Friday, February 27, 2009

Urban vs. Suburban Teachers

EdWeek recently featured a story about a large survey of teachers and principals. The survey, sponsored by MetLife, was originally given after the publication of A Nation at Risk. The headline of the article was regarding the improvement in teacher satisfaction over the past 25 years, but the survey contains a great deal more information. The write-up is essentially a summary of the survey results and covers 191 pages, but what I find most interesting are the differences between teachers in urban vs. suburban schools.

Here are just a few examples (I've summarized the questions):

For how many students is lack of parent support a hindranace?
Less than a quarter:
Urban - 35%
Suburban 59%

How much of a problem is it to get qualified teachers in your school?
Very or Somewhat Serious:
Urban 40%
Suburban 19%
(Principals were 39/20)

How much of a problem is teacher turnover in your school?
Very or Somewhat Serious:
Urban 48%
Suburban 23%
(Principals were 32/14)

None of these results are too terribly surprising -- and I'm guessing they'd be more dramatic had they limited the comparison sample to those who said they taught in "inner-city" schools rather than all urban schools. On other questions, of course, answers weren't all that different. But I question the utility of generalizing to all teachers when sub-groups differ so greatly. Can we really say "x% of teachers . . ." in any meaningful way?

Methodological Note
Among the 1000 teachers surveyed, 13% said they taught in an inner-city school, 14% in an urban school (which were lumped together as urban), 36% in a suburban school, 19% in a small town school, 16% in a rural school (which were lumped together to make rural), and 1% didn't know. Which leaves us with 27% urban, 36% suburban, 35% rural. But after they weighted the responses to match demographics they came up with: 27% urban, 23% suburban, 49% rural.

Today's Random Thoughts

-The undergrads I'm teaching have found my blog. Which might mean I have to watch what I say -- or might mean that I'll be hiding the answers to the next pop quiz on here.

-I've asked before what happens when all punishments fail, and D.C. seems to be grappling with the same question right now. It seems that plentiful suspensions aren't doing much at many schools. Their solution? "More conversation, less confrontation"

-Aaron Pallas points out some shortcomings of the Mathematica Alt-Cert study. If for no other reason, check it out to read the little illustrative tale (made up, but still funny) at the beginning.

-Spring break has begun, which means I'll finally have time to catch up on all those blog posts I've been meaning to write. Keep your eyes peeled.

One Year Anniversary

Today marks one year since my very first post. When I started I would've been happy had 10 people per day read my blog, lately it's been averaging around 100 hits/day -- not including RSS feed subscribers (73 people have signed up on Google Reader alone). Over the past year people have clicked on this site 16,153 times and linked to this site 93 times.

I just want to say that it's been fun, and thank everybody for proving my roommate wrong -- apparently somebody does care what I think. Here's hoping for an even better second year.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Did you hear the news? People do better when they procrastinate (sometimes). Which means my dissertation is going to be awesome.

-When I saw the headline -- "5 myths about education" -- I was sure we were in for some sort of ridiculous rhetoric. Just as we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I guess we can't judge an op-ed by its title. Kalman Hettleman actually offers up some good advice, rebutting a lot of the most common rhetoric we hear (plus it's pretty short, so it's definitely worth a read).

-In case you thought I hate charter schools, here's something good (I think) that many are doing -- finding innovative ways to reduce class size. Team-teaching and mentoring won't always work out, but these sound like some worthwhile ways to both develop junior teachers and give kids more attention.

-Here's one of those ideas that just seems like it will work no matter no matter how hard I try to convince myself that it would fail and/or raise large ethical concerns. Rather than creating magnet schools that draw the best students from traditional schools, this teacher says "What should have been done was to pull out the bottom ten percent." I really can't underscore how large of an impediment behavioral issues are in some schools, and it sure seems like this would help alleviate that (though who knows -- things never seem to work out as planned). What we do with the removed students, of course, raises huge issues.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

From Diane Ravitch:

"based on what I have seen to date, I conclude that Obama has given President George W. Bush a third term in education policy and that Arne Duncan is the male version of Margaret Spellings."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-A brief follow-up on yesterday's commentary. For most of the traits I discussed, you could argue that there's a dichotomy between urban and suburban/rural schools. I didn't bring rural schools into the discussion b/c they're a whole different ballgame in so many other ways.

-Matthew Ladner has a somewhat similar reaction to the one I had to the NY Times article about statistics and basketball over at Jay P. Greene's blog. He also think that teachers should be rewarded for things that help the entire school, though he adds that it can't possibly be too hard to improve on what we currently have. Of course, just because you don't like the current system doesn't mean that designing a new, but haphazard, system will make things any better.

-John Thompson makes a fantastic point over at This Week in Education. During WWII we asked the pilots who survived what the biggest problems were -- which meant that we knew the biggest problems of those who survived. What we neglected to realize was that it was more important to know the biggest problems of those who didn't -- we want to keep people from dying more than we want to make life better for those who don't. The same problem plagues us with school -- rather than asking those who succeed what the biggest problems are, we should be asking those that fail -- in order to prevent more failures in the future. This is one idea I intend to steal.

Sunday Commentary: The Charterization of Urban Schools Districts

In a discussion of vouchers last week, a professor argued that when legislatures propose statewide vouchers three groups dominate the discussion: private schools not willing to exchange autonomy for government money and suburban parents with access to good community schools oppose them, while inner-city parents favor them. While doubtless an oversimplification, such a division makes sense because it reflects the self-interest of all three groups. Based on who has access to power, such a division would also explain why no statewide voucher scheme exists. Though the politics behind statewide voucher proposals are interesting, the ramifications for our schools are more important.

Why? The same division exists around charter schools. And while vouchers seem temporarily halted, charters continue to fly high. Democrats and Republicans alike push charter schools as the largest part of any solution to our education system's woes. More importantly, they push such schools predominantly in impoverished urban areas. With few exceptions, well-to-do suburban neighborhoods seem (relatively) satisfied with their choice between high-quality neighborhood schools or paying for an elite private school.

Politicians often refer to parts of the world as "Balkanized" when they divide into many small countries. In the same sense, urban districts are currently becoming "charterized." Where students once attended a few large schools they now can choose among many small schools. And the trend seems unstoppable. Not only do charter schools continue to spread, but new charter-style public schools seem spread at least as fast as districts rush to break-up old monoliths into multiple themed academies and open new specialized schools.

As a result, the trajectories of urban and suburban districts differ distinctly. Suburban students will attend community-controlled schools with nearly every other student from their neighborhood. Urban students will almost-randomly fan out to find the small school that best fits their interest (or is most convenient) and attend with fellow wanderers.

Suburban and urban schools, of course, already differ greatly. But the distinct dichotomy at is developing often goes unmentioned -- and may have important ramifications. Knowing who will benefit more is likely impossible, but we can predict a few things that will happen:

Suburban schools will build community and social cohesion -- local residents will attend the Friday night football games, the school play, and discuss how the local schools have changed since they attended them. Urban schools will not. Students from the same block may attend ten different schools.

Suburban schools will be comprehensive. Since they must cater to the needs of everybody in the community, they will stretch themselves thin to offer every subject and activity they can. Urban schools will be specialized. They will all, essentially, attempt to be magnet schools. One would not expect an advanced physics course at the the Literature Academy or a football team at the Choral Academy.

Urban parents will face a myriad of choices -- possibly, but possibly not, including a default community school. Suburban parents will try to decide if the local community school is good enough, or whether to pay to go elsewhere.

While it remains unclear whether one experience is necessarily better, such distinct differences necessarily mean that urban and suburban students will experience school differently -- which is rather ironic when one considers that reforms were begun to eliminate differences between suburban and urban schools. Is different better? Only time will tell.

The charterization of urban schools seems inevitable, and we anxiously await the post-charterization test scores. But the ramifications go beyond student achievement; we are witnessing the decoupling of school and community in urban America, and we need to figure out what this means for both students and society.

Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty urban schools -- including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.

Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Incentivizing vs. Rewarding

Nancy Flanagan asked a very good question in the comments of Sunday's post that got me thinking.

In the original post I asked what we should incentivize when paying teachers and discussed the difficulties in trying to make this decision. Indeed, some basketball teams are finding that incentivizing certain outcomes encourages players to do things that actually hurt the team. In other words, it's crucial to carefully think through what is incentivized and, in some cases, it may be better to incentivize means rather than ends. I postulated that the simplest solution in basketball is to just base bonuses on wins but that education has no such bottom line measurement.

Nancy suggested rewarding teachers who earn national board certification, and I noted that this is a measure of good a teacher is -- not how well they performed in a given year. To which she responded:

"Are you trying to make a distinction between a teacher's general ability to increase student learning, and year-to-year test data, which will fluctuate? Which of these is more important to incentivize?"

And I think I finally have an answer. It's more important to incentivize performance, but it's more important to reward quality. Let me explain.

Two chief complaints exist about the way teachers are paid:
1.) Better teachers aren't paid any more -- which isn't fair
2.) There's no incentive for teachers to work harder or do better -- which doesn't fit with economic theory

The problems are related, but different -- and we can attempt to fix both of those problems in different ways. Measuring the quality of a teacher is easier than measuring the performance of a teacher. Studies using sophisticated value-added measurements show large fluctations in performance year-to-year. It's not really plausible that teachers really skip around that much in terms of effort, quality of lesson plans, or anything else they can control. Much of the fluctuations must be due to a combination of environmental factors (different kids and different classes click better with different teachers) and measurement error in test scores. So simply rewarding teachers for their test scores in a certain year relies on some combination of teacher quality, performance, and chance. In other words, it's not really satisfying our desire to pay better teachers more.

On the other hand, it's much easier to determine who is a "better" teacher over time -- through observations, test score results, national board certification, etc. So it makes more sense to boost the pay of teachers who we've determined are better because we think they're good rather than because we think they did a good job this year.

At the same time, this doesn't solve the conondrum with teachers not having an (economic) incentive to push their kids to achieve. In order to fix this, incentives based on yearly performance need to exist. Of course, measuring yearly performance is incredibly difficult -- but that's another topic for another time.

So, in short, my answer to Nancy's question is" "yes," and "both."

211th Carnival of Education

Sorry for being a day late and a dollar short -- I neglected to realize that I had 45 papers to grade the same day I was supposed to be putting this together. Nonetheless, welcome to the 211th Carnival of Education -- we have posts on all sorts of things.

We, of course, have the stars of the show: those attractions that all the kids flock to first.

Diana presents A Measure of Privacy posted at The Core Knowledge Blog. skoolboy discusses "creaming" and charter schools in Toward a New Definition of Creaming posted at GothamSchools. And Jason Flom explores all sorts of things in Learning Curve posted at Ecology of Education.

This being a carnival of education, we have plenty of educational attractions set up in different subjects.


Jose presents Recourse To Love [The Love Below Series] posted at The Jose Vilson, talking a little bit about his kids, domestic violence, and what love may really mean. Joanne Jacobs presents Should I let kids fail? posted at Joanne Jacobs. Nancy Flanagan presents Standards Finale: Good, Bad, but not Evil posted at Teacher in a Strange Land, saying, "Please--tell me why we should invest millions in the creation of national standards? Because we can?"


Greg presents Obama Education Secretary Condoned Systemic Child Abuse As Chicago School Head posted at Rhymes With Right. Kelly presents Stories from School: Practice meets Policy: Yes We Can posted at Stories from School: Practice meets Policy. Piotr Stepien presents Be Mass Media Free posted at we overstep, saying, "Stop addiction to news, television shows and any low level mass media."


Greg Laden presents Darwin's Birthday Gallup Poll on "Belief in Evolution" posted at Greg Laden's Blog. Liam Goldrick presents Then and Now posted at The Education Optimists. Bill Ferriter discusses the disappearance of creativity from the classroom in Creativity is Dead, Ken. . . posted at The Tempered Radical.

Carnivals are supposed to be fun, and there's no shortage of lighthearted posts out there.

Carol Richtsmeier wins the funniest post award for her ruminations on trying to hold everything together in her post YB Disasters, Smackdown Meltdown & Goat Heads posted at Bellringers. Speaking of dealing with stress from school, Steve Spangler has an interesting video embedded in his post Potato Gun Wars - Teachers Relieving Stress or Just Having Fun? posted at Steve Spangler's Blog. Larry Ferlazzo discusses some games to help make school fun for the kiddies as well in his post The Best Online Games Students Can Play In Private Virtual “Rooms” | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... posted at Larry Ferlazzo's Websites Of The Day For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL.

Any time you gather together a bunch of teachers, you'll always get plenty of advice:

Clix presents On Not Writing posted at Epic Adventures Are Often Uncomfortable. Rani presents How to write a personal letter- Advocacy posted at Rayray's writing, saying, "Do you need to write an advocacy letter and don't know how, then read on."jim presents Free College Money: The FAFSA on Blueprint for Financial Prosperity posted at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity. Relax presents 5 good reasons why you should buy a lot of books posted at The Wise Curve, saying, "Most of my monthly spending goes to books. Before you say that I’m crazy, please let me share with you why we should buy a lot of books." OnlineCollege presents Is Online Graduate School Right for You? posted at Online Graduate School. Marcus Smith presents Will You Please Shut Up?? (How to Handle Distractions and Hecklers) posted at Berlin shows you how to make make quick, disposable playthings using your computer in Printable Toys For Young Children posted at Craft Stew. Mathew Needleman presents How to Explicitly Teach a Strategy posted at Open Court Blog. Rich Bordner offers advice from his students on classroom management in Classroom Management: not for the Faint of Heart posted at The Pugnacious Irishman.

And, as at any good carnival, you have plenty of people who are off on their own trying to invent the next corndog. See if you think any of them are on to something.

oldandrew presents Why Sir Alan Steer Should Stick his Stupid Lying Report up his Arse posted at Scenes From The Battleground.

Jim McGuire presents A Don't Care T-shirt posted at The Reading Workshop.

Dan Callahan presents Bad, evil, naughty law!, about the proposed ban on cell phones, posted at geek.teacher.

michael mazenko presents Who's Educated? posted at A Teacher's View.

Pregnant Woman presents Identical Triplets - Three Bundles Of Joy posted at Pregnancy.

SwitchedOnMom presents MCPS Stimulus Package?for Tutors posted at The "More" Child.

Mary Ann Zehr presents A GED Just Isn't as Good posted at Learning the Language.

Kim discusses trying to decide on public vs. private schools in My Public School Interview posted at Kim's Play Place.

Darren presents Teacher Fired For Spending A Quarter At School posted at Right on the Left Coast: Views From a Conservative Teacher.

rightwingprof presents Horse Sense For Educators posted at Right Wing Nation.

John Holland presents Besharov and Call: Fact and Fiction posted at Inside Pre-K.

Mister Teacher presents Off task, with love posted at Learn Me Good.

Lightly Seasoned presents Let's Predict the Future, Shall We? posted at Lightly Seasoned.

And what would a carnvial be without a little self-promotion? If you've managed to stick around this long, you're just the person I'm looking for. I recently started two new features here at Thoughts on Education Policy and I need your help. Have some crazy, illuminating, stories from your teaching days? Submit your best war stories to be featured in Tales from the Trenches. Have something meaningful to say and nowhere to say it? Submit your thoughts to Sunday Commentary.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of carnival of education using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Monday, February 16, 2009

This Week's Carnival of Education

I'm hosting the Carnival of Education this week, so submit anything you want included. You can submit using this handy link or you can e-mail them directly to me. Please note that the deadline is 7pm Central on Tuesday even though the first page says midnight -- pieces submitted to the website after 7 will be automatically forwarded to next week's host.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Commentary: What to Incentivize?

Teachers should be encouraged to do what is best for students, and rewarded when they do -- which is why performance incentives make perfect sense on paper. But a million little details need to be solved before they can meet their promise. Perhaps most notably we need to be sure we incentivize the right behaviors. And teaching is far from the only field that struggles with this.

Today's NY Times Magazine has a fascinating article basketball statistics. More specifically, it explores the relationship between statistics and good basketball. The story centers around Shane Battier -- a player with below average stats but whose teams win when he is on the court. The Houston Rockets have apparently developed some ways to measure things that contribute to the team in place of the typical stats (points, rebounds, assists, etc.).

The most interesting (and relevant) part of the article is this: "It turns out there is no statistic that a basketball player accumulates that cannot be amassed selfishly. 'We think about this deeply whenever we’re talking about contractual incentives,' [Rockets GM Daryl Morey] says. “We don’t want to incent a guy to do things that hurt the team.”

In other words, basketball teams face the same problem (though in a different way) as do schools: creating incentives that encourage people to do what's best for the team/school. A basketball team does not want to promise Player A a million dollars more if he averages 20 points per game and then watch the team lose because Player A takes a ton of wild shots instead of passing to his teammates.

I don't think the exact same problem exists in school -- Teacher A probably isn't going to hurt the school by trying to raise test scores in their classroom. But a similar problem exists: we're not sure exactly what actions we want people to take, or we're at least not sure how we would measure such actions.

Can you imagine trying to rate a basketball player on whether he hustles, is in the correct position, passes to others when they're open, takes shots when he is open, communicates well with his teammates, and so forth? Similarly, how do we rate teachers on how well they motivate their students, keep students focused, prepare lesson plans, offer useful comments when grading, and so forth?

In basketball, one could give up on trying to measure what a player contributes and simply reward players based how many games the team wins. It is unclear whether players would want to win more if they had money riding on it, but it seems logical that such a scheme would at least discourage selfish behavior.

What about teaching? One of my colleagues once said that teaching is amenable, but not reducible, to measurement -- and I agree. The only possibility I see of truly measuring how well somebody teaches would take far too much time and effort to ever be feasible. But if we are committed to rewarding teachers based on what we measure, we have to find some sort of proxy. Unfortunately, we do not have a won-loss statistic in education, so there's no similarly simple solution. We do have test scores, but most teachers don't teach tested subjects. As such, we need to recognize that we cannot judge or reward most teachers based on their students' scores.

So what do we want to incentivize? Basketball GM's are starting to figure out that incentivizing ends may not justify the means. Rewarding teachers with high test scores may lead them to do all sorts of things that they should not. But rewarding means is almost impossible? Do we really want to sit around measuring all the little things that make a teacher special?

Whatever the measure is, I think we can learn one thing from basketball. If everyone in the school is rewarded for it then at least there is a possibility that it would foster cooperation and encourage people to raise their expectations of their colleagues.

Rewarding a player for a team's wins may not mean that he scores more points, but it might mean that he corrects the hitch in his teammate's jump shot or sets a valuable pick. Rewarding a teacher for a school's performance may not lead them to transform their teaching style, but it may mean that conversations in the teachers' lounge are a bit more productive, that staying after school to tutor a student (without pay) is less crazy, that the dynamite lesson plan on photosynthesis is shared with all of the 3rd grade teachers, and that the kid from Mrs. Smith's class who is wandering the hall becomes everybody's responspility. If we can just figure out those other 999,999 details, performance pay should be good to go.

Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty urban schools -- including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.

Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Happens When Overburdening Teachers Succeeds?

Stafford Palmieri, over at Fordham's blog, is not happy that teachers at a couple KIPP schools want to unionize. I'm not sure why she's so panicky when the first KIPP school in NYC has done fine with unionized teachers and I'm quite disturbed that she thinks KIPP should "puts its foot down!" -- I think I missed the memo that said oppressing workers is now a good thing.

But what I find really interesting about the post is the latest update she added. Regarding the ramifications of the situation, and referring speficially to the KIPP AMP (Always Mentally Prepared) School, she writes:

KIPP schools and charters like it have high turnover and burnout rates (these, in fact, are some of the reasons AMP’s teachers decided to unionize). If successfully educating socioeconomically disadvantaged and typically way below grade level students requires an unsustainable commitment in the long term, how can we possibly marry the successful elements of a charter model to the large scale traditional public education system? Does that mean we need, instead, to change our perceptions of teaching as a long term career? What is the give and take between teaching staff continuity and the 80-hour work weeks of places like KIPP?

I think it's fair to assume that a number of teachers (and schools full of teachers) who have made "an unsustainable commitment" have had a lot of success. We still can't say exactly why KIPP schools achieve the results they do or how comparable their student bodies are to other schools, but I think it's fair to say that they've had quite a bit of success and that dedicated teachers working long hours is a large part of this success.

But it's readily apparent that the burden placed on teachers at many of these schools makes the job a short-term gig. High levels of stress, waning social lives, and high turnover characterize the staffs. At the same time, though, it's both rewarding to the teachers and helpful to the students.

Palmieri seems to focus on the positive aspects of this. Teachers who sacrifice their lives for their job for a few years are successful, but can't do it forever. Therefore, we should think about teaching as a job that people only do for a few years. I certainly overworked myself for a short period of time, as have thousands of other people have done -- particularly through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project.

I buy the logic, but I don't think such an assumption will work on a large-scale. There simply aren't enough people that are willing and able to sacrifice everything for a few years to work with our most disadvantaged youth. We only have so many young Ivy League grads without families. In other words, regardless of what you think about the strategy of maxing out teachers for a few years, the system simply isn't replicable on a large scale. That's why even if KIPP is, indeed, working miracles it will never solve all of our problems in its current form.

But saying that KIPP's current form won't solve all of our problems also won't solve our problems. I think the format they have -- intense schooling that's 50% longer than what we normally have -- has merit. But I think she asks the wrong question. Instead of asking if it means that overburdening teachers is the only way to succeed, maybe we should be asking if there are ways to run a school this way without overburdening teachers. Otherwise, I don't know how we can replicate their success.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Responding to Tantrums in the Classroom

Slate recently published an article by Alan Kazdin on how parents should react when their kids fly off the handle (hat tip: Alexander Russo). The article has obvious implications for what teachers should do when a student loses control in the classroom. And I'm not sure that the author would recommend the same course of action in such a circumstance, because the stakes are much higher and the external factors more complex.

Ultimately, the author recommends what he terms the "parking ticket" strategy: the parent reacts by calmly informing the child that a certain (previously discussed) privilege has been taken away, and then leaves the room. It's a balance of the desire to mete out punishment with the parent's job of being a good role model. The calm response and the immediate punishment send the message that the behavior is neither acceptable nor appropriate. In the short run, the child is sent a message; in the long run the child should act more calmly.

The rationale behind the recommendation makes sense, and seems to be the best option. Exploding in anger may truncate the behavior, but serves as a bad example; calmly explaining why the child should behave differently sets a good example but fails to address the behavior in the short-run; and ignoring it has similar implications.

This works at home. The child isn't allowed to watch TV that night, the parent sits in the living room and reads a magazine, the temper tantrum in the kitchen fizzles out, and soon all is back to normal. But I'm not sure the same strategy will work in a classroom. The idea of a "parking ticket" -- an immediate, but calmly delivered, consequence -- is still solid, but the teacher can't just leave the room until the child has calmed down. Furthermore, the teacher needs to take into account how the other children react to and what they learn from the incident.

In this way, it's even more important that the teacher set a good example -- screaming at the student inevitably sends the message that screaming and anger are acceptable. But, at the same time, the importance of indicating that the behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated is elevated as well. If Johhny starts screaming at the teacher and the teacher calmly tells him to be quiet and then waits five minutes for him to calm down, what are the other children supposed to think? How else could they interpret it other than "when I scream, nobody gets mad at me and we stop class for five minutes."

In other words, the immediate reaction is probably more necessary for the sake of preventing copycats than for conveying any sort of message to that particular student. In this way, a modified version of the "parking ticket" may be the best adjustment. The teacher should still remain calm (step 1), and should still immediately assign a pre-determined consequence (step 2), but the student should be the one to leave the room (step 3).

I see two problems with this: 1.) What happens when the child refuses to leave the room? (now the situation has been escalated) and 2.) Some places (e.g. NY) don't allow students to be removed from the room (because they're being deprived of their right to an education).

Not to mention that a school has to decide what to do with the child after they've left the room. At any rate, this seems like a reasonable strategy to me, but I might be missing something. Most of the books I've read, videos I've watched, and advice I've received about discipline is in line with steps 1 and 2 (though I can't honestly say they're in line with the wishes of some of the administrators at my school -- one of whom liked to say "you have to make them fear you, it's the only way"), but I'm unsure about step 3.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-I'm assuming this must be political theater, but Bloomberg has submitted a budget that proposes firing 15,000 teachers in NYC. I can't imagine what would happen if 20% of the teachers weren't around next year. At the same time, how will the district justify hiring any new teachers (especially through TFA, NYCTF, and other emergency certification programs) next year if any sort of significant layoffs occur?

-Diane Ravitch asks a really good question in her latest post. I'm not sure why people are so attracted to miracle cures in education, but she writes a post well worth your time while pondering the answer.

-One area where our system fails its students is in teaching economy of language. Students at all levels seem to write nine words when five will do. Chad Alderman provides an excellent example of how to completely destroy months of attacks in two brief paragraphs.

-Andrew Rotherham makes a couple of good points in his op-ed on Teach For America. I think the strongest positive of TFA is what the alums do after finishing their two years.

-The Governor of Indiana says he's heard from a number of teachers who are scared of being sued by their students and, therefore, is supporting legislation to make it more difficult to do so.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-I'm catching up with the backlog of blog posts in my Google Reader, and noticed that Kevin Carey seems to agree with much of what I wrote in yesterday's Sunday Commentary.

-I also noticed that some people at Fordham sure seem upset that education funding isn't being cut to the same extent as are other areas (one example). I can't quite figure this one out. Shouldn't we cut spending on education less than we do in many areas? Isn't education more important than many other functions of government?

-I haven't yet decided whether Michelle Rhee is toning down her rhetoric or simply clarifying earlier positions in this interesting piece in the Washington Post (more on this later).

-EdWeek hosted a rather boring (in my opinion) chat about performance pay, the transcript is here. It might've been more interesting had they answered my question (boy these grapes are sour).

-Also related to performance pay, a report just out on what to do with "the other 69%" of teachers who don't teach subjects/grade levels that are tested under NCLB.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Are K-12 and Higher Ed Teaching as Different as we Think?

by Corey Bunje Bower

I've been a student and a teacher in both K-12 and University classrooms. And here's what strikes me: they're far more similar than most care to admit, and they usually differ in all the wrong ways.

That the rhetoric surrounding K-12 schooling and Higher Ed are so different never ceases to amaze me. If a K-12 teacher says a student can't hack it, they're making excuses; if a college professor says a student can't hack it, they don't belong in college. Countless commentators opine against the evil that is teacher tenure in K-12 schools; few protest tenure for professors in our colleges and universities. If a K-12 student fails, it's the teacher's fault; if a college student fails, it's the student's fault. Measuring the "quality" of individual K-12 teachers is vitally important; measuring the quality of college professors isn't really possible.

Some of this is deserved. For example, most K-12 students are minors and most college students are (legally) adults. But we often view the two worlds as far more different than they actually are. The most troubling part in this is that a lot of the ed policy wonks are college professors who seemingly fail to see the commonalities.

Here are a few lessons that each group should learn from the other:

What K-12 Should Learn from Higher Ed:

Just because somebody is smart doesn't mean they'll be a good teacher
Most college professors are, to some extent, experts in their field. But how many are awful teachers? A lot. Teaching well requires some level of intellect and knowledge, but also a great deal more. Hiring smart people is a good goal, but the solution will never be that simple.

Gaining tenure should be meaningful
Most college professors serve for six years and undergo some sort of evaluation looking at their research, their teaching, and their service before earning tenure (the precise standards and who does the reviewing varies widely, but review processes are usually fairly rigorous). Too many K-12 schools award tenure to teachers after three years based on little to no evidence that somebody should teach for the rest of their life. Unions take a lot of flack for protecting tenured teachers that have upset a school's administration, but a school's administration should also be more careful about choosing who earns tenure -- our schools will be left with better teachers to protect.

All problems should not be blamed on teachers
When a college student fails, they usually take most of the blame: they didn't study enough, spent too much time partying, etc. When a K-12 student fails, the teacher takes the brunt of the blame: they should've taught more engaging lessons, called home, etc. The truth in both cases lies somewhere in between. Which means that students in K-12 schools should accept some of the responsibility when things don't go well.

What Higher Ed Should Learn from K-12

Good teaching requires good pedagogy
I had a professor who compared his experiences teaching K-12 and teaching college. When he was teaching K-12, he said, he had to plan out a million things. But when teaching college "I just profess" he said -- "it's completely different." I liked the guy, but I have to disagree with his strategy. Good teaching requires good pedagogy, regardless of what age one is teaching. College professors should still model what they expect their students to do; they should still have clear expectations; they should still plan out the flow of a class, write rubrics, and a million of the other things that K-12 teachers see as second nature.

Teachers value autonomy
College professors can't do whatever they want whenever they want, but they certainly have more leeway than people in most other jobs. At the same time, many K-12 reforms nowadays take autonomy away from teachers. This isn't always necessarily a bad thing, but professors should know better than to expect K-12 teachers to willingly embrace this. Few things in ed policy irk me more than when a college professor attempts to implement a reform and, then, blames teachers when they won't do things exactly as they were told. We have a word to describe those who do this: hypocrite. Imagine that a new Dean came strolling into a college and told all professors that they must run every class a certain way (or, let's say, turn in a written lesson plan a week in advance of every class); an uprising would ensue. And it's only natural that K-12 teachers resent any attempt to manage their work from above as well.

All problems should not be blamed on students
A K-12 student doesn't fail simply because they're a bad person -- and the same applies to college students.

A quality education requires a team effort
Colleges and Universities are divided and sub-divided in a million different ways, and each unit plays a particular role. If everybody does their part, everything should work just fine. Except that there's always a weak link -- not to mention needs for which the institution neglected to plan. For example, professors can't just say that it's not their job to teach writing and hand out bad grades -- somebody, somewhere, has to teach students how to write or else the institution fails. Staff members in the most successful K-12 schools help out with all sorts of things above and beyond their technical call of duty -- and the same is true of colleges and universities.


K-12 and higher ed are, of course, different. Students have more choice over which college (if any) they attend. Students are obviously much older in college. Teachers and professors have different expectations placed on them. But being a good professor and being a good teacher are more similar than most care to admit. In the end, it's all about doing whatever it takes to ensure that students learn. And that's something we should keep in mind.

Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty urban schools -- including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.

Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Who Needs Research Funding?

Did anybody else notice that almost all of the targeted cuts in the stimulus package involve research funding?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tales from the Trenches: The Early Bird Can Stay at Home

by Bronx Teacherlady

"Attention teachers: As of tomorrow, the school will not be open until 8am. Repeat: You will not be allowed entry before 8am."

Hmm. School starts at 8:30. I used to get here at 7:15, but not anymore, I guess. I wonder why? I hear in some places, like the suburbs, teachers have keys to the school. Not so much here in the city, where I have to ring the bell to be let in every morning, and I have to leave by 5pm because no one is allowed in here after the office staff leaves. *Sigh*

Two weeks later, the teachers' lounge rumor mill provides this explanation: Principal D is always late to school. She usually blusters in just as the students start to arrive upstairs from breakfast. She also has to leave the school often to go off-site for meetings, so she really likes to park right in front of the school door. This way she can get in as quickly as possible and leave quickly too (there is no school parking lot; on-street parking is limited just like anywhere else in the city). However, Senora C and Mrs L always get to school long before Principal D, and they also like to have the best parking spot, so they usually park there long before she arrives. Principal D is lacking a bit in diplomacy, so she goes to Sra C and Mrs L and tells them, "I need that spot. You cannot park there." Sra C and Mrs L have hated Principal D since she started here 8 years ago, replacing the beloved principal they'd worked with for 20 years prior. They disregard her instructions and continue to arrive early and park in her spot. Enraged, Principal D has the custodial staff paint the curb yellow in front of the door, reserving the spot for herself. Sra C and Mrs L call the city, determine that Principal D does not have the authority to do this (and the school must now, in fact, pay a fine to have the city re-paint the curb). They send her a memo to this effect and continue to park in "her" spot. The next day, the announcement reaches the rest of the staff: "the school will no longer be open before 8am." This way, it seems, Principal D can get there before anyone else, and get the spot she wants. And that is, clearly, what matters most.

Morals of the story:
1.) Kids aren't necessarily the most immature people in the building
2.) Teachers can't always work as hard as they want

Bronx Teacherlady worked at a South Bronx elementary school and a charter school in another city before throwing her hands up and retreating to academia to try to fix the problem from another angle.

Tales from the Trenches is a regular feature on the blog Thoughts on Education Policy that aims to illuminate what it's like to work in a school. All current and former staff members are encouraged to submit their own war stories. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]; submitters must identify themselves, but may remain anonymous or use a pseudonym upon publication.