Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Blog Alert

Another former NYC Teaching Fellow -- one who's actually remained in teaching -- has started an interesting new education policy blog. The blog is "Notes of a Former Teaching Fellow" and the address is

Stephen sometimes sees the world a bit differently than I do, so I look forward to some good debates in the future -- after I finish this damn term paper. Until then I'll say only nice things about him.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-No Sunday Commentary this week, I'm immersed in the final term paper of my grad school career.

-Maybe I was right when I speculated about the possibility of an Obama presidency reducing the achievement gap. A new poll out from the NY Times has the percentage of Blacks reporting that race relations in the country are generally good consistently around 30% the last couple decades (29% in July '08) and this month it's at 59%. A couple other interesting cross-tabs: 0% of Blacks disapprove of the way that Obama is handling his job, and from last July to now the percentage of Blacks who report thinking that the country is on the right track has risen from 3% to 70%. Full story on the poll here.

-This piece on how we should restructure universities is now the most e-mailed article on the NY Times website. I think he correctly diagnoses a lot of the problems, but am I the only who thought he went off the deep end when proposing some of his solutions?

-It continues to amaze me that people blindly quote from the Urban Institute's TFA study, apparently oblivious to its limitations. This is why it's really important for researchers to avoid making claims not backed up by their findings -- irresponsible research begets irresponsible journalism.

-I tend to be more caustic during finals time, so I'm going to stop there before I say something really mean.

Friday, April 24, 2009

TFA Alone Cannot Save Us

Dan Brown wrote yesterday that more than 99.8% of all teachers are not members of Teach For America. Chad Alderman writes a "yes, but . . ." piece today over at The Quick and the Ed. Yes, Alderman makes some good points, but . . .

First, the good:

While TFA currently represents only .16% of the teaching workforce, they're bigger than that because:

1.) They're mostly new teachers
2.) They partner with TNTP
3.) They're growing

All good points -- the .16% figure is a tad bit misleading. Alderman concludes by saying that "we should be careful not to underestimate its growing impact.

At the same time, Alderman's arguments are probably even more misleading:

1.) Sure, a greater percentage of new teachers are TFA members, but it's still only 2%. And, more importantly, they leave at rates much higher than other teachers. So if 2% of new teachers are recruited through TFA each year, 30 years from now we'd still see less a teaching force comprised of less than 1% TFAers

2.) Yes, TFA has sort of branched out into TNTP programs. But they're not one and the same -- they recruit somewhat different applicants (TNTP recruits a lot more mid-career people and has a stated goal of turning their recruits into career teachers, TFA recruits mostly fresh-out-of-college youngsters and encourages people to go make a difference in the world after their two years). Furthermore, most of the studies that people like to reference finding that TFA teachers are about as good as, or a little better than, other teachers do not inclue estimates of TNTP teachers.

3.) Yes, TFA has grown rapidly. But in its current form, it can never make up more than a tiny fraction of the teaching force. They already receive applicants from 5-15% of the graduating class of many of the top 100 colleges and universities in the country. Unless they morph into an organization that recruits people from less selective colleges, which might mean they recruit less effective teachers, their potential for growth is extremely limited.

4.) Alderman cites a recent study with a "large" sample size that finds TFA teachers are better than all others. I've already pointed out a number of limitations and shortcomings in that paper, so I'm not going to repeat myself. But I will say that the sample included only 98 TFA teachers from North Carolina -- which is certainly not a large sample when trying to generalize to all teachers in the United States.

5.) It's odd that Alderman mostly argues that TFA might make a bigger impact down the road, and then warns us not to underestimate its current impact. I don't think many people underestimate the current impact of TFA (probably more people overestimate it), but underestimating the future impact of TFA is easy to do.

I still think that the largest impact of TFA is going to be the what its alums do -- from research to leading schools to running government. In other words, I think TFA will have a big impact on education -- but through ripple effects, not through the few thousand teachers it hires it each year. So I think Alderman is mistaken when he tries to argue that TFA can hire enough teachers to make a difference in our education system. It its current form, TFA alone cannot save our classrooms -- but 20 years from now I think we'll have seen a huge impact in many other ways.

Is Teaching in the Bronx a Danger to your Mental Health?

Apparently this guy finally cracked. After at least a couple decades of teaching (I'm basing this assumption on his salary), he got sick of the administration, barricaded himself in a classroom, and said he'd planted a bomb. They evacuated the entire building and police rushed in to talk with him. Eventually he admitted there was no bomb and he surrendered.

When I started reading the article -- "A Bronx educational building that houses three public middle schools with about 1,200 students was evacuated by the authorities around 8:30 a.m. Friday after a disgruntled teacher claimed to have planted a bomb in the library" -- I thought it was going to be my former school.

The fact that the school building has been split into three schools means that the school was not doing well, got shut down, and the Region replaced it with three new ones. Which means it was probably not a pleasant place to work. He'd also recently been charged with corporal punishment -- not something one resorts to in an orderly setting.

Now, it's entirely possible that this guy had serious issues outside of teaching in a challenging school -- but trying to teach in a place like that for 20+ years can't have helped.

Shhhh! It's Testing Time

Check out this study I just found from 1981. Seems like P.S. 98 in NYC was right next to some elevated train tracks. When they tested the kids on the side of the building next to the tracks and compared them to the kids on the quiet side of the building, they found that the kids on the noisy side did considerably worse (about .3 - 1 SD, which they interpret as about 3 months to a year behind in reading). They then installed rubber railroad ties and soundproofing materials on the noisy side of the building and re-tested the decibel level (it was significantly decreased). Subsequent reading tests found no differences in achievement between the two sides of the building.

It's not clear that the kids on the two sides were comparable in 1978 (the author says he was assured by the assistant principal that they were, but no other tests were done to check this), but it doesn't seem plausible that they would be so different one year and not the next. It's also not clear whether the kids did better because the noise disrupted them during the testing, because it disrupted their learning during the year, or both.

Either way, it seems pretty incredible that such small changes can have such huge effects. And I'm sure that schools all over the country are trying to find such miracle cures during this testing season -- some schools ask parents to bring food, my school didn't allow kids to use the bathroom so that nobody would be in the hallway making noise, and I'm sure a million other ideas have been tried as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We're #1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The new ed school rankings are out, and Vanderbilt is #1.

Sure the rankings are pretty much meaningless, but I'm sure there will be a party to celebrate this momentous occasion. And, as a grad student, I've been trained to rejoice over free food.

I can't help but notice that our meteoric rise in the rankings has corresponded with my time here. And since I'm well trained in statistics and research methods, I'm absolutely sure that this correlation implies causation.

Listen to "The Culture of Poverty"

Alexander Russo linked to this the other day, an NPR segment featuring Sudhir Venkatesh and William Julius Wilson on the "culture of poverty." If you're at all interested in the topic, it's worth a listen. If not, here are a few tidbits from the discussion anyway:

-Venkatesh gives a good summary of the conflicting theories regarding why people are poor -- it boils down to some believing that it's due to the culture of the people themselves vs. some who think that it's due to discrimination, lack of resources, and other outside factors.

-The first caller, Bob, is a teacher at a Title I school. He is genuinely frustrated, particularly with two things: that very few students will do homework (indeed, many people tell them that he's setting them up for failure by even assigning it), and that there's "almost physical resistance" to doing work in class. Both of these were definitely true when I taught as well -- it never ceased to shock me the degree to which students resisted doing what they were asked to do.

-Zach, who manages a public housing complex in Chicago, says the two largest trends he notices in his complex are: 1.) that it's almost all single mothers with multiple kids from multiple fathers, and 2.) that children see their mothers living off of welfare and aim no higher and the cylce repeats itself. He says that we should help these mothers for a few years but then tell them to move on.

-William Julius Wilson points out that there is now a five year limit on welfare, but agrees that the norms around them certainly influence children and their attitudes toward teen pregnancy, living in the projects, etc.

-Anita, a hispanic woman grew up in poverty says that she was able to attend a school full of white kids from wealthy neighborhoods and saw many of the same problems (e.g. drug use, teen pregnancy) that are typically associated with high-poverty neighborhoods.

-WJW says that this is a good point, but that the difference is that the wealthier kids have parents with the resources to pull them out of this and helm them overcome these behaviors. And he again plugs the Harlem Chidren's Zone as an excellent example of how to help kids overcome the disadvantages of poverty.

Which brings us back to what I wrote on Sunday -- it sure makes sense that social policy and educational performance would be linked, but it would be nice if we could figure out exactly how.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Charter School Teacher Retention

Debra Viadero reported last week on a paper by Dave Stuit and Tom Smith finding that charter school teachers are 230% more likely to leave the field (an updated version actually pegs it at 237%) at the end of the year than are teachers in traditional public schools, based on data from 2003-04.

Given that both writers are from Vanderbilt and that I find the topic interesting, I thought I'd look into it further. It's a conference paper -- not a finished paper that's been peer-reviewed and published in a journal -- so I'm not going to get into significant detail. While I'm sure it's not perfect and that it will undergo further revisions, I will say that the methodology seems pretty straightforward and that I trust both of the writers to investigate things rigorously and interpret them correctly, so my guess is that when the final version is released most of these figures will remain about the same. That said, let's get to it.

The most striking finding was that charter school teachers were more than twice as likely to leave the field as are teachers in traditional public schools -- the raw numbers are 14.1% and 7.0% (please note that the 230% estimate is based on log-odds ratios calculated using Hierachical General Linear Models controlling for clustering in schools*). They also calculated that charter school teachers were 113% as likely to transfer to another school.

They also found turnover nearly twice as high in schools that were new start-ups versus schools that had been converted to charter schools -- which makes sense because a new start-up would have more growing pains and instability than would a converted school.

But the most important question is why charter school teachers were more likely to leave the profession. Based on survey responses from those who left, charter school teachers were about twice as likely to report leaving for better salary and benefits (46%/22%), dissatisfaction iwth school (51%/24%), or due to school staffing action (40%/20%), and more than three times as likely to report leaving to pursue additional coursework outside education (27%/8%). They were also about one-third as likely to report leaving due to retirement (14%/38%).

In short, it seems that more teachers are leaving to move on to bigger and better things. This makes sense if we consider how many charter schools pluck people to serve as almost missionaries for a few years (think KIPP and their use of TFA fellows). I would expect that charter schools employ more people who are teaching as a way to give back to the community for a few years and fewer people that want to make a career out of teaching than are traditional public schools. Indeed, if we look at the demographics, charter schools employ more people under the age of 30 (34%/20%) and fewer over the age of 50 (18%/29%) than do traditional public schools. Teachers are also much less likely to be certified (67%/90%), and one would imagine that investing the time and effort into getting certified means that a teacher both intends to stay longer and will now be more likely to stay longer.

I've only just scratched the surface of all the paper examines and discusses, but I think the difference in attrition between sectors is worth thinking through. I could see the interpretation that this means charter schools need to work harder to retain teachers. I could also see an argument that attrition will hold back charters from achieving the success they could. But my main interpretation would be that charters tend to employ different types of teachers than do traditional public schools -- and these teachers, put simply, are less likely to stay in the profession for a long time (which could be exacerbated by the amount of time and effort required to teach in some of these charter schools). And I think the largest question it raises is about the replicability and scalability of charter schools.

If we continue to expand the number of charter schools and replicate those that have been more successful, will they continue to operate by employing teachers that don't make a career out of teaching? If so, how many people are out there that are both capable of being good teachers and want to teach for a few years?

*there was some confusion over how the 230% figure (now 237%) was derived on the Inside School Research site. After consultation with the author it's been explained that it was done thusly: a log-odds ratio of 3.368 was calculated. An odds ratio of 1 would mean that teachers were equally likely to leave the profession from both sectors. A ratio of 3.368 means that those in charter schools were 3.368-1 (=2.37, move the decimal point so that it turns into 237) percent more likely to leave.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Can Social Policy Close the Achievement Gap?

We all know that large gaps exist in achievement and attainment between blacks and whites, poor and rich, upper-class and lower-class, etc. On Tuesday, I wrote that we have tried four main strategies to address this:

1.) Equalize School Resources
2.) Integrate Schools
3.) Enhance Impoverished Schools
4.) "No Excuses"

On Thursday, I commented on Nicholas Kristof's latest op-ed. Kristof essentially argues that non-school factors create an IQ gap in this country and that we should close this gap by improving schools.

Something is missing. As I have said before, if there is anything upon which education researchers agree it is that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming.

That is to say, non-school factors do more to create the achievement gap but we seem to spend most of our time trying to address the in-school factors.

I will be the last to argue that these in-school factors should not be addressed. Never in a million years would I want my child, or any child for that matter, to attend the school where I formerly taught. And we should not rest until this is no longer true.

But I wonder if we are barking up the wrong tree. A myriad of problems in schools (inexperienced teachers, lack of discipline, negative climates, etc.) cause enormous problems and, therefore, merit our attention. But the root of most of these problems starts in the homes and neighborhoods of the children in these schools. Disorder reigns in many of their homes and neighborhoods as well as in their schools.

And I wonder if spending the bulk of our time and energy trying to alleviate these problems through social policy (e.g. housing, health care, etc.) might work better. And, yes, I am wondering -- not advocating. While we know that most of these problems start at home, I think it safe to say that many are easier to address at school. Helping a student who is a year or two behind in reading seems a lot more manageable than curtailing teenage pregnancy, ending gang violence, or solving any one of a thousand seemingly intractable family and neighborhood problems.

We know that changes in non-academic areas can make a difference in school performance. Improving nutrition, distributing eyeglasses, and providing vision therapy, among other things, have led to positive changes in achievement. And we know that various factors in homes and in neighborhoods negatively impact achievement. But we have little evidence that changes in social policy can positively impact academic performance. Studies on three different housing policy changes indicate that students probably do a bit better when they move to better housing in better neighborhoods, but we hardly have a smoking gun.

That we are unsure about the exact relationship between social policy and educational success means that we should not put all of our eggs in that basket just yet. But it also means that we need to spend more time examining the relationship. Which means thinking through how social policies might affect schools before implementing them -- though there must be at least one out there, I am unaware of a single social policy that was implemented with the explicit goal of improving school performance.

While we cannot be sure that changing social policy is a better way to change schools, it is something we should investigate further.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Does TFA Raise the Status of Teaching?

During a class discussion today, a student made an interesting claim -- that Teach for America raises the status of the teaching profession. The rationale was that TFA attracts students from Ivy League and other prestigious colleges and universities to the field -- graduates that, by and large, would not otherwise enter teaching.

To some extent, I buy the rationale -- TFA certainly raises the prestige level of the current teaching force in districts where they're present. But, after some thought, I have to disagree with the claim. TFA attracts academic stars into teaching, but I don't think they raise the prestige of the teaching profession as a whole; if anything, TFA lowers it.

When I applied to TFA my plan was to teach in an urban school for a couple years or so, help some kids, gain some experience, and then move on to bigger and better things. And TFA very much sells itself that way to prospective applicants; promotional materials discuss how many TFA alums enroll in law school or business school, for example. And current TFA corps members have access to an online jobs portal where they are recruited by some of the top firms in the country.

I don't know the precise figures, but the vast majority of TFA members do not make a career out of teaching. I believe somewhere around half stick around for a third year, and the numbers decline for every year after that.

I have a hard time believing that convincing people to teach for a few years and then move on to bigger and better things raises the status of the teaching profession. If anything, it lowers it. Teaching with TFA is akin to joining the peace corps -- it looks great on your resume and you have the opportunity to make a difference in the world, but for most people it's not a permanent career. In other words, teaching is a stepping stone. And making a profession a stepping stone doesn't exactly encourage the best and the brightest to pursue it as their lifetime occupation.

So, upon further reflection, I'd have to say I'm pretty sure that TFA reduces the status of the teaching profession in America. Now, this is not to say that TFA is evil or that, on net, they do more harm than good. Indeed, many TFA alums go on to bigger and better things within the field of education. In the long run, I think the biggest impact of the program will be the alums who ascend to positions of power in government, business, and school management. It's a pretty safe bet that TFA provides some of the poorest students in the country with better teachers than they would've otherwise had and also exposes some of the best and brightest young college graduates to the realities of high-poverty schools -- two very valuable things. But, at the same time, it lowers the level of prestige associated with a career in teaching -- and I'm not sure which one is more important.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Raising IQ

Nicholas Kristof reports on a new book, Intelligence and How to Get it: Why Schools and Cultures Count, by Richard Nesbitt, in today's op-ed.

Kristof seems to echo three points that the book makes:

1.) Intelligence is not really hereditary

2.) Conditions present in the households and neighborhoods of different classes influence IQ

3.) Good Schooling can eliminate the IQ gap between classes: "By my calculation, if we were to push early childhood education and bolster schools in poor neighborhoods, we just might be able to raise the United States collective I.Q. by as much as one billion points."

Notice anything missing?

I'll leave you with one last interesting note/quote -- IQ has risen so precipitously over the past century that "the average I.Q. of a person in 1917 would amount to only 73 on today’s I.Q. test. Half the population of 1917 would be considered mentally retarded by today’s measurements"

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-I've seen write-ups about the new study finding a link between poverty and working memory (the longer kids were in poverty they more stress they reported and the less working memory they had) all over the place. I think the write-up in the Economist is probably the best one I've seen. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any coverage that links to the actual article. I'll be tracking that down shortly and we'll see if I still think the Economist's coverage was good. Here's the article from the Washington Post as well. Update: Here's a link to the article abstract, and I believe anybody can open a pdf version of the full article from the site as well.

-Joseph Nye has an op-ed in the Washington Post expressing dismay that professors of political science are too busy writing about theory and methodology to actually examine real-world policy. Indeed, a friend of mine in a Poli Sci doctoral program says that those who examine public policy are shunned in the field. I suspect that Poli Sci professors are worse at this than in most fields, and that it matters more than in most fields, but the disconnect between academic research and the real world continues to frustrate me (though, to be fair, education policy is more connected to the real world than are the vast majority of academic fields).

-There's a point to my last blog post, I swear.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Strategies for Closing Achievement Gap

We all know that an achievement gap exists in this country. White children tend to outperform black children. Children from wealthy families tend to outperform children from poorer families. And we've tried countless reforms to close these gaps. But I think that virtually all of these reforms can be fit into one of these four categories (roughly in chronological order by start date):

1.) Equalize Resources of Schools
From "Separate but Equal" to Savage Inequalities to school finance lawsuits, people have advocated that schools with more disadvantaged youth be given resources equal to those of wealthier schools -- everything from textbooks to experienced teachers. In other words, "give them the same."

2.) Integrate Schools
From Brown v. Board of Education to busing to magnet schools, people have tried to send poorer children to the same schools as wealthier children -- hoping that attending the same school will yield the same results. In other words, "mix them together."

3.) Enhance Impoverished Schools
From the Abbott Districts in NJ to boarding schools like Hershey or SEED to schools with dental clinics and social workers, people have attempted to make up for the lack of resources at home by providing poorer students with more resources at school than are available to wealthier students. In other words, "give them more."

4.) "No Excuses"
From NCLB to charter schools to vouchers people have set out to prove that children from poorer families can achieve with the same level of resources if only we avoid making excuses and do our best. In other words, "work harder."

All four movements have yielded some successes and some failures. None of the four have been implemented to the extent that their fiercest supporters would advocate. And, arguably as a result, none of the four have completely closed the achievement gap.

But let me end with a couple questions for the readers of this post (there's a reason for this, which I'll get to in a later post):

1.) Do you agree that virtually all reforms designed to close the achievement gap thus far can be lumped into these four categories? If not, what category am I missing? (If you don't leave a comment, I'll assume you agree with me.)

2.) Is there some other strategy not listed on here that we're not pursuing that we should be? (If you don't leave a comment, I'll assume there's not.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

What Happens to Student Teaching Under Performance Pay Schemes?

I was reading about student teaching the other day, and a thought occurred to me: what happens to student teaching under performance pay schemes? If you were a teacher and your salary depended upon how many points your students gained on the state test this year, how willing would you be to a.) spend your time training a student teacher instead of helping your students, and b.) let a student teacher take charge of lessons in your classroom.

I don't see any way that test-based performance pay and student teaching can successfully coexist. If the teacher is motivated by the incentive being offered, then they're also going to be less willing to let a student teacher spend time with their class -- unless, of course, they're convinced that the student teacher is at least as good at teaching as they are. If they don't care about the incentive and they're not motivated by it, then they should be as willing as ever to let a student teacher take charge but the performance pay plan won't really be succeeding if it's not motivating teachers to do more and do better.

If performance pay is based on factors other than test scores, of course, then the dilemma can be dealt with.

Sunday Commentary: More on What Can Obama Really Do?

A few weeks back I asked what Obama could really do to fix education in this country. While people have high hopes, the federal government has quite limited power when it comes to education. But I wanted to put this idea to the test by thinking through a few reforms that might be implemented at the federal level and what outcomes might result.

National Standards
If you believe half the buzz you hear in the blogosphere and in the press, national standards will be in place by the end of Obama's time in Washington. Precisely what the point of national standards would be without a national test I am not sure -- so I would have to assume that a national test would follow soon after. Assuming both are implemented, it would open the way for more accurate accountability testing. I think it is fair to assume that accountability based on more meaningful tests would also be more meaningful. Standards make it more likely that teachers will teach a certain topic, but I think policymakers often think they are of greater import to teachers than they actually are. More coherent standards and better tests would influence schools, but would not completely remake them. Besides, without expanding testing, the majority of teachers would continue to teach untested subjects.

Encourage Merit Pay
The federal government could do this in a number of ways, the easiest of which would be to expand the size and scope of the Teacher Incentive Fund. As of yet, we have little to no evidence that merit pay positively impacts teaching practices or student achievement (or that we can accurately measure teacher performance for that matter). But the results of the first randomized field trial should start trickling out over the next year, so this could change. For the sake of argument, let us assume that merit pay results in teachers working harder and students scoring higher. How much can the federal government afford to spend on bonuses? I have to believe that offering substantial bonuses to all of the top teachers in the country would cost at least $10 billion per year. Given that salaries are largely determined at the local level, it is easy to see this might place downward pressure on wages from local education agencies -- the union asks for a raise of $5,000 and the superintendent offers $3,000 and points out that good teachers can make another $10,000 in merit pay. So it remains possible that merit pay could significantly affect education, but I cannot envision it totally reshaping the system with any sort of feasible implementation -- particularly given that the majority of teachers teach untested subjects and we continue to rely largely on test scores for many of the largest experiments with merit pay.

Increase Title I Funding
This is intentionally vague. Title I monies are directed to many different projects -- from buying computers to paying companies to tutor students after school -- that a change in Title I funding is unlikely to yield earth-shattering results. Beyond stimulus monies designed to shore up troubled programs, it is hard to envision an increase in funds without a specific and targeted focus.

I have heard a number of other ideas bantered around as well, including but not limited to:
-lengthening the school day
-lengthening the school year
-reducing class sizes
-increasing the number of charter schools
-offering vouchers
-increasing teacher pay

But accomplishing any of these goals is complicated because they involve superceding local rules and regulations. And none are simple to accomplish. Duncan cannot simply mandate more charter schools and watch them magically appear, for example -- he has to pull on the right policy levers.

I could list off a thousand things that Obama or Duncan might do, but any policy the federal government puts in place will affect student learning indirectly. Changing the way a teacher teaches is incredibly difficult to do from that far away, and so is changing the amount that a child learns. As a result, any changes made at the federal level are likely to result in only minimal changes. In a best case scenario a number of policies would yield a number of small changes that would accrue over time . . . resulting in significant improvement a decade or so later.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bower Botches Blog: Petrilli Promptly Pardoned

Yesterday I said that Mike Petrilli seemed to have flippantly fumbled the facts over at Fordham's blog. When I read his post it seemed to say that zero schools have been closed as a result of NCLB -- which is so egregiously false that it startled me. I couldn't figure out how he could have gotten it so wrong and wondered aloud as to whether it was a typo or if, perhaps, I had misread it.

Well, we have an answer. I misread it. He said that in "the vast majority of states" zero schools in restructuring have been closed down, consolidated, or shown improvement. I'm not sure if that statement is correct or not -- I know NYC, Chicago, and Pittsburgh have shut down schools, but have no idea how many other places have, yet alone how many schools have shown serious improvement or how many would constitute a vast majority -- but that's somewhat beside the point.

In other words, Petrilli may, in fact, have flippantly fumbled the facts -- but not in the way I thought he had. So he may or may not have been wrong, but I definitely was.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fordham Flippantly Fumbles Facts?

A couple days ago the Fordham Institute's blog ran a piece on the DOE's letter to states requesting information before releasing the rest of the stimulus funds.

In the piece, Mike Petrilli writes that "The number of schools in restructuring status that have demonstrated substantial gains in student achievement, closed, or consolidated within last three years" is "zero."

I know for a fact that at least one schools has been closed after going through restructuring. The school where I taught in the Bronx was in restructuring while I was there and a few months before I left they announced that the school would be phased out. It was closed as of June, 2008. So to say that the number is "zero" is verifiably and definitively false.

And my school was hardly the only school in NYC to close -- a number of high schools and middle schools (I'm guessing >20 offhand) have been closed since 2001. I have no idea how many districts outside of NYC have closed schools -- nor how many schools have been closed -- but this page claims that Chicago has shuttered 12 schools in recent years, so I'm willing to bet it's also not zero.

All of this leaves me quite puzzled. I've read a lot of what Mike Petrilli has written over the past year or so, and I have no doubt that he's a knowledgeable guy. So it strikes me as odd that he would so flippantly toss out a figure that is unquestionably and verifiably false. Did he misread what he wrote? Was it a typo? I read the page at least ten times, because I figured I must be missing something. I left a comment, but Flypaper almost never responds to comments. So, pending the results of an e-mail asking for clarification, I can see no possible conclusion other than that what he wrote is simply wrong. States have closed x schools that were in restructuring over the past three years, and x does not equal 0.

update: As Mike Petrilli notes in the comments below, he didn't say what I thought he said. He said that "in the vast majority" of state that number would be zero. I'm not sure whether or not he's correct about that (nor exactly how many would constitute a "vast majority"), and it was still a flippant remark, but regardless of whether or not he's right I'm definitely wrong. Mea Culpa.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Are TFA Teachers Better? Update

Last year around this time a new study released by the Urban Institute looking at the effectiveness of Teach for America teachers was all the rage. In the paper, the researchers found that high school TFA teachers in NC were slightly more effective than other teachers -- a finding that has been trumpeted who knows how many times since.

I pointed out at the the time that the study, though well executed, was far from perfect. Well, the researchers recently released an updated version of the study -- something that, surprisingly, I've only seen Debra Viadero blog about (hat tip: GothamSchools).

If I have time, I might do a full evaluation at a later date. But until then, here are a few things to keep in mind when you read about the results:

-It's only high school teachers and it's only in NC. Who knows how it would play out if it were elementary or middle school students in other states.

-In the data, there was no absolutely conclusive way to determine which students were assigned to which teachers. Usually, the teacher that proctored the test was also the teacher for the students, but not always. Using some sophisticated methods, the researchers decided they were pretty sure which students belonged to 84% of the teachers and moved on from there. When analyzing a smaller sample of teachers about whom they were more sure, the results differed slightly -- indicating that figuring out which students had which teacher is somewhat problematic for their estimates.

-The sample consists of 98 teachers from 23 school districts observed 150 times over the course of 7 years. Which means that the mean number of teachers analyzed per district in a given year was 0.93.

-The return to TFA teachers in most models is about .1-.18 standard deviations -- a very modest effect size. The authors argue that this is significant because the return to a teacher with 3-5 years of experience compared to one with 0-3 years of experience is about .05 SD -- in other words, they argue thata TFA teacher is many times better than an experienced teacher.

-But my main worry about the study is that they have too large a sample in the comparison group (as far as I can tell it's every teacher from those 23 districts that they could match to students). I maintain that not every teacher does the same job -- teaching an AP class in a wealthy school is very different from teaching a low-track class in a high-poverty school. In the latest version of the paper the authors sort of make an attempt to look at this and compare TFA teachers to other teachers teaching students with similar test scores. TFA teachers who taught students in the top quartile did quite well. But those teaching students in the bottom quartile (which, I assume, is most of them (they don't provide a number for this)) did not. When narrowing the sample to teachers who taught kids in the bottom quartile, TFA teachers had an advantage of .061 standard deviations -- virtually identical to the advantage of .054 SD that teachers with 3-5 years of experience had. Given that the main goal of TFA is to help the neediest, I find this troubling.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sunday Commentary: How to Fix Urban Schools: Just Wait?

Time heals all wounds. Or so they say. What about urban schools? Will time heal the problems so evident there?

A century ago, urban schools were the best in the nation. Now they are anything but. Everybody offers their own solution to the problem, but sometimes the simplest solution is best. In this instance, waiting. Give it a couple decades and see what happens.

Why would a couple decades of doing nothing make any difference? Because the most important part of any school's success is the families that send their kids there. And the neighborhoods in many urban areas are changing. As David Villano wrote today, many think that poverty will be concentrated in the suburbs a quarter century from now. In the 20th century white flight meant that many of the well-to-do moved out of the city while many of those with the least were left behind -- both literally and in school.

But the 21st century has seen a rebirth of many urban neighborhoods. Developers have raced to build the latest and greatest condo tower, walkability is ever more desirable, and gentrification is rampant. Indeed, over the last decade the neighborhoods in Nashville experiencing the steepest increase in home values are those clustered near downtown.

The first wave of new urban dwellers consisted mostly of people too young or too old to have school-age children. But as neighborhoods transform, that will likely change. And as more and more families with more wealth and more education move into a neighborhood, the local schools will inevitably change as well. Many of the first arrivals will send their children to private school, but that too will likely change with time.

In other words, by the time we think urban schools have been fixed the larger problem may actually lie in suburban schools.

I am, of course, not seriously suggesting that we simply do nothing. Waiting for neighborhoods to gentrify might help a number of individual schools, but would do little to solve larger societal problems.

Friday, April 3, 2009

DC Vouchers: Three Year Report

Speaking of ideology and research, I just got the following e-mail (below). If you believe vouchers work, good news: voucher students in D.C. did better in reading, and their parents were more satisfied and believed they attended safer schools. If you believe vouchers don't work, good news: voucher students in D.C. did no better in math, students who transferred from failing schools did no better, and students reported no higher satisfaction nor believed that their schools were safer.


Subject: NCEE Releases New Report: The Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years

The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance within the Institute of Education Sciences has released the report "The Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years."

This congressionally mandated report on the impact of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program measures the effects of the program on student achievement in reading and math, and on student and parent perceptions of school satisfaction and safety. The evaluation found that the OSP improved reading, but not math, achievement overall and for 5 of 10 subgroups of students examined. The group designated as the highest priority by Congress - students applying from "schools in need of improvement" (SINI) - did not experience achievement impacts. Students offered scholarships did not report being more satisfied or feeling safer than those who were not offered scholarships, however the OSP did have a positive impact on parent satisfaction and perceptions of school safety. This same pattern of findings holds when the analysis is conducted to determine the impact of using a scholarship rather than being offered a scholarship.

To view, download and print the report as a PDF file, please visit:

Today's Random Thoughts

Sorry for disappearing. Don't worry, I'm still alive -- I just got busy. I should be back in full swing next week. In the meantime, here are a few things that caught my eye.

-The NY Times has an interesting piece on ideology in medicine. I continue to wonder whether education research can ever truly be considered research or whether ideology will simply bias results. I always thought that research would be more reliable in fields like medicine and physics where there's little reason to take a rooting interest in a particular research outcome or to believe something works (or doesn't work) regardless of what the research says. According to David Neumann, I was wrong to believe that about medicine. He says that "The practice of medicine contains countless examples of elegant medical theories that belie the best available evidence."

-Meanwhile, a piece in Slate asks if you're hurting your local public schools by sending your kid to private school. Interesting question, easy answer -- of course you are. Unless, of course, your kid is some sort of detriment to their school (e.g. they have major behavioral problems). About 10% of students in the United States attend private schools. Would public schools improve if they didn't? Of course they would.

-In other news, the federal government has just announced grants of between $2.5 and $9 million dollars (a total of $150 million over five years) to 27 states to develop longitudinal data systems. On the one hand, this is good news. But, on the other, I have to wonder how much cheaper it would be for the DOE to develop one data system instead of paying states to develop 27.