Friday, March 20, 2009

More on Colleges and Standardized Tests

Earlier this week I said I found it interesting that colleges were moving away from standardized tests while K-12 school rush to test more. Some apparently are in doubt about the first part of my statement. While none of the top 20 universities have declared the SAT/ACT optional on their campus, a growing number of reputable schools have. Here's a list of 815 colleges who don't require SAT/ACT for all students. I have no idea if this trend has reached its zenith or if this list will continue to grow, but it seems clear to me that the trend in college admissions has definitively shifted toward placing less emphasis on standardized test scores.

CNN wrote about the movement away from SAT/ACT scores a year ago, USA Today wrote about it three years ago, and the NY Times featured an article on the topic six years ago. And I won't get into all the coverage of other steps taken to deemphasize standardized test scores.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with colleges that have moved in this direction, I think it's notable that they have done this in the midst of perhaps the largest expansion of standardized testing in K-12 schools in our nation's history.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Colleges and Standardized Tests

A headline in today's local paper pointed out that another high-ranking college has chosen to eliminate the SAT and ACT as a requirement. Does anybody else find it odd that colleges are placing less emphasis on standardized test results while K-12 schools rush to test more?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday Commentary: What Can Obama Really Do?

Following his first major address on education, the education world has been abuzz with reaction to and advice for the President. Every major newspaper ran editorials, and every blogger threw in their two cents. But two things about the dialogue over the past week bother me:

1.) Too many people base their judgment on the degree to which their pet reform was mentioned in the speech rather than the degree to which new policies might affect our schools

2.) Too few stop to ask what, exactly, the federal government can do that will actually impact our schools

Call me cynical, but I remain skeptical that the president or the Secretary of Education can enact any policy that will turn around our worst school systems. The problem with school reform is that it never works unless it affects the details of daily school life. Everybody thinks they know how school should be taught but very few can say they have actually turned their vision into reality.

The federal government is so far removed from your typical classroom that it is incredibly difficult for decisions at that level to effect significant and sustained change. Schools are largely local endeavors in America, and it becomes increasingly difficult to effect change the further removed one is from daily life in the classroom. It is difficult enough for teachers to impact students' lives, but it is many times more difficult for a principal, a superintendent, a mayor, or a governor, yet alone the President or the Secretary of Education.

In order for the federal government to effect change it either needs to change the way that schools are governed -- so that teachers report directly to the president -- or, more realistically, it needs to affect the way that governors, mayors, school boards, principals, teachers, and students behave. In other words, reforming schools from the oval office is a bit like playing telephone -- the odds are that the person at the end of the chain is not going to hear the message the way you meant it to be heard.

That said, I will be the last one to argue that we should give up. But before we lay out sweeping plans, we need to be aware of how they will end up affecting individual schools, classrooms, teachers, and students. And herein lies the largest dilemma for Obama and Duncan. If they lay out broad and sweeping reform, only little bits will trickle down to the classroom. But if they lay out detailed and incremental reform, they will hardly inspire the nation. In short, they are between a rock and a hard place. I don't envy their position.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sharpton and Klein's Imperfect Op-Ed

The Huffington Post has a piece today by Al Sharpton and Joel Klein entitled "Teacher Rx: The Perfect Storm for Reform." They make a lot of good points, but they also come up short on a number. Here are some of the parts where they slip up:

"the teaching profession does far too little to recruit promising teachers to high-poverty schools or retain them by providing merit pay"

I'm not sure "the teaching profession" really controls either of these things. I don't see "the medical profession" running recruiting campaigns or paying certain doctors more. I guess the closest thing to an action taken by the teacher profession would be an action taken by unions, but they don't exist to recruit or pay people. I think what they meant to say was that our education system does far too little.

"From the moment a prospective teacher enters a teachers college to the day of his or her retirement party, a teacher's ability to elevate student learning is poorly assessed (if at all), and virtually never linked to consequences--either positive, as in the case of awarding merit pay, or negative, like being dismissed for poor performance."

This is part of their discussion of merit pay, but is really only tangentially related. Teachers can both be rewarded and punished without the aid of tests or merit pay. If too few teachers are dismissed it's not just because the system doesn't punish bad teachers, it's also because principals aren't making a concerted effort to fire bad teachers.

But in the 21st century, teachers are long overdue to join the ranks of other white-collar professionals, whose remuneration is based chiefly on job performance. "It is astonishing to me that you could have a system that doesn't allow you to pay more for strong performance, or for teaching in a particular school," says Bill Gates. "That is almost like saying 'Teacher performance doesn't matter'--and that's basically saying 'Students don't matter'."

It's not that simple. Teacher performance can matter without being linked to pay. Students can matter without earning caretakers money. Parents aren't paid more if they take better care of their child, but an awful lot of them find the will to care anyway.

"credentials and certification are poor indicators of who will become an effective teacher"

As are test scores and college transcripts. But they might be preventing worse teachers from entering the classroom.

"In fact, promising alternative programs for recruiting and certifying teachers, like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows program, are every bit if not more effective than the traditional training provided at teachers colleges."

No, their teachers obtain about the same results on standardized tests. That may or may not indicate that they're good at training teachers. It might mean that they're better at recruiting/hiring people with more natural talent at teaching. It might mean that people in those programs simply work harder because they're more willing to burn out and move on. That fact in and of itself tells us very little about how well TFA or NYCTF train teachers.

"When disadvantaged students have a good teacher a number of years in a row, it can eliminate, or at least make a huge dent, in the achievement gap. One study of 9,400 math classrooms in Los Angeles in grades three through five projects that if low-income minority students could be assured of having teachers who fell in the top 25 percent of effective teachers four years in a row (in lieu of a sub-par instructor from the bottom quartile of teachers), students could close the achievement gap altogether"

Ugh. Really? People still haven't gotten the memo? This projection was based on pure, and inaccurate, speculation that has since been disproved. Stop citing this. There's plenty of evidence that teachers are important -- we don't need to resort to citing faulty evidence. Remember: overstating your case doesn't make it stronger. Read Aaron Pallas for more on this.

To move toward a true performance-based compensation system for teachers, school districts would need to be able to track the effect that individual teachers have on student performance from year-to-year over a period of years . . . Unfortunately, only a handful of states and districts have developed data bases that would enable school officials to track the performance of individual teachers and students over a multi-year period.

We believe that the Obama administration should require states seeking money from the new $5 billion "Race to the Top" innovation fund to not only develop but implement longitudinal value-added systems for assessing teacher performance. For all its imperfections and methodological challenges, value added analysis is still a vast improvement on the existing system, which fails its elemental duty to judge whether teachers are advancing student learning.

Two thoughts: 1.) Value-Added systems are difficult and expensive to develop. Might it be better for the federal government to create one (especially if we end up with national standards) and allow states to either opt-in or create their own? 2.) If the current system "fails its elemental duty" then why are we pressing to use it to evaluate teachers and schools?

Other than those problems, it's a pretty good piece.

Famous Criminals and Bronx Middle Schools

GothamSchools points to a piece this morning about an ebay auction for Lee Harvey Oswald's old school transfer card. The most interesting part of the article is that the school social worker (an "emotionally starved, affectionless youngster") and a psychologist ("personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features and passive-aggressive tendencies.") both apparently diagnosed Oswald with serious problems before his mother moved him to New Orleans. Perhaps if they'd been taken seriously, JFK would still be alive.

But Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't the only famous criminal to attend a Bronx middle school. David Berkowitz, better known as the "Son of Sam" serial killer, attended the school where I formerly taught ("now we know why he was so messed up" remarked at least one cynical teacher when we learned of this). I wonder what the school social worker wrote about him.

Tests Aren't Omniscient

I like David Brooks, but sometimes he goes off the reservation when he writes about education. Today's column isn't too bad -- it's worth a read.

He makes a number of points, but I found his remarks surrounding measurement of teacher quality most notable -- two sections in particular:

Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

Developing bonds with students should be encouraged; treating students like cattle should not. But Brooks mostly discusses the use of standardized test scores and I'm unaware of any in use that measure this. If he's talking about making relationships with students a criteria in evaluating teachers, then I'm with him -- but if he thinks that this is what state tests are measuring then he needs to give this a little more thought.

Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has data showing that progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates years later — a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments.

The first paragraph represents a problem I have with a lot of proponents of merit pay and accountability -- it oversells what we can do with tests. Brooks says that tests can tell us these things. At this present moment, using the tests we currently use, they can do nothing of the sort. What they can do is inform us -- using the information we can make reasonable guesses, but teachers' results one year are only weakly to moderately correlated with their results the next year. In other words, if we base our evaluation of teachers on one year of test data then we're going to be wrong an awful lot of the time (not to mention the approximately 2/3 of teachers who don't teach a subject that's tested by a state test). I think there are a lot of solid arguments for better and more widespread use of data, particularly in evaluating teachers and schools, but paragraphs such as the one above aren't really truthful and don't do anybody any favors. Remember: overstating your case doesn't make it stronger.

As for the second paragraph, I hardly think it's a surprise that a child's growth in test scores over the course of six years of schooling is correlated with whether or not they graduate from school. All that means is that the tests aren't completely useless -- it's not any sort of demonstration of their omniscience.

By all means, let's find better ways to use the data we collect -- but let's start with a realistic understanding of what we can and cannot know from this usage.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Coverages, A Dirty Little Secret

According to USA Today, NYC is no longer taking applications for substitute teachers (hat tip: Gotham Schools). It's unclear exactly why this is, but the blurb on the increase in applications makes it sound like too many people have applied and that they no longer need more subs.

This means one of two things:

1.) Times have drastically changed since my teaching days, or
2.) Somebody is really stupid

Back when I was teaching, subs were a precious commodity at my school -- they were few and far between. One of the dirty little secrets that people outside of schools don't realize is that when subs are missing that "emergency coverages" become common (in elementary schools they often prefer to split classes up and assign a handful of students to other classes for the day).

Since we almost never had subs available, it meant that other teachers had to cover whenever one was absent. When you walked in the door in the morning there was a white slip declaring that there was an emergency and you were needed to cover another class. I usually had 2-3 per week. I used to dread the sight of that little white slip folded over my time card -- the worst was when I had already breathed a sigh of relief only to have a student sent to my room with a coverage slip during homeroom (if not later).

Coverages were one of the worst parts of an awful job. When I first found out that we had to cover other classes during our free periods, it was from a memo distributed to teachers. According to at least one administrator in the building, teachers were supposed to be prepared to teach any other class at any other time in case of a coverage. Did they really expect me to come up with a lesson for Spanish or 8th grade math or choir at the drop of a hat? I asked a veteran teacher if this was how things actually worked. "If nobody gets hurt, you've had a successful coverage" is what I was told. Indeed, I don't think that statement was overly hyperbolic.

In theory, teachers from the same school would better control students than would subs -- but that assumes that students know (and care) who the teacher is. Given the size of the school, most classes I covered didn't know me other than possibly seeing me around the hall. They could've cared less (and wouldn't have known the difference anyway) whether I was the sixth grade teacher from the 3rd floor or some poor sap off the street.

One of the best coverages I ever had was when I covered a chorus class. At that point in the year two chorus teachers had already quit, so the kids were wondering when a new one would come (nobody ever did). I walked into the classroom and the students immediately asked if I was the new chorus teacher. There was only one right answer -- yes, I was, and we needed to get to work right away. I passed out the stack of textbooks that were sitting on the shelves and tried to remember what I'd learned in middle school band. It bought me a solid half hour of relative cooperativeness.

But back to point #2. If there still aren't enough subs to go around, but they've stopped taking applications, then somebody is an idiot. Not only do coverages make teachers' lives hell (which, given the retention problem in NYC isn't the best policy) but they're cost inefficient. When NYC teachers are asked to cover another class, they're paid at the per diem rate of around $40/hour. I don't know exactly what subs make, but I guarantee it's less than that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fudging Grades

This principal in Brooklyn (hat tip: Gotham Schools) got the boot the other day for changing grades on student report cards so that fewer students would fail. I know for a fact that she's not the only NYC school administrator to do this, and I wonder how widespread this is.

The Origins of Summer Vacation: Another Explanation

Kevin Carey posted on an interesting alternate explanation for the summer vacation yesterday. He disputes that the summer vacation was for agriculture and, instead, says it had a lot to do with wealthier city-dwellers wanting to take time off to travel and rest their children's minds. I definitely believe the first part and, running short on time, I'm willing to take his word on the second part without reading the full report. But you should know that there's another equally reasonable explanation floating around out there.

In 2005 William Fischel published an article entitled Will I see you in September?: An Economic Explanation of the Summer Vacation that also shoots down the notion that summer vacation had anything to do with agriculture. When you think about it, that explanation makes no sense -- vacations would be during planting and harvest, not during the summer, if that were true.

Rather than writing a thorough summary of the article, I'm going to copy and paste his abstract and then some notes I passed out when I presented on this last year -- I think they speak for themselves.

The September-to-June school year is not an agricultural holdover. It is a coordinating device to facilitate geographic mobility. The adoption of age-graded schools, which work best if all students start together, and the growth of worker mobility, which requires extra time and amenable weather to relocate households, produced the standard calendar. A "natural experiment" supporting this explanation is the equator. Summer vacation is a norm both north and south of it. However, American and European families on temporary assignment in the Southern Hemisphere use schools that maintain a Northern Hemisphere school year in order to facilitate relocation to their home countries.

My Notes:

The traditional explanation is that September-June school year developed because children needed to work on the farm during the summer. Fischel attempts to de-bunk this “myth” due to the fact that:
  1. Agricultural help was not needed the most during the summer but, rather, during planting and harvesting. Besides this, planting and harvesting were at different times in different regions.
  2. In the mid 1800’s the school year usually ran from about May-August and November-March

Fischel claims the real reasons that that September-June school year developed are:
  1. With the beginning of graded schools (starting around 1840 in cities and about 1880 in rural areas) meant that teachers and students needed a specific beginning and end of the school year
  2. Schools all began taking the summer off so that people would have time to move. During the time that September-June started becoming the norm 1880-1920) there was a lot of mobility since the economy was shifting from agrarian to industrial. It is better to both move and go on vacation during these summer months.

Fischel buys these arguments because:

  1. Schools in other countries run on similar calendars and were obviously not influenced by the same central management. Schools in the southern hemisphere are on break during their summer.
  2. Foreign families that set up schools in the southern hemisphere run the same school year as their native country rather than adapting to the local norms

I'm willing to buy a combination of Fischel's and Ed Sector's explanations -- in other words, that summer break started both so families could move and so that they could vacation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let Sleeping Bobs Lie

From the pantheon of terrible ideas comes this plan from Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star:

A Division I athlete, man or woman, revenue-producing sport or non-revenue-producing sport, gets the option: a scholarship or a paycheck with no academic strings attached.

Yes, he's serious -- since a few scholarship athletes don't take school seriously he thinks they should just be paid a salary and refrain from attending classes. I could do a point-by-point rebuttal of his plan, but I don't see why I should. It's as if somebody proposed that we outlaw driving in order to prevent car accidents and then expects a serious response.

NCAA president Myles Brand made a feeble attempt at a response (which was then mocked by Kevin Carey), but he should have just let Kravitz be.

Calvin's Bad Grades

Just saw this comic and couldn't resist posting it. I've argued before that grades aren't nearly as meaningful as we think they are, but that argument can be made from two perspectives. That Einstein got terrible grades and was a huge success means that grades aren't perfectly predictive of success, but it can also be used to excuse all sorts of behaviors -- as Calvin does in this strip.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Why I'm a Better Swim Coach than Teacher

I largely consider the 2+ years I spent in the classroom to be a failure -- partially because my expectations were unrealistically high, but mostly because I came close to accomplishing what I felt I should. On the other hand, I consider myself an excellent swim coach. My expectations are still unrealistically high, but I come awfully close to reaching them.

I say this not to brag, but to draw a contrast. Teaching sixth grade and coaching swimming are not altogether different, but my abilities seem to be. I also find it a bit perplexing. Why am I so much better at teaching kids how to swim than how to read? Here is my explanation:

When I was in elementary school and junior high I was a teacher's dream. I was polite, quiet, and kicked butt on every standardized test, and in every math competition and spelling bee I entered. I was always getting nominated for student of the month, was put in the gifted program, and was generally a model student. Not that I was perfect -- I did have to stay after school once in junior high when my computer teacher caught me chewing gum. I had to work hard to do so well, but the biggest challenge was really motivating myself to do the work.

When I started swimming I swam in the exhibition heats because I was too slow to be in the actual events. I am honestly not sure why I stuck with it for the next two decades, but I did -- and the improvement was dramatic (though painfully slow). The transition from flopping around in the water as eight year old to winning races in college (D-III, I'm not the next Michael Phelps) was long and arduous. I worked for every single second of time I cut. I was accustomed excelling at virtually everything, but swimming forced me to think -- it forced me to push myself further than I knew I could. And, in the end, I grew to love swimming -- it has a special place in my heart.

And I think my different experiences teaching others has a lot to do with my different experiences while learning. I have no idea what it feels like to read at a first grade level in middle school, and I have no idea what it feels like to act out in class or receive constant punishment from the teacher. I do, on the other hand, know how it feels to be one of the slowest swimmers on the team. And I also know how it feels to be one of the fastest swimmers on the team -- and how to make the transition. In other words, I can identify with the problems swimmers encounter and figure out how to fix them, but I found it tough to do either at a failing urban middle school.

I often hear that superstar athletes do not make the best coaches -- the average ones who had to scratch and claw for everything they got do. Pro sports are littered with former star athletes who fizzled in coaching (I grew up idolizing Alan Trammell and Isiah Thomas -- both of whom have failed rather spectacularly in the past few years). And I wonder if the same is not true of teaching to some extent.

Teachers are often derided as stupid -- the highest achieving undergrads usually choose a different career. But study after study finds little to no relationship between intelligence and teaching results. We often forget that only a little over a quarter of American adults have a four year degree -- so even the lowest-performing undergrads are actually quite a bit above average. This is not to say that intelligence does not matter, just that it might not matter as much as many think.

Maybe simply finding the best and the brightest is the wrong course. Maybe the reason we find it seems so difficult to predict who will be a good teacher is because so many intangibles come into play. Maybe having overcome some struggle makes one a better teacher than being valedictorian. Maybe being able to relate to students has more to do with success than do the results of a vocabulary test. Maybe passion for the material means more than graduating from an Ivy League school. Maybe knowing how people learn the material matters more than how well one knows the material.

Based on a sample size of one, hiring a really good test taker does little to boost the achievement of a troubled school, but hiring an average swimmer can do quite a bit to boost performance of a swim team.

I am far from the first to argue that intelligence may not be everything, nor will I be the last -- but despite a lack of evidence to support the position, conventional wisdom seems to hold that recruiting more smart people into teaching is the quickest way to solve our problems.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Child See, Child Do

Anybody want to bet that the type of behavior we see in schools doesn't start at home?

Here's a lovely story about a mother who showed up at her kids' elementary school today and threatened to have her older daughter beat up another student. While being escorted from school grounds, she saw the student she was angry with and "struck them in the face."

We can't possibly believe that the children involved in this incident won't be colored by it. If this is what they see parents doing, why would they want to do any differently? This is precisely why it's so difficult to establish order in too many schools.

Let be be clear: I am not saying that it's impossible or that we shouldn't try, but I am saying that these discipline problems are starting at home -- meaning that schools don't start with a blank slate in September.

NCAA + Cheating Scandal = Wrist Slap

The NCAA just handed down sanctions (full report here) for the massive cheating scandal at Florida State -- involving 61 student-athletes and multiple adults. When you boil it down, the penalties amount to a slap on the wrist:

-"Public reprimand and censure"

-The school is placed on probation (apparently not of the double-secret variety) for four years

-The teams involved lose scholarships -- but only a very small number (1-2 in football, fewer in other sports)

-The teams must vacate all victories in 2006-07

-The next time they do something, the NCAA is going to be really angry

As far as I can tell, the only major loser in all of this is Bobby Bowden -- before the sanctions he was one win behind Joe Paterno for most all-time wins in college football. Since FSU won 7 games in 2006-07, he's now 8 victories behind.

It's hard for to take the NCAA seriously when this is their idea of punishing a school for major infractions. Is this really a deterrent for those at other schools who are sacrificing academic integrity for on-field glory?

Another random note: If you read through the full report, you'll notice the NCAA scholarship limits for different sports. Women's sports are consistently allowed to award more scholarships than men's sports -- Men's swim teams, for example, can award up to 9.9 while women's teams can award up to 14. My knowledge of the topic is very limited, so don't take my word for it, but I'm under the impression that this has something to do with the fact that football teams award so many scholarships (max of 85) to men, meaning that schools must make up for it in some way to comply with Title IX. If I'm wrong about this, please correct me. If you more about this, please illuminate me.

Update: I remain unclear whether Bowden will lose 7 wins from 2006-07, or 7 wins each from 2006 and 2007.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why SCORE Shoots and Misses

The other day I discussed the first meeting of a new statewide initiative here -- SCORE (State Collaborative On Reforming Education). The group is led by former Senator Bill Frist, and virtually every major leader in the state has bought in. The group is decidedly bi-partisan and contains representatives from politics, schools, businesses, and NGOs. I think the motivation for and aim of the group is laudable -- they want to bring everybody to the table and figure out a way to improve schools in Tennessee.

They give a convincing speech when they explain why their group is necessary. They emphasize that while many groups are doing good things around the state, that it's difficult to know what everybody is doing and who can help with various projects -- in other words, the system is fragmented and haphazard. They repeatedly emphasize that there's no silver bullet, so it's important that they bring everybody to the table for an in-depth discussion of what works and where we should go from here.

While I fully support the group, I have two major problems with the implementation of their plan. My first problem, and the one I'll discuss today, is that the whole program is fatally flawed unless they reverse course on their long-term plans. As of right now, they're planning on conducting the SCORE campaign for about one year. At that point in time, discussions will have been started, policies formulated, people motivated, and all problems fixed . . . or not.

The notion that they can permanently place the system on the right track in a year or less is somewhere between naive and ignorant. They justify their existence by discussing the lack of cohesion currently present -- but what do they expect to happen after they disappear? If we need a unifying presence now, there's no reason to believe we won't need it in the future. As currently formulated, the group is little more than a political campaign designed to excite everybody about education in the short-run. The current design fits perfectly into the reform and fail cycle that plagues education -- keep proposing new reforms every year or two and watch as they fail when everybody declines to buy into this reform when they another is coming soon.

At the end of the year, the group aims to have a number of reports regarding solutions and policies in multiple different areas -- which will combine to form some sort of manifesto for schools in Tennessee. It's entirely possible that a year from now the future of Tennessee schools will be much brighter than it is today, but it's more than likely that any agreed-upon reforms will be well off-track five or ten years from now without the existence of the group that drafted them. The hardest part of reform isn't deciding what reforms to implement, it's actually implementing them -- and this group won't be around long enough to oversee that process.

I fully support almost everything this group plans to do: bringing everybody to the table, having frank discussions, bringing in outside experts, and drafting plans and reports together are all significant steps in the right direction. But until the group has a plan that extends beyond a year, they're destined to fail.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Analyzing Pittsburgh's Newer Grading Policy

In my last post I discussed the latest changes to grading in Pittsburgh. Back in the fall they decided to create a minimum grade of 50 in order to decrease the number of students who are failing. Now they want to implement a system where students are graded 0-5 on each assignment.

It took me a little bit of thinking and tinkering, but I finally realized that the newly proposed system is actually even more lenient than the current system. I'll demonstrate why that is shortly. Below is a conversion table of six different grading systems, including the old, current, and new Pittsburgh grading systems. Here's a column by column explanation of each system:

1.) The old system -- grades range from 0-100
2.) The current system -- grades range from 50-100
3.) The new system -- grades range from 0-5
4.) Traditional letter grades
5.) GPA -- how letter grades are converted when computing GPA
6.) Standards-based grading -- 1 represents below basic, 2 represents basic skills, 3 represents proficiency, 4 represents exceeding standards (3 means a student is on grade level)

There are multiple ways to convert column 1 to columns 4-6. For example, some think 98 is an A+, some think it's an A. But what I have in the table should be really close to how it's usually done (the table is either how teachers I had normally graded or how I graded when I taught). Click on the table to see it in a readable quality.

So, what does this mean? How will this affect students? Let's take a look at four sample students to find out. Below are four very different made-up students. I've put the 100 point equivalent of the grade they'd receive under the new system at the top of each table.

Student A is all over the map. He does a little of everything and gets a wide range of grades. Under the old system he would've received a 55 and failed. Under the current system he'd squeak by with a 65. Under the new system he'd receive a D+ with the equivalent of a 68. If we graded by letter, GPA, or standards system he'd likely receive a D. Why is this? If we take the averages of every single grade possible under each system -- the equivalent of every grade from 0-100 -- the new system has the highest average grade among the three used in Pittsburgh. Meaning that if a student completed 101 assignments over the course of a semester and received every grade possible, they'd receive a 50 under the old system, a 63 under the current system, and a 65 under the proposed system.

Student B is a good student. He gets A's or B's on every assignment. Regardless of which of the gradings systems is used he receives an A-

Student C is a struggling student. He makes sure he turns in something every time, but sometimes it's decent and sometimes he just writes down whatever pops into his head and turns it in. As a result, he has a wide range of grades between 35 and 80. He would fail under both the old system and the current system, but would easily pass under the new system.

Student D is a C student when he feels like it, but doesn't bother doing his work half the time. Under the old system, he wouldn't have been close to passing. But under both the current and new systems he would just eke by.

Under the new system, a 0 is equivalent to a 50 right now. In other words, although the new system seems to be designed so that students who put forth no effort get a much-deserved 0 in the grade book, the consequences of a 0 aren't really that dire. An A is still an A, a B is still a B, a C is still a C, a D is still a D. The only difference between the current and new systems is for grades between 1 and 59. Students who earn at least a D on every assignment will not be affected at all. Students who receive a D or above on some assignments and a 0 on every other assignment will not be affected at all. But students who complete at least a portion of an assignment, but receive an E will do better under the newer system than the current system -- and much better than under the old system.

Also, notice that the current and new systems are much closer to other alternative systems. Maybe it would be easier for everybody if students were simply graded A-E on each assignment and then we averaged those at the end of the term. It's less precise, but it's the simplest and most familiar system.

In short: passing was most difficult under the old system, is much easier under the current system, and will be easier still under the new system -- there's no possible combination of grades that will yield a lower grade under the new system than under the current system.

Pittsburgh's Newer Grading Policy

Give the people running the Pittsburgh school district credit . . . at least they're thinking up new ideas. A month into the school year they sent out a memo informing teachers that they were not to give grades below 50 regardless of whether a student completed an assignment or got 10% of the questions right. I was not happy when I read the news (nor was I any happier the next day when I thought it over), and even wrote a memo of my own.

Why? A number of reasons -- the largest among them being that making that change mid-year suddenly tells students that not doing work isn't that big of an issue. And in a district where student discipline and lack of effort are arguably the biggest issue in schools, that's not the right message to be sending. As a result of the policy change, students had little problem telling teachers that they didn't feel like doing the assigned work.

So now they're trying again. I'd heard that change was coming, and an article in today's Post-Gazette details the new system they've dreamt up, which they want pilot in two schools before the end of the year. Here's how the P-G describes the new system: "Under the new scale, work scored from 4 to 5 will be an A, 3 to 3.99 a B, 2 to 2.99 a C, 1 to 1.99 a D, and zero to .99 an E."

I have two reactions:

1.) Good for them for making the change. The article does a good job of describing how upset people were and why, including this quote:

"Some students have been refusing to complete assignments, telling teachers they'd take the 50 percent instead. Bill Hileman, a Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers staff representative, said 'the No. 1 problem with the 50 percent minimum was the negative impact on student behavior.'"

Changing it is clearly the right decision. Better yet, according to article teachers are now allowed to award zeroes when students make no attempt at completing an assignment.

2.) What the heck is this new system? Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented, but I'm not sure this is one of those times -- or at least not the right way. I see why they're doing it -- they want fewer kids to fail, and this system will do that. They're apparently quite convinced that the old system is capricious for kids who fail an assignment -- 60 out of 101 possible grades are failing which, apparently, means that the system is weighted toward failure. Here's the problem: every grading system has more than its fair share of flaws, this new one included. The end result is that they've made it more difficult for students to fail, but confused everybody more.

I'm going to follow this post up with an analysis comparing the various grading systems.

Is it Easier to Close a Charter School?

Closing a traditional public school is rarely an easy task. Cities with declining populations have had one heck of a time closing neighborhood schools -- I can't count how many times a planned school closing has spawned a community uprising. And when school board members are elected by district it's even tougher -- what're the odds of getting re-elected if you let a school in your district be shut down despite raucous opposition from a group of concerned citizens?

While traditional public schools are often built to remain a permanent (at least for the foreseeable future) fixture of the community, charter schools are necessarily designed to be opened and closed with much greater frequency. The market theory underlying charter schools dictates that only the strong shall survive. So, in order for charters to live up to the promise of this theory they must be shuttered with greater frequency than other schools.

The expectation that charter schools will be closed unless they meet certain expectations should make them easier to close, but I'm not sure that it does. On the one hand, there's not usually a neighborhood or large alumni base rallying to save a charter school on its way out. On the other hand, charters to attract the students of more socially active parents. Take this article (hat tip: Alexander Russo) in yesterday's Fresno Bee, for example. The local KIPP school there is on the verge of closing, and parents are up in arms.

Granted, the school's not being shuttered for low performance -- it's the second highest-performing middle school in the district based on the current grading system -- but rather a set of complex circumstances. It seems that the school has defaulted on a construction loan that they thought would be repaid by a state grant. Meanwhile, the state won't give them the grant until the city signs off on it. And the city won't sign off on it until the school fixes a number of problems that were noted in a recent report -- including charges of corporal punishment by the principal (who has resigned), the hiring of uncredentialed teachers and the lack of fingerprinting before hiring staff.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether closing a charter is easier, on average, than closing a traditional public school. I have to believe that more people arise when a neighborhood school is threatened, but which would you fight harder: the closing of your neighborhood school or the closing of a school you had chosen yourself and for which you had to submit yourself to three hours of interviews, woken up at dawn every day to drive your child to school, and signed a contract that you would read with your child every night?

Visit From the Governors

The new Tennessee SCORE (State Collaborative On Reforming Education) initiative hosted their first town hall meeting today featuring former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Michael Easley of North Carolina. Bill Frist led off the meeting by showing a graph demonstrating that although those two states used to have NAEP scores similar to Tennessee's, they now rank far above us. The next two hours were spent listening to the governors explain why their states were such runaway successes -- both in prepared remarks and in response to audience questions.

I will say that both were remarkably well behaved for politicians -- they actually answered questions, for example. And both were at least superficially self-deprecating (Bush noted that "I screwed up pretty regularly" while Easley claimed to have stolen all of his ideas from Florida and from Bush's brother in Texas). Outside of one leading question about charter schools, the audience was well behaved as well. It has to have been the most civil meeting led by three politicians in a long time. Over the course of two and a half hours we heard the two men agree on almost everything -- higher expectations are absolutely crucial, accountability is necessary, and people should be rewarded for their work seemed to be the central themes. But there were subtle differences between the two:

-While Bush maintained that "what gets measured gets done," Easley noted that "you don't fatten a hog by weighing it"

-While Bush emphasized the effects of competition -- "many of the benefits occurred because of the threat of a kid moving to another school" -- Easley emphasized the importance of pre-K and limiting class sizes to 18 in K-3

-When asked where reformers can meet teachers on reforms, Bush responded "Money . . . money talks . . ." but Easley followed up by responding that bonuses were important but that respect was more important and that "they're not in it for the money"

-Bush listed his four cornerstones as "high standards, measurement and reporting, rewards and consequences, and parental choice" Easley agreed wholeheartedly, but added that while accountability is great only if fund everything down below

-Bush spoke very frankly about his struggles to work with teacher unions, Easley seemed to have had fewer problems and went out of his way to talk about the importance of teacher working condition surveys that were developed while he was in office, saying "if you put in place a reform and you don't thave the teachers bought in, it won't work"

Despite the differences listed above, I will re-emphasize that they seemed to agree on virtually everything throughout the course of the meeting. I'll definitely be writing more about SCORE, and possibly more about this meeting, later. For now I'll leave you with the most interesting random thought of each governor.

*Bush said that there was no excuse for running schools the way we do in the 21st century -- more specifically that we should eliminate social promotion. He said that with the technology we have that we should be able to make a "school of one" for each child and that if we were to start over right now, "we wouldn't organize schools as we do." I would've liked to have heard more about exactly what he meant by this.

*Easley compared high schools to Wal-Mart by saying that if a third of the shoppers that went into Wal-Mart without buying anything (a third or so of high schoolers leave without graduating) that they would change what they're offering. He followed that up by saying that "you cannot break the high schools -- the're already broken" and arguing that we shouldn't be scared to make big changes in high schools b/c it would be hard to make them worse.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Of What Utility is Generalizing?

When judging research papers, one major criteria is generalizability -- the degree to which we can generalize the findings to other schools. Every now and then this strikes me as odd; throughout our lives we are told not to make generalizations, but researchers strive to make the largest generalizations possible.

When taken to the extreme, we see why this may be important -- a thousand separate research studies on each individual school, each emphasizing its uniqueness, would hardly advance our understanding of schools. But I fear we often take it too far. The size of one's sample and the degree to which findings can be generalized often seem more important than the quality of the research when determining what papers are published or publicized. And I question of what utility such generalizations are in the first place.

As one small example, let us examine the issue of teacher attrition. We can ask the following three basic questions:

1.) How many teachers quit each year?
3.) Why are they leaving?
3.) How is this affecting schools?

Were one to answer these questions based on a nationally representative sample of teachers and schools, we would assume that we could generalize to all schools in the country. But it simply would not be true. Teacher attrition varies widely across the country. Teachers leave at different rates, and for different reasons, across different regions, different grade levels, and different subjects just to name a few. In other words, we cannot possibly answer the three questions above for all schools at the same time.

Many argue that the idea that we have a "teacher shortage" is absurd -- across the country we have more teachers than positions. And we can cite anecdotal evidence in support of this notion -- numerous schools receive hundreds of applications for each job opening, for example. Depending on which study you read, teacher turnover averages about 11% per year -- not too different from many similar fields. Anybody making this argument stands on firm ground -- generally speaking, teacher retention is not the biggest problem in America's schools.

But we should all know to use caution when making generalizations. Teacher retention might not be the largest problems in most schools, but many differ quite dramatically from national averages. Take high-poverty urban schools -- teacher turnover averages around 22% per year. In New York City middle schools, close to 50% of teachers are in their first or second year at that particular school. And teachers in these schools leave for different reasons. In one study of teachers in Washington (state), those in high-poverty (>50% free/reduced price lunch) schools were more than five times as likely (53% to 10%) to report that discipline issues were a reason to leave their schools than those in low-poverty (below 20% free/reduced price lunch) schools. And we can imagine that teachers leaving at different rates and for different reasons would affect schools differently. Indeed, in the survey I referenced on Friday, 48% of teachers who reported teaching in urban schools answered that teacher retention is a serious problem in their school -- 19% of suburban teachers said the same.

In other words, generalizing about teacher retention is of limited utility. Saying "we have a teacher shortage" is just as incorrect as saying "there is no teacher shortage." The same can thing be said about trying to answer the three questions I posed earlier -- the answer to each question depends on what school one is examining. Any answer that does not begin with "it depends" is, to some degree, disingenuous. Why does this matter? Beyond nitpicking over the value and precision of particular studies, it has important ramifications for the education system as a whole. Once we answer the three questions above we would then follow up with two more:

1.) Is this number too high or too low?
2.) What (if anything) should we do about this?

And this is where generalizing becomes dangerous. If we take nationwide statistics at face value, we would conclude that serious interventions are not needed. And quite a few schools would potentially suffer as a result. Every study, of course, does not try to generalize to the entire country. If there is one area where most academics excel it is nuance. Nonetheless, I fear we put generalizations on a pedestal and that this is hurting both our research and our policies. We need to generalize in order to examine broader trends and propose broader solutions, but at some point we go too far. At some point generalizing should no longer be a goal nor should it be rewarded.

Before reacting to or publishing any study on education, we need to ask ourselves to what extent we should generalize rather to what extent we can. If generalizing to more schools is of little utility -- if it results in nothing more than less accurate findings -- then it needs to be avoided.

General statements about schools make life easier, but are oftentimes inaccurate and lead us in the wrong direction. Different schools have different problems, and they need different solutions. As such, we should greet any blanket statistics -- and subsequent solutions -- with skepticism.