Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Race To The . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzz

The education media and blogosphere were aflutter yesterday with the results of the first round of RTTT grants.  Most seemed at least somewhat receptive to the selection of Tennessee and Delaware as winners.  As a current resident of Tennessee, I noticed many were abuzz with excitement.  Me?  Eh.  I'm not sure I see what the fuss is about.

You may have noticed that I've said virtually nothing on RTTT over the past few months, and that's largely because I think its import is overblown.  The selection process seems far more likely to impact education than the actual grants.  Tennessee received about $500 million to be spent over four years.  I can't seem to find the actual figures, but I believe Tennessee's education budget is somewhere around $10 billion -- and with the current state of the economy, over $100 million in state-level education spending cuts have already been proposed for next year.  Not to mention the local budget cuts in Nashville, Knoxville, and other places.  In other words, it's distinctly possible that, despite the massive grant, TN will still spend less on education next year than they did this year.

According to the LA Times, Tennessee has 964,259 students -- meaning that the extra funding equals about $500 more per pupil -- or a little over $100 per student per year.  And, yes, this is supposed to benefit all students ("We're confident that all students in both states will benefit from this program." - Arne Duncan).

Did the rush to win RTTT funds yield some important policy changes?  Yes.  But please excuse my skepticism of the notion that a grant equal to around 1% of Tennessee's educational expenditures will transform our state's schools.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Must See TV

I was absolutely captivated by ABC's new show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution tonight.  If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth watching (the premiere is available on the website).

A little background:  Oliver is a well-known British chef who's branched out into spreading healthy food and eating habits into the schools.  An early study of his efforts indicates that his program may have had impressive effects on student attendance and achievement.  He's decided to bring his efforts across the pond, and chosen Huntington, WV b/c it has America's highest obesity rates.  His efforts in both places have earned him a TED prize.

I'm not going to go into the issue in-depth right now, but the evidence both that America's children are eating horribly and that better nutrition could meaningfully impact their school performance (among other things) is quickly mounting. 

Here are the two things I found most surprising:

1.) I fully expected the "lunch ladies" with whom he worked to be wary of the extra effort that would accompany the preparation of fresh foods every day, but I was blown away that they seemed to have absolutely no health concerns about the menu they were serving (e.g. pizza for breakfast, chicken nuggets for lunch).  Watch the video below for more.

2.) I don't expect the average first grader to know the names of every obscure vegetable, but I'd certainly expect that they could identify a tomato or potato.  Apparently I was wrong.  Watch the video below for more.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Today's Random Thoughts

-Joanne Jacobs asks why it seems to be easier to raise math scores than reading scores.  I think there's a relatively simple answer.  Reading scores are influenced more by home life than are math scores.  Which makes sense when you think about it -- kids spend a lot more time at home speaking, listening, and reading than doing math.  And it's easier to influence the way kids spend their time in school than the way they spend it at home . . . meaning it's easier to alter math scores than reading scores.

-NYC might need to fire teachers because of budget constraints.   Normally, the last ones in would be the first ones out -- but that would disproportionately affect schools in the poorest neighborhoods.  Klein argues that they could fire far fewer veteran teachers and achieve the same cost savings.  In my mind, it raises two questions:
1.) Why not offer retirement packages to veteran teachers?  2.) What happens to next year's crop of Teach for America corps members and NYC Teaching Fellows?  If NYC now has too many teachers, do they need to recruit alternatively certified fill-ins?

-Andy Rotherham argues that a lot of the firing teachers debate could be settled if principals simply hired better teachers to start out with.  There are many reasons why this doesn't happen, but the most important one might be that in a lot of schools principals don't have a whole lot to choose from when hiring teachers.  The school I taught in, for example, had a handful of vacancies -- they couldn't hire anybody (certified) to take the job, yet alone a standout who was going to set the world on fire -- and a quarter of our staff were novice teaching fellows.

-KauaiMark's story reminds me of something I had to do more than once: apologize to substitute teachers for the behavior of my class.  Except that we could find any substitute teachers to come to our school, so I had to apologize to the other teachers in my school that covered my class during their preps.  Of course, I received a lot of apologies from other teachers as well.

-Mathnew Ladner writes on Jay Greene's blog that Florida's NAEP scores have risen dramatically over the past decade and says "When it comes to education reform…I’LL HAVE WHAT FLORIDA IS HAVING!"  He may be right.  But I can't help but wonder: given the large influx of residents into Florida in recent decades, might demographic changes explain part of the score gains?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Memory Test

Anybody feel like helping me try to find an article?  I'm usually pretty good at this kind of thing, but I seem to have struck out on this one.

There was an opinion piece that ran in the NY Times (I think) about 5 years ago or so -- I think it was between 2003 and 2005 -- by, I believe, a former Clinton aide.  The op-ed proposed using federal dollars to dramatically increase (double?) teacher salaries in a certain set of high-poverty (urban?) schools.  The argument was that this would cost only a fraction of what the federal government currently spends on education and, at the same time, would do more to help close the achievement gap than what we're currently doing by attracting the best and brightest to teach in the neediest schools.

Does anybody else remember reading this?  Anybody who sends me a link to the article will receive two gold stars.

Update: The gold stars go to Aaron Pallas -- the article can be found here

As to my memory, I fared reasonably well: the article was written in 2005 by Matthew Miller, who worked for the OMB during the Clinton administration.  He mentions urban schools, but never specifically identifies which schools would receive the pay raises (he says "poor schools").  He proposes raising pay by 50% and doubling it for high-performing teachers and shortage subjects.  He estimates that such a program would cost $30 billion (so he must have x number of schools in mind) -- 7% of the federal education budget.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Selection Effects" and Charter Schools: A Clarification

A number of skeptics argue that one reason for some charters' success is that they skim some of the best students from traditional public schools.  Matthew Yglesias fundamentally misunderstands this argument (as, I suspect, do many others) in this post on recent research on KIPP when he writes that the authors are "able to look in a rigorous way at whether the high performance of KIPP students relative to demographically similar non-KIPP students is merely the result of some kind of selection effect".

While it's true that some charter schools do attract students who score higher, on average, than their peers, no serious education wonk is arguing that this alone is why the KIPPs of the world have higher test scores (which is not to say that nobody is making this argument).  Indeed, if we look at research on these high-flying charters -- note, I said research and not the popular press -- the statistics cited aren't usually snapshots of how many kids passed a certain test but, rather, longitudinal examinations of the growth of kids' test scores over time.  In this sense, simply having higher achieving kids from the start wouldn't help much -- and could conceivably hurt a school.

So what is meant by "selection effects" then?  Well, when skeptics argue that charters often skim off the best students, they mean best students in a more holistic sense.  If you ask a teacher to identify their best students, they wouldn't just point you to the kids with the highest test scores -- they'd point you to the kids who worked hard, cooperated, asked questions, turned in assignments on time, showed up every day, and generally did what was asked of them.  And having a school full of students in this mold would make teaching easier, hallways quieter, and a school's climate more positive -- all of which would aid student growth.

As far as I know, there hasn't been much research on whether charters do, in fact, recruit and retain kids who are "better students" in this sense (please note that I'm not saying there hasn't been any, only that I'm unaware of it -- and, actually, if you know of some I'd appreciate it if you sent it my way).  But there's plenty of reason to suspect that at least some charters' student bodies might skew in this direction.  Probably the most cited reason is that it takes extra effort for a parent to enroll their kid in a charter school -- making it quite logical to assume that more motivated parents are more likely to fill out the application (of course, maybe the parents' motivation is driven by hatred or their current school or something rather than desire for their kid to excel).  Secondly, there are various indicators that some charters are more likely to give kids the boot, or at least threaten to do so, than are traditional public schools.  For example, I watched one video in which a KIPP principal walks in the first day of school and tells a kid who's not cooperating that if this school isn't for him that he can leave -- that's not something that traditional public schools can really do.

Anyway, the point is this: when people talk about charters benefiting from "selection effects" they're talking about schools enrolling "better students" in the sense that they're more motivated and more cooperative, not that they simply enroll higher-scoring students.  I don't know whether or not charters actually have better students, but it's easy to imagine that a more enthusiastic, better behaved student body would make a school far more productive.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Nothing good can come of any reform that teachers do not embrace"

-Diane Ravitch

Income Inequality vs. Wealth Inequality

When we discuss the achievement gap in education, income inequality often serves as one explanation.  But racial differences persist even when controlling for differences in income.  One reason?  Wealth may be a better indicator of household resources than income -- and wealth inequality is far larger than income inequality.

An advocacy group released this report on income inequality yesterday. The article I noticed on the topic focused on one statistic: the wealth of White vs. Black single women aged 36-49.  The average wealth for Whites is $42,600.  The average wealth for Blacks is $5.

While that statistic is striking, different people stay single for different reasons.  What I find more notable is this: the median wealth for both Black and Hispanic single mothers with children under 18 is $0.  Yes, that means that 50% of  Black and Hispanic single parents have less than zero in assets to tap in times of need.  And before you scoff at the small sub-category this represents, keep in mind that nationwide over 2/3 of African-American children are born to single mothers.  Single White mothers, on the other hand, have a median wealth of only $7,970 -- a fairly paltry sum, but infinitely more than Black or Hispanic single mothers.

If we look at all the stats for 18-64 year-olds, it's readily apparent that inequalities in wealth are far larger than inequalities in earnings.  Blacks and Hispanics make, on average, about 2/3 of what same-gendered Whites make.  But they usually possess less than 1/5 of the assets as same-status Whites (see two tables below (note: sorry for the lack of readibility, for some reason blogger still hasn't made it easy to insert tables)).

This isn't to say that wealth or income inequality explain all of the achievement gap, of course.  For one thing, in the stats below you'll notice that Hispanics often do worse than Blacks -- but we know that, nationwide, Hispanics outscore Blacks on standardized tests.

Wealth % of white
Married or Cohabiting White $162,500
Black $31,500 19.4%
Hispanic $18,000 11.1%
Single Male White $43,800
Black $7,900 18.0%
Hispanic $9,730 22.2%
Single Female White $17,500
Black $100 0.6%
Hispanic $120 0.7%

Earnings % of White
Male White $50,139
Black $35,652 71.1%
Hispanic $29,239 58.3%
Female White $36,398
Black $31,035 85.3%
Hispanic $25,454 69.9%

Monday, March 1, 2010

How Bad are the Central Falls Teachers?

I have absolutely no idea.  And you probably don't either.  So let's keep this debate philosophical rather than personal.