Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country.

The big story

Betsy DeVos’s education department has been on an ESSA plan approval tear. Last week, the department approved 16 states’ (and Puerto Rico’s) plans for complying with the federal education law, bringing the total number of plans that have gotten a green light to 35.

Some of those states have promised to use new metrics, such as absences and suspension rates, to help measure schools. But underneath talk of new ideas lurks the same old debates about how to use math and English tests.

We recently talked to Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, whose new book “The Testing Charade” makes the case against the way tests were used during the Bush and Obama administrations. His concern is that ESSA doesn’t change “the basic logic of the system” — the idea that pushing schools to boost test scores will improve the schools themselves.

Critics of testing in New York echoed those concerns yesterday. State officials there had hinted that they would apply for a federal program to give their tests a more radical makeover, but this week announced that they had abandoned the plan, in part because it would have been expensive. “I am frustrated,” one opt-out advocate said.

Others are skeptical about state plans for different reasons. “States mostly produced plans that are vague and noncommittal about how they will support low-performing schools,” according to a review of by Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm.

Those issues are holding up approval of California’s ESSA plan, the L.A. Times reported this week. Colorado is still waiting for a decision, too, months after appearing to bow to federal pressure to penalize schools where many students opt out of testing.

Local stories to watch

  • Poor families are leaving Denver — and charter schools may soon follow. KIPP says it’s looking to add schools outside the city where priced-out families are clustering.
  • Detroit is the latest city to rethink admission to its elite high schools. A placement exam has been the only factor; now the test will count for only 40 percent of admissions decisions.
  • New York City has a low bar for some turnaround schools. Graduation rates and test scores can actually fall at some schools and still land within the city’s targets.
  • In Memphis, the superintendent has raised the possibility of bringing charter operators into struggling district schools. That’s a big shift, since the district has battled openly with the charter sector. The state’s Achievement School District has been absorbing Memphis schools (and state dollars) and turning them over to charters for six years.

Matt’s research roundup

  • Scores (and hard work) on international tests pay off. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which shows that a country’s overall performance predicts economic growth — but so does students’ persistence over the course of a lengthy exam, which the researchers see as a measure of their “non-cognitive” skills. That give more credence to concerns from a long list of policymakers — including, most recently, Betsy DeVos — about the U.S.’s mediocre international rankings.
  • The worst principals aren’t sticking around. School principals don’t get studied nearly as much as teachers do, so a recent paper caught our eye. Focusing on Tennessee, the research found that less effective school leaders were especially likely to leave the job, often to take an assistant principal or classroom teacher position. That’s good news for students, as long as new principals are better than the ones they replaced. The best principals also had slightly higher-than-average turnover, in part because they were often promoted to central office positions.
  • Update: CHIP gets a six-year extension. Last week, we wrote about the research showing that children benefit educationally from health insurance programs. This week, as part of a deal to end the government shutdown, the Children’s Health Insurance Program was extended for six years.

Names to note

TNTP President Karolyn Belcher is stepping down in April and says she hopes to “lead an urban school district.” Jeffrey Villar will be the state-appointed “receiver” of schools in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Angélica Infante-Green is the subject of a campaign to make her New York City schools chief. Erika Soto Lamb is Democrats for Education Reform’s new national director for strategic communications.

DeVos watch

At an event held by a conservative legal group last week, DeVos was asked what she would do to promote the teaching of evolution in schools, presumably as opposed to creationism. “I’m not an advocate of any kind of national curriculum,” she said in response. “I continue to encourage the most local level to be able to have the kind of flexibility to meet individual students’ needs.”

The portfolio push

In Indianapolis, where the central school district is a darling of portfolio model advocates, nearly 4,000 students used a unified enrollment system for district and charter schools — the system’s first big test. The state also released new data this week showing that only 55 percent of students who live in the Indianapolis Public School boundaries attend district schools.

Denver Public Schools has faced criticism from national portfolio advocates and local charter leaders for not calling for new schools or the expansion of charters this year. Our reporter Melanie Asmar breaks down the debate with responses from charter schools and the district.

The Memphis Education Fund — a member of a network of groups known as Education Cities, which supports the portfolio model — is working on principal training, teacher recruitment, helping single-site charter schools, and boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students.

What we’re reading

  • Teen pregnancy has plunged, but students who have kids of their own still struggle to graduate. Hechinger Report
  • The school board in Evanston, Illinois, is hiring a “director of black student success.” Daily Northwestern
  • Bullied students may soon be eligible for private-school vouchers in Florida. Tampa Bay Times
  • A leader of the Democracy Prep charter network is in a public debate with students about the importance of “standard English.” Democracy Prep
  • San Antonio is set to allow Democracy Prep to take over a low-performing district school. Folo Media
  • Nearly 12,000 students are scrambling after the closure of online charter school Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. WOSU
  • KIPP is headed to Miami, even as one of its charter schools elsewhere in Florida has struggled. WLRN
  • A helpful (and wonky) overview of research on race and school discipline. Brookings
  • The head of the National Council for Teacher Quality says education reformers should keep the focus on improving schools, rather than addressing poverty or racism. NCTQ
  • Los Angeles’s school board may aim for a compromise pick for new schools head. EdSource

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