Monday, December 22, 2008

Is there such a thing as a "Bad Teacher" or "Good Teacher?"

An awful lot is made these days about the need for high-quality teachers in our schools. And I agree: we need good teachers in our schools. But I'm not sure that "good teacher" really means anything -- and the same goes for "bad teacher."

Kevin Carey wrote earlier about recent findings that value-added measures are inconsistent and identify the same teachers as very good or very bad depending on the year or test on which they're based. This means at least one of the following two things:

1.) The tests aren't very precise at measuring student growth
2.) The amount of student growth under the same teacher varies in different years

Let's focus on number two. If the same teacher can get good test scores one year and bad the next (or vice-versa) it may be the case that their level of success depends on many things besides their teaching ability. In other words, the particular kids they have, the dynamics of the class, the dynamics of the school, the teacher's personal life, the subject matter, the weather, and who knows what else may affect the quality of a teacher in any given year.

This makes sense to me. I'm good at teaching kids how to swim faster; I'm not good at teaching them how to dance. I can teach 6th graders about gravity, but I'd be an awful AP Physics teacher. It's easy to see that being a good teacher for one subject or age group does not mean that you'll be a good teacher for another subject or age group. And it makes perfect sense that somebody could be a good teacher for Class A and not for Class B -- or in School A but not in School B. I'd argue that teaching different subjects in different schools across different age groups requires very different skills (not to mention different areas of expertise).

In other words, it's likely that a teacher's success in a particular classroom is due at least as much to contextual conditions as it is to any innate ability. When declaring that a teacher is "good" or "bad" we should take these things into account.

Bottom line: finding the best fit for a teacher may be easier than simply trying to find the best teacher.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Brief Update . . . Finally

I've disappeared because I find myself in the middle of yet another finals week (my final one with a full courseload) -- when fatigue makes bad jokes and puns seem funnier (punnier?) and cynicism runs rampant. I'll wait until after I'm thinking clearly again to post some thoughts on:

-Michelle Rhee, the intimidator
-"Defeatists," the enemies of David Whitman
-False Dichotomies, David Brooks' specialty when writing about education
and other pressing issues . . .

But for now I'll just chuckle at the headlines in the newest journal of education, EdTweak (e.g. "New Study Links Teacher Unions with Satan"), eat some cookies (side note: don't use whole wheat flour when making chocolate chip cookies -- it's just not worth it), and get back to work.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More on "Broken Windows" and Education

I wrote a couple of days ago about the "broken windows" theory and education based on the recent article in Science. The theory essentially holds that small amounts of disorder will lead to more problems b/c people come to accept greater levels of disorder over time as it becomes the norm. And this certainly happens in schools as well as in neighborhoods.

But the authors make a bit of a finer distinction within the notion of disorder and norms. They divide social norms into "injunctive norms" and "descriptive norms" -- with the former representing, essentially, what people believe society deems acceptable and the latter representing solely what people observe, whether they believe it to be acceptable or not. The two are often in opposition -- for instance, if you think that speeding is a bad thing but also believe that almost everybody does it. In such a case I find it odd to call following speed limits a "norm" when you normally see people doing otherwise. I can be convinced otherwise, but I think the two would be better characterized as rules (whether written or unwritten) and norms. One dictates what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the other dictates what is normal and abnormal behavior.

The experiments test both how behavior changes when people witness rule-breaking and how it changes when people perceive disorder as a norm. In the case of the former, people are more likely to litter when they hear illegal fireworks being shot off than when they don't. And in the case of the latter, people are twice as likely to steal an envelope with money in it when the mailbox is covered with graffiti or surrounded by litter.

In other words, there are two different ways in which disorder can affect a school: In the case of rule-breaking, when students see other students chewing gum, carrying cell phones, or breaking other rules that might not really be enforced they come to believe that rules, in general, aren't really enforced or important and are more likely to break them. In the case of degradation of norms, when students see others running, shouting, pushing, etc. they're more likely to believe that chaos (or at least unruly behavior) is the norm and conform accordingly. Or at least that's how my experience would lead me to believe their research translates to schools.

So what are the implications? I'd guess the vast majority of teachers and administrators would agree, at least to some extent, with the previous paragraph. But knowing that disorder begets disorder and stopping disorder are two different things. I don't have all the answers, but I would say two things are most important:

1.) Don't make rules that can't or won't be enforced. If you're not actually going to suspend a kid every time you see them carrying a cell phone, then don't say you will. And in the case where the principal sets the rule this applies not just to you personally, but to the staff collectively. If all teachers aren't going to enforce the rule, then it's probably not a good rule to have. If kids see other kids playing on their cell phone in class, and those kids aren't suspended the next day then nobody's going to take that rule seriously. And once kids learn that not every rule has to be taken seriously, every other rule is in peril as well.

2.) Take action against low levels of disorder. That means somebody talking out of turn in class, yelling in the hallway, refusing to do assignments, etc. Maybe rules against such aren't codified, but when something small like this occurs it's important that the student is both made aware that it's unacceptable and that the behvaior is nipped in the bud to whatever degree possible.

Implementing number two is a task that I don't envy. What happens when a kid is made aware that his/her behavior is unacceptable and they continue it anyway? Some sort of consequences must follow. What happens when the student isn't bothered by the consequences and continues the behavior? Now the school's in a pickle (unless, of course, they can expel the student -- but even then such a decision should not be made lightly).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Follow-Up on Pittsburgh's Grading Policy

Overheard today in a Pittsburgh school:

Teacher (to Student A, who was refusing to do work): "How many points do you get if you do nothing?"
Student B: "Zero"
Student A: "Fifty"
[Student A continues to refuse to do the assignment]

And that's why I whined so much about Pittsburgh's new grading policy when it was implemented (here, here, here, and here)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Schools and "Broken Windows"

I think virtually everybody is familiar with the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention made famous by Rudy Giuliani -- the notion that small amounts of disorder (e.g. broken windows) can, over time, foster more crime and that the way to prevent large amounts of crime is to crack down on small things before they snowball.

Well, now some researchers have conducted a series of experiments to test out this theory (hat tip: Ideas Blog). The experiments were small-scale. For example, they left an envelope with a 5 euro bill in it sticking out of a mailbox. People were twice as likely to steal the money if mailbox was covered in graffiti or surrounded by trash (abstract). Both the full paper and the article summarizing it are behind a subscription wall, but The Economist has a good synopsis of the findings here.

None of the experiments involve schools, but they do involve people breaking rules and not following directions -- something that happens an awful lot in some schools. The broken windows theory has received a lot of criticism, but I think a lot of this may be due to the way that policies were enacted rather than the underlying truth of the theory. I'd welcome hearing from somebody who disagrees, but it's hard for me to see the general theory as anything but intuitively true.

If you buy the theory, it leads one to believe that we should implement "zero tolerance" policies in our schools. But such policies have become a lightning rod for criticism. Why? Probably because they're zero tolerance for major infractions like bringing weapons to school and sexual harassment. Kids being suspended or expelled for bringing plastic knives or for kindergartners touching members of the opposite sex in ways they couldn't really comprehend was sexual has led to widespread disgruntlement with such policies.

While weapons and sexual harassment are huge problems and should be dealt with as such, they're far from the largest obstacles to learning on a day-to-day basis in most schools. That honor would go to minor issues like talking in class. I would argue that these are the true "broken windows" of schools.

And I think a lot of teachers know as such. A lot of the discussion amongst teachers in my school centered around relatively minor incidents that they believed served as tipping points in their classroom. For example: a teacher next door to me my first year had a student that was momentarily out of control and clearly crossed the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Just then the Asst. Principal stepped into the room and asked if the teacher needed anything. The teacher replied that they needed the AP to remove the student from the classroom for a few minutes. The AP declined to do so. And from that point forward, students knew they could get away with things that they had previously believed they couldn't.

Now, that's not really a true fit for broken windows theory, but I could tell a thousand other similar stories. The bottom line is that it was quite clear to me that students were more likely to act up when they perceived that such actions were acceptable b/c they seemed to be the norm in the classroom, hallway, cafeteria, etc. As such, it seems that a zero-tolerance policy of some sort is wholly merited. How else to prevent the chaos that reigns in too many (note: "too many" does not imply anywhere near a majority) schools today. But how to implement one?

In other words, can a school implement a zero-tolerance policy in a way that is neither draconian nor militaristic? The closest I've seen to such policies (though I'm not sure they're 100% non-draconian/militaristic) is in the so-called paternalistic schools that David Whitman profiles. The schools go to great lengths to ensure that not a single infraction goes unnoticed, no matter how small. I'm not sure that all schools confronted by discipline problems should (or can) mirror these policies, but I think the theory behind them is sound.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Final Problem Set

I am currently in the process of completing what I believe to be the final problem set of my grad school career (which is why I won't be posting anything in the near future). Given my apparent prowess at basic statistics, however, I'm wondering what the odds are of me being exempted from this assignment (bad statistics joke omitted for your protection).

Perhaps the better question is how much longer this will take me to do if I spend any more time trying to get out of it.

p.s. to any of you having a miserable Friday . . . at least you're not converting log odds to probability in hierarchical linear models

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What to do about Teacher Certification?

Teacher certification seems to be a hot-button issue, and a couple of recent pieces have had me thinking about it this past weekend: Eduwonkette's post on Richard Ingersoll's work and Nicholas Kristof's op-ed advocating less rigid teacher certification requirements.

A growing number of people seem to advocate against teacher certification, or at least against the rigid requirements that are often in place. And research offers quite a bit of support for this position; quite a bit of evidence exists that certified teachers do no better or only slightly better than uncertified ones. Furthermore, I don't think anybody doubts that certification requirements are a barrier to entry; that is, that they prevent some people from becoming a teacher.

So it's quite logical to advocate that we get rid of (or at least significantly reduce) requirements; they don't seem to be doing much, and we would likely have a wider field of people from which to choose. Such a position is eminently logical -- and probably wouldn't do much, if any, harm -- but it rests on two faulty assumptions.

First of all, it assumes that anybody who is smart and willing to work hard will be a good teacher. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I rarely take strong positions on things since the world is rarely so cut and dried. But few positions in education irk me as much this one. If you believe that anybody who is smart and works hard will be a good teacher, you are wrong. Let me repeat that. If you believe that anybody who is smart and works hard will be a good teacher, you are wrong.

The world simply does not work that way. What makes a good teacher? Nobody has been able to quantify this, but it certainly involves more than knowledge and work ethic. Take colleges as an example: virtually all courses are taught by an expert in that field and an awful lot of these people have a pretty strong work ethic, but how many are great teachers? In other words, how many brilliant professors are also awful teachers? A lot. And the same is true at all levels. You can know everything and work your butt off, but that doesn't guarantee you'll be a good teacher. Teaching is an art, and it simply doesn't work that way. This is not to say, of course, that intelligence, knowledge, and a strong work ethic aren't qualities we want in teachers -- simply that those qualities alone guarantee nothing about the ability of a person to teach well.

Secondly, those opposed to certification requirements assume that certification programs cannot help people. This is false. Oftentimes, they are not helping people. And there's a large gap between cannot and are not. In other words, the fact that a certification program is not working leaves us with two options: ending that program or improving it so that it does work.

Why do I say that these two are underlying assumptions of this position? Let's play fill in the blanks: People who are smart and work hard ______ good teachers, and teacher certification programs _______ help people become good teachers. Therefore, teacher certification requirements should ___________.

Option A:
People who are smart and work hard are good teachers, and teacher certification programs do not help people become good teachers. Therefore, teacher certification requirements should be eliminated or drastically reduced.

Option B:
People who are smart and work hard only sometimes make good teachers, and teacher certification programs aren't doing enough to help people become good teachers. Therefore, teacher certification requirements should do more to help people become better teachers.

You're welcome to fill it in your own way since there are always more than two options.

A few other notes:

1.) Be wary of research showing that certified teachers perform no better. The comparison groups in some of these studies aren't equal. Particularly with programs like Teach For America, the people in the uncertified group are quite different from those in the certified group. In other words, the fact that one group is certified and one isn't are not the main differences between those two groups.

Imagine a study of major league baseball players, including some who went straight to pro ball from high school and some who played in college before going to the pros. Let's say that we find no difference in batting average, home runs, etc. between the two groups and conclude that playing college baseball does nothing to enhance one's ability and, therefore, that there's no reason to play in college. We have two large problems with this conclusion. 1.) The top high school stars usually get large bonuses and forgo college -- meaning that the group of players who went straight from HS to the pros had better natural talent, or at least that their talent blossomed earlier. 2.) Success in baseball isn't only about hitting home runs or striking out batters -- just like success in teaching isn't only about raising test scores. It's entirely possible that those who went to college are better at sacrifice bunts or less likely to get arrested, etc. And those variables are going to be left out of the study b/c they're difficult and time-consuming to measure. They're what some economists like to call "unobservables" (despite the fact that they can be observed -- but that's a different pet peeve for a different time).

In this analogy, those who are coming in through other ways have more natural talent -- and the fact that certified teachers are doing just as well, if not better, might mean actually mean that certification contributes more than we think.

2.) But, wait, isn't the idea that those who are coming in through alternate routes have more natural talent an argument for getting rid of certification? Yes, it is. In case you thought I was making an argument for more rigid teacher certification requirements, I'm not. My goal was more to point out that the situation is not as simple and straightforward as it might seem. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of this issue. And I'm annoyed with people who oversimplify from either end -- it's just that right now more people are oversimplifying from the side that teacher certification is bad.

That said, let me make one last point. Even if alternative routes to certification attract more talented people it doesn't necessarily mean that getting rid of certification is the answer. Certification affects more than just who enters the field -- it also affects who remains in the field. A lot of alt cert people (myself included) exit the field rather rapidly. It's entirely possible that having no certification requirements would lead to an increasingly transitory teaching force -- which could have all sorts of negative effects.

There's more to cover on this topic, but that's enough for now

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quick Thought on the Incentives of Incentive Pay

I wrote yesterday about how some are frustrated that when unions attempt to protect their members from capricious firings that they also make it more difficult to fire those who should not be teaching. And a related thought occurred to me today.

If all staff members in a school were rewarded when the school performed well (assuming, of course, that a school's performance can be accurately measured), wouldn't that make those staff members more eager to rid themselves of any weak links -- aka "bad" teachers?

And, in such a case, might it not be more effective if teachers shared in personnel decisions -- rather than leaving such matters solely up to principals?

What to Worry About if You're Above Attending a "Failing" School

Fascinating article on "the rise of overparenting" in The New Yorker yesterday (hat tip: Ideas Blog). I think this, as much as anything, shows the difference between the so-called haves and have-nots in our society. As I've mentioned before, the upper-class children/schools are doing fine. It's the poor urban/rural children/schools that are really lagging behind. While we worry about 6th graders who can't read and 15 year-olds that are still in 5th grade in the "failing" schools, the upper crust of society worries about things like "overparenting" (or one of the four other terms they use for it) and whether playing Mozart will help their three-month old.

Though this behavior may have some worrisome consequences, what I find most worrying is the idea that these parents are so focused on helping their children gain an advantage that knowing other children are less privileged gives them hope. I'm not sure I buy the argument that the wealthy deliberately let impoverished schools fail in order to help their children, but I can't help but wonder if some parts of society are bothered less by this than others.

A couple of interesting notes:

-If those wages are correct, I really need to start tutoring.

-Washington D.C. residents who had no time limits for their SAT (ADD/ADHD) significantly outscored those who didn't -- I wonder if that's true across the country.

Two best quotes from the article:

Regarding the degree to which children's lives are overscheduled:
“You can’t smoke pot or lose your virginity at lacrosse practice.”

Making an argument to slow down and let the child explore:
“Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Do Unions Place Adults Before Children?

A few months ago I characterized Johnathon Alter's statement that unions "believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children" as "sheer and utter nonsense." But he's far from the only one saying things like this.

Just yesterday the NY Times published an article in which Michelle Rhee said that "Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions, but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults."

Simon Campbell, the founder of (the name explains the purpose of the site), argues that "A child's right to a strike-free education supersedes a teacher's right to strike."

Beyond the world of education, The Economist's blog on American politics recently wrote that "With American carmakers nearing extinction the argument that unions are bad for business carries more heft than usual."

They're not exactly the same, but arguing that unions are bad for students and bad for profits are roughly similar. In both cases, the person making the argument believes that the union's main goal is not the same as the main goal of the organization/business. In some broad sense, there's a grain of truth to this.

A business example: The UAW's main goal is for their members to be paid and treated well -- GM's main goal (for example) is to make money. It's possible that GM could make more money by hiring a lot of workers for dirt-cheap wages and treating them like crap. But that doesn't mean they don't have common goals. Both groups have a strong interest in the company being profitable (an unprofitable business can't keep workers employed, yet along give them raises) and both groups hopefully have some sort of concern for society and humanity at large. In this sense, even if GM could make a lot of money through unethical means I would hope that they would think twice about their responsibility to do otherwise. And employing a bunch of people who have stable jobs and earn enough to make a decent living is good for the country.

For schools, I'd hope that the main goal of a school would be to educate its students as well as possible. One could argue that the main goal of a teachers' union is to ensure that its members are treated fairly and paid well, and they would have a point; that's probably their main goal. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they do that at the expense of students. Ultimately, teachers care about their students . . . and a union of teachers, when you boil it down, is really just a large group of teachers.

In the short run, I can see the argument that teachers going on strike or fighting for tenure isn't necessarily in the best interest of students. But when you look at the big picture, I don't think there are any grounds for declaring that unions believe adults are more important than students or protect adults at the expense of students. And I say that for a number of reasons:

1.) Unions aren't perfect, but they're not evil as some seem to believe. There is no sinister plot by the unions to take over the world. They don't hire monsters to hide under your child's bed at night. Their black helicopters aren't coming to get you. And any rhetoric to the contrary shouldn't be taken seriously.

2.) Much of what is in the best interest of teachers is also in the best interest of students. A more stable and professional teaching force, smaller classes, and a more orderly environment are a few of the things for which unions fight. All are in the best interest of both teachers and students.

3.) While a single bad teacher remaining in their position or a single district going on strike may not immediately benefit the students of those teachers, that doesn't mean that the broad rules surrounding such events doesn't benefit students. The fact that principals can't dismiss teachers at whim both protects some teachers who shouldn't be protected and prevents a class full of second graders from losing their wonderful teacher in the middle of the year because that teacher disagree with the principal about something. Similarly, the right to strike sometimes hurts students in the short-run but, in the long run, it could lead to a union that has more leverage to fight for the types of things I discussed in #2.

4.) Unions aim to make teachers happy, and I find it hard to believe that unhappy teachers benefit anybody. In fact, according to a recent internal study in Austin, happier teachers may lead to more successful schools.

I get the feeling that part of the reason that people don't take these things into account is because of the positions that unions are forced to take. When Michelle Rhee wants to ax a large number of teachers, the union has is forced into a corner and has no other option but to fight the plan (or at least parts of it). And fighting against a plan designed to get rid of poor teachers makes the union look bad. But I don't think any union, or any union member, would argue that we should protect bad teachers. My guess is that if Rhee had asked the union to propose a plan that they would have some sort of provision that allowed for the dismissal of the worst teachers. But the ways in which teachers are vilified by so many in the education policy arena doesn't allow unions to take the offensive in ridding their bodies of their worst members because they're too busy defending those that aren't the worst.

Anyway, here are some concluding thoughts: Are unions perfect? No. Should they perhaps be a little more flexible? Yes. Could they do a better job of working with reform-minded superintendents? Cetainly. But, are they the scourge of the Earth sent from hell to ensure that children don't learn? No, they're not, and don't believe anybody who says so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Redux: Is Education Spending Really Skyrocketing?

Back in the spring I wrote a piece on the trajectory of school spending in the United States. Unfortunately, I later realized (and Sherman Dorn later pointed out) that my graph was fatally flawed. I compared per-pupil expenditures to GDP when what I really meant to do was compare per-pupil expenditures to GDP per capita. I finally found that data and took some time to make some colorful graphs, so here's what I've found.

Before I get to the graphs, let me back up for a second. Nobody disputes that expenditures on education have risen quite dramatically in real dollars over the past century in the United States. But I'm not sure that's the most appropriate statistic at which to look b/c there's no context. Just as people would expect to spend different amounts on food or housing depending on their income, a country would expect to spend different amounts on education depending on their wealth. In other words: you'd expect the U.S. to spend more on education than Somalia because the U.S. has more money to spend. Similarly, you'd expect the U.S. to spend more now than in 1930 b/c the U.S. now has more money to spend. So the question shouldn't be "how much more do we spend on education now?" it should be "how much more should we spend on education now?"

Before anybody gets up in arms, I am not arguing that we should expand education funding ad infinitum. It's clear that wealthier countries can spend more on education than can poorer countries, but at what point has a country spent enough? One way of visualizing this is to compare education spending to overall wealth. Before reading the graphs below, ask yourself this question: as a country grows wealtheir, should the percentage of wealth spent on education increase, decrease, or stay constant?

Your answer to this question is largely dependent on how you view education. If education is a necessity, like food, then the percentage of resources that one devotes to it would decline as one grows wealthier. If it's a luxury item, like vacations, then the percentage of resources that one devotes to it would increase as one grows wealthier. In the former case, money spent on education would be a non-negotiable essential; in the former, one would first pay for the essentials and then use disposable income to pay for education.

I would argue some combination of all of the above. It might be easier if I drew this on a graph, but I already have too many graphs so I'm just going to try and explain it. Some level of schooling is practically essential for a country. As far as I know every country in the world has some sort of schooling -- even if it's 100 kids and one teacher in a ramshackle schoolhouse withone textbook to share. So some portion of a country's resources should be devoted to education no matter what. Schooling beyond the bare bones is more of a luxury item -- on which countries should spend their disposable income. In other words, before building sprawling campuses with swimming pools, LCD projectors, etc. a country would make sure that is has already covered the costs of basic infrastructure and security. And at some point the marginal returns to education spending would start to decline rapidly -- at which point that country would probably want to stop raising spending in absolute dollars (meaning that it would fall as a percentage of wealth). In other words, poor countries should devote an ever growing share of their resources to education as they grow wealthier, middle-income countries should devote about the same percentage of resources as they grow wealthier, and at some undetermined points the wealthiest countries should start devoting a smaller share of their resources.

It's probably easier to understand if we use a family as an analogy for a country. A very poor family will make sure that their child goes to school and try to provide that child with some basic supplies -- pencils, notebooks, etc. As the family grows wealthier they have more disposable income and can afford to buy the child books, magazines, fancy binders, perhaps an extra tutoring session, etc. As the family grows wealthier still they might choose to spend a condsiderable portion of their disposable income on sending the child to a private school. But at some point there's really not much more that the family can do for their child by spending more on their education -- the child is enrolled in the best private school, has a top-notch laptop with expensive software, individual tutors for all subjects, attends elite academic summer camps, etc. So the family may grow even wealthier, but that additional wealth would be devoted toward things other than education b/c they've maxed out their ability to aid the education of their child. If I've just wasted this space trying to explain and it still doesn't make sense then somebody let me know and I'll make a follow-up post with a graph and more concise explanation.

Anyway, to the graphs:

All graphs show spending in constant dollars -- meaning that lines do not increase due to inflation. Graph 1 shows per-pupil expenditures in the U.S. since 1930 -- you'll see why I said that nobody disputes that the rise has been dramatic. Graph 2 shows the trend in the ratio between GDP per capita and per-pupil expenditures since 1980. Graph 3 shows the comparison in growth between GDP per capita and per-pupil expenditures since 1980. You can see larger versions of the graphs by clicking on them.

Graph 1

Graph 2

Graph 3

So, while education spending in the U.S. appears to have skyrocketed over the past 85 years, it has actually shrunk as a ratio of wealth over the past 25. As you can see in graph 3, real per-pupil expenditures almost doubled between 1980 and 2005, but real per capita GDP nearly quadrupled during that same timespan (I'd really like to get GDP per capita back to 1930, but haven't found it that far back -- if anybody can help me out with that then let me know).

In other words, even though we're spending more money on eduation we're spending a lower percentage of our wealth on education. As I argued before, that's not necessarily a bad thing: at some point more spending on education stops helping. So the question is, are we at that point?

footnote: GDP data were obtained from the IMF:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fact Check

I generally think people tend to overstate the failure of our education system, but I feel compelled to offer up a correction when I hear something verifiably untrue.

Earlier this evening I heard Margaret Carlson of Newsweek say something to the effect of "every schoolkid knows all of the continents."

I taught the oceans and continents to my some of said schoolchildren. I graded those tests. I can personally vouch for the fact that this statement is FALSE.

More Great Teachers or More Students per Great Teacher?

The education research community has reached consensus on very few issues. One that seems to be almost universally agreed upon is that teachers are the largest within-school factor affecting student performance. As a result, I think just about everybody agrees that students having better teachers is a good thing. But it seems like everybody has a different idea as to how we can do this.

I'll skip over recruitment, retention, and training of teachers for right now and focus on the debate around class size. We can boil it down to essentially two positions:

1.) Classes should be made as small as possible because teachers are more effective when they have to teach fewer kids

2.) We should assign the best teachers as many kids as feasibly possible in order to ensure that as many kids as possible have a great teacher

The Economist's blog on American politics has an interesting post essentially supporting position #2, but taking up another notch. The author suggests that the best teachers be broadcast to multitudes of classrooms across the country -- possibly thousands of students.

On the one hand, I wouldn't completely dismiss the idea -- particularly in subjects where there are shortages of experts -- because it has the potential to help students. But, on the other, the logistical problems would be enormous: Who manages the class? Who answers student questions? Who grades homework? and so on.

But here's my largest logistical beef with the idea: if the lessons are broadcast to audiences so large that interaction is impossible then why do they have to be broadcast live? Wouldn't a video be the same thing? Or, better yet, wouldn't some sort of integrated software with video be even better?

I'm not sure at what point somebody ceases to be a "teacher" -- does "teaching" somebody require interaction with them? Am I a teacher if I write a book on how to build a chair and somebody reads it and learns how to build a chair? Because I don't see much difference between that and the distance learning to the nth degree proposal. Which would then raise the question: do people learn best when taught by a teacher? My how complicated these things get. I'm going to stop there for now, but don't ever let anybody tell you that education is simple.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Charter Advantages: Cause for Cynicism or Reason for Expansion?

I wrote yesterday about Eva Moskowitz's charter schools in NYC -- more specifically, how they follow in the paternalistic tradition of a number of charter schools. I noted that Moskowitz made very stringent demands of parents and informed those who didn't want to follow that they should take their kids elsewhere. The fact that charter schools can influence who attends their schools has become somewhat of a running theme in this blog. While I have absolutely no idea how pervasive it is, it's quite clear that some charter schools go to great lengths to push out certain types of students -- something that traditional public schools simply cannot do.

Legally, I'm not sure if charter schools have any more right to expel a child than does a traditional public school (I'm guessing this might differ by locale, but if anybody has seen anything on this topci, let me know) but, practically, charter schools absolutely have more power to get rid of a child. KIPP is known for holding back a number of children -- many of whom transfer to another school rather than repeat a grade. According to David Whitman's book, the SEED Academy expels almost 6% of its students each year and 30% are not promoted to 9th grade on their first try.

Now, I'm not sure of two things:

1.) How widespread the practice of expelling kids (or, in most cases, recommending that they leave) is across charter schools.

2.) How much their de facto ability to expel some students and deter others from attending affects the climates and the successes and failures of such schools.

But my gut feeling is that these are having some sort of effect -- and I'm not sure anybody would disagree (but, please, feel free to). So, for a moment let's assume that the fact that charter schools have an exit door and can attract/deter certain types of students/families is an advantage that charter schools have over traditional public schools. Here's the bigger question: does this advantage mean that we should discount what charter schools accomplish, or does it mean that we should strive to make all schools more charter-like? In theory, these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive but -- realistically -- most people are on one side of the fence or the other.

Commenter Kerri on my last post referred to the fact that charter schools can demand what they want of parents and that parents can leave if they don't like it as "the beauty of charter school." We could probably extend that out to the beauty of any sort of school choice system -- private, parochial, charter, vouchers, magnet, etc. The power to attract/deter certain types of students and rid yourself of those that won't cooperate has the potential to entirely change the way a school does business. It's hard for me to imagine that such powers wouldn't substantially reduce disciplinary problems in a school. In that sense, it would be a good idea if all schools had these powers. If all schools were "schools of choice" that had entry requirements and an exit door, then principals and teachers wouldn't be stuck in the powerless position in which many find themselves today: students and/or parents who refuse to cooperate but also refuse to leave.

On the other hand, that some schools have these powers and others don't may be a strong reason to believe that schools in these two groups cannot be compared to one another -- that they're like apples and oranges. In this sense, holding up the miraculous results of any "school of choice" and insinuating that traditional public schools should copy their model is an invalid argument -- because traditional public schools cannot, by law, fully copy their model.

So that leaves us with two options:

1.) Change the law. Make all schools "schools of choice" and eliminate an awful lot of complaints. Problems with this option: a.) there may something inherently valuable about a community school and the degree to which it fosters social cohesion in that community; b.) it's unclear what would happen to students if no school would accept/continue to enroll them -- would education no longer be a right in such a circumstance?; c.) it's unclear to what extent parents would really be able to choose the correct school for their child -- transportation is a huge obstacle, as is the dissemination and comprehension of information.

2.) Stop comparing schools of choice to neighborhood schools. Problems with this option: a.) There's no way to make people stop comparing the two; b.) just b/c a neighborhood school can't copy the entire model of another schoold doesn't mean they can't learn something; c.) finding a reason for differences between these two groups doesn't really help either boost their performance.

So, in short, it's not possible to make all schools "schools of choice" without excluding some students/families from the education system -- but simply living with limitations of non-choice schools doesn't solve the problem. What's a nation to do?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Success, and Velcro, For All

The NY Times ran an interesting piece Monday about Eva Moskowitz's new charter schools -- run under the umbrella of her Success Charter Network. I noted a couple interesting things:

1.) Though she describes the "educational philosophy as a mix of the liberal Bank Street College of Education approach and the traditional Catholic school model," it's apparent that her schools, at least in some ways, are paternalistic. For one, they require that all kids wear velcro shoes so that untied shoelaces don't become a distraction. Given that the kids are all kindergartners and first graders right now, I can the merits of such a policy -- but it's certainly paternalistic. More importantly, she has taken the paternalism to a new level: not only are kids told how to live their lives, but parents are as well. Parents, for example, must read their kids 6 books/week and show up to any number of school activities. And if their kids are regularly late, parents have to come to Saturday detention as well.

2.) I've wondered countless times in this space to what extent charter schools have an "exit door," and to what extent that affects their operations. Moskowitz, at information session, has told parents “If you know you cannot commit to all that we ask of you this year, this is not the place for you.” And one parent at such a session reports that some parents left after hearing that statement and all of the expectations that would be placed upon them. I don't want to belittle the efforts of Ms. Moskowitz, but anybody who's worked in a school wishes they could make such statements to parents and kids before the year began . . . and most of them can't/couldn't.

Election Wrap-Up

I made three predictions in my final post on the election:

1.) Obama will win 364 electoral votes and win the popular vote 52-45
2.) We'll know he's won when Virginia is called for Obama -- at, I'll say, 8:30pm Eastern
3.) The Dems will control 59 seats in the Senate when all is said and done

How'd they turn out?

1.)It looks like Obama won 364 electoral votes and won the popular vote 52-46 (though results are still being finalized) . . . not bad.

2.) We knew Obama had won when Ohio was called for him at 8:30 . . . Central. Oh well, it was still a good guess.

3.) Four races are still undecided, but the Dems will control between 56 and 60 seats -- most likely 57. Merkley (D) looks likely to win in Oregon, Coleman (R) is ahead by less than 500 votes, so will have to wait for the recount results before it's official, Chambliss (R) will probably win in Georgia but is likely to face a run-off, and Stevens (R) is somehow on the verge of victory in Alaska.

The election went pretty much as the polls had indicated, with only one big surprise . . . Ted Stevens. After being convicted on multiple felony counts last week and then being asked to resign by McCain, Palin, Mitch McConnell, and a bunch of other people he trailed by 7-22 points in the polls. Barring a decisive loss among the votes still being counted it looks like he will be reelected. And I have to say that I'm appalled. I can only hope that people were voting for him b/c they want Palin to appoint another Republican once Stevens is expelled form the Senate rather than voting for a Democrat. I can think of no other good reason for voting for a Senator who was convicted for felonies directly related to his Senatorial duties.

On another note, John McCain gave an outstanding concession speech. I was left wondering where that John McCain has been for the last 6 months. For a man who made his name doing what he thought was right instead of what other politicians wanted him to do he sure chose an odd time to do what his campaign managers wanted him to do instead of what he thought was right. We had, in my opinion, the two best candidates since I've been able to vote and it's a shame that the election had to get as nasty and divisive as it did. McCain looked genuinely dismayed at the crowd's reaction to his gracious and thoughtful concession speech but, in the end, he has himself to blame for stoking that irrational fear of his opponent -- and, ultimately, it was that fear-mongering that cost him the election.

Back to education issues tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

More Goodies for Election Watching

As supplements to my election watching guide, I've posted two items below:

1.) A chart with all of the poll aggregations for each state, the odds of victory for each candidate, and the time(s) that polls close.

2.) A scorecard to keep track of the electoral math when results start rolling in.

I have pdf and excel versions I can send you if you e-mail me. Click on each image to see it in a readable size.

Your Election Watching Guide

I know, I swore I'd only write one piece on the election . . . but I couldn't help myself.

If you're anything like me then tonight you'll find yourself in front of a TV with friends or family watching the election returns come in. Since you're reading this blog I'll assume that you're smart and well-informed, but many of those friends and family that are watching with you might not be. Rather than succumbing to information overload, here are a few things to look out for, in the form of answers to the following key questions:

1.) What are the odds that Obama/McCain will win?
2.) What are the key states to watch?
3.) When will we know it's over?
4.) What's going on with the Senate; will the Dems win 60 seats?
5.) How reliable are the polls?
6.) Anything else I should keep in mind?
7.) Couldn't you have said that all in one paragraph? (a.k.a the summary)

What are the odds that Obama/McCain will win?

According to, there's a 98.9% chance that Obama will win the election. Why so high? Read on . . .

Depending on which national tracking poll you follow, you might think that the race is close. But candidates don't win based on the popular vote; they win based on victories within states. Here are how the polls indicate the states are leaning right now. Following each state is the number of electoral votes that state has (in parentheses) and four indicators of how far ahead the favored candidate is in that state:

1. The average of the recent polls, computed by RealClearPolitics
2. The average of the polls, using a regression line, computed by
3. The projected vote, using poll averages, historical trends, and demographic data, as computed by
4. The odds of victory, as computed by 538

McCain Will Win in:
South Carolina (8)
Texas (34)
Alabama (9)
Mississippi (6)
Tennessee (11)
Kentucky (8)
Oklahoma (7)
Arkansas (6)
West Virginia (5)
Kansas (6)
Nebraska (5)
Utah (5)
Idaho (4)
Wyoming (3)
Alaska (3)
Total: 120

McCain is definitively ahead in:
Louisiana (9): N/A|10.6|9.9|99%
South Dakota (3): 8.3|8.0|8.8|99%
Arizona (10): 3.5|4.9|4.9|94%
Georgia (15): 4.0|2.9|3.7|90%
Total: 37

McCain is slightly ahead in:
Montana (3): 3.8|2.2|2.7|81%
North Dakota (3): N/A|0.7|2.7|76%
Indiana (11): 1.4|1.2|1.5|70%
Total: 17

The following states are true toss-ups:
Missouri (11): M0.7|O1.1|M0.2|M53%
North Carolina (15): M0.4|O0.4|M0.2|M53%%
Total: 26

Obama is slightly ahead in:
Florida (27): O1.8|O1.7|O1.7|O73%
Ohio (20): 2.5|3.1|3.4|88%
Total: 47

Obama is definitively ahead in:
Nevada (5): 6.8|7.1|4.9|95%
Virginia (13): 4.4|5.6|5.6|97%
Colorado (9): 5.5|7.6|6.6|98%
Pennsylvania (21): 7.3|7.2|8.1|100%
Total: 48

Obama will win in:
New Hampshire (4)
Minnesota (10)
New Mexico (5)
Massachusetts (12)
Connecticut (7)
Maine (4)
Rhode Island (4)
Vermont (3)
New York (31)
New Jersey (15)
Maryland (10)
D.C. (3)
Delaware (3)
Michigan (17)
Illinois (21)
Wisconsin (10)
Iowa (7)
California (55)
Washington (11)
Oregon (7)
Hawaii (4)
Total: 243

McCain will win 120 electoral votes. He's definitively ahead in states worth another 37 and slightly ahead in states worth another 17. That brings him up to 174. If he wins all the states in which the race is a toss-up (26) or where Obama's slightly ahead (47) that would give him 247 electoral votes. 270 are needed to win. That means he needs to win 23 electoral votes from among NV, VA, CO, and PA -- all of which are long-shots for him.

What are the key states to watch?

McCain has a very small margin of error, so if he loses any close state it's a big deal. In other words, there an awful lot of outcomes that would prevent him from winning 270. If you scroll up and read through the chart again, you'll see that Pennsylvania would put him close if he also wins all the closest states. Since it would take a miracle to win either PA, however, the more likely way that he could go over the top is to win Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. That won't be easy, but it's certainly something to keep an eye on. In other words, if McCain loses Virginia it's pretty much over -- and if he loses both PA and VA then he should call Obama and concede.

Virginia is the state with the earliest poll closing time that is likely to serve as a firewall for Obama. But it's not the only state to watch. Barring a miracle in PA, McCain has to win virtually every single state in which Obama's not already ensured victory. All of his safe states + the close states only gives him 247 electoral votes. Adding VA, CO, and NV would give him 274. That means he only has four electoral votes to spare. In other words, if he loses any of the following states (in order of likelihood of losing): CO, VA, NV, OH, FL, NC, MO, IN, GA, AZ, LA, SC, WV, TX, AR, MS, TN, KY, KS, NE, AL, OK, or UT or two of: ND, MT, SD, AK, ID, and WY then he's virtually assured to lose (again, barring a miracle in PA).

When will we know it's over?

Depends on what your definition of "know" is. January 20th is the safest bet. When the networks put a check mark next to one of the candidate's names is the second safest bet. If and when McCain loses Virginia, however, you'll pretty much know. When might that be? Here's a list of the time that polls close in every state (a second time listed in parentheses means that part of the state closes earlier -- results will start trickling in then, but after the Florida debacle in 2000 no network in their right mind will call the state yet). If you're a graphical person, here's a cool map of all the closing times. All times are Eastern.

KY & IN (6pm)


FL & NH (7pm)


TX, KS, SD, LA, ND, MI (8pm)


ID & OR (10pm)



What's going on with the Senate; will the Dems win 60 seats?

The senate will be much more heavily Democratic than it has been in a long time. A lot of people are speculating about the possibility that Democrats will control 60 seats in the Senate (60 is an important number b/c it takes 60 votes to override a filibuster). 60 seats is a reach, but 59 is not. Since the Presidential race will likely be over early (regardless of how long it takes the networks to actually put that check next to somebody's name), the true political junkies will be watching the Senate races. Here's what to watch for:

The Democrats currently control 39 seats (including the two Independents) and the Republicans 26. 35 seats are up for grabs; of those, 17 are virtually assured to go Democratic and 12 Republican. That gives the Dems a minimum of 56 seats (a week ago that number was 55, but then Ted Stevens (R-AK) was convicted on felony charges and the race went from a toss-up to a sure win for the Dems). That leaves 3 races that are eminently winnable for the Dems:

-Jeff Merkley (D) is all but a shoe-in over Gordon Smith (R) in Oregon -- giving them 57 seats.
-Kay Hagan has a bit closer race in North Carolina, but will likely beat Elizabeth Dole -- which brings them to 58.
-Al Franken (D) is currently a toss-up against Norm Coleman (R) in Minnesota (polls have ranged from Franken (D) +5 to Coleman +6 in the last week) -- meaning that the Democrats have a legitimate shot at 59.

Winning a 60th seat, however, will be tough. There are three races that will likely be won by Republicans but that are not quite automatic victories. If the Democrats can win one of those three, it could mean that they will control a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Those three are:

-Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) will likely beat Bruce Lunsford (D) in Kentucky
-Saxby Chambliss (R) will probably beat Jim Martin (D) in Georgia, but some polls have this race very close
-Roger Wicker (R) is the favorite to defeat Ronnie Musgrove (D) in the special election in Mississippi

For a more thorough breakdown, see 538's final senate projections.

How reliable are the polls?

Well, I guess we'll find out pretty soon.

Overall, we should expect the polls to provide a rough picture of what will happen. Some individual polls will certainly be far off, but it would be a surprise if the general trends are wildly out of line. That said, it's not impossible. Polls could be wrong for any number of reasons, but three key ones this year are:

1.) Cellphones. A large number of Americans use cellphones instead of landlines most or all of the time. People under 30 -- a demographic that heavily favors Obama -- are especially likely to do so. By federal law, however, pollsters cannot use automatic dialing machines to call cellphones. This means that in order to sample cellphone users a pollster has to pay a human to dial those numbers by hand -- a task that is many times more expensive. As a result, many of the polls do not sample cellphone users. Theoretically, correctly weighting responses can still yield accurate estimates -- but that may or may not be happening. A recent glance at the national polls found that those who sampled cellphones had Obama up 9.4 points and those that didn't had him up 5.1.

2.) Who will vote? In deciding whether or not their sample is representative of the population pollsters rely on their estimates of who will vote -- in other words, their "turnout models." Normally, pollsters can predict with some precision what percentage of the voters will be of a certain age, race, or party affiliation. They factor in those demographics, along with questions asked of individuals (for example, about whether they've voted in the past, how likely they are to vote this year, etc.) in order to decide who is likely to vote and what the entire population of voters will look like. This year, however, may prove harder to predict. Huge numbers of people registered to vote for the first time during the primaries and over the summer and nobody is quite sure how many of those people will vote. Furthermore, many are speculating that larger than average numbers of young voters and African-American voters (both groups that support Obama by large margins) will turn out on or before election day.

3.) The "Bradley Effect." Named for California Gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, the Bradley Effect is the notion that White voters will tell pollsters they're voting for the Black candidate so that they don't appear racist but, ultimately, will pull the lever for the White candidate when nobody is looking. Empirical evidence suggests that this happened with some regularity in the 80's and early 90's but is no longer a factor. Interestingly, it may not have actually happened to Tom Bradley (both his aide and his opponent's aide argue that it's a myth).

In short, polls could be off-target for a large number of reasons but there are a couple of large issues that could mean that polls are regularly underestimating Obama's support.

Anything else I should keep in mind?

Other than not taunting your friends (too much) that were rooting for the other guy if your candidate wins or leaving the country if your candidate wins here are some things to keep in mind:

1.) Early voting. As you can see in more detail on this map, a lot of people are voting early -- and in key states. Poll results have indicated that early voters are leaning more toward Obama -- often by huge amounts -- than are people who have yet to vote. In some states the majority of the electorate has already voted, and Obama is up by quite a bit. The table below shows the results reported in a few polls within the last week (click on the table to see it in readable quality).

CNN's website has a map where you can see the number of votes cast early by state; sometimes broken down by party ID.

Assuming the polls are accurate, these results could mean any number of things. It could indicate that Obama's supporters voted early and McCain's supporters are voting later (which wouldn't affect the results). Or it could mean that Obama's supporters are more enthusiastic and better organized. Or it could mean that the current voter turnout models the pollsters are using are significantly underestimating Obama's support. It's tough to imagine, however, that there's any way that these numbers could help McCain. Indeed, starting election night down about 20 points with about 2/3 of the votes cast, as he is in CO, NV, and NM, is not a position in which I'd want to find myself. Georgia, by all rights, should vote for McCain, but Obama is ahead with over half the votes counted -- if that result carries through it's a sign that pollsters significantly underestimated the turnout of Obama voters, that these early voting results matter, and that Obama will win in a rout.

Couldn't you have said that all in one paragraph?
(a.k.a the summary)

Yes, I could've. For those of us who like brevity, here's the condensed version:

The latest polls give Obama heavy advantage, but don't preclude any possibility of a McCain victory. McCain essentially has to win every single state in which the race is close except for Nevada in order to win -- or pull out a miracle in Pennsylvania. If he loses Virginia it's highly unlikely that he'll win. If he loses both VA and PA, it's over. The senate race essentially starts out with the Dems controlling 57 seats. A Hagan victory in NC and Franken victory in MN would give them 59. If they steal a seat in MS, KY, or GA they'll have a filibuster-proof majority. This all assumes, of course, that the polls are reasonably accurate. Whether or not pollsters accurately estimated who will vote will likely determine their accuracy. The fact that so many people (most of whom were Obama supporters) voted early is something to keep your eye on -- it might mean nothing, but it could signal an impending Obama rout. If Obama wins Georgia, it's a sign of just that.

In case you were wondering, here are my predictions:

1.) Obama will win 364 electoral votes and win the popular vote 52-45
2.) We'll know he's won when Virginia is called for Obama -- at, I'll say, 8:30pm Eastern
3.) The Dems will control 59 seats in the Senate when all is said and done

Update: My follow-up post contains two things you might find helpful while watching the election: a spreadsheet with all the information you want to know about each state (how many electoral votes, who's up in the polls by how much, and what time(s) the polls close) in addition to a scorecard that will help you keep track of who's winning.

Enjoy your election watching.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Biggest Problem with Schools: Tradition

I've finally found something with which every single education reformer can agree: the biggest problem facing our schools today is tradition. We do so many things for no other reason than because that's the way they were done in the past.

Why should everybody agree with this? Below is a list of various solutions that people push and how tradition keeps them from happening:

School Choice
Every neighborhood has, traditionally, had its own school. The neighborhood builds, maintains, and governs these schools for the use of locals -- not for the use of people from other neighborhoods -- and is used to spending their money on their schools; not on sending children to other people's schools.

Smaller Classes
Classes have, traditionally, been somewhere between 20-40 kids. Classrooms are built for classes this size.

Longer School Year
Traditionally, schools have taken the summer off to allow people to move to different places (not to harvest crops -- that's a myth) and then have everybody start fresh, at the same level, when September rolls around. Summer camps, swim team, family vacation, etc. are all scheduled for the summer when school's out.

A More Progressive Pedagogy
Traditionally, the teacher has been the "sage on the stage" and run a mini dictatorship in the their classroom. In other words: teachers teach the way they were taught, not the way they were taught to teach.

Smaller Schools
Traditionally, schools have housed all of the students from a certain region. Those regions coalesce around their schools to attend school plays, high school football games, etc. In some places, very little property is available where another school could open.

Banish Unions
Traditionally, teachers in many places have belonged to unions. The current contracts have been negotiated by unions. Unions have influenced the salary schedule, work rules, seniority, etc.

Recruit/Retain Better Teachers
Traditionally, most teachers have been females who had few better career options. Now that the most successful female students can enter just about any field, the teaching field continues to attract and retain people who don't feel they or rather would not pursue employment in other fields.

I could go on and on, but I think those are most of the major reform ideas floating around right now. In each case, the biggest hindrance to the idea's implementation is tradition. Still unconvinced? Here are a few other examples of ways in which tradition influences decisions:

-College professors assign hundreds of pages of reading each week, not because it's the best pedagogy but because that's what they did when they were college students.
-Grad schools assign comprehensive exams, not necessarily b/c it helps the students in any particular way but b/c the people in charge all had to take comprehensive exams when they were in grad school.
-Report cards are sent home each semester with letter or number grades (which are virtually identical across schools), not because this necessarily serves a purpose, but b/c that's the way it's always been done.
-Teachers at all levels often use textbooks as the main way to educate their class -- certainly not because textbooks are always fantastic but, rather, b/c that's the way people have always done it.

Ok, that's enough. None of those things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but ask yourself this: if you were starting a school from scratch -- blank slate, you can do anything you want -- how many of those would you want done in the same way they are now? And you're not allowed to use the phrase "when I was in school" in your justification.

The point is this: people are comfortable doing things the way they've always been done. But we can't eliminate either tradition or human nature, so what's the solution? I don't know exactly, but here are some things to think about:

First of all, I guarantee you that none of those ideas, alone, are a silver bullet -- and everybody needs to come to grips with that. Let me repeat: there is no silver bullet. No one idea is going to magically transform our schools. As such, it's not worth losing your temper when your pet reform meets some opposition.

With that said, I think we also need to realize that a great deal of the opposition to the ideas we know will magically transform the schools comes from human nature, not ill will. Not everybody who doesn't implement your reform is a bad person. I have a lot of pet peeves around education reform, but I'll tell you my top one: when reformers blame the people in place for not implementing their reform correctly.

Time after time we see studies of education reform done and almost all of them find either no changes to results or very small ones. At this finding the people who were sure that the reform would work work become indignant -- "the curriculum is solid, but the teachers just kept teaching the way they've always taught" or some such complaint. In other words, "if they just would've done things exactly as I wanted them done . . ."

Well, let me give you hint: nobody will ever do things exactly the way that you want them done. And they certainly won't do them that way if you simply go in and demand that they be done that way. Too many people forget to factor in whether the people they're trying to change a.) want to do things that way and b.) know how to do things that way. In this case, if the teachers didn't want to and/or know how to implement the curriculum correctly, it is a failure of your reform. Part of the job of a reformer or policymaker is to take into account how people will respond to the new policy/reform. Things don't always work out as planned, and when that happens you can chalk it up to human nature on the part of the reformees and lack of understanding of human nature on the part of the reformers.

So, in short, the first step to overcoming the limitations that tradition is placing on our school is this: understand that tradition that's holding us back. Then try and find a way to change tradition. And remember, changing a tradition is hard.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Will an Obama Victory Shrink the Achievement Gap?

Even if it did, I get the feeling that this is one of those questions that will never be definitively answered -- no matter how sophisticated the statistics. 4 or 8 years of an Obama White House would simply coincide with too many other events to prove that it was Obama's election that caused the change.

I'm unconvinced that the President (or anybody in the federal government) has the policy tools necessary to fundamentally alter what happens "on the ground" in schools around the country -- which is the only way, in my opinion, that we could expect dramatically different results. But I can't help but wonder if an Obama victory would have some sort of intangible effect on the outcomes of students. Beyond whatever policies he, Linda Darling-Hammond, and the rest of the team would establish, it's not implausible to envision an Obama presidency positively impacting the achievement of African-Americans in any of the following ways:

1.) African-American students gain a new role model. And trying to be like Obama results in higher test scores than does trying to be like Kobe, 50 cent, etc.

2.) The presence of an African-American in the White House reduces the amount of racism in America. The families of African-American students benefit -- through both lifted spirits and fattened wallets -- in ways that help their children do better in school.

3.) Members of all races and ethnicities reduce the amount that they stereotype and students and teachers expect more similar achievement from all students.

I could list more, but I think they start to overlap after a certain point. Whether you believe that these plausible would rely both on whether you think an Obama presidency would have any effect on how people perceive race and on what you think causes the achievement gap.

If you believe the gap exists because African-American students aim low, then idolizing the Editor of the Harvard Law Review could raise the achievement of many students. If you believe the gap exists because African-American families suffer from racial discrimination, then a more tolerant society could lead to a lower achievement gap. If you you believe the gap exists because the peers and teachers of African-American students expect less of them, then the sight of an African-American in the White House could plausibly raise these expectations and, therefore, raise achievement of these students.

Of course, this is all pure speculation. While it's a pretty sure bet that Obama will win the election, I really have no idea if or how the presence of an African-American in the White House will affect race relations in this country. I suppose one could construct a plausible scenario in which an Obama presidency leads to a resurgance of the Ku Klux Klan or some such nasty consequences. And I suspect that, regardless of what happens, we'll never be able to confirm those effects in a statistically rigorous way. But I still think it's something worth thinking about.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Why McCain is Farther Behind Than You Might Think

I'm going to take a quick break from education to write one -- and only one -- post about the presidential election.

The consensus on the election seems to be that Obama is in the lead, but McCain's not out of striking distance (as he says: "we have them right where we want them"). The national polls are a quick snapshot, but they don't reflect the way we elect our next President. The next President will have to win at least 270 electoral votes; not a majority of Americans (though let's hope, whoever wins, that they win both). I hear a lot of talk about the polls, but very few people seem to really break it down. So, here is a breakdown of the states that will decide who wins:

After each state I have placed 5 numbers in parentheses (yes, it's a lot of information -- but it shows just how iffy looking at polls or predicting the race is). Here's an explanation of each number:

1.) A simple average of McCain's average lead/deficit in all recent polls, calculated by
2.) McCain's average lead/deficit, as calculated by a regression trend, in the polls as calculated by
3.) A snapshot of McCain's current lead/deficit, as calculated by averaging polls and factoring in trends, demographic information, and what's happening in neighboring states as calculated by
4.) A prediction of McCain's margin of victory/defeat on election day, given all the information above in addition to historical trends, calculated by
5.) The odds of a McCain victory as calculated, again, by

In short, the 5 numbers are: 3 estimates of how far ahead/behind McCain is right now, an estimate of what that gap will be on election night, and the odds that he'll win that state. I've rounded all decimals to nearest whole number to make it (slightly) easier to read. All margins are presented from the McCain camp's point of view. In other words, -5 means that he's 5 percentage points behind according to that calculation.

Ok, so McCain needs to win 270 electoral votes in order to win the election. Depending on which website/calculation you believe, there are about 150-160 electoral votes that are solidly polling in McCain's favor or strongly leaning that way. Which leaves about 110-120 electoral votes that he has to win from states that are either toss-ups or in which he's currently behind. For simplicity, I'll take the calculation of 155 leaning/solid McCain electoral votes that RealClearPolitics has and start from there. Assuming he wins the solid states plus Georgia and Montana, he would have 155 electoral votes. Then he needs to start winning some of the closer states. Below are all of the states currently declared "toss-ups."

McCain is slightly ahead in:
West Virginia, 5 electoral votes (+2|+5|+3|+6|91%)
North Dakota, 3e.v. (N/A|+4|+3|+4|84%)
Indiana, 11 e.v. (+4|+3|+2|+2|65%)

Obama is slightly ahead in:
North Carolina, 15 e.v. (-2|-3|-1|-1|38%)
Missouri, 11 e.v. (-3|-1|-2|-1|35%)
Ohio, 20 e.v. (-3|-3|-3|-2|28%)
Florida, 27 e.v. (-2|-4|-3|-3|25%)
Nevada, 5 e.v. (-4|-3|-4|-3|25%)

All those races are currently deemed too close to call by most pundits. If McCain makes a big surge he could, conceivably, win all of them. Let's just say for now that he wins all of the states in which he's currently clearly ahead in addition to every single toss-up state -- which would be quite an accomplishment. That would give McCain 252 electoral votes. Which means that even if McCain pulls that off he would still need to find 18 more electoral votes from somewhere. Here are the states that are currently "leaning" toward Obama:

Colorado, 9 e.v. (-6|-7|-6|-6|10%)
Virginia, 13 e.v. (-8|-9|-6|-6|8%)
New Hampshire, 4 e.v. (-9|-6|-8|-6|8%)
New Mexico, 5 e.v. (-8|-8|-9|-7|7%)

In other words, in order for McCain to win he has to do the following:
1.) Win all of the states that are currently leaning in his direction
2.) Win all of the states that are currently too close to call
3.) Win 18 electoral votes from states in which he's currently far behind (which almost certainly includes VA)

McCain may only be 6 points down in the national polls, but it's not that simple. A national resurgance is not enough. He basically has to win all of the closest states, and then he also has to win at least two other states where he currently has a 1 in 10 chance or less of winning based on a thorough analysis of historical trends, polling data, and demographics.

Another sign that Obama is further ahead than you might think is that all of the closest states right now are ones that Bush won in the last election -- some by large amounts (for example, he won NC by 12 points). The closest Kerry state is NH, which 538 gives Obama a 92% chance of winning and in which most of the recent polls have had him up double digits. Indeed, VA is the must-win state for McCain -- he has virtually no chance of winning if he loses VA -- and it's one that Bush won by 8 points in the last election.

Lest you think that there are other options beyond VA, NM, NH, and CO, here are the next closest states:

Minnesota, 10 e.v. (-10|-7|-9|-8|4%)
Pennsylvania 21 e.v. (-12|-16|-11|-10|2%)
Michigan 17 e.v. (-12|-20|-11|-10|2%)
Iowa 7 e.v. (-12|-11|-13|-13|1%)
Wisconsin 10 e.v. (-11|-8|-11|-10|1%)

The odds of him winning any of these states are slim to none. Which means that there are only a few ways he can win. It basically boils down to two possibilities:

1.) Win all of the close states + 18 electoral votes from VA, NH, CO, and NM
2.) Pull out a miracle

I'm not sure which one is more likely. Any number of things could happen in the next two weeks, but a McCain victory is probably not one of them.

And that's why McCain is even farther behind than you might think.

Update: One more thing I forgot to include that makes like difficult for McCain: early voting. The latest poll shows a dead heat in NC, but Obama is up 23 points among those who have already voted. 538 pointed out the same trend in a number of other battleground states as well last week. So if McCain didn't face a difficult enough task as it is, it looks like Obama supporters are more enthusiastic and better organized in crucial states, which means that:

1.) The polls may be understating Obama's support by underestimating the turnout of his supporters
2.) McCain will already be far behind in the vote tally when Election Day dawns
3.) It will be even harder for McCain to make up ground than you might think

Why Must School be so Punitive?

I'm going to get back to my last post on my contentions at some point this week, but right now I have a slightly related question: why must school be so punitive?

I'm talking about all levels of school: from kindergarten through grad school.

No matter where you go, there always seems to be some sort of implicit threat made to students. There is always pressure and judgment from above. "Do this . . . or else"

Exceptions, obviously, exist. But in general, expectations of students seem to be framed in an accusatory way. Students are expected to do their homework, pass the test, turn in assignments, etc. And there's always some sort of punishment if they don't: bad grade, no gym, no recess, their parents are notified, they'll be kicked out of school, they'll have to repeat the class/grade, etc.

That's not to say that these repercussions are necessarily inappropriate but, rather, that education seems to frequently to mean living up to the expectations set by another person rather than working with that person.

Compare the way that a sports team functions to the way a class functions. Both (presumably) have an expert teaching and training a group. Coaches get angry at players, just as do teachers. Players are punished, just as are students. But, in the end, the players and their coach have no doubt that they share the same goal. The coach is there to make each player better and help the team win. In the end, what's good for the players is also good for the coach. Ostensibly, teachers are there for essentially the same reasons. But perception is reality, and plenty of reasons exist for students to think that their teacher is, at least in some ways, their enemy.

In other words, it seems quite sensible for a student to think that a teacher is there not to help them reach a common goal but, rather, to make them do something they don't want to do. And I don't mean to pick on teachers, since it's the institutional structure of schools that both establishes and reinforces this.

Now, of course, if a student doesn't want to learn how to read it's sensible that somebody be tasked with getting them to do it. If teachers only did what students wanted to do, I have a hard time believing that every teacher would be teaching long division, algebra, the past-perfect tense, etc. But I'm not sure that necessitates the level of heavy-handedness currently present at all levels of schooling.

Right now students are essentially workers and teachers/administrators are their bosses. And the workers have to do what the bosses say . . . or else. And I'm not convinced that's the most effective way to educate somebody.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why Grades Are Stupid

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled "Grades Are Stupid" in response to to Pittsburgh's decision to eliminate all grades below 50%. The main thrust of the post was really how Pittsburgh's decision served as evidence that a single grade doesn't really mean all that much.

The post was rather terse and acerbic, but I stand by my original assertion: grades are stupid. Here's why:

Let's say you know nothing about two individuals except for their GPA. What is it that you know about them? Not much. You don't know that one is smarter than the other, because a person can be smarter but not work as hard. You don't know that one works harder than the other because grades aren't based only on effort. You don't know who learned more because you don't know what their teachers' standards were. In the end, you don't really know much at all.

An individual grade is based, to a large degree, on the whims, perceptions, and standards of a specific teacher. Different teachers weight and reward behavior, test scores, homework completion, class participation, etc. differently. Different teachers would give the same paper or test different grades. Different teachers would perceive the same student in very different ways. In other words, a grade is not a particularly valid measure of much of anything. I'm not saying, however, that they are meaningless or devoid of utility -- I don't want to say that grades serve no purpose or provide no information, just that their precision and meaningfulness fall far short of what people often assume.

I chose "stupid" instead of "meaningless" for a reason. Here's one example: The Economist's blog on American politics ran a piece the other week about finding alternatives to the SAT. Their main criteria for finding a replacement seems to be finding something that's more highly correlated with college grades. But are college grades really the most important outcome? Is a high GPA really the definition of success that we want to set?

That a grade, or even a set of grades, provides so little information about a person isn't due just to the fact that grades are subjective and vary wildly by school and teacher. They provide so little information because of the fact that they are based on so little of meaning. What it really comes down to is a teacher's perception of how well a student lived up to that teacher's expectations of a model student.

So, in case I overstated the argument earlier in the post, grades don't give zero information about a student. When you boil it down, they really tell you how close that student came to fulfilling the teacher's expectations. So, what does that mean?

That depends on the teacher. What were the teacher's expectations? Why did/didn't they feel that the student lived up to their expectations?

But it also means that the main skill a student is being measured on is the ability to fulfill the expectations of another person.

In one sense, this is valuable -- particularly if you're the boss and you're looking for somebody who can follow your directions and do what's expected of them. In another, it's not -- particularly if pleasing a boss isn't the most important outcome of one's work.

What's most troubling, however, isn't that the information that grades provide is so sketchy. What's most troubling is that grades send the wrong message in so many ways. While many positive behaviors (studiousness, cooperation, etc.) are rewarded by good grades, grades also reward many behaviors that are not necessarily healthy. Too often, getting a good grade means doing things in a set manner, rather than devising your own way. Too often, getting a good grade means following directions; regardless of the reasonableness of said instructions.  Too often, getting a good grade means living in fear of what will happen if you don't. Ultimately, a school system based on grades (at least in their current form) teaches kids to work for extrinsic rewards and avoid extrinsic punishments. If a high GPA becomes one's goal, what have they really achieved when they accomplish it? And what do students trained to pursue high grades do after they graduate? Pursue promotions? Pursue a higher salary?

And too often grades are used in punitive or heavy-handed ways. Ideally, I think grades are supposed to serve as an indicator of how much a student has learned. But how often are students threatened with poor grades for things not directly related to learning? How often are grades based on a myriad of criteria other than how much a student has learned?

Think back to your own school experience -- at all levels. Think of how many times a grade was based on something other than what you had learned. Think of how many times grades were used as a means of control or coercion. Think of how many times you had to do something to earn a higher grade that did not directly result in you learning more. Think of how much better off you'd be if you focused on the important things in life instead of what your grade would be.

And that's why grades are stupid.

update: as you can see from the many, many comments below, I seem to have taken an unpopular position here.  What that make wonder is if there's a relationship between the GPA one attained when they were in school and their reaction to this post.  In other words, do people who had a higher GPA object more vehemently to the suggestion that grades don't mean as much as we often assume they do?  I'm willing they bet they do.  And I don't suggest that to be flip and deride those who focus on grades as self-promoting.  I'm willing to bet that those who thought grades were more important when they were in school also think they're more important now.  And that those who thought grades were more important earned a higher GPA, on average.  I'm also willing to bet that those who earned a higher GPA would like to believe that that means something important and that those who earned a lower GPA would like to believe that it doesn't really mean all that much.