Friday, January 29, 2010

Declining Reform or DeKleining Intelligence?

The teaser on Time's home page for Joe Klein's new commentary on teachers' unions said something about them stopping reform.  Of course unions have prevented reform over the years.  But that, in and of itself, doesn't make them evil.  You see, not all reform is good.  Preventing a bad reform from occurring would actually make the union the good guys.

Now, of course, I don't actually see that line in the article -- so it may have been all the headline writer's idea instead of Joe Klein's.  But there are plenty of other problems:

1.) Teachers' unions do a number of both good and bad things.  I cannot take seriously any article or person that doesn't acknowledge that -- the idea that unions are either purely good or purely bad is pure nonsense.

2.) He writes that "it is near impossible to fire a teacher" in NYC and that "miscreants are stashed in 'rubber rooms'."  I still don't buy that it's nearly as hard to fire a teacher as many claim.  And even if it is, the argument is still overstated since there are far more teachers that walk away quasi-voluntarily than there are teachers who are sent to the rubber room (in other words, getting rid of bad teachers probably isn't as hard as you think).  Is it too hard to fire teachers?  In many cases, yes, it probably is.  But it's not impossible.  And all the hand-wringing is unnecessary.  When I see a bad teacher remaining in a school, I blame the principal more than the union.

3.) Klein writes that "authorities are forbidden, by state law, to evaluate teachers by using student test results."  This is true.  Sort of.  Technically they're forbidden -- for now.  The law that was passed only mandated a two-year moratorium on this practice -- it didn't forbid it for eternity.  Besides, there's plenty of evidence that using the scores would've created more problems than it solved.

4.) He summarizes the Hoxby et al study as showing that "students in New York City's charter schools . . . have closed 86% of the gap in test results between the poorest neighborhoods of the city and ritzy suburbs like Scarsdale."  Notice the word have in the sentence.  The study showed nothing of the sort.  Based on snapshots of data, it projected that students enrolled in these charter schools (which, by the way, were only the charter schools popular enough to be oversubscribed and have an entrance lottery) would eventually close 86% of the gap.  A subsequent study from other Stanford researchers again found that the charters were doing better than traditional public schools, but that the gains aren't nearly that big.

5.) All of these arguments have been made before.  And they were just as weak then.  When I was told Joe Klein had a new column out on education, I was expecting something insightful.  I love some of his other work.  Hopefully he was distracted because he's in the midst of writing the next great political novel.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NYC School Closures

I stayed up late following the action on GothamSchool's excellent play-by-play post of the decision to close 20 schools in NYC.  When a meeting drags on for 9 hours because the speaker list climbs into the hundreds, you know that there are some raw emotions involved, and I'd encourage everybody to at least skim through the post to get a feel for what was being done and said.

But I'm left with very mixed feelings regarding the closures.  On the one hand, the process is certainly undemocratic -- the majority of the school board is appointed by Bloomberg, and it doesn't seem like a coincidence that 4 out of 5 of the other appointees voted against school closures while all 9 of his appointees voted for them.  The crowd greeted every yea vote by yelling "puppet!" and every nay vote by yelling "leader!"  It's pretty clear that a large number of people feel disenfranchised by the way that Bloomberg and Klein are managing the NYC school system.

On the other hand, I have little doubt that at least a few of those 20 schools were horribly mismanaged and had little chance of turnaround in the future.  When they decided to phase out the school where I taught, I firmly believed that they were doing the community a favor.  After all, it's possible for a decision to be both undemocratic and correct.  Maybe the lack of a traditional school board was actually a good thing this time, because traditional school boards have an awfully hard time voting to close schools.  And sometimes schools need to be closed.

I don't like the way that the decisions were made -- they might have been the right decisions.  The biggest question now is whether the new schools that are put in place will be any better than the old ones.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Doesn't Gates Replicate HCZ?

I'm still thinking about Geoffrey Canada's recent visit to Nashville.  One question I wanted to ask, but didn't, was this: "How do we replicate the Harlem Children's Zone without the backing of a Stanley Druckenmiller or the leadership of a Geoffrey Canada?"  Canada somewhat skirted the issue during his talk, saying that "we take care of our kids" in Harlem, and that other people needed to take care of their kids.

But even if the HCZ turns out to be a runaway success, that's simply not enough: there are tons of other impoverished neighborhoods full of kids who need medical care, dental care, nutritious meals, after-school tutoring, and so on.  If this really works, it's not enough to just put it in Harlem.  Obama's mentioned more than once that he'd like to replicate the HCZ in other cities, but how?

The HCZ is able to do what it does, in part, because of the phenomenal level of support from a number of high-rollers.  There simply aren't enough Wall Street fat cats to go around if we want 20 or 200 other children's zones.  Which really leaves only two possibilities: 1.) future replications will have to rely on the smaller levels of support from a larger number of people, or 2.) future replications will need a large start-up fund donated from someone or some organization.  Until recently I'd thought that the federal government might be the only organization with the resources to provide that kind of money.  But then I started thinking . . .

The Gates Foundation recently released their annual report (hat tip: Alexander Russo), which contains some information about their educational endeavors.  Maybe I'm wrong, but despite spending more than a nominal amount of money it doesn't seem likely that their efforts are going to dramatically re-shape our school system.  And that makes me think.  Gates has more money than any other NGO in the world.  And they do seem genuinely determined to make a difference.  So why don't they lead the charge to replicate the HCZ?  They're probably the only ones capable of doing it.

The Harlem Children's Zone has a 2010 budget of over $75 million.  How many neighborhood groups are capable of raising that type of cash?

Wikipedia lists $2.2 billion that Gates spent on a few major educational projects in recent years and the new letter mentions $335 million that was just earmarked for teacher effectiveness programs.  So I don't know how many neighborhoods are capable of raising $5,000 per child to spend on social programs, but I do know that Gates is capable of making up the difference in an awful lot of them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"A Terrible, Phony Debate"

Last spring I took David Brooks to task for his irresponsible assertions that the Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy had closed the achievement gap and had done so solely because they took a no-nonsense, no excuses, paternalistic approach to schooling (he was at it again last week, repeating the claim in the midst of an article mostly focused on Haiti).  The following week I explored some of the other factors that may have led to the success experienced by the school (which I never followed up with the promised 2nd and 3rd part -- many apologies, I still intend to return to the topic).

Well, today Nashville was graced with the presence of one Mr. Geoffrey Canada -- the founder of both the Harlem Children's Zone and the Promise Academies.  Following his lecture (which, if you were wondering, was both engaging and thought-provoking -- though I can't say he surprised me with anything he said), he had time for a few questions.  Apparently my shirt was a brighter blue than everybody else's, because he allowed me to ask one of them.  So I asked about the controversy over Brooks' assertion.

My question went something like this: "David Brooks has written that there has been a Harlem Miracle because of the no-nonsense, no excuses, paternalistic environment at the Promise Academy.  How important do you think that it compared to the small class sizes, extended school year, before and after-school tutoring, Baby College, Harlem GEMS, nutrition programs, and other factors."

I was quite curious to hear what he had to say.  As it turns out, he was quite aware that both members of the Broader, Bolder Coalition and the Education Equality Project claim that the success of HCZ proves they're right.  And then he repeated something a few times with which I couldn't agree more: "it's a terrible, phony debate."  He said he believed that both camps are right -- that we need both to create no-nonsense, high-effort school environments and to address social issues involving health, poverty, etc.  He went on to add that although providing dental care at his school likely doesn't raise test scores (I'd dispute that -- it actually probably does have a small effect), that it's ultimately an ethical issue -- he wouldn't choose dental care or tutoring for his own children; he'd choose both.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are NYC Schools a Farm System for the Suburbs?

Conventional wisdom when I was teaching in NYC seemed to be that, to some degree, NYC served as a farm system for the surrounding counties' school systems.  In other words, teachers would get a job in NYC, teach for maybe 1-5 years, and then look for a job on the suburbs.  Since the city had fewer certified teachers than openings, it was much easier for recent grads and career changers to find a job there.  Once they'd gotten some experience under their belt, they then might be able to land a position in the ultra-competitive suburban job market (where hundreds of teachers often apply for each opening).  According to conventional wisdom, finding a job in the suburbs meant you could work in a more pleasant environment (fewer discipline problems, more resources, smaller classes) and earn more at the same time.

A number of teachers at my school had chosen this route, and came back from hiring fairs and job interviews in the suburbs with stories of long lines and selective hiring criteria.  Which makes sense: if you were running a school and there were a ton of qualified, experienced, certified teachers applying for a job why would you hire somebody else?

As I was searching for statistics for another project on the NY state education website, I decided to see if there was any quantitative evidence that NYC is, to some extent, the minor league system that feeds the major league systems in the suburbs.  I compared some statistics from NYC to those from surrounding counties (Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island and Westchester and Rockland north of the city).

As it turns out, there's evidence that teachers in NYC are younger, less experienced, paid less, and teach larger classes than those who teach in the surrounding counties.  Consider the following statistics:

*On average, the median teacher in surrounding counties has 3.2 more years of experience (12.2 v. 9) than does the median NYC teacher

*The surrounding counties, on average, have about half as many teachers with fewer than 5 years of teaching experience as does NYC (16.7% v. 32. 2%)

*On average, the median teacher in surrounding counties earns almost $20,000 more per year (89K v. 69K) than does the median NYC teacher.

*The percentage of teachers under the age of 27 is 2.5 times higher in NYC than the average in surrounding counties (5.6% v. 2.25%).

*The average 6th grade class is 25% larger (26.5 v. 21.2) in NYC than in the rest of the state.

Not all of these statistics, however, are very striking.  Over 2/3 of teachers in NYC, for example, are 33 or older.  That's not exactly damning evidence that every teacher in NYC is young, inexperienced, and trying to find a job in the suburbs.  But we have to take remember that not every teacher wants to leave NYC.  There are quite a few schools in the city that are desirable places to work and employ a lot of experienced teachers.  If we look at just the Bronx, the borough with the highest poverty rates, we see slightly more striking numbers.  This is how the median teacher in the Bronx compares to the average median teacher in the two counties bordering the Bronx:

Median Experience % under age 26 % <5 yrs experience

Bronx 8 yrs
9.4% 39.2%
N. Suburbs 12.5 yrs
1.85% 15.15%

So, yes, there's a significant difference in the age and experience levels of teachers in NYC and the suburbs -- and an even larger difference between teachers in the Bronx and the northern suburbs.  But that doesn't prove that teachers are flocking from NYC to the suburbs -- it just proves that teachers are younger and less experienced.

The closest thing I can find to proof of that is comparing the difference between the average total experience of teachers versus the average amount of experience within that district in the city versus the suburbs.  If we look at the different percentiles listed on the website, we can see that the vast majority of teachers in the city have been in the city for their entire careers -- the same is not true of suburban teachers:

NYC: Years of Experience by Percentile

5th 25th 50th 75th 95th
Total 1 4 9 19 32
In District 1 4 9 17 31

Suburbs: Years of Experience by Percentile

5th 25th 50th 75th 95th
Total 2.5 7.25 12.25 20.25 32
In District 1 5 9 14.75 27.75

Most teachers in NYC have spent more time teaching in NYC than has the average Suburban teacher with the same relative seniority level; this despite the fact that suburban teachers, on average, are more experienced.  There can be only one explanation for this: suburban teachers switch districts more frequently.  I suspect some of that has to do with teachers switching between the smaller districts in the suburbs in order to procure a better job (maybe one closer to home), but it's at least plausible that some of that is because a number of suburban teachers taught in the city prior to finding their current job.

Just judging by these numbers, it's not possible to quite grasp the magnitude of the situation -- exactly how many NYC teachers are fleeing for the suburbs each year?  But it's probably worth both investigating further and addressing.  Assuming that this is, in fact, a problem, I don't see any easy solutions.  If suburban jobs pay more to teach fewer kids in a better working environment (and often closer to home), what, exactly, is the city supposed to do in order to retain these teachers?  Sure, the city could spend more money to reduce class sizes and/or teaching loads or raise teacher salaries -- but they're never going to match the spending levels of the suburbs.  They could work on fostering better working environments (in their defense, there's at least a half-hearted attempt at this in the form of the annual school surveys), or try to recruit teachers who aren't aiming to bolt for the 'burbs in a few years. 

Or they could do what they're doing now: save a ton of money by hiring people from Teach for America, the NYC Teaching Fellows, and the suburbs -- few of whom will stay long enough to earn much money yet alone a pension.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Today's Random Thoughts

-Hope everyone is having a great holiday season.  It always seems weird to me that people put their lights and decorations up weeks or months before, and then by the time we get to the 12th day of Christmas they're all down.

-Aaron Schutz has an interesting theory regarding the TFA civic engagement study -- if a number of people who go through TFA feel disempowered by their experience, they may be less likely to feel like they can make a difference in the future.  Although I'd think that those who had the worst experiences would be more likely to drop out . . .  Meanwhile, Andrew Rotherham and Rob Reich mostly agree with my feeling that TFA admitees are an elite group and that small differences within this group aren't Earth-shattering.

-Diane Ravitch says that some charter school operators are taking advantage of the set-up to pull in huge salaries.  She says she's heard of principals earning $400,000 or $500,000 and of one who made millions selling school supplies to the charter school he operates.  I'd have to think that this problem isn't very widespread, but I've been wrong before and likely will be again.  I guess it's like I've argued before: if you're going to argue that schools should be run like businesses . . . be careful what you wish for.

-I don't understand Jay Mathews' argument that scripted curricula could transform schools but that nobody will give it a shot.  If I've noticed one classroom trend since I started teaching, it's been the rapid spread of scripted and semi-scripted curricula, particularly in high-poverty, urban schools.

-Chad Alderman remarks on the fact that students from the poorest 40% of households made up 11% of the student body at a group of elite, private colleges in 2008-9 -- up from 10% in 2001-02.  Apparently the surge in financial aid during that time period didn't attract a ton more students from the poorest families.

-Robert Pondiscio reports that the Broader, Bolder Coalition is on the lookout for low-performing schools that artificially boost test scores through excessive test prep, curriculum narrowing, and other educationally dubious tactics.

-CREDO today released a report finding gains of .06 standard deviations in reading and .12 standard deviations in math for students in NYC charter schools compared to similar students from the same geographic locations.  For those of you who aren't statisticians, those gains are pretty small.  That students in charter schools would perform a little better than similar students in traditional public schools in NYC seems plausible, if not likely, to me.  Similar to the recent Hoxby student, there were some schools that did worse, some that did better, and many that were no different.  To me, the most important question is why some of the schools did better and whether that can be replicated and scaled up.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Terrible For America?

One of the last things I read last night was this NY Times article about a new research study on the civic engagement of former TFA teachers.  In short, the forthcoming study finds that TFA grads are actually less engaged than are those who drop out early and those who were accepted but didn't enroll.

A number of other bloggers have already commented on the article (including Robert Pondiscio, Debra Viadero, Alexander Russo, and I'm sure many others), but I have yet to see anybody comment on the comparison groups that were chosen.

Without having read the study, that's about the only methodological issue on which one can comment.  I see the merit in the research design -- by comparing TFA grads to TFA dropouts and "non-matriculants," you're controlling for a number of otherwise unobservable characteristics of the people involved -- people accepted by TFA are surely more academically successful than the average recent college grade, for example.

But it's also an extremely limiting study -- what percentage of the population would make the cut for TFA admission?  Maybe 5 or 10%?

So what does this study really tell us?  Assuming that everything else is perfect with the data and methods (which, of course, is never the case), what would it mean that people who complete two years with TFA are less engaged than are other TFA admitees who either dropped out or declined to enroll?  It could be the case that people with broader interests are choosing not to stay in TFA for multiple years, or it could be the case that staying in TFA for longer is narrowing the interests of grads.

Either way, it's entirely plausible that applying to TFA makes one much more civic-minded than not -- which, in many ways, is a more important question.  The people that TFA admits are a tiny and unique sub-section of the adult population of our country, so differences within that population are only somewhat meaningful.

That said, the study seems to raise a number of important questions that are worth exploring further.  I'll be interested to see how some of these are addressed when I can get my hands on a copy of the actual article.