Monday, December 21, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Pittsburgh has decided not to levy a 1% tax on college tuition as the mayor and 5 out of 9 council members (and possibly nobody else) wanted.  Council was due to vote on the measure today, and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had promised the vote would occur unless non-profits volunteered $15 million per year in funding for the city.  Instead, the city has joined with a group of non-profits to form the "New Pittsburgh Coalition," which will work toward finding a solution to the funding problem.

-Jay Mathews takes a teacher to task for not updating his/her class website so that parents could follow along with assignments and such.  Fair enough, but let's not forget this is a two-way street.  During my first year of teaching I went out of the way to create a class website and spent hours updating grades and telling parents to check them.  Three months later only two parents had logged on.

-Robert Pondiscio asks if teachers should care about research.  My immediate reaction was "of course."  But one teacher says she doesn't care what researchers say b/c she knows what works best for her students.  This is the type of thing that makes researchers cringe, but it's also the type of thing researchers don't adequately address.  The degree of hubris involved in many researchers' school and classroom interventions annoys me to no end.  Countless studies have failed b/c teachers and administrators did not implement the curriculum or reform in the manner intended by the researcher(s).  And guess who gets blamed for this when the research is discussed?  Not the researcher(s).  Once again, it's a two-way street: both parties depend on one another and have a lot to learn from each other.  While research can, without question, help teachers researchers also need to respect the vast body of "soft" knowledge that teachers have acquired over their years in the classroom.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Honest Discussion of Merit Pay?

I find it troubling that discussions around merit pay (or performance incentives, or whatever the iteration at hand or preferred terminology may be), never quite seems to be completely honest.  Even when people are trying to be honest, it seems that part of the discussion is based on half-truths and misconceptions.

Take this recent anti-merit pay op-ed in EdWeek by Kim Marshall, for example.  He points out a number of faulty assumptions that many make when discussing merit pay, and then makes some of her own.

He's more or less correct when he says "The best teachers are already working incredibly long hours, and there’s no evidence that extra pay will make them work harder or smarter".  One could argue that other fields provide some evidence, but to date there's virtually no evidence (certainly no experimental evidence in the U.S.) that merit pay will make teachers work harder -- or that if they did work harder that this would subsequently yield better results.  It may be the case that many teachers are working pretty much as hard as they can and/or wouldn't be better teachers if they worked harder (they may pursue the wrong strategies or simply become more stressed).

But then he says "Teachers who are rewarded for their own students’ test-score gains are less likely to share ideas with their colleagues."  This is demonstrably false.  Every merit pay scheme I know of is designed to prevent teachers from competing with teachers at their own school for a share of a defined pool of money.  The experiment that just concluded in Nashville compared the performance of teachers' students to the typical historical performance -- not to how other kids in the school performed.

His other points are mostly valid, though not necessarily precise.  It's true that researchers say it takes three years of data to accurately estimate the effectiveness of a teacher (as measured by standardized tests).  It's true that incentivizing higher test scores also incentivizes more test prep and even cheating -- but by that logic it would also incentivize harder work, which he earlier dismissed.  He says half of all teachers teach untested subjects, but in some states it's closer to 70%.

I have yet to find a discussion of merit pay that's both based on facts rather than conjecture and approaches the topic in an unbiased way.  People on both sides of the argument are making many dangerous assumptions, often based on incorrect information.  The fact is that merit pay is utterly unproven in American schools and that while we can guess how it might affect teachers and schools, we simply can't know for sure until we try.

Right now, the idea is spreading rapidly, and I worry that the continuation or termination of the trend is going to depend more on half-informed arguments rather than sober analysis of research.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Does Tiger Woods Teach Us About Schooling?

Schooling implicitly and explicitly tells people to do certain things.  Since the goals while one attends school are largely to earn good grades, finish a certain level, and move on to a more prestigious position (e.g. graduate high school and attend a selective college), it seems to me that once one has finished attending school, it only makes sense for them to try to excel at what they do and move on to bigger and better things.  In the workplace, that often means trying to earn more money and a more prestigious title.  In that sense, Tiger Woods has accomplished virtually every goal that schooling sets forth.  Consider:

-He attended a top-flight university (Stanford)
-He became the best in his field (golf)
-He is a multi-millionaire
-He's not just a golfer, but also a spokesperson, golf course designer and author.  Plus he has his own foundation

When you add in the fact that he's married (to a Swedish model, no less) and has two kids, he's pretty much the model of success.  Tiger is a model of every skill set needed to excel in school -- and was a model of nearly every skill set needed to succeed in life.

But apparently that wasn't enough.  Instead of serving as a role model, Tiger's now just another example in a long line of evidence proving that one can have everything and still not be happy.

And I can't help but wonder: what does schooling teach out kids about such situations?  What if a kid earns straight A's, aces that SAT, and earns a scholarship to Harvard?  Is he/she necessarily a model student?  Have they accomplished every goal the school has set out for them?  It's hard to believe that there's a school administrator in the country who wouldn't be thrilled to have such a student.

But at some point in time there need to be more personal and moral goals set forth.  At some point we need to acknowledge that it's possible to receive a bad grade, do poorly on a test, or attend a second-tier college and still be a good person and lead a productive life.  Because we all know (I hope, anyway) that it's possible to take a low-paying job, pass up a promotion, or marry an average-looking spouse and still be a good person.

I'm not arguing that we shouldn't push kids to do their best, or rid schools of academics to build self-esteem, I'm just wondering what schooling teaches kids about what it means to be successful in life.  Because I'm not sure it always send the right messages.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-If nothing else, I like the title of this LA Times story: "Controlling a classroom isn't as easy as ABC" (hat tip: Flypaper).  Speaking from my experiences both teaching and working with and talking to other beginning teachers, there are an awful lot of little things about classroom management that seem obvious to veteran teachers and aren't to newbies.

-Jay Mathews says that the achievement gap is "useless as a measure of school improvement".  I sort of see his point that a school (or school system) could get worse while, at the same time, the achievement gap shrinks.  But that's only a reason to not make the achievement gap the only measure we examine.

-A new study finds that teachers in charter schools are 76% more likely two switch schools or leave the profession at the end of any given year, and that most of the attrition and turnover is due to dissatisfaction with their school.  My initial reaction is that this is probably largely b/c charter schools tend to hire different teachers -- namely younger, more idealistic teachers who may be less intent on making a career of teaching and at the same time are more willing to explore different schools and careers instead of committing to one.

-Diane Ravitch compares the support of charter schools by social elites to "origins of free schooling in certain northeastern cities in the early 19th Century, when wealthy men decided that it was their civic duty to help civilize the children of the poor".  I don't know if the motives of many donors are quite so paternalistic, but I do share her concern that the reliance of charter schools on this funding means that "our society will increasingly rely on the good will of wealthy patrons to educate children of color".

Monday, December 14, 2009

Closing Charters: Help Many, Hurt Some?

I think I mostly agree with Jay Mathews' latest post on closing low-performing charter schools.  But I can't tell because he uses flimsy evidence and makes at least one wild assumption.  The post centers around a charter school he says is performing poorly and why, nevertheless, the school isn't slated for closure.  I've asked before whether closing a charter school was actually easier than closing a traditional public school -- an assumption on which the market theory backing charter schools relies -- and I think it's an important question.

But I have no idea how bad the school in question is.  He cites a few test score statistics and then compares them to what I assume are the two highest-performing charter high schools in DC (one of which, SEED, is actually a boarding school and receives a plethora of outside dollars).  He leaves me with no clear idea how this school compares to the average school in DC, nor does he provide any qualitative evidence that the school climate is poor or students unmotivated.  Part of me is willing to take his word for it, but the evidence is certainly lacking.  Nonetheless, even if he picked the wrong school his point still stands -- there are some poor charter schools out there, and in order for charters to work as intended they need to be closed fairly swiftly.

But my biggest problem is with the last sentence in the post, in which he writes about a parent who thinks her kid is doing well at the school he fingers, saying that she needs to be convinced "that temporary disruption in her child's life will give him a better future".  What?

First of all, there's plenty of evidence that moving negatively impacts a child's performance in school the following year.  Given that the child in question is already in high school, he may not have a year to spend adjusting to a move.

Secondly, it may very well be the case that the child actually is excelling at his new school.  It's rather arrogant to assume that the parent is clueless in this particular case.

Lastly, the odds may not be particularly high that the student ends up in a better situation if he switches schools.  I'm unsure how many better schools are readily available to him, but it's probably not too many.  And if a school is "better" overall, that doesn't mean the student will be a good fit there.

Mathews' assumption is a good example of a problem that a lot of policy people run into when telling people what to do.  A policy can be both better for most people in the long-run and worse for certain individuals in the short-run.  Sure, the country is probably better off if low-performing charters are closed swiftly.  But the individual student mentioned -- or, for that matter, many other kids in that particular school -- may be better served if they remain where they are.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's the Goal of the Harlem Children's Zone?

I finally got around to watching the 60 Minutes segment on the Harlem Children's Zone.  I share the concerns of Aaron Pallas and Sherman Dorn regarding the way the results were presented: it's certainly not clear that the HCZ or Promise Academy has completely and permanently closed the achievement gap, and I wonder whether there were any caveats or cautionary statements that were edited out.  Personally, I'd share Geoffrey Canada's view that the results were worth celebrating for about an hour and then we should get back to work.

But my larger concern is actually the way that Canada himself framed the goals of the program.  When Anderson Cooper asked him when he'll know his program is working, Canada responded that the tip-off would be when thousands of his students started walking through the doors with college degrees.  While that would certainly be a good sign -- ok, a very good sign -- would that actually be the ultimate barometer of success?

And multiple times throughout the interview he said similar things about wanting students to perform in school and on standardized tests.  I'm guessing that if the segment were focused more on the overall goals of the Harlem Children's Zone instead of the successes of the Promise Academy, there might have been talk of broader goals.  But even with the focus almost exclusively on the school, the labeling of in-school performance as seemingly the sole goal makes me nervous.

It's certainly plausible that kids could start performing better in school but still fail to become productive citizens, hold down a steady job, refrain from criminal behavior, become a good parent, and so on.  While there's plenty of correlational evidence that suggests more educated citizens are more likely to do any number of productive things (and less likely to do any number of detrimental things), it's unclear to what extent altering kid's performance in school will subsequently alter their behaviors and aspirations outside of school.

I'm sure that there's a large positive effect from helping a kid to graduate from college who would've otherwise dropped out of high school, but I'm nervous about scoring well on a test and graduating from college being the ultimate goals.  Canada talked about the costs of housing prisoners and juvenile delinquents, and Cooper mentioned the project eventually earning positive returns, so I think that there are other goals -- at least in the back of some people's minds.  But we should be careful about assuming that fixing education will fix all other problems.  I think there's a strong case to be made that changing the educational trajectory of kids will have a greater impact than any other social intervention, but it won't always be enough.

Academics Before Athletics

Except at the University of Alabama, where they've canceled 3 days of classes so that people can attend the national championship game.

Of course, some might argue that these types of events foster social cohesion on college campuses . . .

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cincinnati Teachers: "Bad Teachers Not a Big Problem in Our Schools"

TNTP today released a report based, in part, on a survey of teachers in Cincinnati.  And I have two shocking bits of information to share with you about the report:

1.) One of the questions asked of teachers was the following:

“Are there continuing contract teachers in your school who you think should be terminated for poor instructional performance, but have not been?”

Having interacted with dozens, if not hundreds, of urban teachers over the past 5+ years I'm not sure if I can think of a single one that would say there's not a single teacher in their school who shouldn't be fired.  I think teacher quality was far from the biggest problem at my school, but I would've responded "yes" to that question in a heartbeat -- there were clearly some teachers without whom the school might have done better.  And I would think the vast majority of lawyers, nurses, social workers, accountants, etc. would say the same thing about their organizations -- there are some people that deserve to be fired.  So I expected that the number of teachers who said "yes" would be somewhere around 90%.  Maybe closer to 2/3 because of social desirability concerns.  So I was surprised when I saw the actual number . . . 34%.

The number is almost laughably low.  I find it almost completely implausible.  I can think of three explanations:

1.) Cincinnati has an awful lot of schools without many remarkably bad teachers
2.) Teachers don't like saying bad things about each other
3.) Teachers have low expectations for one another

Either way, that this number is so low merits further investigation.  Especially since only 57% of principals -- who are supposedly hamstrung by ridiculous regulations and dying to fire half their staffs -- responded affirmatively to the question.

2.) Even more shocking to me, Jamie Davies O'Leary over at Flypaper thinks that the 34% number is remarkably high.  And I simply don't understand how one can interpret the number this way.

I'd like to challenge the Flypaper staff to name a field or profession or two in which we'd expect to find that fewer than one-third of the laborers thought they had at least a colleague or two who should be fired.  The only possibility in my mind is people who work in very small offices and don't have many colleagues.

So, Cincinnati teachers either think their colleagues aren't all that bad, or aren't will to say so.  What does this mean?  Clearly, there are "bad" teachers out there -- just as there are bad policemen and bad accountants -- but maybe they aren't as prevalent as conventional wisdom seems to hold.  Or maybe teachers stick together.  There's an awful lot of evidence that teachers feel demeaned and victimized, so maybe it would make sense that they would want to protect their own.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tuition Tax Turmoil

I've previously mentioned Pittsburgh's plan to raise $15 million -- levy a 1% tax on student tuition.  The public reaction to the plan seems to be pretty negative, but five of nine council members have already said they'll vote for it.

Last night, the council held a hearing on the issue.  Not surprisingly, scores of students and University officials showed up to protest the plan.  If you believe the accounts in the newspaper, it seems that only six people in the entire country think this is a good idea: young Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and five members of city council.  And the Stubborn Six seem have drawn the ire of everybody in the city and beyond. 

Students showed up to point out that they pay a ton of other taxes and have extremely low incomes -- meaning that the tax, though small, would place an undue burden on them.  And an earlier version of the story quoted councilman Bill Peduto comparing a tuition tax to "sin taxes," saying "Why would we ever tax education, where somebody is trying to better themselves?".

I have mixed feelings on the tax.  On the one hand, Pittsburgh has a serious problem generating revenue because they have a disproportionately high number of non-profits located in the city.  It seems fair to find some way to generate a reliable revenue stream from some of these organizations (non-profits do make voluntary contributions to a city fund, but the amount varies with the condition of the economy -- part of the reason the Mayor feels the need to collect more money from them this year).  On the other hand, the non-profits are vital to the city of Pittsburgh and it seems beyond foolish to do anything that might drive them out of the city or at least reduce their generosity to the city.  And it seems like the last thing you'd want to penalize people for would be enrolling in college.  A 1% tax isn't going to amount to that much, even for the highest-priced colleges in the city.  Maybe the Stubborn Six don't believe a college student who says they can't afford to pay a meager few hundred bucks in taxes.  And, let's not kid ourselves, parents will end up paying a good deal of these taxes.  But for those who are eking by with little or no parent support, there's a very real possibility that the tax could be a strong disincentive to continuing their education, at least in the city of Pittsburgh.

So I understand why virtually everybody willing to go on the record strongly opposes the plan.  What I don't understand is why five council members are supporting it.  Do they not want to be re-elected?  Do they have no faith in the political power of students?  Is Ravenstahl buying their support?  $15 million isn't going to make or break the city, so it seems odd that so many people would be willing to stick their necks out to support such an unpopular policy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Roosevelt to Teachers: Why Can't You Be More Like Your Brother?

I reported last week that, in advance of receiving the Gates money, some schools in Pittsburgh have suddenly started handing out a flurry of negative evaluations to veteran teachers.  Last night in a meeting superintendent Mark Roosevelt explained the reasoning.  If you're not a "rock star" teacher, they're going to get rid of you and find somebody who is (preferably somebody younger, cheaper, and less willing to object to district policy).

I'm all in favor of hiring the best teachers possible, but here's the problem with the statement: it's based on the theory that exceptions are the rule.  In all other walks of life, we seem to realize that exceptions don't disprove the rule.  Just because your buddy drove home drunk without killing anybody last night doesn't mean that everybody should be able to drive drunk without endangering others.  But apparently the fact that there are a few "rock star" teachers means that everybody should be a rock star teacher.  And Roosevelt has fired a warning shot: be more like them, or find a new job.

It's as if Roosevelt pulled aside every teacher and said "why can't you be more like your brother?"  "Your brother manages to create miracles in the classroom, why can't you?"  For the sake of our kids, let's hope that strategy is more effective in schools than it is in families -- because if not, he's going to find it awfully difficult to recruit and retain a bevy of rock star teachers to come work in a hostile environment.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-About four years ago I watched an episode of The Dog Whisperer (a show in which a professional dog trainer visits the homes of people with unruly dogs and shows them how to take control).  My immediate reaction was that the advice he gave sounded exactly like all the classroom management advice I'd been receiving.  I couldn't decide if that meant that people were more like dogs than we realized or that we were treating schoolchildren like dogs.  Either way, enough parents have been using the techniques in their own home that the NY Times felt compelled to write a story on it.

-Lincoln University in Oxford, PA apparently has a requirement that all obese freshman either lose weight or take a one semester "Fitness for Life" course.  25 of the 484 seniors are in danger of not graduating b/c they've done neither of these.

-I've heard mixed opinions on whether or not we actually need a lot more math and science majors in this country, but apparently the White House is convinced that we do since they're starting a multi-faceted publicity campaign to encourage more people to go into math and science.  I don't know, maybe it will result in a couple more people entering the field, but I'm skeptical that a little PR and a friendly robot are going to make a huge splash.  I think the real problem is that most K-12 math and science classes are fairly dry -- and tend to both require more rote memorization and explore fewer connections with the real world than other subjects.

Sunday Commentary: How Much Does Everybody Need to Know?

A few months back I had the chance to read through a yearbook of sorts that had been prepared for an upcoming 50th high school reunion.  The reunion was for a high school in a well-to-do suburb and, as I leafed through it, it became clear that the class had more than it's fair share of Ph.D.'s and others who went on to prestigious occupations.  But I was more struck by something else.

The people in the class were asked to reflect back on things they remembered from high school, and it seemed like an awful lot number of people were still bitter about things that they had to learn back then.  More than a couple people reminisced about an awful class that they took and information that was shoved down their throats and pointed out that they had been right --they never needed or used that information again.

I suddenly thought back on this when reading the comments on Jay Mathews' piece about the algebra of elections this week.  I initially wrote a comment to point out that there were at least three candidates in NY-23, not two as the equation assumed.  And then I read the other comment somebody had written.  It was somewhat accusatory and impolitic, but I think the underlying point has merit.  In the post, Mathews says he doesn't understand the algebra but will take somebody else's word for it.  At the same time, Mathews has been a fairly big proponent of requiring algebra for all high school students.  Which begs the question: if he doesn't need to know algebra, why should the average high schooler have to know algebra?

On the one hand, I think it's only natural for people to think people younger than them should learn everything they don't know.  I can count on one hand the number of professors in my department who have in-depth knowledge of hierarchical linear modeling, but just about all of them would recommend that us students take an HLM class.  And just because I've gotten through life without a good working knowledge of matrix algebra doesn't mean that somebody else wouldn't benefit from it.

But at point have students learned enough?  One can never know enough about whatever field they end up entering, but what about everything else in life?  It seems that the underlying assumption in a lot of discussion surrounding education is that we should teach our students as much as possible.  This sounds good on face -- I'd certainly agree both that people cannot know too much and that the average American doesn't know enough -- but is troublesome in practice.  At what point do we stop requiring students to learn more about a particular subject?  Is knowing algebra enough?  Geometry?  Trigonometry?  Calculus?  While I'm sure everybody can benefit in some way from knowing these things, I'm not sure how much people gain from being forced to learn them (or at least convince the teacher that they've temporarily learned enough about them).

Plato once said "bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."  While I'd caution against taking that to mean that we should all "unschool" our children, I think it's fair to say that we should have an open conversation around this question: at what point should we consider students knowledgeable enough to start deciding the topics about which they'd like to learn more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reality NeGates Rhetoric

Ambler Winkler is gushing over the Gates grants that were just announced.  And in one sense, she's right -- it's a heck of a lot of money.  But I wouldn't be so eager to buy the Gates rhetoric that this will lead to an “array of measures that will be viewed by teachers, unions, administrators, and policymakers as reliable and credible indicators of a teacher’s impact on student achievement.”

I'm hearing from people in Pittsburgh that the response of administrators to the impending grant has been to start handing out negative evaluations left and right and that teacher morale has reached a new low.   Be sure that what teachers' unions are pressured into doing isn't always popular among the rank and file.  And be sure that any reforms not popular with the rank and file won't go down quite as planned.

Hopefully this is just a stumbling block, but I'm not certainly not ready to declare the initiative a success before it even gets underway based on potential and rhetoric.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Apparently Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school lunch quality in the U.K. may have led to improvement in both attendance and performance on standardized tests

-Speaking of odd things that influence academic performance, this piece in Newsweek runs down a few decades worth of research into the relationship between noise and academic performance (hat tip: Alexander Russo).  I've been reading some of this research for a project I'm working on, and there's actually more evidence that noisy environments (both at school and at home) negatively influence test scores than there is regarding all but a few other social/environmental factors.

-There was some hoopla about teachers selling their lesson plans.  But that's the not the right question.  The right question is why teachers should have to buy lesson plans.

-Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he has the needed votes in city council to pass the tuition tax he proposed last week.  Five of the nine city council members stepped forward at a press conference today and said they'd vote to levy a 1% tax on college tuition in the city of Pittsburgh to help address longstanding budget problems.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More on "Stall Day"

Yesterday I wrote about a plan at a Pittsburgh high school to raise money by allowing students to force their teachers to count coins instead of teach.  Well, apparently they weren't the first school to think this as a good idea (hat tip: CP).  Here's a video from another school that's apparently done this already:

update: the video (actually, the whole site) seems to be working on and off.  In case it's not working while you're reading this post, here's a synopsis: The video seems to be a promotional pitch for "stall day" aimed at kids in a high school.  They show a classroom with a teacher teaching when two kids raise their hands and gleefully yell "it's stall day!".  They then proceed to dump a bunch of pennies on their teacher's desk and make remarks as their teacher proceeds to count and roll the pennies instead of teaching class.

A few things caught my eye in this video:

1.) Students can donate very little money and waste a lot of class time (how long would it take you to roll, say, 200 pennies?)

2.) The glee the students take in stopping class is troublesome.  I would've felt the same way when I was a teenager, but adults have a responsibility to teach kids that learning is a reward -- not a punishment -- if they want them to succeed in school and in life.  And actions speak louder than words.

3.) In some schools, allowing the kids to tell the teachers what to do for a few minutes might be a cute idea.  But in many schools it's not.  In schools already overrun with discipline problems (i.e. run by the kids), empowering kids to treat their teacher like dirt for a few minutes isn't going to help the situation.

4.) I'm even more convinced that this is the second-worst school fundraising idea I've ever heard.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Fundraising Plan that Should've Stalled Out

Last week, the cash-for-grades fundraising scheme at a North Carolina elementary school came to light.  Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the principal will be retiring.  Well, here's the second-worst fundraising idea I've ever heard:

Pittsburgh's Carrick High School is holding a series of fundraisers for a student service-learning club, the last of which is called "stall day".  The fundraiser was approved by the school's administration and yesterday faculty were asked to approve a day on which to hold it (they voted to do it on the last day of school before Christmas).  What's stall day?  Here's how it was described in an e-mail to teachers:

"Stall day is a day where students can bring in money and stall your teaching.  If the students yell stall, then the teacher must stop teaching at that moment and count the money that is given to you at that moment.  However, each teacher can set their own precedent for their classroom.  If there are no rules, then students can stall your classroom all period.  Maybe you let students know that you will only accept money within the first five minutes of class, or accept the money as the students are walking in the door.  Then when the bell rings, you will count the money before you begin teaching.  It is up to you how you structure your classroom.  I will have buckets to place in all of the teachers classroom.  I will have students come and collect the buckets at the end of the day."

Yes, you read that correctly: students can pay to stop class.  The school has apparently deemed it appropriate to encourage students to behave rudely (i.e. interrupting their teachers).  And, maybe even worse, they've chosen to send students the message that learning is a punishment and should be avoided at all costs (literally).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday Commentary: How Should We Measure the "Achievement Gap"?

Though the term "achievement gap" was first used to reference something rather specific -- the difference between the standardized test scores of White and Black students -- it's now used quite broadly.  I've heard "achievement gap" bandied about in reference to gaps in test scores and other measures of academic performance and outcomes between members of both different races and different classes.  Which leads me to this question: can we close the achievement gap without closing the "achievement gap"?

In other words, is it possible to successfully raise the test scores of low-SES and minority students to the same levels as other students without actually solving the real problem?  Every time I hear about another miracle school that closed a large portion of the achievement gap, I can't help but wonder this.

And I think the answer lies partially in how we conceptualize the achievement gap.  Is the difference in test scores between different groups the actual problem, or just a symptom of the problem?  For me, and I think for many others, it's the latter.  The actual problem is that too many low-income children live in worse neighborhoods, attend worse schools, are less likely to graduate from high school or college, and are subsequently both more likely to have lower quality-of-life later on and to cost society by committing more crimes, relying more on welfare, etc.  The causes of the difference in achievement are myriad, as are the causes of outcomes later in life -- less knowledge, as measured by standardized tests, are only one of many causes of worse academic and professional outcomes later in life.

If the problem goes beyond test scores, then how should we measure the "achievement gap"?  Do test scores sufficiently capture the problem -- i.e. will a change in test scores beget a change in all the outcomes that concern us more?  My gut feeling is that this won't necessarily happen.  It's not hard to imagine a school in a poor neighborhood where students score well on tests, but are still much less likely to graduate from college, obtain prestigious jobs, etc.  And that hypothetical worries me: what if we closed the achievement gap and nothing changed?  Would we still pat ourselves on the back and move on?

Or perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way.  Maybe changing achievement levels isn't our ultimate goal.  Maybe we should be trying to close gaps in graduation rates or degree attainment.  Or maybe we should be trying to close gaps in non-cognitive skills like self-control or executive function.  Or maybe we should be trying to close gaps in content knowledge (which is different from, though related to, testing reading or math skills).  Would closing any of these gaps be more meaningful than closing the test-score gap?  I'm not really sure what the answer is.  But I suspect that none of them are enough on their own.

To truly close the gap in academic performance and life outcomes, we probably need to close gaps in both academic achievement and a number of other areas.  So if we're going to continue to say that we want to close the achievement gap, let's not define "achievement gap" too narrowly.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Interesting Factoid of the Day

Skimming through the latest Bracey Report, I calculated the following statistic from the table on page 3:

If we look at achievement scores on the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Sweden ranks first with a median score of 561, while the U.S. is a little further back with an average score of 540.  If we look only at the at the students who attend schools where less than 50% of the students are in poverty (I assume measured by the percent eligible for free/reduced-price lunch, but I'm not sure), then we have a sample comprising 63.6% of the American population.  And their average score is 564. 

In other words, the average American student attending a school that doesn't rank among the poorest third in the country out-achieved the average student in every other country that took part in the assessment.

I don't know whether other, more recent, international assessments would yield similar results, but we do know that our top students out-achieved the top students in most other G-8 countries, while the opposite was true for our bottom students, on the PISA 2000 Literacy test.  Two pieces of data don't warrant a strong conclusion, but both indicate that our top students are doing pretty well while our bottom students lag far behind -- which would indicate that we should spend most of our time trying to pull up those at the bottom.

Today's Random Thoughts

-The Christian Science Monitor has a piece asking if a longer school day will close the achievement gap.  In some ways, I think a longer school day is a no-brainer.  But I have two main reservations: 1.) If we're doing things wrong now, is doing things wronger for longer a good plan?  2.) Can we justify only lengthening the school day for certain districts, schools, or kids, or should we lengthen the school day for everybody -- including those who are doing ok?  If we do the latter, will it close the achievement gap?

-Carnegie Mellon has an interesting new idea to help researchers find survey participants.  They've created a "research cafe" in downtown Pittsburgh full of computer terminals and such that spit out coupons, gift cards, etc. for participants.

-The Freakonomics Blog weighs in on Roland Fryer's research on the Harlem Children's Zone.  I'm not sure if his working paper has changed since the last time I weighed in, but the claim that the school can close the achievement gap is still being made.  I've already discussed a lot of my concerns with the way people are interpreting what's happening there, so I have a different question today.  Hypothetically, if the school did, in fact, close the achievement gap, then what?  Are equal test scores really our end goal?  More on this on Sunday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trade-Offs Between Content and Understanding

Robert Pondiscio over at the Core Knowledge Blog seems to like this test from 1954 given in an 8th grade history or social studies or civics class (I'm not really sure which).  I'm less impressed.

Yes, the child does better than I could (without studying anyway) at listing random facts about our country: from every position in the cabinet to writing the preamble of the Declaration of Independence verbatim.  But so what?  To me, the test raised two questions:

1.) How much of what he wrote does the child understand?
2.) How much of what he wrote will he remember a day, a year, or a decade later?

Yes, content knowledge is absolutely necessary before we can teach understanding -- kids can't learn why the Declaration of Independence is important if they don't know what it is -- but learning lots of content with very little understanding is no better than learning very little content with lots of understanding.  Indeed, given the ease of accessing information nowadays, it might actually be worse.

If this test were given at the beginning of a longer unit on American government and history, it might be a somewhat useful exercise -- the teacher could make sure the kids know most of the basics about our country before moving on to explaining why these things matter.  But the test is dated May 7th -- so it seems unlikely that it's just a beginning of the year test of content knowledge designed to set the stage for deeper discussion of the topics later.  It's possible that this is actually the child's final exam.  If that's the case, this is an excellent example of how not to teach children.

Even if we're only training our kids for trivia competitions, tests based on rote memorization are almost useless.  For one thing, content without understanding is almost useless.  For another, people remember content better when they also know the context of that content. For example, which test question is better:

1.) What is the system of controlling water called?

2.) How did the invention of irrigation systems change Mesopotamia?

Both questions demand that students understand the same content -- that irrigation systems allow people to control the flow of water -- but the second puts that content knowledge in context.  Who cares if a kid can define the word "irrigation" if he has no idea why irrigation systems are important?  And, just as important, what are the odds the kid will remember that particular funny-sounding word a few weeks later if he's only asked to define it?

The test I've linked to almost exclusively asks questions like #1.  On not a single question is the student required to write a complete sentence or more explaining something.  And if we don't ask students to do that, they'll neither understand how the world works nor remember how their teacher said the world worked.

There are, of course, trade-offs between teaching mainly for content knowledge and teaching mainly for understanding.  Teaching for understanding is harder and slower.  You can't read every work of Shakespeare in one year if you take time to analyze what it means and discuss the historical content.  Which means that the more we focus on understanding the less time we have to make our kids memorize things like every position in the cabinet.  But teaching for understanding can ensure that kids know why the cabinet is important and what people in the cabinet do.  And if they can't remember every single member off the top of their head, they should be able to easily access that information -- assuming that was part of the curriculum as well.  And when one has a deep knowledge of less content, they'll remember a lot more of the content that they learned -- which might be more than the smattering of content that other students in other classes remember from the volumes of things they had to memorize.

The bottom line is this: content is an imperative, but understanding is more important.  And I have no qualms about saying that, because understanding implies content knowledge.

A Closer Look at "The Phony Education Funding Crisis"

The conservative Hoover Institute publishes, by far, the best magazine -- Education Next -- linking news and research on education in ways that are engaging and informative for non-PhD's.  In many ways, it's a model for what other groups should be doing.  Most teachers, principals, school board members, parents, etc. will never pick up a copy of one of the top academic journals and read through the lengthy and technical pieces inside.  Education Next, however, contains shortened versions of academic articles in addition to commentaries, book reviews, and other features that just about anybody can pick up and read without too much effort.  But, as with all think-tank publications, sometimes the articles merit a closer look.

One such article was published this week.  Entitled "The Phony Education Funding Crisis," it attempts to show that journalists consistently portray schools as underfunded and understaffed while, in actuality, school funding and staffing levels have risen almost interminably.  In some ways the claims are irrefutable, but the arguments advanced deserve further scrutiny -- and I'm just the person for the job.

Why?  Because I was originally part of the research team working on this article.  I helped decide which newspapers to search in which years, which keywords to use, and how to code each article as portraying schools as in need of more funding, spending too much money, or somewhere in between.  That was about a year and a half ago, and I moved on to a different project before analysis got underway.

The article begins with the following statement:

"Chicken Little is alive and seemingly employed as a finance analyst or reporter for an education interest group. If one relies on newspaper headlines for education funding information, one might conclude that America’s schools suffer from a perpetual fiscal crisis, every year perched precariously on the brink of financial ruin, never knowing whether there will be sufficient funding to continue operating . . . "

I continued reading, eager to find the results of the empirical analysis of newspaper content over the past three decades.  But that was the only mention of the content.  Apparently the analysis was scrapped at some point in the last 18 months or so.  The lack of empirical evidence to back up the claim made in the first paragraph significantly weakens the article, but the bulk of it discusses unrelated matter.  More specifically, the article is mostly focused on the rise in school funding and employment levels in the nation and figuring why this is the case.

The authors' analysis of why funding and employment levels increase in the way they do is, in my opinion, pretty much spot-on.  Among other things, they point out that education is privileged by many local and state legislatures, that many policy folk prefer to cut funds from other programs rather than schools, and that school employees are well-organized.  I'd add that a major source of school funds -- property taxes -- tends to change more slowly than other revenue sources, and rarely decreases.  For the most part, I think they're correct to say that school funding and employment levels have increased quite a bit over the past few decades and I think their explanations for this phenomenon make sense.

But I take issue with three pieces of data that are presented:

1.)  They mention a significant rise in teacher salaries.  But these salaries, measured in constant dollars, seem to have barely budged over the past 35 or so years.  If you look at an extended version of the chart in the article, you can see that teachers are now paid only a couple thousand dollars or so more than what they were paid in the early 70's.  The drastic increase in the number of employees, on the other hand, is striking.

2.) School funding hasn't skyrocketed by every measure imaginable.  If we look at per-pupil funding relative to per capita GDP, we find that spending has declined over the past quarter-century.  Which is not to say that it should or shouldn't have fallen, just that it has.

3.) The authors write that "reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been level for four decades" as a justification for their argument that we've gained nothing by increasing funding and employment levels.  On face, this is true -- reading scores have barely risen.  Younger students' math scores, however, have increased dramatically.

More importantly, I take issue with the interpretation of the data that are presented.

Proving that funding has increased -- and explaining why -- doesn't answer whether or not it should.  The article seems to imply that increased funding is inevitably a waste of money, which may or may not be true.

We can imagine a number of reasons why the same education might cost more today than it used to.  Four decades ago, the teaching force consisted mostly of women who were near the top of their college class.  For many of the highest achieving women, education was the only real career option.  Nowadays, however, education is one of the last choices for many of the top achieving college students -- of both genders.  So it might make sense that teacher salaries should rise dramatically (which they haven't) in order to attract equally talented teachers.  Or, if we're going to settle for less talented teachers, maybe it makes sense that we would hire so many more of them to teach kids in smaller classes and so many more staff members to support them.

Similarly, it's not out of the realm of possibility that in other ways it also costs more money today to educate students to the same degree.  Even if we assume that students today are no better off than students forty years ago (a dangerous, and likely false assumption), that doesn't mean that increased funding hasn't had an effect.  What if students would be doing worse if not for the additional funding?  Maybe the increase in divorce means that we have more emotionally fraught students who need smaller classes and more individual attention.  Or maybe the increase in technological distractions means that it's harder for students to focus on school.  I don't know if these, or any of a million other arguments one could make, are convincing -- but that's not really the point.  To establish causality, we need to know more than just which came first.  To say  that spending increased and achievement didn't does not prove that more spending doesn't yield greater achievement.

Then we have a heterogeneity problem.  That is, to say that schools are under- or over-funded across the country isn't really correct.  Some districts are awash in cash that they use to fund all sorts of interesting things.  Some districts are struggling to get by.  So this is a case where I think the utility of generalizing is extremely limited.

Last, and most importantly, the authors convincingly argue that local and state politicians will cut funding for virtually any other program before they'll cut it for schools.  So what's the problem here?  Value judgments are, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, but this one is pretty clear to me.  That school funding is about the last thing that anybody wants to cut is a good thing.  We should cut other programs before we cut back on schools.

To sum up: Do the news media claim there's a school funding crisis more than they claim that property taxes and such are too high?  I don't know.  Is there, in fact, a funding crisis?  It depends where you look and how much money you think schools need.  Has school funding increased over the past half-century?  Yes . . . well, depending on how you measure it.  Is this a bad thing?  Maybe, but not necessarily.  Do school expenditures shrink less than others when the economy shrinks?  Yes.  Is this a bad thing?  Probably not.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Do We Determine if Certification and Credentialing are Effective?

The importance (or lack thereof) of certification and credentialing seems to be a popular topic these days.  We have plenty of evidence that little to no difference exists (in terms of impact on student achievement scores) between teachers that are certified, have a master's degree, etc. versus those who are not.  So we can conclude that certification and credentialing are ineffective, right?  I heard that conclusion drawn at a presentation I recently attended, and I've read similar statements countless times in news reports and on blogs.

But hold on a minute.  To say something like "certification (or credentialing) is ineffective" is a strong statement.  Before you say something like this, or believe others who do, let's take a look at what we'd need to know in order to justify making such a statement.

1.) What are the purposes of certification and credentialing?  Historically, I believe certification has been designed to ensure that completely unqualified people don't enter a field.  For example, hiring a certified electrician means they probably won't burn your house down.  I'm sure there are plenty of self-taught electricians who would do the same, but by not hiring a certified electrician you also run the risk of hiring somebody like me who would create more problems than they would solve.  Many seem to assume that when somebody is certified it means they're better at it, so I think it's fair to assume -- at least based on the reaction to certification -- that it should also increase the mean quality (or at least indicate that certified workers are better than uncertified ones).

2.) How do those who completed certification and credentialing processes compare to those who didn't?  This is what most people try to measure.  In terms of education, they usually look at the mean value-added score for certified versus uncertified teachers, controlling for other factors.  We can also examine the mean change in performance as teachers complete various credentialing processes.  This partially answers the question, but we also need to know how the distribution of quality changed as a result of the process -- including whether there would be more really bad teachers if certification didn't exist.

3.) How do certification and credentialing processes change the make-up of the field?  Lastly, comparisons between certified and uncertified teachers, for example, may fall short if only certain types of people are allowed to enter the field without certification (e.g. high-achieving TFA and TNTP members).  In this sense, we're really answering whether certified teachers are measurably different from a select group of uncertified teachers -- not how the field would differ if we abolished certification.  In the case of the latter, we might see a completely different group of people who decide to enter and remain in the field.

So before we draw any hasty and uninformed conclusions about the efficacy of teacher certification, let's make sure that we're asking and answering the right questions.  We need to know both about changes in mean scores and changes in distribution of performance before we reach a conclusion.  And we need to make sure we don't assume that ending certification won't change the field in ways we don't anticipate.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Pittsburgh has found a unique solution to their budget woes.  They want to charge a 1% college education privilege tax on all tuition bills.  Yes, you read that right -- all college students in the city of Pittsburgh (and there are a lot of them) would pay an additional 1% on top of their tuition bills for the privilege of receiving an education there.  The proposal does actually solve a problem -- an inordinately high percentage of property in Pittsburgh is occupied by non-profit institutions (mostly hospitals and colleges/universities), robbing them of quite a bit of tax revenue.

-Jay Mathews suggests we should scrap rating teachers and rate schools instead.  His argument is mainly that rating teachers is a waste of time since they all get positive reviews anyway.  I sort of buy that argument, though I think there are stronger ones.  And I think there are a ton of good reasons why incentivizing whole schools may work better than incentivizing individual teachers.

-Ruben Navarette regurgitates all the typical talking points on CNN's website.  I have trouble taking any analysis seriously when its central thesis is that teachers are lazy, incompetent, and self-serving.  There are all sorts of rational reasons for teachers to behave the way they do, and tons of good, passionate teachers out there.  As such, reforms based on this premise usually fail to transform schools, and analyses based on this premise are inevitably short-sighted.

Sunday Commentary: How Hope Hurts Teachers

That many teachers burn out seems to be conventional wisdom -- which is one reason why young, enthusiastic, TFA and TNTP teachers are so sought after in many circles.  Though my school didn't have many veteran teachers, the school was large enough that a number of excellent, experienced teachers roamed the halls.  The younger teachers, however, exuded enthusiasm.  Most of us were there, to some extent at least, to change the world.  Of course, we were also a lot more likely to quit.

A recent study looked at colostomy patients (a surgery that results in feces being collected through abdomen, often by a bag attached around the clock) and compared those who knew the situation was permanent with those who were told that the surgery might be reversible at some point down the line.  The result?  Those with permanent colostomies were happier than those with possibly reversible colostomies.  Apparently, after an initial adjustment period people who knew nothing was going to change adapted to their circumstances.  Those who thought the situation might be reversed, meanwhile, remained unhappy with their situation and held out hope that it would change.

Which doesn't sound too different from how teachers viewed teaching at my school.  Us young rabble-rousers were never happy with what we saw or how our classrooms were operating.  We hoped to change the world and, instead, were stuck dealing with all sorts of little (and big) problems that constantly got in the way.  The vets, meanwhile, seemed more satisfied with what was happening.  Or at least were less fazed when something went awry.  Most figured that they were doing about the best they could and that there was no real need for radical changes in most situations -- including where they worked.  Sure, they weren't thrilled with how the school worked, but they weren't nearly as despondent as us newbies.

In other words, the young teachers entered the year with high hopes and lofty ambitions and finished the year full of frustration while the vets maintained a more even keel throughout.  So, in a perverse way, our hopefulness actually hurt us.  It certainly made work more frustrating, and I think it's fair to say it made us more likely to quit -- or at least move to another school.  Teaching is difficult enough without getting your hopes dashed on a daily basis.  And running a school is difficult enough without constantly searching for new teachers after breaking the spirits of the ones you hired last year.

No, I'm not advocating that all teachers simply give up hope so that they can slog through their day and go home feeling ok.  But I think it's worth noting how much harder it is to be a successful teacher in the long-run if you continue to hope that you can solve all the world's problems.  In this sense, lack of hope (also known as low expectations) is a coping mechanism -- and, not, as many would have you believe, a sign of poor moral fiber or general evilness.  Why do teachers lose hope?  Because it's easier that way.  Any economist should recognize that, in this way, lowering expectations is perfectly rational behavior.  After all, if happiness equals expectations minus reality then lowering expectations is an easier path to happiness than is improving one's reality.

The solution?  We need to figure out how to make teaching rewarding for those with high hopes -- both to assuage the attrition of the always-optimistic and to discourage dedicated teachers from descending to despondency and digging in their heels.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quote of the Day

"I often wonder how many potentially good teachers would be happy to teach the youth of tomorrow if discipline were taken entirely out of their hands. My advice for improving public education is to hire a 'bouncer' for every classroom. I’d go back tomorrow."

-former teacher Caelin Graber, writing in response to Susan Engel's op-ed on teacher preparation

I don't know about the "bouncer" idea, but I will tell you that discipline was, far and away, the biggest problem in my school . . . and the main reason I left teaching.

Today's Random Thoughts

-College enrollment is at an all-time high, according to an article in the NY Times, at about 40% of the nation's 18-24 year-olds.  But I wonder how meaningful that number is.  It seems like the percent who are completing college is more important.  As I pointed out before, the rate of college completion seems to have stalled out somewhat -- with slightly below 30% of 25-29 year-olds possessing a bachelor's degree or higher.  If that number shoots up over the next few years, I'll be more excited about the increase in enrollment.

-How do we reduce recidivism among juvenile offenders?  I'd imagine the answer is somewhat similar to the best solutions for discipline problems in schools.  According to a reliable source, forthcoming research finds that programs like boot camps increase recidivism while programs involving things like extra counseling reduce recidivism.  I'll have more on this if and when I get my hands on the actual research.  But for now, here's a local article on a counseling program that has supposedly reduced recidivism rates.

-Susan Engel described a worthwhile idea on how to attract and retain talented teachers in the Times a couple days ago -- essentially by creating a residency program not dissimilar to the way med schools do it.  I don't know if it would work or not, but I'd definitely like to see some ed schools try to more closely mimic the med school model.  Other than a possibly prohibitive cost, I see two problems here though: 1.) The fact that you immediately get your own classroom is a big draw for TFA and TNTP -- I probably wouldn't have taught if I had to wait a year or two before I got a chance, and I have to believe other overly eager and ambitious recent college grads feel the same way.  2.) Engel wants the program to be selective, and sets a rather arbitrary 3.5 GPA as one criterion for acceptance.  Maybe I'm missing something.  Can anybody show me the research that says people with a 3.6 GPA are better teachers than those with a 3.4, all else equal?  This is, of course, the problem with any certification process -- there's never really a good place to draw the line.

-Don't expect anything else from me this week, as I'm up against a deadline today and conferencing the rest of the week.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Grade-Changing and Unintended Consequences

GothamSchools had an excellent story yesterday about a Bronx High School Principal who changed students' grades.  Color me not surprised.  This happened at my school too.  I'm unclear as to exactly who was involved -- whether it was the Principal, an Assistant Principal, or all of the administrators -- but it definitely happened.  My second year there a number of 8th graders who scarcely showed up for school and/or raised hell when they did subsequently failed in every subject.  Well, at least their teachers gave them a failing grade.  By the time the report cards reached the Dean's office, they had passing grades on them.  Why?  Two reasons:

1.) When troublesome 8th graders pass, it means the school doesn't have to deal with them next year.

2.) When a lot of students fail a grade, it looks bad for the principal -- especially given the current evaluation system in NYC.

Principals are judged on a bunch of numbers.  It makes sense to reward principals that are able to reduce discipline problems and raise academic performance in a school.  But rewarding these by looking at suspension rates and graduation rates can have unintended consequences.  In the case of my school, that meant that we stopped suspending kids in the spring so as not to make ourselves look bad and passed kids who hadn't done anything all year.  In other schools (heck, maybe my school too for all I know) it means that teachers and/or administrators bubble in answers for kids on tests.

The lesson from all this?  Beware unintended consequences.  Trying to reward certain behaviors may end up encouraging other, undesired, behaviors.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hypocrisy of "Money Doesn't Matter"

Last week, I wrote the following:

"If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?"

I got quite a bit of pushback in the comments, and it wasn't really a very thoughtful comment, so I think it's appropriate to take more than one sentence to explore the issue.

First, a little background: One of the main battles in education is around funding.  All sorts of people have a personal stake in the funding of schools -- from employees who want a salary boost to homeowners who want a tax break.  An awful lot of the reforms that have been pushed for schools (particularly smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay among others) cost an awful lot of money.  As result of both the fact that spending more on schools deprives other people of the pleasure of that money and the fact that we want our schools to be both efficient and effective, people began to ask whether money mattered in education (see here, for example).

Now, I don't think that every person who's against more school funding as a solution actually means that more money will never matter -- regardless of how much or how it's spent.  Indeed, there are any number of qualifications that can be added into the statement (see here, for example).  Eric Hanushek, perhaps the researcher most often associated with the phrase, is on the record as saying agreeing with the statement that "only a fool would say money doesn't matter."  Most people would agree that spending more money won't necessarily improve schools and that, indeed, spending more money often doesn't improve schools.  We can find all sorts of examples of expensive reforms that didn't pan out, and every cliche lover realizes that "throwing money at the problem" won't solve it.  But, at the same time, most are willing to recognize that it's not impossible for money to make a difference if it's well-spent.  The problem is less with the argument once it's fully laid out and more with how people interpret and act on the phrase.  To blindly insist that "money doesn't matter" is not only foolish but often hypocritical.

As I was insinuating in my one-sentence thought, an awful lot of people believe that the wealthiest, most expensive colleges are also the best.  If we look at a list of the colleges and universities with the largest endowments, it's pretty clear that the wealthiest institutions are the ones we consider elite.  And an awful lot of people aspire(d) to attend these colleges, have attended these colleges, or have paid for their children to attend these colleges.

Regardless of whether or not these schools are actually better, the perception that they are -- and the actions resulting from that perception -- say an awful lot about our society and our beliefs.

Views of private K-12 schools are somewhat similar.   Last year the NY Times ran a story on prep schools that included a list of those with the largest endowments.  I'm no expert, but I recognize a number of the schools on the list.  The bottom line is that parents are willing to spend money -- lots of money (over $30,000 per year, not including room and board, in some cases) -- to send their kids to the most prestigious private schools.

Well, actions speak louder than words.  Clearly, our society believes that schools with more resources are better.  Therefore, anybody who argues that money doesn't matter in education and then brags about their degree from Harvard is a hypocrite.  And anybody who argues that boosting spending at their town's schools cannot make a difference and then writes a check for their kid's tuition at Peddie is also a hypocrite.  Anybody who truly believes that money doesn't matter shouldn't participate in their school bake sale or donate money to their alma mater.

Now, I don't think it's that simple.  Like I said before, the intellectual leaders of the "money doesn't matter" school of thought would make more nuanced arguments.  But the general public doesn't often pick up on nuance.  And the result is that a lot of people repeat the talking points without realizing there's more to the argument.  And then those people become hypocrites.

Finally, let me address a few points that others have made or that I anticipate they will make:

1.) One commenter claimed that schools are like cars because spending more money than one would on a Camry cannot result in the procurement of a better car.  Which is demonstrably false.  Spending more money than one would on a Camry means that one can procure a car that can go 0-60 in the blink of an eye (Porsche), get 50 miles per gallon (Prius), or climb a mountain (Hummer), for example.  In this case, the definition of "better" was conflated with the definition of "necessary," and that type of confusion can destroy a debate.  I don't need my car to climb a mountain or go 0-60 in 4 seconds (though I would like to use less gas).  I can afford to buy myself an adequate car, and I don't feel like I need anything else.  My car meets my needs.  But spending more money could buy me a car that's faster, stronger, safer, more efficient, and/or better at hauling things.  So while I don't think that spending more money is necessary, it's not without utility.

We can make a similar argument with schools.  It might not be necessary for a school to hire only teachers with doctorate degrees, cap class sizes at 5, and operate 12 hours per day 300 days per year -- but it would probably make the school better.  In short, the question "is it worth it?" is separate from the question "will it make things better?"

2.) Prestige undoubtedly has a lot to do with why people spend a lot of money on schools, cars, or other goods.  If somebody thought they'd receive equal educations at Harvard and East Cupcake University and money were no object, which one would they choose?  Most would choose the former, if for no other reason than because other people would be more impressed by it.  But therein lies the rub: somebody has to think something is better for it to be more prestigious.  If everybody thought that BMW made horrible cars, who would pay the premium to buy one?

Besides, whether or not more money actually makes a school (or car) better isn't really germane to the argument.  The point is that most people think that more money = better school, and their actions are proof.

3.) Yes, I consider virtually all of the colleges near the top of the largest endowment and highest tuition lists to be elite.  There are about 3,000 or so colleges in our country, so I'd say at least the top 300 or so should be considered elite.  I find the idea that only the top 25 or so are really elite to be . . . well, elitist.

4.) Yes, it's okay for people to argue that public schools are doing fine with their current spending levels but that they should be allowed to spend more on their kid.  If you don't think the city collects recycleables often enough, you're allowed to pay an outside company to come collect them more.  Everybody always wants more for their families.  The distinction that I'm drawing is that one cannot simultaneously want more for their families and argue that getting more doesn't matter.  It just doesn't make sense.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Did you know that "kids love year-round school"?  Of course, the year-round school discussed decided to extend its school year by adding "intersessions" every nine weeks or so.  During these intercessionals, kids take less traditional classes like "math you can eat" or karate.  They then have summer break that's only about half as long as usual.  I disagree with the author that summer breaks are completely outdated, but she does seem awfully enthusiastic about her kids' school.

-The Economist is my favorite news magazine for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that they always take a removed, thoughtful tone.  After reading through the Lexington (the American politics columnist) blog, they might want to re-think their blogging.  In many instances, the blog is neither removed nor thoughtful in tone.  For instance, a knee-jerk reaction to demographic data on New Orleans charter schools here.  I once heard a speech by an advocate for New Orleans charter schools that highlighted how their students were doing better than the students who remained in traditional public schools.  When asked if it was possible if better students were simply choosing to enroll in charter schools, he admitted that was probably what was going on but said he was paid to gloss over that fact.  I was quite disturbed.  And it's quite likely that the report Lexington references was influenced by the speaker I heard and his employer -- who admitted to engaging in dishonesty to sell their favorite reform.

-Here's a pretty fair article on corporal punishment in Mississippi from a few days back.  Like a number of people interviewed, I generally have a visceral -- and negative -- reaction to corporal punishment when the subject is broached.  But my opposition wavered when I saw the other punitive measures repeatedly tried and subsequently fail during my tenure in the Bronx.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-I somehow missed Thomas Friedman's op-ed the other day.  Pretty standard boilerplate stuff about how we have to fix our schools to fix our economy in the long run.  Except that there's a bit of a twist with the "fix our schools" part.  He writes, "our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity."  While anybody who argues that test scores aren't, to some degree, indicative of a person (or country's) academic ability, is wrong, we have to keep in mind that they're not necessarily the ultimate goal.  Improving test scores is a worthwhile endeavor, but we also have to ensure that we train our kids to think if we want to remain the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.

-David Brooks joined the party today, writing that state legislatures that have recently taken steps to prevent the implementation of merit pay were "moving backwards".  Given that we have virtually no evidence as of yet that merit pay works, I find it . . . let's say, odd . . . when people criticize those who don't implement it.  It's somewhere between speculative and intellectually dishonest to suggest that those who support it are doing the right thing while those who don't are not.

-Bill Ferriter has a distressing piece on the recent school board elections in Wake County, NC.  In case you didn't know, Wake County currently prohibits any school in the county from having a population made up of more than 45% economically disadvantaged students.  The policy seems good on paper -- and there's evidence to support the notion that it's working -- but many people don't like the way it's implemented.  Since neighborhoods are more homogeneous than schools are allowed to be, wide-scale busing is used to integrate schools.  And people don't like their kids getting bused to another neighborhood or other kids getting bused into theirs.  In other words, it looks like NIMBYism might win out yet again.

-Alexander Hoffman shares an interesting quote that I'd never heard before from the recently deceased Ted Sizer: Education is "the worthy residue that remains after the lessons have been forgotten."  That sounds about right.

-One teacher writes about her negative experiences with fill-in teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve in her school over at GothamSchools.  I have little doubt that there are a number of less-than-committed teachers still in the ATR.  But I also can't help but notice that the coverage of the ATR issue has been more than a little slanted in virtually all media outlets.  More on this next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?

-Did you know that even the most pessimistic teachers are significantly more optimistic than the general public about the extent to which teachers can help even poor students who have uninvolved parents?  With all the rhetoric about defeatists and bad teachers flying around, let's not forget that most teachers are neither.

-A number of districts have taken to filling their teaching vacancies with foreign teachers.  While culture shock means it doesn't always work out, done the right way we can learn a lot from foreign teachers.

-I've devoted more than a few posts to asking whether we should educate poor kids differently.  Deborah Meier says that what works for rich students works for all students.

update: and a couple more:

-Here's a good, super-short story about corruption, cops, and truancy (hat tip: GothamSchools)

-I give any new blog a lengthy tryout before I think about adding it to my blogroll or subscribe to the feed in Google Reader, but Linda Perlstein's new blog is off to a good start.  In her second post, she corrects Obama's insinuation that teachers influence achievement more than even home factors.  Though I don't quite understand why she thinks that principals, who many kids barely see, influence kids as much as teachers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Standards: Why Anyone Should Bother

For the last couple weeks, Alexander Hoffman has been writing about why he thinks standards are pointless over at Gotham Schools.  He raises a number of good points, and I generally agree with him that aren't the silver bullet that many seem to think they are.  Anybody sitting in a statehouse who thinks that adding or a deleting a standard is going to magically transform schools is sorely mistaken: most teachers don't even spend that much time thinking about the standards.

But I disagree with the implication that standards are useless and a waste of time.  I think they're both moderately helpful and an appropriate thing for state and federal governments to create.  Here are my top four reasons why we should support the formation of standards:

1.) They give distant governments the right level of control.  Districts, schools, and teachers should all have a fair amount of autonomy when deciding what and how to teach their students.  Hoffman points out that standards don't influence those decisions all that much, which seems appropriate to me.  If I were still teaching, I wouldn't want a state-mandated curriculum that mapped out every second of every day for me.  But it's appropriate that the people of the state, through the state legislature, create a document outlining goals that students at each grade should strive to meet.  It allows the state to gently guide instruction without becoming overly intrusive.

2.) Students should have some common experiences in schools.  Some education scholars argue that the main purpose of schooling, historically speaking, has been social cohesion -- bonding a country together by ensuring that people grow up with similar experiences and knowing similar things.  Even if you don't buy that argument, ensuring that students have somewhat similar experience in school has pragmatic implications as well: I have to believe that the majority of students move to a new school at some point in time, and it helps if that new schools is teaching somewhat similar things in a somewhat similar way.

3.) National standards are the only hope for NCLB-like accountability.  NCLB has pluses and minuses, but most people still support an accountability system in some shape or form.  And even those who back NCLB-like accountability 100% have to admit that NCLB is not working the way it should.  And that's largely due to the way that states have gamed the system when they create their own tests and set their own passing scores on those tests.  I am convinced, as are many others, that the only way an NCLB-like accountability system can work is if there are national tests.  And the only way we can have national tests is if we first create national standards, both politically and practically.   Politically because there's no way that states are going to agree to submit themselves to national tests immediately without some sort of lead up.  And practically because without national standards there's no fair way to determine what should be on national tests.

4.) They're the most practical solution to the problem.  In all three of the situations I describe above, there are other possible solutions.  We could create a comprehensive federal curriculum (like France, for example) in lieu of standards.  But that's not happening anytime soon, and I don't think most people would like to see it happen.  Let's face it, governments at the state and federal level need to have some level of control over schools.  And I can think of no better solution than allowing them to create standards.  Sure, they're not going to magically transform schools -- and many teachers will scoff and mostly ignore them -- but it's the best of both worlds: society at large gets a say in determining what happens in our schools, but teachers and school leaders still get to fill in the details.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Are "Reformers" Really Offering Reform?

Over the past year or more we've heard a lot about the "reformers vs. defenders of the status quo" (or "deformers vs. realists," depending on what you read).  Indeed, support for what started out as a small set of reforms proposed by conservatives has now come to represent, to many, whether somebody actually wants to improve schools or not.

What "reformers" are talking about are really a very narrow set of reforms: more charter schools, merit pay, and generally weaker unions.  Ten years ago these were pushed by conservative think thanks.  But now they've gone mainstream.  The gospel has spread to liberal op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof ("cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools."), and the liberal Washington Post editorial board ("Charter Success: Poor Children Learn. Teachers Unions are not Pleased") and become the backbone of Obama's education policy.  Meanwhile, conservative publications lionize "reformers" by, for example, portraying Michelle Rhee as Joan of Arc (rather ironic that conservatives are lionizing reformers when you think about it, but that's another topic for another time).

I have little doubt that all of these reforms have the support of the majority of Americans right now.  And I have little doubt that all will continue to spread for at least the next few years.  And it's possible that they might even help out our schools and our country.  But I find the rhetoric surrounding these reforms incredibly disturbing -- and, really, non-sensical.

I'm disturbed that many who push these reforms often imply that they've been proven to work and that anybody who stands in their way is standing in the way of progress.  Meanwhile, as former Bush appointee Russ Whitehurst wrote on Friday, evidence to date shows that a number of other reforms are far more effective.

More troubling, however, is the notion that one is only a "reformer" if they support these particular reforms.  It's a somewhat impressive rhetorical sleight of hand, but it makes no sense when critically examined.  There are tons of reforms with a similar amount (i.e. very little) of research (or more) behind them.  And there are a ton of reforms we could advocate that would be far more radical and "reform-y" than the narrow set that is dominating the current conversation on schools.  Here are a few:

-Shrink class sizes.  The Tennessee STAR project showed fairly definitively that children in smaller classes learned more.

-Double pay for starting teachers and see if we can't attract more people away from Wall St. and into the classroom.

-Integrate schools.  Wake County has has some success with this, while many other districts create charters that are often more segregated than non-charter schools.

-End the 9-10 month school year and divide it up into smaller (e.g. six week) units.  Then see if holding kids back that fail a unit doesn't work out a little better and motivate a little more.

-End teacher grading of students.  Instead, create classrooms that work more like sports teams: teachers and kids have the same goal and they all fail or succeed together base on an external event (or impartial evaluator).

-Scrap the 8-3 (or 7:30-2:30) school day and start classes at 9am or later for older students, whose body clocks indicate they work better at later hours.

-"Unschool" children.  Let them choose what they want to learn, rather than forcing things down their throats.

I could list a thousand more, but I think you get the point.  I'm guessing that self-titled "reformers" (and others) would oppose a lot of these reforms.  Does that make them defenders of the status quo?  Does that mean that only people who support some of these reforms are truly "reformers"?

That supporting or opposing a very narrow set of reforms with very little evidence behind them has come to define one's standing as a "reformer" or an evildoer is preposterous.  These particular reforms are far from the most radical out there.  Nor are they necessarily the best ones out there.  While deriding anybody who opposes this particular set of reforms as a "defender of the status quo" may score political points -- and advance this set of reforms -- it hardly lends itself to a productive debate.  Or to bettering our nation's schools.  Which should be the ultimate goal.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-A new RAND report indicates that NYC's retention policy may be helping kids who are retained (GothamSchools, NYTimes).  I haven't read the report yet, but news accounts indicate it finds that kids held back in the past three years have done better than similar kids in the three years prior to the policy.  I'm not sure why they'd pick that comparison group instead of utilizing regression discontinuity to compare retained kids to other, nearly identical, kids who weren't retained.  Meanwhile, Memphis is moving in the opposite direction -- they've decided not to hold back kids in K-3, in part to save money.

-Richard Whitmire says that Michelle Rhee "has no choice" -- she has to "play tough."  I kind of buy that she can't always be a people pleaser in her position, but she'd do well to remember that the people she's dealing with are just that -- people.  And there's seldom any acceptable reason to treat other human beings poorly.  And his argument that charters succeed because they get to "can pick and choose their staff" is asinine.  Traditional public schools choose their staff as well, it just so happens that more of the hiring decisions were made in the past.  And if the district made poor hiring decisions or awarded people tenure when they shouldn't have, the district only has itself to blame.

-Ever notice that the self-titled "reformers" aren't really proposing radical reforms?  Or that there's little evidence that their preferred reforms are even the right ones?  It's really a brilliant sleight of hand, though it does little to help our schools and our children.  More on this on Sunday.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Has Kristof Gone Krazy?

Nicholas Kristof is at it again.  He's written another misinformed op-ed about education in the NY Times.

Yes, I'm annoyed that he seems to imply that in-school factors are more important than non-school factors when we know the opposite is true.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he reverentially references Stephen Brill's hatchet job.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he cites anecdotal evidence to argue that the exception disproves the rule.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he assumes enacting certain reforms is moving in the right direction despite very little evidence that these reforms will improve things.

But what bothers me most is his statement that "A study found that if black students had four straight years of teachers from the top 25 percent of most effective teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish in four years."  Please -- everybody -- please stop saying this.  It's, quite simply, not true

First of all, the study being referenced didn't "find" this -- it was speculation (or, in economist-speak, a back of the envelope calculation).  Second of all, the speculation was based on an erroneous assumption -- that teacher effects were additive.  In other words, that if a really good teacher could help kids close 1/4 of the achievement gap in one year, that four really good teachers could help kids completely close the gap in four years.  But life doesn't work that way.  For at least three reasons:

1.) The effect that a teacher has on students wanes over time as those kids go off and play over the summer and move on to different classes with different teachers.

2.) The large gain brought about by one teacher is, in part, due to the inferior teachers those students had in previous years.  Now that they've had a world-beater, it will be harder for their teacher their next year to help them make as much progress.

3.) That large gain might not have even occurred.  Measurement of teacher effects is notoriously imprecise.  In a number of studies, the correlation between a teacher's effect one year and the next have been surprisingly inconsistent and have only low correlations.

note: Somehow an earlier, different, draft of this post ended up here after firefox crashed.  This is the correct version.

update: really, seriously, his claim isn't true