Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Blaming Teachers" vs. being "Anti-Teacher"

Tim Daly confuses two different things in his post from three weeks ago (that I just found).  He lists a number of people in power and says that they can't possibly be blaming teachers b/c they repeatedly say in public appearances that they support teachers.

But placing the blame on teachers and being "anti-teacher" are two different things.  The whole "blame the teacher" movement really arises from the type of language that Daly's organization, The New Teacher Project (TNTP)*, uses on its website.  If you click on their hiring page, the first thing you'll read is "In recognition of the growing body of research showing that teachers matter most when it comes to raising student achievement, everything we do is oriented toward ensuring that all public schools—no matter where they are or who they enroll—are staffed with high-quality teachers."

It's hard to imagine anybody construing that as being anti-teacher.   TNTP strives to recruit and train the best teachers in some of the nation's worst schools -- in many ways, they do more to help teachers than almost any other organzation out there.

And yet, it's easy to read what they write and conclude that teachers are primarily responsible for the failures of so many of our schools.  TNTP's about us page says that "Effective teachers can close or eliminate the achievement gap."  It's easy to decide, after reading that, that any schools not narrowing or eliminating the achievement gap must be staffed by sub-par teachers.  And from there it's an easy leap to conclude that bad teachers are the main cause of underperfoming schools.

TNTP gets props for carefully wording the next sentence: "Research has shown that teacher quality is the single most important variable that schools control in their efforts to provide students with an excellent education." . . . too many people fail to understand the true meaning of this and simply say something to the effect of "teacher quality is the most important factor."  (Though, to be fair, they should also be ashamed for repeating a false statement in the following sentence).  But the emphasis of their information is clearly that teachers are really, really important.

Nobody's saying that teachers aren't important -- I have yet to meet anybody who doesn't acknowledge that teachers are the most important people in our educational system.  But it's easy to overstate the influence that teachers have and falsely assume that all teachers that don't work miracles are lazy and/or stupid.  And part of the reason that so many people have been doing this lately is because recruitment efforts run by TNTP and other groups essentially tell people that if they're smart and willing to work hard that they have what it takes to be a great teacher and make a difference in the world.

But the line he draws between those who support teachers and those who blame teachers is a faulty one.  There's no iron law of the universe that bars somebody from doing both.  You can be the most supportive parent in the world, but eventually you're going to fault your child for something they do wrong.  The two simply aren't mutually exclusive.

In fact, the two might go hand-in-hand.  The more important one thinks teachers are, the more incentive they have to help said teachers -- and the more reason they have to blame those teachers when something goes wrong.  If teachers weren't important, there would be no reason for us to focus such scrutiny on them.

The problem really comes when he conflates the "blame-the-teacher crowd" with the "anti-teacher" crowd.  These simply are not one and the same.  I'd expect a member of the latter to say something like "teachers are stupid, useless, and overpaid," while I'd expect a member of the former to say something like "teachers are super important and need to accept more responsibility for the failures of our schools."  To blame teachers for the downfall of our educational system, they must first believe that teachers have an important role to play in our educational system.  On the other hand, one can certainly begrudge teachers without acknowledging this.

Lastly, Mr. Daly probably oversells the importance of teachers.  Sure they're important, and his organization is probably better off focusing on one issue (teacher quality) than trying to tackle all of the zillions of issues facing students and schools.  But in their quest to raise more money and recruit more clients, they probably oversell the importance of teachers relative to these other factors.  As I pointed out last week, the analysis of value-added scores in LA found that good teachers were distributed across schools only slightly unevenly.  Since achievement is notdistributed relatively evently, it's pretty clear -- at least according to the latest value-added models -- that teachers are not the only thing that matter.  As such, we should be careful where we point our fingers

*disclaimer: I've both been trained by, and helped train teachers through, a TNTP program

update: Gideon makes a reasonable point in the comments that teachers have to accept more responsibility if they want more pay and more say.  Fair enough.  That issue is only tangentially related to this blog post, but it's also worth discussing.  For now I'd just add that there are different gradations of how much responsibility teachers have for student learning.  Research indicates that teachers are the most important (but not only) factor within schools, but that non-schools factors (including parents, health, neighborhood, and a zillion others) are, collectively, more important.  So it really becomes a discussion of how many other factors teachers should be expected to overcome (see here, for example).

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is it Really the 21st Century?

Gotham Schools pointed me to an interesting item that's been making waves today: the race-based election standards at Mississippi's Nettleton Middle School.  The school designates which student council members must be Black and which must be White.

Perhaps even more egregious is the high school's policies on homecoming/prom king and queen -- they have one Black and one White for each position (and one has to be a "single, unmarried female"  to be eligible for the queen or maid position).

As best I can tell, the middle school is 74% white/26%black and the high school is 64% white/36% black -- but there may be more official statistics somewhere.  The three administrators of the middle school are two Black females and the high school's head football coach (a White male), while the high school is run by three White males.

The school district quickly ended the elections policy, but made no mention of the homecoming/prom courts.  Meanwhile, links to the school handbook and event photos are now nowhere to be found on the district webpage. The statement references a 40 year-old court case that apparently required stronger desegregation efforts in the district.

To me, this is one of those things that sets your head spinning.  Apparently this is normal enough to the thousands of students and parents that have been part of these policies over the past few decades that it didn't come to light until now, but I have to believe that for most of the country the policies are, on face, simply outrageous and outdated.  The sad part is that I'm sure Nettleton isn't the only place that still has these types of rules.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What if we Closed the Achievement Gap and the Problem Remained?

Paul Tough has a piece in today's NY Times on the Harlem Children's Zone and Promise Neighborhoods that's worth a few minutes of your time.  But I actually want to comment on a tangentially related topic that the piece got me thinking about -- more specifically, this part:

Over the last few years, thanks in part to intensive recruiting by the New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Harlem and the Bronx have become a mecca for a highly successful class of charter schools, all run, to some degree, on the model of the nationwide, nonprofit Knowledge is Power Program: extended hours, energetic young teachers, an emphasis on discipline and character-building, as well as heavy doses of reading and math. 

These schools embody the attractive theory that we might be able to erase the achievement gaps between black and white children and between poor and middle-class children with nothing more than new and improved schools.

It made me wonder: what if, using this type of model, we successfully closed the achievement gap . . . and then realized that we hadn't really solved the problem.  Let's say we successfully raise math and reading test scores in the poorest neighborhoods but then find out that those children are still less likely to attend college, earn less money, get arrested more often, experience more health problems, and generally lag behind in both opportunities and quality of life.  What then?

Because the way I see it, the differences in math and reading standardized test scores isn't really the problem in and of itself but, rather, a symptom of a much larger problem with myriad causes.  This isn't to say that closing the achievement gap alone wouldn't be a good thing or wouldn't have ripple effects, just to suggest that focusing only on the gap in test scores is like focusing only on pumping water out of boat full full of holes . . . it would certainly be a good thing of the bilge pumps started removing more water than the boat was taking in, but in the end it really only alleviates one symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.

Monday, August 16, 2010

LA's Value-Added Kerfuffle

The LA Times ran an article Sunday that's the first in a series leading to the release of scores of teacher effectiveness based on a value-added model for all 3rd-5th grade math/ELA teachers -- which has already created quite a stir and will likely continue to cause a ruckus.  In short, the Times got its hands on 6 years of test data and hired an outside stats guru (the RAND corp's Richard Buddin) to analyze the data and rank the thousands of teachers according to their effectiveness at raising test scores, controlling for a number of factors.

The general tenor of the article suggests that value-added scores are an underutilized resource and that using them more could make huge differences.  The article notes in different ways that teachers are very, very important, that the right ones can make all the difference, and that we should be focusing more on hiring/training better teachers and firing worse ones.  None of which is in any way unusual to read in an article on education these days -- and none of which is completely without merit.  Teachers are important, and we do need to do a better job of ensuring that we have better teachers in our schools -- especially the schools with the most disadvantaged populations.

If you read the article carefully and then the background report on the methodology, however, a few things jump out:

*Teacher quality varies widely within schools -- just as with test scores, there's far more variation within schools than across schools ("Teachers are slightly more effective in high- than in low-API schools, but the gap is small, and the variance across schools is large").  Which means that the highest performing schools don't have all the best teachers and the lowest performing schools don't have all the worst teachers.  Which means that something other than teacher quality is causing schools to be low and high performing.  Which means we should probably focus our attention on more than just teacher quality.

*There's an extremely weak correlation between how the schools fare in the state API rating system and how they fare in a measure of "school effects" that controls for all sorts of factors.  As Buddin writes, "About a fourth of low-API schools have above average school value added relative to other elementary schools in the district.  Similarly, about a fourth of the highest-quartile API schools have below average school effectiveness.  The overall message is that many schools with low achievement levels are producing strong achievement gains and many schools with high achievement levels are producing weak achievement gains for their students."

*I'm not sure exactly how large the teacher effects are, but looking at the info they provide, with the exception of a few outliers, they don't appear to be earth-shatterlingly huge.  The methodology paper says that a student with a teacher one standard deviation above normal would move from the 50th to 58th percentile in ELA.  If I'm doing my math right (which I might not be -- it's late), that means that 2/3 of teachers, on average, move their students up or down less than one-fifth of a standard deviation each year.  The article mentions a teacher who's ranked among the top 5% of all elementary school teachers whose students gain, on average, 4 and 5 percentile points in ELA and math in a given year.

*The article mentions a teacher held in high-esteem at one of the highest scoring schools who performs far below average according to the value-added scores.  According to the article, her principal thinks she's a great teacher as do the kids and parents in her school. This means that either a.) principals, kids, and parents aren't good judges of teacher quality (at least sometimes), and/or b.) what people define as a good teacher only somewhat overlaps with what teachers can do to boost value-added scores

In future articles I'd really like to see a better description/graphic of how the large the differences in impacts of different teachers is.  From what I've read so far, it looks like the vast majority of teachers aren't really all that far apart.  Especially considering that previous research has found that you can't simply add one year of teacher effects from a great teacher to the next year's effects from another great teacher (e.g. having three straight teachers that boost scores 10 percentile points on average won't boost your score 30 percentile points).  I'd also like to see more on the stability of these results on a year-to-year basis -- previous research has found one year's value-added scores to be only loosely correlated with the previous year's scores (I think the latest paper on the topic found that it took three years to compute a stable score, which makes it hard to use value-added scores for yearly hiring or bonus decisions).

Also, don't forget that value-added scores a.) only represent part of what teachers do and b.) currently only apply to a small fraction of teachers.  if we consider elementary schools to be K-5, only grade 3-5 math/ELA teachers had value-added scores -- the majority of teachers in elementary schools teach either K-2 or something other than math/ELA . . . so this use of value-added is no magic bullet.

Lastly, I'd like to add a note about the practical application of these findings.  When we do a rigorous statistical analysis of teacher effectiveness, we control for all sorts of things, from previous test scores to the test scores of other kids in the class, and so on.  In short, the goal is to say "everything else equal, teacher A will raise test scores by x points more than teacher B".  But in real life, everything else isn't equal.  So even though the results indicate that the teachers in the worst schools are about as good as the teachers in the best schools, practically that doesn't mean that parents will be (or should be) any more likely to want their kids to attend the worst schools.  Mr. Jones might raise the average kid's score by 20 points, all else being equal, but that doesn't mean your kid's score is going to go up by 20 points in his class.

Keep your eyes on the situation, b/c I guarantee you there will be lots of exaggerated responses from people on both sides of the issue.  Just remember: value-added scores aren't completely worthless, but they also fall far short of solving all of our problems.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Might Teacher Turnover Affect Schools?

An awful lot of people seem to think that firing more teachers would solve all our problems, especially if those people are economists.

This Slate piece details a recent paper by economists whose simulation says we should fire 80% of all new teachers within two years in order to have the best teachers in the classroom.  And I recently saw a link to this piece, entitled "Does Teacher Turnover Matter?", tweeted by an economist.

The unifying theme between the two pieces is a significant downplaying of how high levels of teacher turnover and attrition might impact a school's culture or climate and, subsequently, its students.  I taught in a middle school in the Bronx that had average levels of turnover for a high-poverty school in NYC -- that is, about 50% of the teachers were in their first or second year in the school, and only one-third had five or more years of experience.

So what?  Here's the smell test that I think we need to start using more frequently in education policy discussions.  Would you want your kids to attend a school with such a teaching force?  Why or why not?

To me, that level of turnover signals that something's wrong: either the school is a miserable place to work, it's doing a really poor job of hiring the right people, or both.  And I'd rather my kid attended a school with a bit more stability.

I remember when I was little and had babysitters ten years my senior -- and I was always amazed because they'd had the same elementary school teachers that I had (or at least other teachers I knew of at the school).  There certainly wasn't zero turnover at our school, but it was low enough so that we could build some community and institutional memory.

And I don't see much discussion of school community, culture, or climate in these policy proposals thrown out by economists.  Yes, there are bad teachers out there.  Yes, if we had better teachers it would probably be a good thing.  But let's not pretend that every teacher is an island.  Teachers and students are all part of community that they interact with throughout every day.

It seems logical to me that the amount of teacher turnover in a school would affect the way that school operates.  A school like the one where I tuaght with a revolving door is always struggling to stay afloat while a teacher with a stable workforce can focus on taking the next steps.  Our school filled with wide-eyed newbies was a place for kids to come and do as they chose.  The school I attended when I was young was a place to go and listen to the teachers and principal.  And that's, in part, because the teachers had long been established there -- the parents, kids, community, and PTA all knew most of the teachers fairly well.

One of the first things I looked into when I entered academia was the way that teacher turnover influences student learning.  Surprisingly, I didn't find all that much.  We do have some limited evidence that it matters, at least in high-poverty, urban schools, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of other research on the topic.

Regardless of the state of the research, though, I think we need to think a little more critically when we read all these articles advocating more teacher firings and diminishing the effects of teacher turnover.  Teachers matter -- and we shouldn't allow those who don't care to remain in the teacher force -- but schools matter too, and we need to think about how firing teachers might impact a school before we decide it's a good idea.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why I'll Continue Blogging through my Dissertation

Those who read this blog regularly have likely noticed that I haven't been posting nearly as frequently over the past year or so.  During that time, I've given considerable thought to whether or not I should continue to blog in the near future.  My main goals over the next year are to: 1.) finish my dissertation, and 2.) get a job.  Continuing to blog isn't likely to help me with either.  But, after going back and forth for quite some time, I've decided that continuing to blog is, nonetheless, the right decision.  Here's why.

As I head to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association this weekend, I'm reminded of last year's meeting when more than one senior faculty member made it clear that they didn't look too fondly upon grad students and junior faculty wasting their time writing blogs or talking to the press instead of focusing their efforts on the only thing that matters: publishing their work in obscure academic journals.  As such, I find the prospect of entering a job market where I have to win the approval of various senior faculty to be somewhat daunting -- particularly while this blog remains active.  Any hiring committee that googles my name will find this blog at the top of the search results.

The safe play would likely be to discontinue and delete (to whatever extent that's possible) this blog and everything I've written on it.  That way I could be a safe, conventional candidate and step on as few toes as possible.  Which, given that we still seem to be mired in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, would probably be a really prudent thing to do.

But, ultimately, I don't want to pretend that I'm someone I'm not.  If a department is run by folks who think grad students and junior faculty should behave like 19th century children around the dinner table -- seen, but not heard -- that department probably isn't a good fit for me.

Besides, I think even a cursory glance of my CV and this blog would show where my priorities lie.  When I have final exams, paper deadlines, etc., I disappear from the blogosphere.  Could I be more productive at all times if I never blogged?  Perhaps.  But I find that blogging also forces me to sort out my ideas on a regular basis, invites more frequent outside critiques, and exposes me to new ideas and perspectives.  And those are the sorts of things that make me a better thinker and more well-rounded human being.

I'll be the first to admit that, like any good academic, I have a bit of an independent streak.  I don't want to be beholden to academic conventions any more than any good tenured professor wants to be beholden to his/her dean or board of trustees.  So even though I see a million reasons to stop, I won't.

How will hiring committees react to this blog (and possibly this post)?  I'm not really sure.  I suppose it would be easy to label me a rabble-rouser or an uncommitted academic.  But if any hiring committee members are reading this at some point in the future (side note: if they are, they're doing a pretty good job with their background search), I'd hope that they instead would see a student whose curiosity stretches beyond the bounds of academia; someone who enjoys conversing about education policy with others as often as possible; and a future expert in the field whose passion for that field is nearly limitless.

So instead of deleting this blog, or deleting selected posts that might upset people, or simply quitting and swearing off my past activities, I'm just going to continue to do what I've always done: try my best to advance the discussion of educational policy (though I'll likely do so less frequently over the next year or so).  Will I regret this decision when I find myself jobless 12 months from now?  Perhaps.  In the meantime, I look forward to exchanging ideas with all the interesting people who stop by this site and write on others.