Monday, December 21, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Honest Discussion of Merit Pay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Does Tiger Woods Teach Us About Schooling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Closing Charters: Help Many, Hurt Some?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academics Before Athletics

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tuition Tax Turmoil

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

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

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

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

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