Thursday, December 1, 2011

Moving on from the "Search for Universals"

As I've delved deeper into the field of education research, I've grown increasingly frustrated by two large problems I see in that research.  While listening to Malcom Gladwell's TED talk on consumer choice, something he said helped crystallize the second issue (I'll explore the first in another post).

In the talk, Gladwell discusses the shift of food science (starting with Prego pasta sauce) from trying to create the "one best" product for all to creating multiple products that fit specific groups.  He compares that trend to cancer research, arguing that "the great revolution in science of the last 10-15 years" is "the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability".

If he's right, then it seems ed policy researchers missed a memo somewhere (to be fair, it's not just ed policy -- I see the same problem in lots of policy literature).

The vast majority of the policy research I've read, seen presented, or heard discussed focuses exclusively, or at least mainly, on the average effect of a particular variable, intervention, or policy.  Over the years, we've developed increasingly sophisticated methods to more accurately estimate these average effects.  But I rarely hear people discuss the differential effects of the variable, intervention, or policy of interest.

In other words, we keep trying to figure out if different policies "work," but we define "work," as making a statistically significant difference for the average student, teacher, principal, school, district, or state.  If we instead asked for whom a given policy works, we'd likely find that it works very well for some while harming others.

In the talk, Gladwell mentions a food scientist hired to create the "one best Pepsi" who conducts taste tests of the product with varying amounts of sugar.  To his surprise, no one, clear winner emerges.  Some people prefer only a little sugar, some like a medium amount, and some like a lot.  He then has an epiphany and realizes that there's no such thing as the "one best Pepsi" (which eventually leads to the creation of a wide variety of Prego sauces that target different audiences).

I'd argue that education policy is almost exactly the same.  For example, imagine a new math curriculum.  How do we decide if it works?  The gold standard of research would dictate that we randomly assign, say, 100 classrooms to use the new curriculum and 100 to use the old one.  We'd then compare the average scores at the beginning and end of the year of the treatment and control groups.  If kids in the treatment group score significantly higher, on average, than the control group then that curriculum earns a gold star.

We spend increasing amounts of time trying to figure out which math curricula will yield the largest achievement gains across the students who use them.  But it seems exceedingly unlikely that "one best math curriculum" truly exists.  Some states, districts, schools, teachers, and/or students will do best with curriculum A, some with curriculum B, and some with curriculum C.

Wouldn't our time be better spent figuring out for which students curriculum A would be best and for which students curriculum B would be best (and why)?  And we could say the same about all of the largest issues in education policy -- teacher training, teacher pay, charter schools, and so on.  In later posts, I'll explore how our research and policy would differ if we aimed to understand and account for variability rather than simply finding the one best policy.

I've long thought it odd that we spend most of our lives being told not to stereotype and make generalizations while the most educated people in the country strive to make the largest generalization possible in their research.  Most (though not all) researchers focus incessantly on "generalizability" (one of those words we use in the field but the spellchecker won't recognize): if we can generalize your findings to 10 million students across the country, you're likely to publish the paper in a better journal than if we can only generalize your results to students in one school.

As it turns out, I was right to think that odd.  Greater generalizability matters in many ways.  But, at some point, we start missing the point -- and for exactly the same reasons teachers and parents across the country are telling our kids not to generalize.  Everybody is different.

Every student is different.  Every teacher is different.  Every principal is different.  Every school is different.  Every district is different.  Every state is different.  The best policy, on average, will help one and hurt another.  Until we understand this variability, we're doomed to fail.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reaction to the CMO Study

I don't disagree with the larger point behind Andrew Rotherham's argument regarding the recent study on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) that we need to "live with some lemons" in order to see other schools succeed (and subsequently learn from those success stories).  I certainly wouldn't want my kid to attend one of the lemon schools (the educational equivalent of NIMBYism), but the larger argument that we sometimes have to take a step backward to take two steps forward is reasonable.

I, do, however disagree with two things he writes in the column:

1.) He writes that the study disproves charter critics' argument that "the good ones can’t be replicated to serve enough kids to really make a difference" by making it "clear that it is indeed possible to build a lot of schools that are game-changers for a lot of students".  He mentions that KIPP has 100 or so schools now and continues to perform well.  That's good.  That's a lot of schools.  What KIPP has done is really impressive.

But when charter critics say that high-flying charters can't be scaled up, they don't mean that we can't create 100 good charters.  They mean that we can't create 10,000 good schools run exactly the way KIPP and other schools are currently run.  In particular, KIPP and other top-performing schools tend to rely heavily on 20-something TFA members and TFA alums who are high-achieving, idealistic, often single, and willing to work long hours for relatively little pay for a few years.  There's nothing wrong with doing that.  If I opened a charter school tomorrow, I'd probably do the same thing.  But it is something that can't be replicated in every high-poverty school across the country.  The fact that KIPP has opened 100 schools absolutely does not change the fact that there aren't enough teachers who fit this mold to run all schools like this.

That's not to say that we can't copy many other innovations and features of the KIPPs of the world, just that building 100 schools run one way doesn't mean we can run every other school in the country (or even just all the high-poverty schools) the exact same way.  The "enough to make a difference" description of the argument is arguably a straw man since even one school "makes a difference" -- Rotherham should instead focus on implications for systemic reform rather than beating up straw men.

2.) I also find it really odd that the study itself and some of the articles on the study seem to emphasize that the differences in achievement gains between CMO-run charters and traditional public schools were not statistically significant, while Rotherham writes that "The study found that, in general, students at charter-network schools outperform similar students at traditional public schools, although sometimes not by very much" (and he's not the only one who said something like this).

I understand that the way these results are interpreted are different in academia and policy.  Of the eight point estimates they calculate, one is borderline significantly positive, three others seem like they could maybe be positive (point estimate larger than the standard error), three are trivial, through technically positive, and one is trivially negative.  So, I guess that's kinda (sorta) positive.  On the other hand, of the 22 CMOs they examine, 11 have positive coefficients in both math and reading, 2 are neutral in both, and 9 are negative in both.

In academia, that means that there were no significant differences -- I can't imagine trying to construe that as a positive world.  In the policy world, it could mean that "there are likely to be very small, positive differences," but to say they "outperform" other schools "in general" seems rather strong to me -- especially since he added "sometimes not by very much".  There were no areas in which the average CMO school outperformed the average non-charter by a lot, so that seems like an odd thing to say.

Of course, I hesitate to even point out these two things (they just struck me as odd while I was reading his column) because they threaten to distract from what I think should be the main discussion surrounding this study and other research on charters.  The argument about whether or not charters are better or not is, quite frankly, silly.  Some are.  Some aren't.  The end.  I want to know why some are better and what we can learn from those that are better.  And, similarly, why some are worse and what we can learn from them.  As long as we regard "charter" as a word that magically makes a school either evil or, well, magical, we won't really be learning all we can to help educate our students.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do Teacher Quality Initiatives Impact the Wrong Teachers?

Let me illustrate my point by first telling three anecdotes.

1.) Believe it or not, back in elementary school I was just about the model student.  I was quiet and respectful in class, did all my homework on time, scored high on tests, wrote good reports, and won numerous awards.  When teachers fretted about the performance of their students, I don't think my name came up too often.

Which is why my first day of fourth grade sticks out.  I'd been assigned to a teacher new to our school, and I didn't know what to expect.  I hoped she'd be nice and was a little worried when she took the opportunity to sternly lay down the law and do her best to discourage any disobedience.  As my Mom tells it, I came home in tears that day, sobbing "She's sooo strict!"

2.) A couple weeks ago, I was the teacher fretting about my class.  As I prepared interim grade reports, it was even more evident to me that a number of students weren't putting forth the effort I was hoping they would (and had become accustomed to seeing from students in my class).  As I puzzled over this, part of me wanted to read my class the riot act.  I settled for hoping that the sub-par grade reports and a few words of motivation would kick them into gear.

A day later, I got a tentative knock on my office door.  A student was worried about the report.  I looked at the student's grades for the semester and quickly ascertained that there was no need for concern here.  We spoke for a while and I assured the student that earning the highest quiz grades in the class indicated a strong likelihood that the end-of-term grade would be pretty high if present efforts were maintained.

3.) A good friend of mine is a model teacher.  You know that teacher that arrives at school before dawn, gives up lunches, nights, weekends, and breaks to tutor students, chaperon dances, re-make that lesson plan for the 20th time, and do whatever else is necessary (and, usually, unnecessary)?  That's my friend.  Were I the principal, I'd promptly resign and insist my friend take the job.

A couple years back, the school district where my friend teaches implemented a new teacher evaluation program involving lots of new checklists and observations and other bells and whistles.  Ever since, my friend has been an absolute wreck.  Every conversation inevitably, and repeatedly, turns to the strong likelihood that my friend will no longer be employed in the near future.  I assure my friend that the new system is designed to ensure the district keeps the model teachers and that the worrying is unnecessary, but to no avail.  I don't know if the constant anxiety has negatively impacted my friend's teaching or not, but it's certainly impacting quality of life.

so, what do these three have in common?

In the first, the teacher (rightfully) wanted to scare the worst students straight and push the mediocre ones to do better.  But it was the best student (I'd like to think) who was mortified, not the worst ones.  Many years later, I found out my Mom had relayed my reaction to the teacher, who had sighed, shaken her head, and said something like "it's always the wrong ones who get scared."

In the second, I (rightfully, I sure hope) wanted to scare the worst students straight and push the mediocre ones to do better.  But the only reaction I got was from possibly the best student in the class -- the one who doesn't need to spend any time fretting about what the end of term report card will say.

In the third, the district (rightfully, I think) wanted to scare the worst teachers straight (and/or just fire them) and push the mediocre ones to do better.  I can't say how the other teachers responded, but the model teacher I know is the one who's been scared, despite being straight as an arrow to begin with.

what does this mean?

Is it possible that our attempts to scare teachers straight are only scaring the ones who were already doing things the right way?  After all, the ones who care the most about their performance are the ones who are most likely to take the new initiatives to heart.

Whether one threatens to fire teachers, rolls out a new evaluation system, publishes value-added scores, implements a new incentive pay system, or whatever else, I wonder who will be most responsive?  It seems likely that it's those who were already the most responsible.

so what?

If we can expect those who care the most to react the strongest to accountability and evaluation initiatives, then we need to change the way we frame and present these initiatives.  We can't just assume that a few threats will scare the stiffs straight when the stiffs aren't even paying attention.  And we don't certainly don't want to scare off the best and the brightest.

I'd argue, we need to take a more nuanced and targeted approach when pursuing these types of efforts.  Let's first make sure that those who are doing the right thing are recognized and thanked for their efforts.  Those who aren't recognized and thanked, and don't seem interested in being recognized and thanked, may be the ones we need to threaten, encourage, or hold accountable.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who manages organizational change in another field.  I relayed the story of my friend the model teacher and the subsequent anxiety.  My non-teacher friend quickly dismissed the anecdote, noting that all organizational change elicits fear and anxiety among employees.  It seems to me that teachers might be more anxious than others, but I'm inclined to agree with that point: all organizational change probably does elicit fear and anxiety among employees.  But is it the right employees who are scared and anxious?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When Outsiders are Needed

I've written about the push to include more outsiders in education (here and here, for example), and often focused more on the negatives than the positives of doing so.  So, today, let me take a brief moment to highlight one of the negatives of not allowing outside perspectives into education.

As regular readers know, I used to teach at a middle school in the Bronx that was shut down a few years back.  While shuttering the school (and subsequently opening three new, smaller, schools inside the building) was certainly no panacea, it's hard for me to believe it could possibly have made the situation any worse.

Not everything at my school was a disaster (the most notable exception to me was that a good portion of the teachers were at least very devoted if not also very skilled), but the list of negatives far exceeds the list of positives.  "Dysfunctional" would be a fair (maybe even kind) assessment of the day-to-day operations of the school.

That's the background for this snippet of conversation between two veteran teachers from a few weeks ago:

Teacher 1: "The more i visit schools, the more I see we were doing this right. [Our school] should have never closed."
Teacher 2: "You are so right [Teacher 1]. I still get angry about it was our fault!"

I'm not a psychologist, but it seems pretty clear to me that the two teachers are (still) unable to dispassionately evaluate our school.  This would align with the split in reactions to the announcement the school would close that I witnessed: the newer teachers in the building (myself included) mostly seemed to say things like "good riddance . . . I'll find a better position somewhere else," while the vets struggled with the decision and where to go next (and were suddenly filled with nostalgia for a school they'd ostensibly detested the week prior).  They obviously had a much deeper connection to the school than did us newbies, but they also seemed to interpret evaluations of the school as implicit evaluations of their own personal performance.

I'm sure there are a million good reasons for them to feel this way, but the policy-relevant point is that those feelings prevented them from seeing all sides of the situation.  If any attack on the school becomes a personal attack against them, it seems unlikely that they'd ever be able to embrace radical change in a school that clearly (to me, anyway) needed just that.

So, in this case, I'd argue that outsiders were needed to do that.  I left before the new schools were up and running, so I have no idea if the outsiders' solution really helped, but I think the recognition that the school wasn't working was a valuable contribution regardless.

In short: while outsiders frequently intrude where they're not needed, this was an instance where they were.

I'm back

Not that I ever officially left, but between dissertation, teaching, revising manuscripts, job hunting, etc. blogging kept falling to the bottom of my to-do list.  I don't expect that to-do list to grow much shorter in the next six months, but I've also noticed how much more engaged I am in ed. policy issues outside of my research-focus when I'm blogging regularly.  So I'm going to blog regularly.  Not every day.  And usually shorter pieces than I've written in the past.  But I'm back.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why No Outrage over Principal Quality?

As teachers around the country start to head back to work, I'm starting to hear the same thing I hear every year from teachers I know: "my new principal is horrible".  But it seems like I never read anything in the news about principal quality: instead, everything seems to focus on teacher quality.  Bad teachers are absolutely a problem, but is it possible that bad principals are actually the larger problem?

Here in metro Nashville, a quarter of principals are new this year.  I'm not an expert on school leadership, but it's hard for me to imagine that most principals, like teachers, do more than tread water their first year.  While the new principals learn the ropes, the school climate hangs in the balance: too many moves in the wrong direction may result in teachers, staff, parents, and students becoming disillusioned by, or just flat out leaving, the school.

The research says that teacher quality explains a greater percentage of variance in student achievement on a yearly basis than does principal quality, which makes sense given the direct relationship one has with their teacher versus the mostly indirect relationship one has with their principal.  But in the longer-term, might a bad principal have a larger negative effect on a student than a bad teacher?  After all, a bad teacher can ruin a classroom, but a bad principal can ruin a school.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Middle Ground in the Discipline Debate

A new report being released today apparently finds that 60% of students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades. As the NY Times reports, that's a huge number (though I don't quite understand why only 31% were suspended out of school -- apparently half of the kids received in-school suspensions instead (supposedly that's less severe, but does that seem like a worse punishment to anybody else?)).  Everyone interviewed in the article seems outraged at the number, and rightly so -- there's simply no way that 60% of students really cause serious problems in schools.

That said, simply reducing such punishments is no answer either. My school, for example, was under a good deal of pressure to reduce suspensions (word on the street was that our first principal resigned under pressure largely because the rate was deemed too high).  The result was that a few students got away with ludicrous behaviors, significantly reducing what the vast majority of students learned while simultaneously frustrating teachers in a building that already had a serious attrition problem.

So, I empathize with all those who are outraged by the sky-high numbers in this report.  We should certainly try to spend less time punishing, and more time teaching, our students.  But I also empathize with all those students and teachers whose learning and teaching are unnecessarily inhibited on a daily basis by a few students acting out.  I completely agree that we need to reduce the number of punishments meted out, but that can't be the only goal -- we simply cannot sacrifice student learning in the pursuit of less distressing numbers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

District Choice -- For Cities

Here's an interesting story to follow from the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  It seems that the majority of the residents of the tiny borough of Rosslyn Park have signed a petition asking that their community be part of the Chartiers Valley School District rather than the Carlynton School District.

Why?  A number of issues seem to be at play, but it seems that the main driver is that Chartiers Valley is, in many ways, a better district and has lower tax rates.  Given that 34 of 70 school-aged children residing in Rosslyn Park attend private or parochial schools, it's possible that the latter is actually more important than the former.

This isn't without precedent, but I can't say I've ever heard (or considered the possibility) of towns switching school districts.  Granted, this only applies to towns that are part of a multi-town school district -- which eliminates this as a possibility in an awful lot of places -- but it seems plausible that this could become a growing trend.  Based on the information in the article, I think if I lived in Rosslyn Park I'd want to switch districts too.  But I wonder if this were to catch on whether it would just be another way for parents to send their kids to more segregated schools.

Asking the Right Question About Charter School Skimming

This NYT article seems incomplete, but I like it for one simple reason: people talk all the time about charters cherry picking or cream skimming kids, but never seem to ask the right question . . . this article does. There's a ton of evidence that most charters do not take the highest scoring students (see, for example, this chapter from this new book) and those data are used as evidence that charters don't skim.

Case closed, right?  Do charters skim?  No, they don't.

But that's the wrong question. The issue shouldn't be whether charters take the highest scoring students, it should be whether they enroll the best-behaved and/or most motivated students (and then nudge out those who are unruly and/or unmotivated).

In other words, we should be asking if charters enroll kids who are better students instead of asking if they're enrolling students who previously earned higher scores.  Why?  Once you get a class or school full of motivated, attentive, and polite students it's a heck of a lot easier to teach them.  And a heck of a lot easier to see large gains in test scores.

I have yet to see any rigorous analysis of the extent to which charters do, in fact, enroll or retain better students.  Instead, I read a lot of anecdotes like the one from the NYT article I linked to above.  Were I to hazard a guess, it would be that there's at least one charter out there that enrolls/retains substantially better students than the surrounding schools.

Even if I'm right, whether or not that's a good thing or a bad thing is a whole separate discussion.  But let's start that discussion by asking the right questions.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If Teachers are Impossible to Fire . . .

. . . then why are so many so petrified of losing their jobs? In conversation after conversation with teachers from a wide variety of schools around the country this continues to stand out to me. And I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

What are the contexts of these conversations? They mostly arise in the following two situations:

1.) A new administrative regime comes in (at either the school level or higher) or the current regime hands down a new directive. Teachers scramble to re-do their bulletin boards, do more test prep, fill out more paperwork, or whatever else they think they need to do to cover their behinds. This certainly doesn't apply in all situations, since I've also seen teachers ignore new directives, essentially refuse to implement new curricula, etc.

2.) More worryingly, I've seen it time and time again when teachers are aware of wrongdoing by other people in the building or district -- particularly when it involves a direct supervisor.  I often seemed to be the only one in my building willing to report the unethical behavior I witnessed -- possibly because I had the luxury of knowing I wasn't trying to teach in the same district again the next year. I was recently speaking with a colleague who has witnessed outrageously unethical behavior by the principal at his school. I encouraged him to report this, and the response I received was "I need my job too much . . . [my principal] is waaaaay too dangerous.  I'm scared to death of him".

I have far too many anecdotes to fit into one blog post, but I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with panicked teachers anxious about their job status.  Given that almost all of these teachers were tenured at the time of the conversation, the anxiety in their voices doesn't jibe with the current rhetoric about teacher labor markets.  It seems to me that there are three possible explanations for this (not including the possibility that my perceptions are skewed):

1.) Teachers are, indeed, almost impossible to fire -- but they don't realize that.  I suppose it's possible that teachers perceptions are off, but it seems unlikely that their that off-base.

2.) Teaching as a profession tends to attract a lot of people-pleasers who are afraid to stand up for themselves.  This may not be entirely without merit -- I'd feel comfortable saying that most teachers I know or have met are more interested in helping others than causing trouble, but this seems like only part of the explanation at best.

3.) There's a dangerous lack of trust in too many schools and school systems.  I don't want to be alarmist or paint with too wide of a brush, but this strikes me as the most plausible explanation of the three.  If teachers don't trust their supervisors to be fair and ethical, it stands to reason that they'll constantly worry about their jobs regardless of whatever protections they have.

Is worrying about one's job always a bad thing?  Of course not; sometimes a little panic can boost productivity.  But when it results in the proliferation of unethical or downright abusive behavior, I start to worry about all the worriers.  And when policies aim to increase the worry-level of teachers, I worry about the potentially negative consequences for our schools and students.

To paraphrase the old milk commercials: Trust. It does a school good.

Monday, June 27, 2011

"For Me and Not for Thee"

Yesterday's Economic Scene Column by David Leonhardt captures my biggest objection to the "not everybody should go to college" argument.  He concludes the column by writing that:

I don’t doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice.

First, some context.  Fewer than one-third of 25-29 year-olds have earned a four-year degree, and even fewer adults from older generations have done similarly.  And evidence abounds that students from high-SES families are far more likely to obtain a college diploma (to the extent that high-achieving high school students from poor families are less likely to earn a diploma than are lower-achieving students from wealthier families).  The last stat that I read was that 67% of students at the top 200 or so colleges come from families ranking in the top quartile economically while only 10% come from households ranking in the bottom half.  So if it's true that too many people are attending college, that probably means too many kids of high-SES parents are attending college.

But it seems that those who most forcefully demand that fewer people attend college and/or that more people should pursue other options possess college degrees themselves -- and plan on sending their own children to college.  Depending on how one looks at it, that makes many of these arguments either elitist or hypocritical.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What if a Principal Allows Teachers to be "Bad"?

The rhetoric about "bad teachers" may never go away -- in part some teachers will always perform poorly, act irresponsibly, and so on (just as there are poor performers and irresponsible people in all professions and fields).  That said, what bothers me most about the rhetoric is that it continually oversimplifies the problem.  Too many commentators seem to assume that bad people magically pop up in schools to torture principals and belittle children.  But reality is more complex.

One situation that has arisen in numerous anecdotes I've heard from teachers is that a Principal will allow selected teachers (often their friends) to behave irresponsibly or worse.  Examples include showing up late, parking illegally, dressing inappropriately, eating meals with the Principal instead of teaching, leaving other people in charge of their class while they run errands, and, in at least one instance, abusing children.

Are "bad teachers" a problem in these schools?  Absolutely -- and they should be dealt with -- but not following the script we normally read (teacher is bad, principal wants to fire him/her, union steps in).  In these cases, the story I hear is that a "bad" principal allows a few teachers to do as they please while the rest of the teachers stew in outrage and cower in fear.

Did the Principal in these situations make these teachers bad?  It's not quite that simple.  But these Principals have certainly negatively impacted the performance of a few teachers while subsequently damaging the climate and performance of the school as a whole.

Situations like these are why I worry more about the extent of the damage done by irresponsible Principals than I do about the damage done by irresponsible teachers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unintended Consequences of College "Promise" Policies

The Quick and the Ed had a good piece today on the emerging research on the college "promise" policies enacted by various districts around the country (I believe Kalamazoo was the first and Pittsburgh is the largest, but I might be mistaken).  They're all a little different, but they essentially guarantee to pay for some portion of college for all students in the district who meet a certain benchmark.

The piece notes research indicating that more students in some of these districts are enrolling, and remaining, in college.  That's likely a good thing.  But what I don't see mentioned is one of the potential unintended consequences of the policy -- grade inflation.  If kids have to meet a certain GPA standard to receive the funds, it's likely that teachers will hesitate before giving a student a 'C' or below knowing that they could be costing the kid the opportunity to attend college -- and that districts that want to be a success story would likely pressure teachers not to give kids low grades in order to bump up their college attendance rates.  I don't know in how many places this is happening, but I know it's not zero -- so keep your eyes open for this when more reports on the effectiveness of these promise policies roll in.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Family Values Don't Matter Anymore?

One thing that continues to intrigue me is the flip in the attitudes of some conservatives toward the power of schools. When the Coleman Report was released, at least one prominent conservative concluded that it meant that "schools make no difference; families make the difference" and that education is "all family".  But for some reason now the attitude is that the poor results of African-American males are "nothing that a good school wouldn’t fix" as Peter Meyer writes on the Fordham Institute blog.

Meyer writes in response to an Ed Week article about the poor performance of black boys, arguing that if we spent less time on teaching them about character, drugs, pregnancy, jobs, and dealing with emotional problems and more time on teaching them content that we wouldn't have this problem.  He concludes by arguing that:

African American children, like most children, would do much better later in life if school taught them how to read and write – and, hopefully, a little history and science, art and math along the way – instead of being served up what has become a steady and distracting and unhealthy diet of paternalism and fries.

I'm struck by four things:

1.) I won't belabor the point here, but we have plenty of evidence that non-school factors impact academic performance.  Simply ignoring emotional problems, drug use, pregnancy, and other problems that start outside of school won't change that fact.

2.) I'm not even sure that high-poverty schools spend more time on character education, drug prevention, and sex ed than do other schools.  If anything, particularly given the incentive structure of NCLB, I'd guess that higher-poverty schools spend more time on reading and math than do others.

3.) Regarding the paternalism quote, I find it interesting that a number of the high-performing charter schools Fordham continually praises were examined in a book written by David Whitman and published by Fordham back in 2008.  What are these schools doing right?  Whitman argues that, above all else, all of these high-performing schools are highly paternalistic.

4.) Perhaps most striking to me is the dismissal of pregnancy as something worth addressing.  Given that around three-quarters of African-American children are now born out of wedlock and that evidence indicates that both single-parent households and teenage mothers negatively impact the performance (on average, of course) of students, this seems like an excellent time to call for a renewed focus on family values.  It seems to me that one could build a pretty strong case that a combination of marriage, delayed child birth and personal responsibility could go a long way toward improving the results of African-American males, so I find it odd that most conservative commentators instead seem to call for better schooling instead.

update: I originally misspelled Mr. Meyer's name as "Mayer" in this post. My apologies; no matter how much I disagree with him on this issue he still deserves to have his name spelled correctly.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Attendance: In-School or Non-School Problem?

This NY Times piece on chronic absenteeism in schools was interesting, particularly this paragraph:

The problem has hardly disappeared. Last year, at 42 percent of the city’s 700 elementary schools, one in five students missed a month or more of school, according to the New School study. But four years ago, that was true of 58 percent of the schools. And high school attendance is worse and tougher to fix: 34 percent of the city’s high school students missed a month or more of school last year

Most notable to me: over one-third of all high school students in NYC missed at least a month of school.  It's obviously pretty difficult for even the best teacher to teach students who aren't there.  The bigger question that I'm not sure I've ever seen addressed in research is to what extent a school can be expected alter the attendance patterns of its students.

One can imagine a scenario in which a teacher, administrator, or schools goes above and beyond their normal job description and does things like showing up at a student's door in the morning or something less drastic.  But to what extent can we expect teachers, administrators, and schools to improve the attendance of students?  If students aren't in school we can't possibly expect teachers to teach them.  But is it fair to expect teachers and others to attract kids to school?  Should that be part of the job description?  Or should we add it to the long list of non-school factors over which schools have no control?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Outsiders and Education Reform

Reading today's Dilbert cartoon strip, I couldn't help but think of education reform.

While there is, indeed, some value to being an outsider, it seems that we more and more often prioritize the views of outsiders over those of experienced educators in a variety of ways (which, I should emphasize, has had consequences that are both negative and positive):

*Cathie Black didn't last long in NYC, but Joel Klein was an outsider before her, as was Mark Roosevelt in Pittsburgh and a number of other superintendents around the country.  Even Margaret Spellings only had some limited policy experience in education and, best as I can tell, was never a teacher, school administrator, or district leader.

*Alternative certification programs have popped up all around the country to bring non-education majors into teaching.

*Papers analyzing education policy are increasingly written by economists (some, but not all, of whom have little training in education and/or experience in schools) rather than education scholars.

*Time and time again, the reforms proposed by outsiders have received more attention than those proposed by insiders.  Charter schools were originally trumpeted by Albert Shanker, but as a very different type of reform than is currently taking place.  Bill Gates probably has probably had as much say over what happened in our urban schools over the past decade as any individual in this country (though that's likely more a function of his financial resources than his outsider status).  Merit/Incentive/Performance pay was suggested by a lot of people, most of whom were not working in schools at the time.  The current wave of tenure reform and collective bargaining changes certainly wasn't advocated by teachers, though it was by a number of principals and superintendents.  The same could be said about value-added scores and, to a lesser extent, standardized testing and accountability.  Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure I can name the last major national reform that was really driven or advocated by teachers.

I have mixed feelings about this.  As I wrote above, some of this is good -- outsiders can, indeed, bring a unique perspective and offer some enlightening thoughts (we certainly shouldn't disregard everything somebody says simply because they're an outsider).  But, at the same time, I see no reason to continually prioritize the opinions of outsiders over those of people actually working in schools and trained in education -- in other words, while ignorance can sometimes be equated with objectivity, let's not assume it's the same as expertise.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Blogging my Dissertation

For the next two months I will be working on my dissertation full-time.  I considered taking another two month hiatus from blogging, but decided to do the opposite instead.  Since I think best when I can hash through ideas out loud and bounce them off of people, I'm going to commit to posting on dissertation-related topics at least 5 times each week from now through mid-August.

I'll avoid a long discussion of the premise of my dissertation, but will say that posts will revolve around the achievement gap, poverty, and social policy.  If you're interested in those topics, I hope you'll join me in an online discussion of them.  If you're not, I hope you will be two months from now.

update: this idea got shelved pretty quickly: I'll try to refrain from making promises I can't keep in the future

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Education Roundtable: Causes of Teaching Quality

Corey: Last time, we discussed the effects of under-performing principals versus under-performing teachers in schools, including some ways in which the former can result in the latter. Which brings me to something that’s been rattling around in my head lately: the causes of teaching quality. The dialogue on teacher/teaching quality often seems to treat it as something that’s both quantifiable and immutable. We talk about the need for principals to hire "good teachers" and fire "bad teachers" as though people are "good" or "bad" teachers much like they’re short or tall. While some certainly have more natural talent for teaching, my guess is that the actual teaching quality to which students are exposed to in a classroom has more to do with the context of the classroom and the school than it does with the natural abilities of the instructor.

I’ve included a rough list of some of these factors below, including teacher characteristics (observable traits), classroom context (which may influenced by differing degrees by teachers and principals in different schools), and school characteristics (which are typically more heavily influenced by principals than teachers). Most notable, to me, is that all of the items I listed under “teacher characteristics” are malleable and can be influenced by principals (and, of course, teacher training programs). Hence, my belief that principals have as much do to with teaching quality as do teachers -- and their ability to hire and fire teachers is only a small part of that. My intent isn’t to shift the discussion from blaming teachers to blaming principals but, rather, to better think through how to expose more students to high-quality teaching.

Teacher Characteristics:
Interpersonal Skills/Charisma

Classroom Context:
Other Materials
Subject Matter
Student Characteristics

School Characteristics:
School Climate
School Discipline System
Teacher Colleagues
Professional Development
Student Demographics
Planning Time

ClassroomView: I don’t think I have anything to add to your factors, Corey. However, I would certainly reverse the order of importance. I would place school characteristics first, teacher characteristics second, and classroom context third. As someone who has taught for a while, I cannot emphasize enough the role that overall school culture plays in effective instruction. Yes, quality teaching is important, but the whole building needs to reflect a high level of both caring and competence for all students.

CEP: I would add teacher autonomy in there, whether at the classroom context level or school characteristic level or both, I’m not sure. When I was in the classroom, on the one hand, it was my characteristics and the classroom context (including a fairly high level of autonomy, at least as far as no one paid attention to what I was doing as long as I had good test scores) that made me an effective teacher, it was ultimately the school characteristics that drove me out of the classroom as they were not working together to make me a more effective instructor.

Corey: I'm not sure I have much more to add other than to remark on my surprise at the lack of objections to my postulation among those in this group.  I suspect that others may take more issue with the idea that teaching quality is influenced more by contextual factors than a teacher's underlying abilities.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Education Roundtable: Bigger Problem: Bad Teachers or Bad Principals?

Corey: I have a shorter and simpler (sort of) topic this week.  One can’t read more than a couple of blog posts or newspaper/magazine articles about education policy without reading about the teacher quality crisis and the number of bad teachers lingering around our schools -- particularly in high-poverty, urban schools.  But in conversations with others who’ve worked in these types of schools, I hear at least as many complaints about incompetent or vindictive principals as I do about ill-informed or lazy teachers.
I have yet to see an empirical estimate of either, but I can’t help but wonder: are there more bad teachers or bad principals?  Research indicates that teachers are the most-important school-level factor, so it stands to reason that improving teacher quality would have a greater impact regardless of whether we employ more ineffective principals.  But, at the same time, principals play a potentially large role in the hiring, development, and retention of all teachers -- both good and bad.
So, which do you think might be the bigger problem?  Bad teachers or bad principals?
Tofulover: Bad principals!  I don’t understand how anyone pushes for changing teacher evaluation systems without acknowledging that the people evaluating teachers are, in many cases, both hideously overworked and woefully under-prepared.  These are the two problems, as I see them.  
Hideously overworked.  Principals are expected to balance budgets, understand and apply complicated laws, administer programs, oversee personnel, attend meetings, handle building-level crises, meet with parents, stay on top of the latest research, and then, on top of all of that, supervise teachers.  It’s an absolutely impossible job.
Woefully under-prepared.  Principal training programs don’t prepare their students to do all of the above, nor could they.  And so very many principals are political appointees, we get nothing close to the cream of the teaching crop going into administration.  I’d say it’s actually the opposite.
The solutions to these problems are, in my opinion, the bulk of the solution to the educational crisis in which we find ourselves.  I’d propose two main approaches: one, split the principalship into two separate jobs: the CEO and the principal teacher.  The former could be directly from MBA school with no education experience whatsoever and be great at balancing budgets, handling clients (parents, in this case) and other administrative tasks that carry over from the business world.  The principal position should be filled by a veteran educator whose full-time job is to observe, evaluate, and support teachers -- nothing else.  Only then can any overhauled teacher evaluation system even hope to work.  Second, there ought to be higher standards for the principalship -- a multiple-choice Praxis test isn’t nearly enough.  If the principal isn’t smart enough to understand district initiatives (as is the case in so very many places), there’s no hope for anyone in the building.
Chad: Tofulover, I’m surprised to see you jump on the managerial bandwagon! I think part of the problem is the unidirectional nature of evaluations. Schools are currently modeled on a corporate managements system, with accountability flowing from students to teachers to principals to superintendents to boards of education. This model is not working very well. As you point out, principals don’t really monitor their teachers and superintendents don’t really monitor their principals (expect through distant and dubious statistical reports).
Perhaps we should instead model the education system on democratic principles, with accountability flowing downward. Students and parents get some say in evaluating teachers. Teachers get some say in evaluating principals. Principals get a say in evaluating the superintendent and the board of education.
Some blended approach is probably best. But it would be a mistake to put a management “expert” in charge of schools with no accountability to those she is responsible for providing leadership.
Tofulover: Chad, I like your ideas.  I don’t think that contradicts what I envision.  Someone still leads, but certainly a more democratic approach to leadership would help.  In the research world, evaluation systems sometimes use only principal and superintendent input to determine what elements of principal leadership they ought to measure.  That’s like asking Ronald Reagan about the grounds on which we should judge George Bush, but not asking citizens. 
Also, just an additional plug for my points above, I’ve interviewed principals in a few states as part of some studies and I’d guess their average IQ to be about 85.  Can’t do much with that, democratic principles or no.
CEP: Sure, empirically, teachers/ teacher quality may be the biggest school-level individual contributor to student achievement, but there are so many things that principals have an impact on, including the quality of teachers they hire. No, we may not know exactly those things that predict an effective teacher, but there seem to be principals who have a knack for sorting through applicants and hiring effective teachers. Yes, the labor market, hiring pool and schedule, etc.  play into that, but like the principals Tofulover refers to, so many do not seem to have the necessary skills to identify teachers who even care about students, much less may be effective pedagogically.
Not to mention the number of times over the past month that I’ve thought how quickly I would go back into teaching if I knew I would have a supportive, effective administration, particularly with a principal I trusted. And for me, at least, whether or not I trust a principal hinges strongly on both my perception of their ability to detect good teaching and whether or not they legitimately evaluate teachers or just play the game.
To Chad’s point about the flow of accountability, the primary accountability flowing from superintendent to principal is dismissal, generally based on test-score performance. In two large districts I can think of where this has occurred in a widespread fashion, Atlanta and DC, there have been less than outstanding outcomes in the aftermath, at least anecdotally. We have some ideas, empirically, of the effects of replacing less effective teachers with more effective teachers and I’d love to see some work that gets at the impacts of replacing less effective principals with more effective ones.
Wrap-up (Corey): Since this group includes a number of people with classroom experience but nobody with administrative experience, it's possible that we're a little biased when it comes to discussing the shortcomings of teachers versus the shortcomings of principals.  And, while I don't think it's anybody's intent here, simply shifting blame from teachers to principals likely won't do much good.  That said, I think this conversation has raised a number of important points regarding the roles of principals in ensuring -- or at least encouraging -- teacher effectiveness.  While a teacher certainly has a larger, and more direct, impact on the students they teach than does the principal of the school, it still seems curious to me that we've focused so much attention on teacher quality and accountability at the expense of principal quality or accountability.  If I had to guess -- and I have no empirical evidence for this -- I'd guess that a greater proportion of principals are particularly bad at their jobs than teachers.  At the same time, it's possible that the worst teachers have a greater impact on students than the worst principals -- but it's also likely that training, hiring, and retaining better principals would lead to a higher-quality teacher workforce.  We'll discuss this possibility in next week's roundtable. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Kids First

March 1st marked the release of Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives by David L. Kirp (purchase), a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley.

In the book, Kirp lays out five "big ideas" for changing children's lives for the better -- from "crib to college".  The book originates from his experiences while serving on the Presidential Transition Team in 2008, during which time he met with representatives from countless youth-related organizations.  The experience left him with two distinct impressions: 1.) a lot of people are doing a lot of different things to help children; 2.) most of them don't coordinate with similarly motivated groups attacking the problem in different ways.  His five big ideas are his attempt to unify the agendas of all of these organizations and point the our country toward better serving the needs of youth with an array of services offered throughout their development.  These five ideas are:

teaching parents to teach their kids - The much-discussed nurse-family partnership serves as a prime example of a program in which parents are offered assistance with childrearing.

delivering brainy education to tots - The Perry Preschool Project and Abcedarian Project are discussed along with a few other select successful educational early childhood initiatives.

creating academies of learning and life - The discussion revolves around the  Harlem Children's Zone and the Children's Aid Society schools are as examples of "community schools" -- schools that incorporate various other community services along with their academics.

the kindness of strangers - Mentoring programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and others are discussed.

the universal piggy bank - "Baby bonds" in Maine, the UK, and elsewhere are part of a discussion of starting all kids with savings accounts for college upon birth (and possibly matching contributions to those accounts).

These five chapters are intended to serve as his road map to creating a "web" of child services available in every community, but instead serve as more of a series of guide posts.  Notably repeated throughout his discussion is the notion that they have to be universal programs available to all because "we're inclined to be stingy when policy is seen as us funding them" (p. 181).  While that makes sense politically, it remains to be seen whether there are many well-to-do families clamoring for mentors for their children, parenting classes, or dental clinics in their schools.

The utility of these ideas remains somewhat up in the air.  Those who believe that strong social reform is a must will surely cheer the book regardless of its weaknesses, but skeptics will be left wondering whether and how implementing Kirp's ideas will truly bring about a wholesale change in child well-being.  And it should be clear to the reader that Kirp is arguing specifically for progressive programs rather than simply programs that work -- he goes out of his way to point out, for example, the "art-soaked" curriculum (p. 133) of one school and quote an Early Head Start program director saying that "we talk about practicing 'discipline and love' not 'discipline and fear'" (p. 117) -- possibly an attempt to keep the "no excuses" advocates from claiming that the particular program falls under their model of success.

Back in January, Alexander Russo wrote an excellent piece asking for more from those who oppose the current favorite solutions in education policy and criticize the widely publicized success stories (particularly regarding charter schools).  "Where," he asks "are the progressive versions of the reformy success stories . . .?"  This book answers that question.  Indeed, this book serves as a counterweight to all the recent tomes published on high-flying charters.  And suffers from the same weaknesses as well.

Other than perhaps a gentler and more humble tone, there's not much to differentiate this volume from those who advocate replicating the success of particular schools that operate in a particular way.  While pointing out programs that work is certainly useful, discussing exceptions can only advance the discourse so far.  Among other problems, it remains unclear how we would -- or that we even can -- successfully scale up these programs to a national level, but the final chapter advocates that we do so nonetheless.

It's also unclear that any of the solutions he presents (parent support, early education, community schools, mentoring, and savings accounts) are truly "big ideas".  None of those five chapters offer a new vision; rather, they recount the successes of a few programs in each category and advocate the creation and funding of similar programs.  Experts in the field are likely familiar with most, if not all, of the success stories he recounts.

Most readers should find these chapters informative and somewhat interesting, but the sole "big idea" presented is the notion that we should implement all five of these types of reforms in a coordinated fashion.  Given the narrow focus of each program, it seems far more likely that such a coordinated effort would yield positive results than would putting all of our eggs in one basket.  Kirp estimates that the five reforms would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 billion to implement full-scale nationwide and argues that this is really a pittance when taken in context -- particularly since evaluations of many of the programs discussed have found enormous cost-benefit ratios ("one good community nurse will save a dozen policemen" (pp. 203-204)).  Even so, this session of Congress seems particularly unlikely to adopt bold new social programs.

Many readers may not find what they expect in Kirp's book.  Based on the title, one might expect revolutionary new ideas but, instead, find abbreviated stories of a few selected successful programs.  A reader expecting groundbreaking theories on how to transform children's lives may be disappointed to find 200 pages of anecdotes sprinkled with endnotes.  And an academic reader expecting a thorough analysis of the successes and failures of child policy will surely be disappointed to instead find a call to action resting on a few notable successes.  But that doesn't mean readers will leave with nothing.  By the end of the book, readers -- particularly those who are not experts in the field -- should have a clearer idea of what types of policies have succeeded where others have failed and what types of child policies might be most beneficial.

Kirp points out that he could've included far more than five ideas.  Indeed, strong arguments could be made for the inclusion of programs that impact health care, nutrition, fitness, neighborhood violence, housing conditions, gangs or any number of factors.  The coordinated implementation of the five interventions Kirp lays out could potentially change lives, but they're not sufficient by themselves.  At the same time, worrying that these programs aren't enough shouldn't prevent people from backing a common agenda.  Yes, those who run, say, a karate program or a community garden won't like being left out of this conversation -- but progress must start somewhere.

While those who run programs not mentioned in the book will doubtless feel left out, they shouldn't take that to mean that their programs aren't important or can't play a role.  My personal theory on these types of interventions is that it often matters more how well they're implemented than it does exactly what they do.  A well-run karate program or community garden, for example, may work wonders while an unenthusiastic mentor likely won't accomplish anything.  In that sense, the big idea that readers should take away should really be that we need coordinated child services run by passionate and competent individuals (this idea isn't really new, but is definitely "big").  More would get done if concerned citizens spent less time arguing about which services to implement and more time providing whatever services a particular child or community needs.  The big unanswered question is how we go about ensuring the formation of these types of programs.  Most of the programs discusses are small, private programs.  Whether it would be more fruitful to encourage a thousand more programs like these or to implement larger, more centralized programs patterned on these successes remains up for debate.

Overall, Kirp's book falls short in many ways.  Cherry-picking a few successful programs and then suggesting that our country would be a better place if we replicated them will neither persuade doubters nor lay a clear path for believers, but it might prompt a worthwhile discussion.  The title is a stretch and the writing, while quite readable, sometimes borders on dull, but the typical reader should finish with more ideas about attacking problems confronted by children than when they started.  The book may not be a must-read for the stodgiest of academics, but it is for anybody involved with children's social services -- and would benefit anybody interested in the future of our children.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blog Schedule

Here's what you can expect on this blog over the next couple months as the semester wraps up:

On Mondays, I'll try to post the latest Education Roundtable discussion.  I'll also try to post one additional commentary each week, usually on Thursdays.  Additional items may also be posted depending on time constraints and what's happening in the world of education policy.  Also, look for a special post tomorrow: a book review of the just-released book Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives by David L. Kirp (purchase)

update (March 14): My schedule got thrown off, but you can expect the book review later today and another post later this week.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Education Roundtable: Increasing Teaching Quality

Corey: Last week, we discussed how to deal with disaffected students in the classroom. One theme that emerged in the discussion was the potential influence of teachers on such students.

Here’s a timely, and relevant, piece on the subject that was just published. In the piece, Robert Pondiscio reviews the book Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov and, I think, does an excellent job. While I don’t agree with everything that Pondiscio writes, I think he makes a number of important and insightful points.

One of these is in this excerpt:

His focused, obsessively practical study of what makes teachers effective could—and should—shift the terms of our increasingly vitriolic national debate from “teacher quality” to “quality teaching.” This is no mere semantic distinction. The difference is not who is in the front of the room. The difference is what that person does. Lemov’s achievement is to examine teaching at the molecular level. By doing so, he may have rescued education reform from its implicit dependence on classroom saints and superheroes. It is an indispensable shift. If teaching effectively is something for the best and the brightest, rather than the merely dedicated and diligent, education reform is finished, now and forever.

I’m not sure that teacher quality and teaching quality are quite that distinct from one another -- a smart, hardworking, teacher will be more likely to do something worthwhile in front of a class -- but, nonetheless, I think it’s an important distinction.

We could take this discussion any of a million different ways, but let’s try to focus on the issue of “quality teaching” that Pondiscio identifies. I think he’s correct that it would be easier to train every teacher to teach well than it would be to recruit millions of superstar individuals into the classroom (and keep them there), but that doesn’t make it an easy task. Lemov, Pondiscio and others argue that we need more practical lessons that focus on day-to-day details in our teacher training programs. I agree that my program would have been more helpful to me had it done that, though I can see the other side as well -- that if we only focus on classroom management techniques, our teachers will ultimately lack the vision they need to be truly transformational leaders.

What do others think? Is Pondiscio on to something here? Is “quality teaching” something that can be accomplished in the foreseeable future? Do we know how to accomplish this? If so, how?

CEP: I agree with Corey’s assessment that teacher quality and quality teaching are not that distinct from one another. In many ways, who a person is determines what that person does or is capable of doing. To say otherwise implies that anyone can teach and all that is required is an effective, scripted curriculum that is “teacher-proof.” The current trend in education towards stricter certification requirements for teachers, a shift towards the professionalization of teaching, indicates that teaching should require some discretionary activity, rather than the constraint of a teacher-proof curriculum.

That aside, quality teaching is something that can be accomplished. Modes of teacher education and professional development are the place to start. The field knows little about what actually goes on in teacher preparation programs, be they traditional or alternative, much less how the discrete elements of preparation programs may lead to effective teaching. Conversely, we do know something about what makes professional development effective: content focus, active learning, coherence, sufficient duration, and collective participation. In spite of a growing amount of evidence to support the effectiveness of professional development when these characteristics are present, the vast majority of professional development continues to be one-shot workshops, disconnected from teachers’ perceived needs. Understanding what goes on in teacher preparation programs, with the goal of restructuring them and improving professional development to focus on quality teaching could go a long way to improved teaching practices.

ClassroomView: I like Lemov’s ideas a lot, and I agree that good teaching is done minute by minute, rather than just created as a large symphony, if you will, by a magical teacher. I will say, though, that some people are clearly better suited to teaching than others. While great teachers are made, they have to be cut from the right cloth. I think it would do teacher education programs well to follow the lead of the Teaching Fellows by requiring incoming students to audition in, if you will, to programs. I’ve seen way too many teachers simply sign up for a degree in education with absolutely no performance element required, and as a result a lot of completely uninteresting people end up in front of children. I think this is a mistake, and that we should assess raw teaching ability before we start to apply the step by step guidelines that Lemov so convincingly suggests.

Corey: I think the causes of quality teaching are more complex than we’re willing to recognize. Yes, raw ability matters. Yes, training can influence teaching. And, yes, we have a lot more to learn about how to identify both. But I think the causes go well beyond identifying and training talent. My personal theory on the former is that there are a few people who will succeed in almost set of any circumstances, and a few that will fail, but that most will perform very differently in different environments. How they’re trained and mentored probably matters, but so does the curriculum that they’re (not) given, the administrator(s) who evaluate and manage them, the climate and context of the school in which they teach, and the subjects and students they’re assigned to teach.

What is taught (and how) in our classrooms is hugely important -- nobody disputes that. Recruiting, training, and retaining good teachers is part of that equation. But it’s not everything, and I’m not even sure it’s most of the puzzle.

CEP: Are you suggesting that yet unmentioned policy-driven solutions specific to education are part of the equation or are you thinking more along the lines of the need for better understandings of cognition/ how people learn, in order to better inform what drives good pedagogy? Or, are you driving at something outside the parameters of schooling, along the lines of social policy?

Corey: Unless I misunderstand you, I don’t think I’m suggesting any of those. What I’m suggesting is that the quality of teaching to which children are exposed relies on a large number of factors. We tend to focus on teaching ability defined in two different ways when we talk about teacher quality: the first is what I’ll call natural ability (smart, hard working, charismatic, etc.) and the second is what I’ll pedagogical ability (structuring lessons, passing out papers, managing a class and many of the other things Lemov talks about). I’m suggesting that the context of the school and the class in which a teacher teaches also greatly influence the quality of the teaching to which students are exposed. Curriculum is certainly a large part of this, but even beyond that I think the effectiveness of individual teachers will vary widely depending on the particular subjects and children they’re asked to teach, the climate of the school, the support (or lack thereof) from administrators, and any number of other factors. In other words, I’d suggest that the quality of teaching students experience may have as much to do with the context of the school and classroom as it does any particular aspects of the teacher in the front of the classroom.

If I’m right, the policy ramifications would be that we should be hiring administrators who can facilitate teacher development, help create a positive school climate, assign teachers to their areas of strength, and generally design schedules and implement policies that will help teachers succeed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Education Roundtable: Dealing with Disaffected Students

Corey: Last week, we discussed who should go to college and who shouldn’t. Part of that depends on who will benefit from more schooling and who won’t. This week, we’ll discuss a related topic: what we should do with students who simply don’t enjoy school.

While we in the education world sometimes take it for granted that everybody should spend more time in school, it’s readily apparent that quite a few students really don’t like school.  A few song lyrics can illustrate this point:

Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” includes a school chorus singing the following

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome begins:

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

And Dead Prez’s “They Schools" include the following lyrics:

They schools can't teach us s--t
. . .
They schools ain't teachin' us, what we need to know to survive
(Say what, say what)
They schools don't educate, all they teach the people is lies
. . .
F--k they schools

School is like a 12 step brainwash camp
They make you think if you drop out you ain't got a chance
To advance in life, they try to make you pull your pants up
Students fight the teachers and get took away in handcuffs

So, three different artists, complaining for three different -- but related reasons -- about schools. And the question is, what do we do about it? Do we tell the kids to zip it because we know what’s best for them? Do we divert them to alternate education programs? Do we try to make school more enjoyable? Do we let them drop out? And who makes these decisions? And when? To try to frame this discussion, let me ask these questions in a slightly different way. If your child echoed these types of complaints, what would you say to him/her? What if another student in your child’s class said these types of things? What would you hope that the teacher or principal would do?

Neil: Unemployed and uneducated people (defined as high school drop outs) are more likely to commit crime. They are more likely to partake in dangerous and socially expensive activities (i.e. smoking, teenage pregnancy). In short, uneducated people are more likely to cost society money. To reduce the costs that the uneducated impose, it makes sense to require members of the public to obtain an education. The State can and should fashion laws that dis-incentivize the population from dropping out of school. However, such laws should be carefully fashioned so that they do not impose more costs than benefits. For example, the law should not incentivize incorrigible children to stay in school to the detriment of students who are interested in learning. The law should not burden the State with enforcement costs that counteract societal savings that result from higher graduation rates.

ClassroomView: I think all children should be required to go to an elementary school that more or less treats all students the same. I think there should then be a split, where students have the option to attend schools with a focus on vocational training. Parents should have a lot of say over this, but not necessarily students. Some type of schooling should probably be required through age 17, but only if the education can be classified as “likely to be useful for each particular student.”

As a student, I didn’t think school sucked because I could do it in my sleep. Many students go to school for more than a decade and never feel that way. It’s not fair to them to make them do things they don’t want to do, and learn things they are often not able to learn, thereby completely wasting their time and our money. Instead, after a basic elementary education, they should have they opportunity to learn a useful trade in an environment that will not turn them into angry and isolated adults.

Neil: I agree that students should have the option to enter vocational school or traditional school, and that parents should make the ultimate decision regarding which school a particular student will attend. I also agree that the state should require students to attend school until they graduate (17 or 18).

I disagree that our expectations for students should depend on intelligence (except in exceptional circumstances - i.e. moderate to severe retardation). You seem to conclude that forcing less intelligent students to attend school will turn them into angry and isolated adults. I have a hard time believing that the act of being challenged in school will turn a student into an angry adult. I also don’t agree with your conclusion that school is a waste of time and money if a student does not want to attend or if the student is unable to learn certain material. Education is valuable, particularly when students struggle with material.

CEP: I agree that students should have more options than our current system’s focus on preparing all students for college allows for. One problem I see though, which ClassroomView touches on, is that school-age children may not have any idea what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Based on that, it seems that providing a high level of general education for all students will benefit them in the future when they do have a better idea what direction they want to take, or even what directions they want to take. Kids just don’t always know what’s best for them. They may think that what they’re learning will have little impact on their future, but they really don’t know the full story. Therefore there is a degree to which they just have to deal with it. I don’t want to say in any way that all standards are good and that what all teachers choose to teach is appropriate or how they teach is engaging, but there is a degree to which kids need to be educated and they just need to deal with it. I offer no critique of the system/ process through which we determine what they actually need to know

Taking this in another direction, teachers factor in to a large degree in at least 2 of these 3 lyrics, indicating that teachers have a large degree of control over students’ perceptions of school. My own experiences as a teacher in an urban public school confirm this. A teacher taking a genuine interest in a student, showing they care about more than just their academic progress, can go a long way in a kid’s engagement in school. It’s all well and good to want students to learn for the sake of learning, but if I can get a kid to learn for my sake, because they know I care about them, then wonderful, they’re learning!

In answering the question of what to do with students who don’t want to be in school, I live in this tension between thinking yes, we need to expand our school structures and pedagogy to make school more engaging for all students and thinking that the adult world functions in a specific manner and part of the role of schooling is to prepare students to function and thrive in that world. As such, many alternative ways of education may not accomplish that.

Really, historically, what have schools done to engage students? Very little: things are shifting in that direction in response to the attitudes espoused in these lyrics, but this is a relatively new trend. The things we need to change are teachers and our pedagogical methods. Teachers who care and make some attempt at connecting learning to real life would be good places to start.

Neil: The type of teaching practices you discuss cost money. Smaller class sizes cost money. Retaining experienced teachers costs money. Given that states and municipalities are in serious financial trouble, I don’t envision those changes being implemented. However, I do agree that teaching methods need to be more personalized and engaging if we are to keep kids in school. I think the answer is software. My hope is that technological innovations will allow states and municipalities to provide students with a quality education on the cheap. I think that better quality instruction might put a dent in the drop out rate.

Corey: If we think it’s important that teachers engage students and form personal bonds, then we should hold them accountable for such. If a teacher is being evaluated only on students’ test scores and academic progress, it’s tough to fault a teacher when they don’t spend a lot of time “showing they care about more than just [students’] academic progress”.

It also seems dangerous to me to expect that teachers can and will do anything and everything. If a student is genuinely unhappy with their schooling, then asking the teacher to try and fix it is fine -- but only to a certain point. At some point, structural changes need to be made as well. Either we give teachers the time and resources necessary to form these types of bonds, recruit and evaluate based on these bonds, or remove the student from the class and assign somebody else the task of trying to engage them while we let the teacher focus on the other 25 or so students.

CEP: Neil, you seem to contradict yourself. I’m curious as to how software and technological innovations will create more personalized teaching methods and what sort of innovations you mean? And, Corey, we should hold teachers accountable for engaging students academically, and even hire based on such personality characteristics- other industries certainly do. Who wants a crusty old pediatric nurse who lacks compassion? Problem is, the teacher pool may not have enough of such teachers. And there’s certainly a distribution: I know that every teacher is not going to be able to personally engage with all their students in the manner I’m describing. What is important though it to not have teachers that deride and belittle their students and make no effort to engage them. I’d like to imagine that such teachers are not in classrooms, but my experience is to the contrary.

Corey: There’s no doubt that there are some teachers that are bad in every which way imaginable. What I worry is that if the answer to “what should we do with disaffected students?” is simply “expect teachers to form personal relationships with them” that this would be taking the easy way out. Our current accountability system is based on test scores, and there’s evidence that principals in urban schools tend to hire those who can manage a class. These are both true for good reasons -- too many kids don’t have basic knowledge of academic subjects, and too many classes are overrun with discipline problems.

While I agree that a great teacher should be able to raise test scores, manage a classroom, and form relationships with their students all at once, I’m not sure what we accomplish by arguing that. Other than heaping blame on struggling teachers, motivating principals to heap blame on struggling teachers, and avoiding the implementation of any structural changes.

Wrap-up: If we agreed on anything, I think it's that there's no easy answer here. Alternative schools, tracking, warmer teachers, and other changes could all be potential solutions depending on the exact situation. The subject is too broad to address in one post, so for next week we're going to turn our attention the teacher quality argument that began in this post.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Education Roundtable: Who Shouldn't Go to College?

This is the first installment of what I hope to make a recurring series of education roundtables.

Corey: EdWeek just ran an article on a new report from some Harvard researchers.  In short, the report argues that we need to focus more energy on preparing students for careers that don’t require college diplomas.  As such, students should have more opportunities -- even as early as middle school -- to “chart an informed course toward work” (quote from edweek).  

Why?  “For too many of our youth, we have treated preparing for college versus preparing for a career as mutually exclusive options.”  By this logic, those most harmed by our “college or bust” (my quote) viewpoint are those who want to go into vocations with good wages (plumber, electrician, etc.) that don’t require diplomas.  In other words, why go to college when you get a steady, stimulating, and reasonably well-paying job without wasting time sitting in lecture halls.

To argue that some students would benefit from more vocational training is all well and good, but it seems like a slippery slope to me.  Yes, not everybody needs to go to college -- but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point where too many students are going to college.  And until we reach the point where there are somewhere close to as many steady vocational jobs as there are adults without a college degree, I remain unconvinced that expending more time and effort on vocational training will benefit our students or our economy.  Until that point, this type of argument seems like a convenient way for some upper-class families to justify expecting less from others’ children than they do from their own.

TofuLover: I agree that there is a danger of reifying social stratification that comes along with this argument, but I don’t know how you can say we don’t have too many people going to college.  Why isn’t 40% more than enough?  Let us not confuse the racial/socioeconomic breakdown of that 40% with the overall value of the 40%.  Do I wish that 40% had many more children of color and children from low-income backgrounds?  Yes, but that doesn’t mean the number needs to get bigger, it means the proportions need to change.  

What is your argument for the value of college?  And what about the expense?  According to the Project on Student Debt, the average student graduated in 2009 with $24,000 in loans.  That’s an outrageous amount of money to repay, and for what advantage?  Where are your stats that there aren’t enough jobs for people without college degrees?  It seems to me that while the education industry has been convincing kids to take out larger and larger loans, many other industries have been quietly replacing highly-credentialed workers with cheaper ones with smaller pedigrees (medical assistants, who are not college educated, doing blood work instead of nurses, e.g.).

I learned amazing things in college, but I didn’t learn facts that would make me better at Jeopardy and I most certainly did not acquire any skills that made me more employable (the credential made me more employable, but not the skills).  I also learned invaluable lessons about citizenship, community, honesty, ethics, and how I wanted to create myself in the world and mold my world to suit my values.  While I wouldn’t trade these things or try to put a price tag on them, I am also confident that they all could have been accomplished by a really good high school.  

I also once had a plumber with an MBA from Wharton -- he got it and then went back to plumbing because he realized he could make more money, be his own boss, and do a service that few could argue isn’t absolutely crucial to our society’s function.  

The bell curve is shaped like a bell, kids.  This isn’t Lake Wobegone.  Some people are cut out for highly specialized careers that require college educations, and some people aren’t.  And we do a disservice to kids and our society when we beat them over the head with a) tasks that are really hard for them, often prohibitively so, 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, and b) the notion that they are bad people because school is hard for them.  Between teaching 2nd and 4th grades, I saw the light go out in so many children’s eyes because they were just confronted with things that were too hard for them, and that’s not right.  There should be legitimate, valued options for kids who don’t naturally excel at academics.  Education could and should lead the way in changing how society treats its most important members -- its plumbers, mechanics, farmers, trash collectors -- those without whom we (whose skill set amounts to being able to think for a living; let’s see how far that gets us in the post-peak-oil world) would be in serious trouble.

ClassroomView:  Corey, you lost me at the slippery slope.  I agree that we want to be careful about what kinds of skills we teach all children, because we don’t want to short circuit future opportunities.  However, I don’t think that shuttling me off the intramural basketball team in seventh grade was a bad thing, even though it effectively ended my hopes to get a scholarship to a great basketball school, like say, Kentucky.  I feel kind of cheated, I must admit, because I really could have been the next John Wall.  OK, maybe this is a stretch, but the thing is, it’s an apt analogy for a giant percentage of our kids who are continually browbeaten with “standards.”

As a currently practicing teacher who doesn’t work in a particularly failing school, I can say without reservation that our relentless focus on standards and college is one of the worst ideas to come out of our hapless nation that seems to be full of bad ideas these days.  You said it yourself with the term “College or Bust”: kids will make it to college, or they will have their souls crushed while trying.  But the crazy thing is, that’s not even the worst part of it.

The worst part of it is maybe they will get to college.  Let’s not forget that the major downside of everyone going to college is that its competitive value drops significantly.  How many of these kids get to a mediocre school, turn out mediocre grades, and then enter a work force chock full of other BAs who simply can’t find a job because our educational system expanded way too quickly under an educational industry bubble fueled almost exclusively by federally-backed loans?

I’m not going to cite any figures because I’m too lazy to look for them right now, but there is an entire generation of 20-somethings who can’t find work despite the our nation’s incessant boasting that “education is the key to a better future.”  Well here’s the thing: an education may very well be a prerequisite for a middle class living, but it is certainly no guarantee of one anymore; there are simply too many people with college degrees competing for a disappearing pool of jobs.

Which brings me to vocational education...of course we should have it...and a LOT of it.  There is an entire private industry of tech schools that train high school graduates (and college drop outs) to do useful things that can’t really be outsourced.  From air conditioning repair to medical technology, there are all sorts of jobs that graduates can do and earn a living at that require no college whatsoever.  My question is this: Why do we make people wait until after they’ve wasted years in high school to pursue these fields?  Wouldn’t it be a lot more honest, to say nothing of efficient, to allow these students to learn something useful in high school?  It would save them from debt later on (which I can personally attest, sucks) and it would keep them interested in learning during a pivotal of their lives that is now completely going down the tubes for large populations of our students.

Let’s not forget the end goal of K-12 education should be creating happy and productive citizens for our democracy.  Any path that gets five-year-olds to this point by their 18th birthdays is fine by me, and should be actively pursued.

Corey: In 1975, about 22% of 25-29 year-olds had a bachelor’s degree.  For the last decade, that number has hovered around 30%.  Hence, my lack of alarm at the skyrocketing population of young adults with useless bachelor’s degrees.

70% of adults do not possess a bachelor’s degree.  I’m neither a demographer nor a labor economist, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this means two things: 1.) There are far more non-college-educated adults struggling to make ends meet than there are underemployed college grads staggering under a burden of debt; and 2.) There are nowhere near enough skilled jobs to employ everybody without a college degree; even if they all receive top-notch vocational training.

How many of those 70% should earn college degrees?  I don’t know.  But the reality is that we’re nowhere close -- and won’t be at any point in the near future -- to a population where 100% earn bachelor’s degrees.  Heck, at the current rate it will take us until about the end of the century to reach the point where the majority do.

Now, for the large number of students who enroll in college but never graduate (if over half of students enroll in college, and only 30% graduate, this is a pretty big number), we can certainly find some who would do better with vocational/technical training.  But this isn’t the only option: there are any number of ways in which we might help this population instead successfully graduate from college.  So, no, we shouldn’t dismiss vocational/technical training outright, but I think we should think long and hard before steering somebody away from college.

Part of this is because college attendance benefits people in numerous ways.  I don’t have time to look up all these statistics, but those with a bachelor’s degree are less than half as likely to be unemployed as those with a high school degree; earn substantially more money per year; are less likely to smoke; are more likely to vote, and the list could go on.  Some of this is correlational (more skilled people tend to go to college), but some portion is certainly what is learned and who one meets in college.  For these (and many other) reasons, I would encourage my child to to go to college regardless of which type of employment he/she wished to pursue.  And I think quite a few parents out there feel similarly.

To how many should this “college or bust” attitude be applied?  This is where we hit a slippery slope.  We’re not going to have 100% of students graduate from college, nor (probably) should we aim to.  So where do we draw the line?  This is where I worry that we start to hit a slippery slope.

I say that because we already know what happens when we track at any level: poor and minority students tend to end up in the bottom tracks while the wealthy and White (and Asian) students tend to find their way to the top tracks.  By encouraging those who may want to enroll in college, but are perceived as unlikely to graduate, to instead complete a vocational or technical education, we will probably save some students from being debt-ridden college dropouts.  But we’ll also prevent a number of students who otherwise would have finished college from doing so.  And these students will largely be poor and/or minority.

It seems to me that Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” applies here.  If you had no idea how successful your child would be in school, at what point would you object to them being placed in remedial English, the vocational track, or being advised not to attend college?  Would you be ok if this happened if they were in the 70th percentile?  I wouldn’t.  50th percentile?  I wouldn’t.  30th percentile?  I might start to consider it.

The practical ramification of the argument that we don’t need any more college grads and should, instead, focus on vocational education, is that 70% of parents should encourage their children to skip college.  

And I worry that it’s easy for those of us among the educated elite to pretend that would be acceptable.  We’re pretty sure our kids will end up among the top 30% (no matter how many times we have to go meet with the principal, how many hours we have to spend helping with homework, or how much we have to pay for private tutoring or a private school), so what do we have to worry about?  We have more friends from college who end up working as a secretary than we do friends who are unemployed, jailed, or working a series of low-wage jobs.  So, knowing that my child isn’t the one skipping college, I can sit here in the ivory tower and declare that too many people are enrolling in college and would be better off aiming lower.  And then I can take comfort in the fact that my child won’t have too much competition for the top positions in society.

TofuLover: I prefer not to think about some being “top” positions and rather to focus on the dignity in any kind of work.  I had a college classmate who dropped out to become an auto mechanic.  Do his parents love him less?  Is he less valuable to society than I am?  Hardly.  I also don’t think pushing to get more kids to the point where they can step on others is a goal to be proud of.  If the point of education is to “get ahead,” I have to ask, ahead of whom?  That’s the problem with this way of thinking about jobs and pay, someone always has to be at the bottom of the ladder in order for others to climb is.  I’m more interested in making this a society where we learn to respect and remunerate jobs based on their importance (an auto mechanic is considerably more useful to us than I will be with my PhD) and where we learn to appreciate the amazing bounty even the poorest of us has.  This takes my efforts outside of the educational arena, but not exclusively.

Corey's wrap-up: I think it's fair to say that there's no easy answer to the question of who should go to college and who shouldn't.  The "college or bust" attitudes of many parents often seem to benefit their children, but there's legitimate concern as to whether a society-wide "college or bust" attitude ends up hurting those who don't attend or graduate from college.  While those with college degrees lead lives that are empirically "better" in numerous ways (see the recent Economist article on the rising returns to a college diploma), it's unclear whether the goal of a college degree should be to "get ahead" of others.  Should the goal, instead, be simply to better oneself and one's life?

If that's the case, it seems likely that some would prefer the outcomes of pursuing a vocational or technical education than a bachelor's degree, but determining who should make that choice -- and when, is tricky, if not dangerous.  That will be part of next week's roundtable discussion.