Monday, March 30, 2009

The Teacher Quality Problem

Here's the thing about President Obama's centrist "new pragmatic" approach to problems: I can never fully disagree or agree with the things he's saying. His education positions are no exception. Take some of his remarks from late last week. He says that we need to find ways to get bad teachers out of the clasroom (I agree with some qualifications) and that test scores shouldn't be the only way we measure teacher quality (agree totally).

First, the agreement. Obviously, teacher quality should be judged on more than the results of fill-in-the-bubble tests taken by students. That can be part of the equation, definitely, but even the kids taking the tests shouldn't be judged solely on them. No way should that be the sole criterion for determining who is an effective or ineffective teacher.

As for educational progress being contingent upon getting rid of bad teachers, I'm halfway there. Clearly, having ineffective teachers (however they're judged) isn't in the best interests of kids. We need to do what we can to make sure that every teacher in every classroom is a good teacher. And undoubtedly there are some people who just aren't made to be teachers and shouldn't be in the field. But I think that number is actually very low. I think (as I've written before) that most teachers are not all-stars or duds. Most teachers are average, middle-of-the-road teachers who work hard and want the best for kids. So when we look at that pool, we could draw the line at some point and say that anyone who falls below it has to find a new job. Or we can work to improve the teachers we have to ensure that they are able to be successful. The best way to get rid of bad teachers is to turn them into good teachers.

It makes more sense to me to work to improve the teachers we have rather than try to start over with a new pool in the magical hope that every one of them will be an all-star. I don't think that's a pragmatic approach at all.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Choose Results

It's been a bad week for school choice advocates. As this blog has chronicled, on Monday we learned that charter schools across the country don't have a measurable benefit to students; on Wednesday, Sarah Mosle took down the myth that KIPP is the answer to all of our problems; and today we're getting word that voucher programs aren't all they're cracked up to be either.

For this latest insight, we're heading back to Milwaukee, which is the site of the oldest and broadest voucher program in the nation. Reports out yesterday from the University of Arkansas found that: "The primary finding in all of these comparisons is that there is no overall statistically significant difference between MPCP (voucher) and MPS (Milwaukee Public School) student achievement growth in either math or reading one year after they were carefully matched to each other."

In other words, not only are vouchers not the panacea for correcting the faults in the entire system, they don't even do that much for individual kids.

Honestly, this shouldn't be shocking news to people following the education debates. We know that governance of schools matters far less than teaching in schools. What happens in the classroom is always going to be more important than who's in charge outside of the classroom.

When we decide that we want to get serious about actually reforming education, we need to look at things like improving teacher quality, reducing class sizes, and ensuring that students are able to come to school with their basic needs (food, shelter, health care) met. Enough grandstanding about choice. Let's work on what matters.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Work Hard. Get Evidence.

Every so often I come across something that captures almost exactly what I think, but it explains it so much better than I would have been able to do. I hate it when that happens. So you can imagine my dismay to read Sarah Mosle's Slate article from Monday called "The Educational Experiment We Really Need." It's like she was reading my mind and translating into clear, persuasive prose.

The gist of the article is that the KIPP model of education reform is extremely powerful and may even be the best chance for affecting a widespread reform of the education system. However, it's premature to say that it would work for all (or event most) kids on a system-wide basis. So far the samples from within each district are too small and too self-selecting. So it provides promise, but we can't start saying yet that it is the answer that we've all been seeking.

I feel like I should be handing out this article on street corners or something.

The simple fact of the matter is that Mosle is absolutely right. The research shows that comparing KIPP schools to traditional public schools is not comparing apples to apples in terms of student achievement going into the schools, parental willingness to be involved, and even parental affluence. On all of these measures, KIPPsters start at an advantage that makes it harder to gauge how effective the school is at teaching as opposed to selecting students likely to learn.

And that's to say nothing of the fanatical band of teachers (god bless them all) who form a staff that it's probably not realistic to say could be replicated at every urban school across the country.

Like other charter schools, KIPP has yet to show that it can operate an entire system rather than simply in pockets. And until KIPP (or any other program) shows that it can operate the entire system better than what we're seeing now, it's premature to say that the answer has been found.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pity the Charter Schools

Pity the charter schools. Evidence that the schools are more effective is so often undermined by data showing that they are less racially diverse, take fewer special education students, or are taking/retaining only the best kids from neighboring schools. So imagine how happy charter school supporters must have been when they read the news that a RAND Corp. report found that charters are not more racially segregated than the surrounding schools and don't seem to be skimming the top students. The only catch? The report doesn't find any evidence that the charter schools perform any better than their traditional school counterparts.

Talk about building you up just to let you down. The same report that exonerates the schools from their most persistent criticisms also undercuts their biggest area of strength. It hardly seems fair.

Maybe now we can start looking at a more realistic assessment of the possibilities that charter schools offer. While there are some examples of wildly successful charter schools (maybe you've heard some of those stories), we have to stop assuming that these wild successes are the rule instead of the exception. Just as there are more and less successful traditional schools, there are more and less successful charter schools. We need to get past looking at things like governance structures and focus on what's actually happening in the classrooms. We need to get past the grown-up politics and focus on what works for kids.

Friday, March 20, 2009

More Outside the Bubble Thinking

As a former band geek myelf, it's always nice to hear that all those years practicing scales may have added up to something other than a mastery of do, re, mi's. Not that that isn't a useful skill to have. Still, when you read something like this report showing that taking music classes can improve reading skills (in addition to, presumably, music skills), it's hard not to stand up a little bit straighter. Of course, that news won't come as a shock to those who regularly read this blog.

Despite this academic benefit, we're still hearing reports all over the place (especially in New York) that music and other arts programs are being cut to make way for more test prep. Essentially, with limited hours each day, schools are cutting out the extras to focus entirely on the curriculars. Not to fear, says the GAO, their study finds that school time devoted to art and music hasn't decreased even with our increased emphasis on standardized tests. Seems like encouraging news. Turns out there's nothing to worry about after all.

But check out this quote from the report" "Our study identified a more likely reduction in time spent on arts education at schools identified as needing improvement and those with higher percentages of minority students."

In other words, the schools that most focus on test prep and raising scores are most likely to cut arts programs. This is your taxpayer money at work discovering that insight.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a pretty familiar position. Those who are succeeding are getting additional resources that will help them succeed further. Those who are not succeeding are not getting the resources and falling farther behind.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What About Everyone Else?

With all the moaning and wailing about how hypocritical liberals are opposed to school vouchers - which, of course, have a proven record of success - it's nice to see someone in the press gently tap the breaks on that runaway train by pointing out that vouchers (like charter schools) don't help nearly the number of children we need to if we want to dramatically reform education in the country.

The argument is pretty simple and I'm surprised that it's not made more often. It boils down to this: vouchers (and charter schools) may benefit those who are lucky enough to be part of the program. (Though there is some evidence to suggest that this is not the case.) However, even if those students benefit, what about the kids who are left in the traditional schools? What do we do about those kids? We've learned from the Milwaukee voucher experiment that the overall school system doesn't improve. Choice will breeding competition breeding success hasn't worked so far.

If we focus our efforts on saving a few kids while ignoring the rest, we aren't actually doing anything to close the achievement gap. All we're doing is adding another variable to the haves and have nots equation.

BONUS: Check out this article on the roots of urban poverty. According to the author, the ghetto culture that traps people into poverty should be viewed as a learned behavior. If true (and I think it is), it means that the behaviors can be unlearned and other attitudes put in their place. Ultimately, it's a very hopeful premise.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Elusive Balance

Phillip K. Howard's new book Life Without Laywers focuses on the various ways that our over-regulated society is messing up. It's kind of a downer read. His chapter on schools (titled "Bureaucracy Can't Teach") holds to pretty much the same theme. He argues that we've regulated and systematized the schools to the point where forms and paperwork, not teachers and principals, are where the power and authority lies. Obviously this is bad. Fortunately, he has a solution.

1. Free the teachers (and every other adult). Let teachers focus on teaching their students rather than worry about what systems and procedures they're supposed to be following every second of the day.
2. Don't tolerate disorder. Disruptions limit learning and need to be dealt with effectively and immediately.
3. Judge schools by their cultures. Effective schools have effective school cultures. Ineffective schools either operate without a set culture or have in place a culture that doesn't bolster student learning.

Of course, none of this is new thinking. Complaints about bureaucracy and meddling from afar is pretty much par for the course. The question that goes largely unaddressed is how to balance our obsession with accountability (which seemingly can only be ensured through standardized testing) with our desire to let great teachers have the freedom to teach as they see fit. So far, that balance has remained elusive. More than that, we often don't even try to find it as we look for more ways to hold schools, teachers, and students "accountable." In our rush to test and measure how good our schools are, we're forgetting what actually makes schools great.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Willy Wonka and the DOE

The New York Post reported yesterday that the DOE is launching an "Express to Success" program to help a small group of underachieving middle school students boost their academic levels so that they will be able to attend one of the elite specialized high schools like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science. And by small group, I mean really small - just 50 kids. No word yet on what happens to the other 1,099,950 kids in the system, nearly half of whom won't even graduate from high school.

On the small scale, I agree with the idea of giving more help and attention to the kids who need more help and attention. I think that just makes a lot of sense. But there's something very Willy Wonka-ish about focusing on such a small group with this special opportunity. So 50 kids get a golden ticket. Then what? What about everyone else?

Like charter schools in their current incarnation, this program is an escape valve more than an educational solution. It allows a few kids to have a chance while everyone else is stuck in a system that is not being fixed. That's great for those kids and I hope they're successful in school and in life. I just wish that they weren't the only ones.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Grading Obama

President Obama (I love typing that phrase) delivered a pretty major address on education yesterday. As I wrote after his pseudo-State of the Union speech, the days of thinking that education wasn't on the national priorities ist (as it appeared during the campaign) are over. Obama has ensured that the money is pouring into the system and now he's laying out where it's going to go. As we should probably expect from Obama - practioner of the "New Pragmatism" - the approach is not solidly in one reform camp or another. As he's done so often, he took on an "all of the above" approach. Ultimately, I think that is a wise decision.

Before I get into what he actually said, I do want to emphasize that it was actually Obama who gave this speech. It was not handed over to Arne Duncan (who's been very high profile for a secretary of education) or to anyone else. The fact that the president himself is delivering this speech means that this is his program. By putting himself out, he has ownership of it, succeed or fail. That's good because you know he doesn't want to fail.

There was absolutely nothing innovative in the plan. Nothing that jumped out and made you say, "Wow! What a brilliant idea!" Rather, it was a combination of several ideas and theories that have been kicking around the education world for a while. Some are better than others.

1) Investment in early education. A+
He said he was going to do it and he did. The best way to close the achievement gap is to stop it from ever opening. Focusing on the youngest, most vulnerable children makes sense because that's where the gap starts. It's like he read my mind.

2) Accountability. B
It's fine to talk about how wrong it is to "low ball" expectations for some kids, but linking everything into test scores just isn't the answer. Don't get me wrong, I don't know what the answer is, but it's short sighted to think that we can measure all learning on standardized test scores. Obama partly seemed to acknowledge that when he said that we have to make sure we're teaching more than bubbling skills, but finding a good way to test problem solving and critical thinking across all kids in the country is something that just hasn't been devised yet.

3) Teacher compensation and retention. B
Obama talked about bringing in better teachers to the system and getting rid of the bad ones. Both of these goals I agree with. He advocated merit pay for outstanding teachers, which I support with the caveat that we need to make sure we know how we're determining who our outstanding teachers are (remember Shane Battier). But Obama missed the big one, which is working to develop all the teachers that we already have who are just plain average teachers and turning them into good (if not great) teachers. I really do think it's unrealistic to expect to reconstitute the entire teaching corps in this country. So let's make sure that we're getting the absolute most we can out of the people we have.

4) Support for charter schools. C
Buying into the hype. There's a lot of reason to think that the successful charter school model is not scalable across the entire school system (student recruitment, teacher quality, etc). That said, charter schools do seem to have success where they operate. So I'm completely on the fence about this one right now. (Note: these grades are not inflated. A C isn't bad, it's right in the middle - a neutral grade.)

5) Making higher education more affordable. A
How can you not like this one? It's not a reform so much as an amplification of what pretty much everyone says. But it's a good amplification, so give him credit.

So Obama's speech wasn't "Yes We Can" but it wasn't "Is our children learning?" either. I think that Obama showed yet again that he's interested in practical, effective solutions to the big problems. And it's tough to find a bigger problem than failing urban education. I think this speech at least begins the path of rising to that challenge.

Monday, March 9, 2009

It's Not the Governance

A pair of researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study comparing math standardized test scores in private and public institutions. It seems like I've seen this study before. Except this time, the results are a little bit different. According to this study, it was the public school kids who did the best.

Talk about flying in the face of expectations.

The researchers looked at a variety of possible explanatory factors and found that the ones that seemed to make the difference were certified teachers and using "modern, reform-oriented" curricula. In other words, good teaching leads to good learning. Note that what made the difference was not what kind of governance the schools operated under. What matters in the classroom is what happens in the classroom, not the boardroom.

I think that has to be a key point here. Certainly, the guiding hand of governance is and will be a factor in what happens in the classroom. However, simply creating a private school (or charter school) seems unlikely to drastically improve learning, no matter what the rhetoric tells us.

The other interesting flip here is that the autonomy of private schools isn't necessarily working to their benefit. Take note all you, "the free market will force schools to improve" people. The researchers say that schools may be driven by parents' desire to follow a "back to basics" math curriculum rather than keep up to date with more effective modern ideas on math instruction. Yes, those schools may be following what the market wants, but the market is not asking for what research indicates is the best for student learning.

Frankly, this study is probably an outlier as everything else I read seems to be saying that public schools are at the bottom of whatever schooling hierarchy exists. But it does re-raise the crucial point that good teaching - more than any system of governance - leads to good learning. If we're serious about improving education, we need to look at what's actually working in the classroom, not who's calling the shots in the boardroom.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Charter World

NPR just ran a pretty interesting story about the massive charter school experiment going on in New Orleans. According to the story, more than half of New Orleans kids attend charter schools. That massive number doesn't do anything, though, to change what seem to be the recurring story lines anywhere charter schools exist. Proponents point out that the charters outperform the traditional public schools. Opponents argue that the charters aren't serving special education kids (they have half the numbers) and are pushing their "problem kids" into the public system. Sound familiar?

Here's what makes New Orleans so fascinating to follow, though. In addition to the already huge number of kids in the charter programs, NPR says the number is growing and the state superintendent of education says that he can envision a future in which all New Orleans children attend charter schools. And that's where it's really going to get interesting.

Charter school opponents argue that one of the fundamental reasons for their success is the inherent self-selection that goes into the charter school process. Even if schools are not intentionally "creaming" their students, it's hard to completely avoid simply based on the way that admissions are done at these schools. But what happens when all schools are charters? If/when that happens in New Orleans there will be no public schools that the charters would be able to push (or be accused of pushing) those problem children into. Then what?

If the schools are still successful and test scores and other measures continue to rise, then we really need to look at charters as a possibility for wider use. (The New Orleans prolilferation would also answer a lot of questions about the scalability of charters.) If, however, once all kids are in the charter system those schools may begin to resemble the current traditional school structure where some schools succeed and others don't.

While the results of this experiment are far from clear at this point, New Orleans should definitely be on the radar of charter proponents and opponents. One way or another, a lot of our questions are going to be answered.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Quantity or Quality

On Sunday, the Washington Post's Jay Matthews wrote his column on whether it's better to focus on class size reduction or improving teacher quality. His answer was that teacher quality has to be considered the winner.

Obviously, in the best of all possible worlds, we would recruit and develop the highest quality teachers who would then go in to teach in small classrooms. But in the zero sum game that is the budgeting process, something always has to give. The question becomes: what? (For the purpose of this post, I'm going to ignore all the other avenues for improving schools and just focus on class size vs. teacher quality.)

Matthews' conclusion that teacher quality is the bottom line needed to improve student results is something that's gaining a lot of steam across the country and makes a lot of sense. Great teachers get great results. Furthermore, as super-teacher Rafe Esquith says, "A great teacher can teach 60. A poor teacher will struggle with five." Very true. Even a small class size won't make up for someone who doesn't know what they're doing in the classroom.

But let's look a little deeper at that. The majority of teachers are not great teachers or poor teachers. The majority of teachers are average teachers. We need to be looking at what's going to best enable the average teachers in our system to become great teachers.

Class size proponents would argue that a limited class size would enable a run-of-the-mill teacher to more effectively manage a class and provide more individualized attention to the students who need it. This would then improve the level of their teaching and the students' learning.

Teacher quality advocates would say that adding to a teacher's "toolbox" would allow them to be more effective in running a class of any size. There's no subsitute for competence and expertise.

In rhetoric and theory those two sides pretty much battle it out to a draw. So let's look at reality where we're trying to maximize results on limited resources. Where should the money be spent.

The fact is that we're going to get more bang for our buck by working on teacher quality and turning average teachers into great teachers. The amount of money it takes to reduce class sizes by more than a marginal amount (and to the point where research shows it will actually make a difference) is staggering. In the best of all possible worlds where we have unlimited resources, that would be a worthwhile investment. But as long as we're in a world where we have to make choices, improving teacher quality is the road to follow.

Monday, March 2, 2009

More Than Just Showing Up

You can tell when it's kind of a slow news weekend over at CNN when the lead story on their website for the better part of the day relates to a run-of-the-mill education announcement. Usually the top spot is reserved for coups in foreign countries or something equally dramatic (and visual). But for a pretty good stretch on Saturday, the top story was "Education chief favors longer school year."

As the headline suggests, Education Secretary Arne Duncan would like to keep kids in school for longer days and longer years. While as a former teacher I have trouble arguing that the school year should stretch event longer into June, the research lends some persuasion to the argument. The summer loss of learning that takes place - especially for kids in underserved communities - is huge. In fact, research highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers showed that the achievement gap can be almost completely attributed to summer learning loss. I think that there's probably a little more to it than that, but the point I'm making here is that it's important. So shortening the summers and having kids in school for longer makes sense on that front.

Where it gets a little bit tricky is that the research doesn't show much benefit to just spending more time in school. Just being there doesn't improve learning. What makes the difference is increased time on task. The mere act of sitting in a school building doesn't make you smarter. Engaging in lessons and learning does. Pretty obvious insight, I know. But here's where it leaves us. In order to make this extra school time effective, we need to make sure that our teachers are effective as they can be and that students are receiving all of the supports they need in order to be successful. Increased school time may be part of a solution, but it's not an entire solution. We still need to look for ways to increase educational quality and living quality across the board for our neediest students.