Friday, February 29, 2008

Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten gave the keynote address at a conference on performance incentives here last night. If you're thinking that it's odd for the head of a large teacher's union to be addressing a roomful of education economists you are correct. She essentially walked into the lion's den, confronted the lions, and lived to tell the tale. Whether you agree or disagree with her politics, you have to be impressed with her moxy.

My previous experience with Randi was limited to newsclips of her leading rallies, so I was pleasantly surprised by both the mechanics and the substance of her speech. She focused on two issues: bridging ideological divides to focus on what helps children (which, depending on your ideology, is either highly ironic or very fitting for a union head to say) and incorporating teachers in all reforms. She argued that the start of a pilot incentives program has gone smoothly in NYC because teachers had a role in its creation and management and because they were being rewarded rather than demeaned.

I think the strongest argument she made was that it is virtually impossible for most reforms to succeed without teacher buy-in. She asked a rhetorical question to the effect of "why would any teacher implement a reform in which they do not believe in their classroom?" To me, this is something too easily forgotten.

More on Standardized Testing and Private Schools

This blurb in the Tennessean covers a bill recently introduced in the TN legislature that would require all school-age students (even if home schooled or attending private school) to take state tests. Two things that I find interesting:

1. The chief objection to this bill seems to be that taking these tests will narrow the curriculum. I wonder if these same people would put forth a similar argument against testing in public schools. On the one hand, it would seem unfair to argue that students in private and home schools should have broader curricula than students in public schools but, on the other, it seems logical to assume that schools run by the government should also be subject to more governmental regulation.

2. Despite the paucity of information in the blurb, the message board is out of control with anger from both sides. Whether or not any accountability would accompany the state tests is left up to the reader to infer -- and people do, passionately. It seems as though most of the opinions expressed are only relevant if the writer is correctly inferring the rest of the facts.

Must opinion on education policy salways be so reactionary and ideological?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Convincing Schools to Change

I was forwarded an interesting piece that Robert Weisbuch, the new president of my alma mater, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education the other day. He argues that universities, rather than looking down on, or simply ignoring, K-12 schools, should form a partnership that he calls the "third culture" with primary and secondary schools across the country.

If that third culture is to develop, college faculty members might stop coming on to their school counterparts like gods delivering grace to undeserving sinners. We need to acknowledge that a strong teacher in the schools knows a great deal more about pedagogy than we do. Even beyond the obvious fact that we share the same kids at different stages and the more emotionally compelling fact that professors have kids, too, it is well past time to shed our pretensions, share our status as intellectual leaders, and acknowledge both what school teachers bring to the party and the mutual benefit that accrues from a partnership between equals.

I'm not sure how much he's referencing higher education in general and how much he's directing his plea at education researchers, but I find his comments particularly relevant for researchers. It seems that every article I've read about effecting change in the way that schools are run (particularly regarding the way that teachers teach) basically asks one question: we know how to run schools/classrooms, how can we convince administrators/teachers to things the way we tell them to?

The flaw that I see in this question is that it's exceedingly arrogant, which is probably a large part of the reason that the question never seems to be answered. Yes, research is not effectively utilized in schools, but the fact is that people who work in schools know a great deal more about some things than researchers could ever hope to. The fact that (most) researchers are experts on something does not give them the right to treat teachers and other education officials as inferior beings. Perhaps the way to effect change in schools is to work with people instead of talking at them.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vouchers or Accountability

A blurb in Ed Week today mentioned the results from the first year of a five-year study on vouchers in Milwaukee. Apparently the Governor and legislature cut a deal: more vouchers were authorized in exchange for making the private schools in which voucher recipients enroll administer the same state tests as public schools. As a result, students who remain in the Milwaukee public school system and students who receive vouchers and enroll in private schools are both taking the same exams (which makes comparing results awfully easy).

After the first year, the researchers could find no difference in performance between students who enrolled in private schools and students who remained in the public school system. Some of the people leading the investigation are clearly proponents of vouchers, but if these results hold up for the next four years they're going to have to scramble in order to spin them in their favor. And there's a good chance that they have a legitimate argument; private schools aren't accountable for their results on the state tests and, therefore, probably spend a great deal less time preparing students to take them. Here's where it gets interesting: generally speaking, people in favor of vouchers are also in favor of accountability (and, therefore, standardized tests) but, in this case, the only argument to support the effectiveness of vouchers may be that the standardized tests did not accurately represent what happened in the schools. In other words, the only logical argument that I can foresee is either that vouchers have shortcomings or standardized tests have shortcomings -- either way somebody is going to be put in an uncomfortable position when they present the findings. I love twists of fate.