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10 Charts That Changed the Way We Think About America’s Schools in 2017

By Kevin Mahnken and Andrew Brownstein | December 13, 2017

More than two-thirds of America’s 74 million kids attend K-12 schools — buildings where tens of millions of teachers, administrators, and staffers go to work every day. Between educational and retirement costs, they represent most states’ biggest expenditures. And their end product, the promise of our nation’s kids? You could say that’s pretty important too.

Yet for a subject so large, our conversations around education are shot through with unchecked or contradictory platitudes. Spending more on schools just throws good money after bad. Parents only care about school quality. To get a decent job, students need to go to college. Underprivileged kids can’t catch up to their more affluent classmates.

Teachers are underpaid. No, wait, they’re overpaid.

Every year, education researchers force us to re-examine these cherished assumptions. In 2017, we started thinking differently about the importance of high-quality preschool. We began talking about the boon to minority students of a more diverse teacher workforce. We questioned the country’s skyrocketing high school graduation rates. And we took a second look at system-wide reform efforts in historically dysfunctional school districts.

We cover this sort of research, and these eye-opening charts, nearly every day at both The 74 and TopSheet, in a series we call “Big Picture.” Every morning, the TopSheet newsletter (sign up right here) tees up a new breaking discovery, and every afternoon we add a new explainer to The 74’s Big Picture series — you can bookmark our ever-expanding archive right here.

Here are the 10 most memorable charts that we found this year:

1 in 4 teachers chronically absent from the classroom

Several studies this year attempted to draw comparisons between charter schools and their more traditional counterparts. One such study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-focused think tank, found that teachers in traditional district schools are three times as likely to be chronically absent from the classroom as those in charter schools, meaning they are gone for more than 10 days in a typical 180-day school year.

Credit: Fordham Institute

Fordham identified a wide range in chronic absenteeism rates — from 15 percent of teachers in Utah’s traditional schools to 79 percent in Hawaii. David Griffith, the report’s author, said the study established “a very clear link between state collective bargaining laws and the number of days teachers are entitled to, and teacher chronic absenteeism.” But The 74’s David Cantor warned that some comparisons may be a stretch, given that many charters are staffed by uncertified and non-unionized teachers.

30 million well-paying jobs — that don’t require bachelor’s degrees

A college education is increasingly regarded as a prerequisite for a decent income and a middle-class lifestyle. That’s one reason high school graduation rates have skyrocketed in recent years even as many worry that unprepared teenagers are being illegitimately advanced. But according to research from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 30 million jobs exist across the country (though mostly clustered in the South and West) that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Credit: Georgetown CEW

That’s good news for countless students, and it may persuade policymakers to give career and technical education a second look.

The conventional thinking on Newark’s reforms was wrong

It was portrayed as the poster child for school reform hubris: A $100 million gift to the Newark school system, one of America’s most distressed. Chris Christie, Cory Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg trumpeted the announcement from leather chairs on Oprah’s show. The beleaguered district, which the state took over in 1995, responded by enacting an ambitious series of reforms with unusual velocity. In the seven years since the announcement, critics like journalist Dale Russakoff, who wrote a much-lauded book on the gift, said it produced “at least as much rancor as reform.” So it defied conventional wisdom — and much carping — when the first major study of the reforms found significant, albeit mixed, results.

Students improved sharply in English. Math gains were flat. But the study found that nearly two-thirds of the gains could be attributed to officials closing failing schools and students moving to better ones — in the words of Thomas Kane, the leader of the Harvard University team that produced the study, “enrollment shares following school effectiveness.”

Early education is a game changer

One of the persistent themes of education coverage in 2017 was the importance of high-quality early education. As states and cities have rushed to expand their public pre-K programs, more evidence has emerged of its later-life benefits for children, their parents, and even their future kids. Nobel-winning economist James Heckman, long an advocate of investment in human capital, estimated that every dollar spent on early education yields an amazing $7.30 in return. Other studies demonstrated significant positive effects of the Head Start program and nurse home visits to expectant mothers.

And most impressive of all, the above meta-analysis of experimental studies showed that high-quality child care boosted high school graduation by 11 percent and cut special education placements by 8 percent. Kevin Mahnken summarized these broader findings in November.

Even top-performing girls may not think they’re smart

The academic news has continuously improved for girls over the past few decades, to the extent that they now outperform boys in tests of all subjects, at all age levels. Yet according to new research from the advocacy group Ruling Our Experiences, many of the best female students still don’t believe in their own excellence.

Credit: ROX

A nationwide survey of 11,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 18 found that huge numbers don’t believe they’re smart enough to hold their dream job — including an incredible one-third of girls with 4.0 GPAs. In fact, the higher their GPA, the more likely respondents were to say that they didn’t share their opinion out of a desire to be liked. Worse still, both self-confidence and enjoyment of school declines as girls get older.

3 ways to tell if a new charter school will struggle

Not identifying a principal. Stating a commitment to a “child-centered instructional model.” And indicating plans to serve disadvantaged students without providing individualized tutoring. These three “risk factors,” according to a Fordham Institute report, can be spotted in a charter school’s application and are the most likely to predict failure long before a school opens its doors.

The analysis — which Matt Barnum covered in depth this spring — relies on data from four states with large charter school sectors and examined applications from 2011 to 2014. The findings are quite different from a similar study looking at charter schools in New Orleans, which found that no observable factors from a school application seemed to consistently predict charters’ effectiveness in raising test scores.

Black students see big benefits from having a single black teacher

Issues of equity and diversity continued to drive much of the conversation around schools this year, including important research on school discipline and the impact of racial integration. But one strand was particularly striking: According to one new study, access to just one black teacher meaningfully increased the college aspirations of black students — and cut the dropout rate for black students in poverty by as much as one-third.

Credit: Urban Institute

Yet black, Asian, and especially Hispanic children are much less likely than white children to encounter same-race school employees.

Voucher supporters — and critics – both point to new Indiana analysis

Indiana’s school voucher program is among the mostly highly touted in the nation. Supporters include Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said, “In Indiana, we’ve seen some of the best pro-parent and pro-student legislation enacted in the country.” But a new analysis of the program offered something for both sides in the increasingly heated debate.

Math achievement among students using a voucher fell on average, the study found, though students who remained in private school for four years improved to match or outperform their public school counterparts in math and English. Chalkbeat said the results “amount to a Rorschach test for advocates on either side of the issue.”

Teachers can’t afford to live near their students

America’s K-12 teachers have plenty on their minds already without worrying about traffic jams and subway shutdowns. But in many of America’s largest school districts, housing markets are so overheated that large portions of the teacher workforce simply can’t afford to live near their schools.

According to research from the National Council on Teacher Quality, even educators with a master’s degree and five years of teaching experience cannot easily afford a mortgage in most of the largest 124 districts in the country. It’s even worse for new teachers: 28 percent can’t even afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment near their place of work.

We’re just starting to understand how the ‘Great Recession’ hurt the country’s students

A first-of-its-kind study found that the Great Recession hurt student learning — among disadvantaged students most of all. “The adverse effects of the recession were concentrated among school districts serving higher concentrations of low-income and minority students,” write researchers Matthew Steinberg and Kenneth Shores.

“The Great Recession exacerbated the inequality of student achievement outcomes.” The University of Pennsylvania researchers relied on a huge data set that included over 95 percent of public school students in the nation. The research, which has not been formally peer reviewed, found that students’ reading and math test scores declined each year students spent in school during the recession.


Some of these studies have their detractors, and some have already produced pushback in the research community. Insofar as the debate yields a more accurate perspective on the issues facing our students, that’s only to be celebrated.

2017 was a great year for investigating some of the biggest questions in education. With major controversies over school choice, funding, integration, and discipline coming up in 2018, here’s hoping it’ll be just as rich in pretty charts.

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