Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Notes

Notes on a few smaller stories this week:

-A new CPRE report find that most "teachers focused on what students do (procedural) rather than what they understand (conceptual)" (p. 27).  If I were to criticize teachers, my one criticism would be that they tend to focus more on what's happening at a given moment and how it's happening than the big picture.  And that has little to do with any personal quality of the individual teacher, it's just a fact of life when one tries to manage 20-30 kids at the same time -- if procedures aren't followed, chaos ensues.  Every time somebody came into my classroom, they were checking to see what procedures I was using and whether kids were following them and not whether kids were deeply understanding the material I as presenting.  I think one could argue that math instruction with following rules rather than teaching understanding, which is the position of these two math teachers when asked "what's wrong with math education in the U.S.?"

-AERA, the largest educational research group, has started a new website, called "Trending Research Topic," that includes free links to journal articles relevant to current debates.  The first topic posted is the common core (hat tip: EdWeek's Inside School Research blog).  I'm not sure where they'll go from here, but it's a fantastic idea with a lot of potential.

-A new report on "integrated student supports" finds that schools utilizing wraparound services had some limited positive impacts on students across seven evaluations.  Expect to hear much more from researchers on this topic in coming years.

-A new report finds that charter schools in Chicago expel kids far more frequently than do traditional public schools (61 per 10,000 vs. 5 per 10,000 students).  And they're not the only charters to do this.  What's left to figure out is whether we should be more aggressive with expulsions or other similar actions in traditional public schools or whether this says something negative about charter schools.

-Here's a pretty impressive poem by an 8th grader that's worth 90 seconds of your time (you'll see why when you reach the bottom).  And here's the transcribed text if you can't read the image.  I'd add that this poem posted by another twitter user from 10 years prior is quite similar and, in some ways, better . . . but let's hope this kid didn't see that until now.

Embedded image permalink

-I wrote last year that TFA seems to make people either hubristic or humbled.  Here's a case that sounds like it will be the former:

Bell has been deemed a “model teacher” even though this is her first year in the classroom and instead of studying four years to be an educator, she went through TFA’s seven-week crash course.
“Yeah, isn’t that interesting,” she says. “I’m not saying teaching is easy. Teaching is a craft. And I’m only going to get better every day at it.”
But Bell says she was “more-than prepared” and encountered “no surprises.”

Coming next week is the start of a multi-part series on the ways in which urban poverty affects academic performance.  I'm excited for this, so I hope you're ready . . .

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Evolution of the Two Camps

I haven't written much the past couple years, so I'd like to write a bit about the biggest change I've seen in the education debate during that time.

I wrote last week about the two camps in education reform.  It's an imperfect division, but I think it's fair to split education reform into one camp that supports more markets, measurement, and metrics versus another camp that opposes most of these reforms.

What I've noticed over the past decade, and particularly in the past couple years, is that the two groups -- let's call them the MMMs and the Yucks -- have switched roles rhetorically.

In my first blog post (coincidentally, exactly six years ago today) I discussed a potential conflict within the ideas and rhetoric of the MMMs, which became kind of a theme over the next few years.

Many readers of this blog doubtless assumed that I opposed everything for which the MMMs stood and that I was a dyed-in-the-wool Yuck.  But that was never really true. What I oppose is people who are really certain that something will work regardless of the evidence; people who are really just wildly advocating solutions in search of a problem.  And in those years, the MMMs did that consistently.

From my vantage point, the posts and press I read advocating for the MMM solutions were frequently frantic, caustic, and accusatory.  You don't support charter schools?  You are a BAD PERSON!  (A slight exaggeration, but you get the point).  I found this style of argument more distasteful than the actual solutions being proposed.

The Yucks, on the other hand, tended to be more measured in their writing.  They knew the evidence was mostly on their side since charters, vouchers, merit pay, testing, and so forth hadn't really produced many measurable results at that point.  They preached patience and caution and pointed out flaws in overly zealous arguments.  Or at least that's how it seemed to me.

But something's changed in recent years.  Maybe it's my point of view.  Maybe it's my geographic location. Maybe it's my reading list.  Maybe it's my daily context.  Those are all possibilities.  But I think it's the rhetoric.

I often find myself more frustrated now by the pieces written by the Yucks than the MMMs for the same reasons I listed above.  The MMMs seem more calm and reasoned while the Yucks seem more frantic and aggressive.

I could list a thousand examples, but I'll spare you all the details in this post.  Many exceptions obviously exist, but I've generally been dismayed by the rhetoric of those advocating against testing, the common core, school closures, and the like in recent years.

Since most of the same people are on the same sides (other than Diane Ravitch, of course), it seems almost impossible that the debate could really have changed that much.  But I think there's one very good reason why it would: the MMMs are now winning.

A decade ago, most of their ideas were outside the mainstream (other than NCLB) and they were advocating for radical reform while the Yucks were telling them to be reasonable.  Now, the majority of Americans (and even the NY Times editorial board) support a lot of the MMM ideas and the Yucks are on the defensive.  It seems only natural that the side with momentum and power can be more patient while the side that finds itself on the outside looking in feels the need to frantically scream for attention.

The problem with this strategy is that the Yucks are only making it worse for themselves.  Here's one of the responses to my last post on the two camps:
Based on what I've written above, I can understand why Jason feels this way.  The Yucks are so busy frantically screaming that the MMMs are wrong that it's hard to hear the Yucks who are trying to advance different ideas.

I do think it's important to point out, though, that what Jason said is demonstrably false: thousands of Yucks are working on major new initiatives and ideas (Promise Neighborhoods being the prominent example).  But, in some ways, that doesn't matter.  Perception is reality.  And it's perfectly understandable that one would perceive the MMMs as the reasonable adults and the Yucks as the crying babies in the room at the moment.

Granted, it's also understandable that the Yucks would be crying foul.  Most empires topple due to overreach and hubris, and this outcome seems perfectly plausible here.  The current outrage against the Common Core might signal the beginning of another transition in power.

While the Common Core is backed by solid research and makes tons of sense on paper, it's been rammed down teachers' and parents' throats in some places -- so we shouldn't be surprised by the gagging we're seeing from those groups.  Indeed, in a recent survey, teachers cite constantly changing demands as the most significant challenge they face as a teacher by a large margin and almost none thought their voices were being heard on a state or national level.  So even if they're objectively wrong about the Common Core, their frustration is understandable.

When each group has been in power, they have been openly hostile toward and dismissive of the other group's proposals.  And when each group has been in the minority they've screamed bloody murder about every little thing.  And I don't think we'll ever get anywhere as long as this continues.

So, for now, my advice to the MMMs is to stop treating everybody who disagrees with you as an obstacle to your inevitable success.  And my advice to the Yucks is to stop yowling about everything the MMMs have done or are thinking of doing.  Very little of what's happening today is likely to signal the end of the world.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Trouble for the Teaching Fellows?

A new survey by the UFT finds pretty big discrepancies between the perception of training by NYC Teaching Fellows versus traditionally trained teachers.

Just 5 percent of teachers who answered the union’s survey said their training through the city’s Teaching Fellows program was “excellent,” compared to 21 percent of graduates of education schools. And while 18 percent of education school graduates called their training “poor” or “fair,” that figure was nearly 50 percent for Teaching Fellows.

As a former Teaching Fellow, I never thought the training was particularly bad.  Like everything, it could have been better -- but it always seemed to me that there were dozens of much larger issues.  So, I wonder how much of this is driven by the fact that Teaching Fellows were more extensively trained in another field before getting a crash course in education and rushing into difficult positions in troubled schools.  Those people in those circumstances might feel very differently about equally good training than would an ed school graduate who'd been preparing for his/her position for years and landed a less stressful job.

Assuming the survey is representative, though, these stats really don't look good for the program.  Of course, since only 81 out of over 9,000 active Teaching Fellows took part in the survey we can' be sure about this (which doesn't necessarily mean it's not representative, just that we're less confident about its representativeness than if, say, 900 teachers had taken part).  The initial response of the Fellows was to point out the small sample size, but that could backfire if a larger sample size eventually responds similarly.

What I think is even more interesting, though, is the larger context of this survey for the Teaching Fellows.  The article describes The New Teacher Project (TNTP), the fellows' parent organization as "a nonprofit group that also lobbies on teacher quality issues including in favor of evaluations that consider student test scores" (emphasis added) . . . which I think says a lot.

I first wrote about this almost five years ago, but TNTP and TFA seem to keep branching out into areas well beyond filling openings in troubled schools.  TFA has started getting a lot of push-back, and I think that's due more to their policy positions, lobbying, support of school board candidates, etc. than it is their actual day-to-day operations.  If this survey is any indicator, TNTP may soon find itself in a similar position.

In other words, while I'm sure many are concerned about the actual recruitment and training of teachers, I'd wager that fewer people would be as concerned if TNTP weren't also lobbying for all sorts of unpopular changes.

On the one hand, I blame TNTP for branching out too far.  If they'd just focus on recruiting and training teachers, they could do their job a lot better and with less risk of interference.  On the other hand, it would be a shame if TNTP's work mattered less than its lobbying when reviewing its performance.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Notes

A few brief notes on some smaller stories this week:

-A lot of people seem to be discussing the new report released yesterday finding that students who didn't submit test scores to colleges performed virtually the same as students with similar GPAs who did.  It seems like most people and most of the coverage (e.g. NPRThe Chronicle, and EdWeek) are interpreting this to mean that SAT/ACT test scores don't predict performance in college beyond what we know from test scores. But, as many have pointed out on Twitter, one glance at the tables on pages 47 (below) and 56 show the error in this interpretation.  In reality, in a number of the groups examined, students with higher test scores earn higher grades in college and are far more likely to graduate than than those with lower test scores and identical high school GPAs.  Somehow, though, students who don't submit test scores to test-optional schools do about as well as those who do despite having earned significantly lower scores.  What this says to me isn't that test scores don't matter but, rather, that non-submitters are savvy and that the act of choosing not to submit their test scores tells us something about their abilities and future chances of success.

-Another day, another wild-eyed report about how it's impossible to fire teachers.  Yawn.  Not only do I not buy that administrators can't fire a teacher if they really try, but I'd bet my life savings that at least 90% of teachers who are fired aren't officially "fired".  Looking for a dissertation topic?  Go figure out how Principals go about dismissing teachers . . . most non-educators don't understand how much soft power administrators wield and how persuasive they can be when they suggest that a certain teacher look elsewhere for work.

-A new Pew report illustrates why it worries me so much when people argue that X person/people shouldn't go to college: the widening gap in college v. non-college outcomes (and keep in mind that is despite dramatic increases in college enrollment over this time that have made colleges far less exclusive than they were decades ago).  And income isn't the only thing that's changed, a wide range of social outcomes have as well -- take a look at how the relationship between income and marriage has reversed in the second picture.

-Here's the story on a fascinating chart (below) that makes us all look foolish for debating whether we want our system to be more like Korea's or Finland's

-Morgan Polikoff discusses some studies that found some positive impacts of standards-based reform.  On the one hand, I'm not sure how one could read the research and not conclude that the U.S. needs more coherent standards like the rest of the developed world.  On the other hand, I remain deeply skeptical that standards matter all that much.  They seem like step 1 in a 10,000 mile journey.

Next week, I'll offer some thoughts on the biggest changes I've seen in the education debate and the following week I'll start a multi-part series examining the ways in which urban poverty impacts students' performance in school . . .

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is It OK to be a Public Intellectual?

Nick Kristof's column the other day about the lack of interaction between Academia and the public sure ruffled some feathers.  That's probably partly due to long list of provocative quotes in the column, including the following:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.

All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public

Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.
On the whole, I agree with Kristof.  Faculty aren't expected, encouraged, or rewarded for communicating with the public.  Which, I think, is a big problem (as you could probably guess given that I'm spending my time writing here).  I've written in the past that about the personal experience I've had with this, and I continue to dislike the degree to which academics are discouraged from interacting with the public.

It's easy to go off on tangential arguments here about who should write what when and for how long, but let's not miss what I think is the largest problem here: the active discouragement.  There are plenty of good reasons that academics should strive to be "public intellectuals," but I don't think we should expect every Professor out there to spend oodles of time reaching out to the public, nor do I think it should be a tenure requirement to do so.  But I do think academics should be rewarded for doing so.  At the very least, it shouldn't be seen as a negative for one to use his/her time this way.  I cringe every time I hear somebody gasp at the time an academic is wasting writing for a popular audience.

One of the few counter-examples to this trend is is Rick Hess's edu-scholar rankings, which seem to receive more attention each year -- this year I noticed press releases from quite a few schools touting the number of Professors in their college who'd made the list.  Overall, though, interaction with the public is still largely discouraged.

I do think the responses from academics were interesting, though.  These include Daniel Willingham, who writes that communicating applications of research isn't the job of most professors and should often be left to others with different skill sets; Corey Robin, who writes that quite a few Professors blog and write in the popular press and that many grad students aspire to do so, echoing Erik Voeten, who runs down a list of ways in which different Professors communicate with the public.

I think these are all fair points.  Not all faculty need to be out in the public sphere, and pure academic research certainly has value.  But, again, none address the degree to which faculty are actively discouraged from communicating with the public.  The fact that some people do so anyway doesn't change that fact.  Nor does the fact that many grad students want to communicate with the public, since the problem here isn't lack of desire but, rather, lack of opportunity.

And I think the argument that there are outlets within academia to communicate is rather shaky.  Voeten, for example, points to the journal Perspectives on Politics as the new vehicle for Political scientists to communicate with the public (which Kristof omits), so I decided to check it out.  Here's an excerpt from the first abstract I read from the current issue:

In an effort to bring empirical clarity and epistemological standards to what has been a deeply-charged, partisan, and frequently anecdotal debate, we use multiple specialized regression approaches to examine factors associated with both the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation from 2006–2011 . . . Further, we situate these policies within developments in social welfare and criminal justice policy that collectively reduce electoral access among the socially marginalized.

Sorry, but that's academic-speak.  That is not how one communicates with the public.  People don't say "empirical clarity" or "multiple specialized regression approaches" or "situate these policies within" in everyday life.  So I remain unconvinced that many journals speak directly to the public.

Or maybe this just proves Willingham right: many Profs simply don't have the skills to communicate with the public.  I have to admit, though, that his argument just brings to mind the scene in Office Space where Tom Smykowski explains that the company needs his people skills to communicate between the engineers and the customers:

All kidding aside, though, I think the issue merits serious consideration by everybody involved in academia.  All can (I hope) agree that more research needs to be translated to practice, but this could happen in any number of ways.  Maybe academic journals should publish more readable (i.e. ~10 page jargon-free) essays for the public to read.  Maybe public outreach should count in tenure reviews.  Maybe some Professors should be classified as "public intellectuals" and have different expectations.  Or we could try any number of other ideas.  But I don't think that denying the problem exists will get us anywhere.

Ultimately, we need to find a way to make it okay for people to be public intellectuals if they wish to do so.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Two Camps in Education Reform

My one-time classmate, Morgan Polikoff -- now an Assistant Professor at USC -- weighs in today with his first blog post on why he's optimistic about American students' performance.  All in all, it's a good start -- I think he makes a lot of good points and I'm definitely intrigued to see where he goes from here.

But . . .

There's just one little thing that really bothers me about the post.

Morgan divides the education world into two camps: those who dislike our current system and want to change things and those who don't. I agree that, for the most part, those two camps exist.  But Morgan misunderstands and/or misstates the fundamental difference between these two.

Personally, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with both at different times (the subject of another forthcoming post), but I'm guessing most people who've regularly read my blog over the years think I'm in the latter because I've spent more time criticizing the former. So, today, I'll put on my hat as a critic of advocates of charter schools, merit pay, vouchers, more testing, etc. and explain why I don't feel the way Morgan thinks I do.

Why do I get frustrated with the arguments of these folks at times? According to Morgan, it's because I like things the way they are and don't want them to change.


And I mean really false.

In reality, I like very little about the American education system. The last thing on Earth I want to see is no change. Not only do I believe we pale in comparison to many other nations, I believe those countries fall far short of what an education system could and should be.

In other words, I dislike our system. I loathe our system. I abhor our system. I wish we could (figuratively) blow it up and start from scratch.

I suspect that I feel more strongly about that than a lot of people in the second camp, but I think you get the point: I don't like things the way they are, and I certainly don't want things to stay the same.  At the same time, though, I'm not sold on all the recent reforms advocated by the former group.

In other words, the difference between the two camps is not that one wants to change things and the other doesn't, it's that they want to change things differently.

I think it often appears that one side is advocating for change and the other resisting it because only one side's ideas are getting widespread traction right now.  Everybody is familiar with the changes proposed by the former camp because there are a few big ones that have been debated and implemented (and debated again) all over the country.  It's far tougher, meanwhile, to pinpoint the preferred reforms of the latter camp.  I think that's true for two reasons: 1.) there aren't a handful of reforms on which everybody in the latter camp agrees and for which they strongly advocate, and 2.) they've found themselves constantly on the defensive the past decade or more (arguably ever since the passage of NCLB).

Some have characterized the former as "reformers" and the latter as "defenders of the status quo" or even "defeatists" (to which the retort has been that it's actually "deformers" vs. realists).  That's a simple dichotomy to understand.  But it's false.

The question at hand isn't why one camp wants to change our system and the other doesn't, it's in which directions each camps envisions us heading.

I'm Back

Hi Everybody,

Long time, no see.  I've written just one post in the past 11 months, and not a whole lot the previous year, so I'll forgive you if you thought I'd disappeared.

The last couple years have been a whirlwind of activity between the job search, moving to a new state, starting a new job, and finishing my dissertation (finally!), and I've been trying to figure out how blogging fits into all that.  I've finally found the answer: I have to make it fit.

I've constantly waited for the right moment to start blogging again only to wait another day, week, month, or semester, and I'm now tired of waiting.  I'm going to start blogging again today.

Why?  I'm not sure there's a great reason, though pieces I've read recently about poverty and education, the Professoriat, and the two camps in education have certainly gotten the juices in my brain flowing again.  So I'll plan to start with those topics.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments . . .