department of Education publishes granular statistics and evaluates the merits of specific research studies; the Pew Research Center supports an encyclopedic website that compares research on hundreds of interventions.

But does this numerical feast make a difference for students? In some states, in some districts, and in some schools, the answer is clearly “yes.” However, Read more.


Report from the Field

Reflections on Teacher Prep: Research and Rigor at the REACH Institute

An Interview with Ben Sanders, Executive Director of the Reach Institute

Interview conducted by Jane Henzerling, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy Fellow, on February 1, 2016

The Reach Institute for School Leadership is an independent, non-profit educational institution in Oakland, California, that trains approximately 50 teaching candidates and 50 school leaders each year. Reach’s mission is to improve schools by improving instruction, fostered by providing rigorous, relevant, and applied pathways and preparation for exceptional teaching & leadership. The Reach Institute develops and supports teachers and educational leaders who are committed to creating and sustaining effective urban schools with its teacher and administrator credentialing programs and master’s degrees.

JH: What sources have informed the design and implementation of Reach’s programs for teacher and school leader development?

BS: Our guiding practices are drawn out of the literature on effective adult learning and effective leadership as well as our own practical experience. We consistently try to marry research and practice. How can we help our participants make sense of theory and big ideas in terms of how they impact day-to-day practice? Bridging this long-standing gap between theory and practice is one of our driving goals. In fact, Read more.


Family Income and the College Completion Gap

March 10, 2016

By Alanna Bjorklund-Young
Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

A college education has become an important gateway to the middle class, defined as the middle four deciles of income. In previous generations, a high school diploma alone was often sufficient to reach the middle class; in 1970 almost 60% of high school graduates did so. By 2007, however, this percentage fell to 45% of high school graduates, thus making college completion an economically important benchmark for young Americans (Carnevale, Smith & Strohl, 2010). Read more.


Teacher Efficacy and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards: Human Capital or Program Effects?

February 9, 2016

By Alanna Bjorklund-Young
Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Education scholars know that having an effective teacher makes a significant difference in a student’s life chances. By some estimates, the difference in learning outcomes between a highly effective and a very ineffective teacher is one full year (Hanushek, 1992; Hanushek 2011). Others note that the impact of a high quality teacher extends beyond the classroom: high quality teachers are associated with improved adult outcomes such as higher wages, increased college attendance and decreased teenage pregnancy (Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2014). Attracting, strengthening, and retaining top talent for our nation’s classrooms is thus a key concern of federal, state, and district education policy. Read more.


Moving to Opportunity: A Housing Experiment that Worked

January 7, 2016

By Alanna Bjorklund-Young
Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

That childhood poverty has a negative effect on educational outcomes is well established. Children from low-income families are only one-third as likely to complete high school as their more fortunate peers (Magnuson & Votruba-Drzal, 2009), and they are less likely to go to college even when they do complete high school. In 2012, 81% of students from the top-income quintile who had recently completed high school were enrolled in college, compared with only 51% from the bottom quintile (DeSilver, 2014). On the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the gap between children who come from low-socioeconomic status (SES) families and high-SES families is twice the size of the gap between black and white students (Reardon, 2011). Moreover, the income achievement gap continues to grow: it is 40% greater than several decades ago (Reardon, 2013). Read more.


Chicago’s Use of the International Baccalaureate: An Education Success Story That Didn’t Travel

October 14, 2015

By David Steiner, Director
and Ashley Berner, Deputy Director
Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Imagine that a rigorous, evidence-based study finds that an educational intervention, undertaken across multiple years at no great cost to the public and involving tens of thousands of low-income, first-generation public high school students, had a substantial, positive impact on the students’ college attendance, persistence, and by implication life chances. One would hope, and might expect, that our nation’s stated commitment to educational excellence and equity would lead us to respond with considerable interest, follow-up research, and duplication. Below, we review a rigorous research study of a program that produced strong results for disadvantaged students. That the study hasn’t borne widespread interest beyond the location where the intervention occurred points to larger difficulties in translating research into practice – more on that later. First, the study itself and what its findings tell us. Read more.

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