Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Times' Tenure Math Problem

The NY Times today profiles some fairly reasonable, and minor, changes to the way tenure is granted to teachers in NYC (principals a.) have to describe why they're giving a teacher tenure and b.) are able to select from four ratings that can award, delay, or deny teachers tenure).

On the surface, those make sense, and the article seems to do a pretty good job describing them.  But I have a problem with the math on which the article is premised.  The second sentence of the article states that "virtually every new teacher earns" tenure, and then later cites a statistic that "6,400 teachers who were eligible for tenure, 234 teachers were denied it, or roughly 3.7 percent".

The problem here is that a "new teacher" and a teacher "eligible for tenure" are two very different things.  Writing that 96% of those eligible are awarded tenure is very different from writing that "virtually every new teacher earns" tenure.  Why?  To start with, NYC has a high attrition rate -- particularly among new teachers.  Nationwide, around 50% of teachers in urban schools leave within their first three years.  Let's say that that statistic is precisely correct for the teachers that entered NYC schools in 2007; the correct calculation would then be that 46% of new teachers who began teaching in 2007 were awarded tenure in 2010 -- which looks like very different.  In other words, the statement that "virtually every new teacher earns" tenure is demonstrably false.

Now, the 46% statistic wouldn't be all that helpful in judging the rigor of the tenure process because new teachers leave for all sorts of reasons.  Some leave because their principals threaten to fire them if they don't; some leave because they simply prefer a different district or profession; some leave because they're simply unhappy; and some leave for other reasons or a combination of reasons (e.g. family relocation, pregnancy, health, etc.).

So, leaving aside the silly -- but important -- syntax error by the Times, what would actually be the actual best way to compute how many teachers earn tenure?  There are a few different ways depending on exactly what the question is that one wants to answer, but I think you'd have to start by defining a population of teachers who want to earn tenure at some point during their teaching career (in NYC that would mean they want to teach in the city for more than 3 years).  Exactly who counts in that group is up for debate: for example, would we include a teacher who wants to make it a career during year 1 but finds that he/she just doesn't like teaching during year 2?  There's no clear answer.  I would certainly include, however, any teachers who leave explicitly because they believe they will receive a negative rating if they don't -- something that happens all over the place but never seems to get mentioned in the press and only rarely in academic work (I've heard economists reference "the dance of the lemons," to describe teachers who transfer to other schools to avoid being fired).  The estimate would shed some light on how many unsuccessful teachers -- teachers who might not receive tenure if they went through the process -- are leaving prior to starting their 4th year.

Whatever parameters one set, the answer to how many teachers tried to get tenure and didn't would be somewhere between the 46% estimate above and the 96% statistic cited by the NY Times.  The more practical questions to answer, however, would really be in estimating how many people would be valuable as tenured teachers but don't end up teaching more than 3 years for whatever reason and how many are not particularly valuable as tenured teachers but earn tenure anyway for any number of reasons (my guess is that the former group is larger than the latter, though there are also probably quite a few in the former who wouldn't stay in teaching almost no matter what), and then figuring out how to get more in the former group to stay and more in the latter group to leave.

At any rate, I don't think there's much disagreement that tenure is too easy to earn in NYC (personally I'd argue for a more meaningful process that's awarded a little later in one's career, and matched by some added distinction that's meaningful to teachers), so I don't want readers to think that this critique of the Times' math problem is really a veiled attack on any who would dare insinuate that all teachers aren't perfect.  But the Times should know better than to make such silly mistakes.  And I hope that readers know better than to accept such superficial calculations as gospel.

Do "virtually all new teacher earn" tenure?  No.  Do almost all teachers who go up for tenure review earn tenure?  Yes.  But those are two very different statistics -- and neither really answers the more important questions of how many excellent teachers don't receive tenure and how many poor teachers do.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Remember: Not Everyone Prioritizes Achievement

The commentariat seems to agree on two things regarding American schools: that they're not good enough and that students need to be learning more.  Read a random blog or watch a random talk show and you'll likely see or hear something about more rigorous curricula, longer hours, longer school years, or some sort of argument that our students need to be pushed harder.

And you're twice as likely to see or hear these things after the results of an international assessment are released (e.g. the latest PISA results this week) and the U.S. again ranks behind a lot of countries.

But we in the education world can sometimes forget that there are other things that matter too.   It would be wise for those driving this commentary to remember that not everybody shares their priorities and keep in mind that many people in our country have no interest in spending more time in school.  I'd divide this constituency into three different groups:

1.) People who absolutely detest school and can't wait for the bell to ring.  Witness this cartoon comparing school to jail . . . with the only difference being that the disgusting food offered in jails is always free.  For kids who believe school is tantamount to jail or torture, it's unclear how exposing them to more misery will improve their lives.  In other words, it may be more important to find a type of schooling that they only hate a little bit than to simply pile on more.

2.) Families with students enrolled in elite, high-pressure schools (usually private or suburban).  Witness the number of parents excited by the new movie "Race to Nowhere" that chronicles the downside of such schools.  Indeed, the most obvious sign of the difference between classes when it comes to schooling may be the broad push for more rigorous schooling for low-income students while high-income parents increasingly worry about the amount of stress their children endure while running five clubs, taking 4 AP classes, and waking up early for SAT prep class on Saturday before going out to volunteer at the local animal shelter.

3.) Those whose priorities lie elsewhere -- e.g. sports.  Witness the saga of Urban Meyer, the University of Florida's highly successful football coach, who stepped down yesterday -- at the age of 46 -- because he wanted to spend more time with his family.  Did the press release say that he wanted to help them with their homework or volunteer in their classrooms?  No.  It said that "after spending more than two decades motivating and celebrating the young men I've been so proud to coach, I relish the opportunity to cheer for my three terrific kids as they compete in their own respective sports".  For other families it's music, art, drama, religion, or any of a million other activities that evoke more passion.

 There's some overlap, of course, between these groups.  But an awful lot of students/parents/families fall into at least one of these groups.  This certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't examine longer days/years or such reforms to boost our national achievement levels.  But it does mean that we shouldn't assume that these types of changes would automatically be popular or successful.  And it illustrates some of the trade-offs of these types of reforms.

In a number of the highest scoring countries, many kids spend countless hours in "cram schools" after school and on weekends -- essentially doing test prep.  American kids, on the other hand, are more likely to go to football practice, piano lessons, or their part-time job after school.  There's no objective answer as to which practice is better, but time is finite and kids can't do everything.  And many, many parents would prefer that their kids choose from the latter list.

So, by all means, we should be examining ways in which we can boost our national achievement.  But boosting these test scores isn't the only thing that the citizens of our country care about.  As such, any reform designed to boost these scores will not automatically be accepted by all.  In short, a more productive discussion would weigh the costs and benefits of emphasizing different areas rather than simply assuming that everybody wants higher test scores at whatever cost.

Are Superintendant Searches a Thing of the Past?

After NYC hired an outsider (Joel Klein) to run their schools, Pittsburgh decided to hire an outsider as well (Mark Roosevelt).  Both leaders were controversial, but can claim some successes.  And both were generally liked more by policy wonks than by teachers or parents.

When NYC decided to replace Klein this year, the process was done behind closed doors and -- as far as anyone can tell -- exactly one candidate was interviewed (update: apparently, at least one other person may have been offered the job).  The end result is a prospective new chancellor (Cathleen Black) that may be even more strongly disliked by parents and teachers.  When Pittsburgh needed to replace their superintendent this year, meetings were held behind closed doors and exactly one candidate was interviewed.  The announcement was made today that the board will hire Deputy Superintendant Linda Lane as the next leader of Pittsburgh Public Schools on Monday.  It remains to be seen how parents and teachers will react to the news, but it seems unlikely that the move was made to assuage their concerns.

There, are, however, three major differences:

1.) Lane has spent almost 40 years working as a teacher and administrator in public schools, while it was unclear whether Black had even ever set foot in a public school when her hiring was announced.

2.) While Bloomberg was evasive and seemed to insinuate that others were interviewed for the position, the Pittsburgh Board of Education is being upfront about it.  Said the board president: "What would be the point of spending the money to do the search when what we wanted was right here?"

3.) Many in the press and public turned on Bloomberg after his announcement.  Judging by the glowing article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, however, Lane is apparently already beloved by the press.  It will be interesting to see if the public feels the same way.  Despite the glowing review, it does seem somewhat unlikely that a board of ed that didn't even feel the need to pretend that they were conducting a thorough search would emerge completely unscathed.