Tuesday, November 24, 2009

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

Sunday Commentary: How Much Does Everybody Need to Know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reality NeGates Rhetoric

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More on "Stall Day"

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

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

A few things caught my eye in this video:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Fundraising Plan that Should've Stalled Out

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Interesting Factoid of the Day

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

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

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

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

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trade-Offs Between Content and Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look at "The Phony Education Funding Crisis"

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

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

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

The article begins with the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Do We Determine if Certification and Credentialing are Effective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

Sunday Commentary: How Hope Hurts Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quote of the Day

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

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

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

Today's Random Thoughts

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

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

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

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