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  • Student Surveys of Teachers: Be Careful What You Ask For

    by Esther Quintero on June 23, 2011

    Many believe that current teacher evaluation systems are a formality, a bureaucratic process that tells us little about how to improve classroom instruction. In New York, for example, 40 percent of all teacher evaluations must consist of student achievement data by 2013. Additionally, some are proposing the inclusion of alternative measures, such as “independent outside observations” or “student surveys” among others. Here, I focus on the latter.

    Educators for Excellence (E4E), an “organization of education professionals who seek to provide an independent voice for educators in the debate surrounding education reform”, recently released a teacher evaluation white paper proposing that student surveys account for 10 percent of teacher evaluations.

    The paper quotes a teacher saying: “for a system that aims to serve students, young people’s interests are far too often pushed aside. Students’ voices should be at the forefront of the education debate today, especially when it comes to determining the effectiveness of their teacher." The authors argue that “the presence of effective teachers […] can be determined, in part, by the perceptions of the students that interact with them." Also, “student surveys offer teachers immediate and qualitative feedback, recognize the importance of student voice […]". In rare cases, the paper concedes, “students could skew their responses to retaliate against teachers or give high marks to teachers who they like, regardless of whether those teachers are helping them learn."

    But student evaluations are not new.

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  • Q: Do We Need Teachers' Unions? A: It's Not Up To Us.

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 21, 2011

    I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions." These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…," followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid." In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

    I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions," though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

    It’s not up to “us." The choice belongs to teachers.

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  • Teacher Quality Only Matters If Students Come To School

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 20, 2011

    The “no excuses” mantra in education started with an irrefutable premise: Nobody should use poverty as an excuse to tolerate dysfunctional pubic schools. For some (but not all) people, it eventually became an accusation as well, hurled at those who brought up the fact – often in a perfectly reasonable manner – that there is a strong, demonstrated relationship between income and achievement. But in its most virulent form, “no excuses” fosters the colonization of additional problems for which schools and teachers can be “held accountable."

    Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her fiancée, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, were hosted by the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service for a discussion on education that aired on C-Span a few weeks ago. The moderator asked the panelists for their views on the dismal conditions in many cities, and how that relates to efforts to improve neighborhood schools.

    Rhee recounted a story from the final year of her chancellorship, in which she visited a school unannounced, arriving early in the morning. Many of the classrooms were mostly empty. When she inquired, she was told that attendance was low because it was Friday and raining. Rhee said that she was horrified, but continued to tour the school. She finally found a classroom that was full, and asked one of the students about the class. The student told Rhee that this was her favorite teacher.

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  • Who Doesn't Trust Unions?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 16, 2011

    In a previous post, I noted that confidence in organized labor really hasn’t changed that much over the past 30 years, even though union membership has been declining steadily.

    This got me thinking about what kinds of factors (such as individual characteristics) are associated with being anti-union, and I decided to run a couple of simple, rough models to get an idea (keep in mind that this is a very quick treatment). As you might recall from the previous post, respondents in my dataset (the General Social Survey) were asked whether they had “hardly any," “only some," or “a great deal” of confidence in organized labor. In 2010, 60 percent said that they had only some confidence, 30 percent hardly any, and a mere 10 percent asserted a great deal of faith in unions. For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to those with "hardly any" confidence as “anti-union."

    I have to start with a few quick, optional-reading details about my data and analysis (read the notes in the graphs below if you want more information). Because so few people expressed “a great deal” of confidence, I collapse this category into the “only some” response, creating a two-category outcome variable measuring whether or not the respondent had “hardly any” confidence. The models I use (binary logit models) control for a variety of factors that might influence union attitudes, including marital status, party identification, income, race, parenthood, education, gender, age, year, labor force status, and whether or not one (or one’s spouse) is a union member. I limit the sample to respondents 21 or older, and to increase sample size, I pool data from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 surveys, for a total sample of 3,849.

    The results were a bit interesting.

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  • Investment Counselors

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 15, 2011

    NOTE: With this post, we are starting a new “feature” here at Shanker Blog – periodically summarizing research papers that carry interesting and/or important implications for the education policy debates. We intend to focus on papers that are either published in peer-reviewed journals or are still in working paper form, and are unlikely to get significant notice. Here is the first:

    Are School Counselors a Cost-Effective Education Input?

    Scott E. Carrell and Mark Hoekstra, Working paper (link to PDF), September 2010

    Most teachers and principals will tell you that non-instructional school staff can make a big difference in school performance. Although we may all know this, it’s always useful to have empirical research to confirm it, and to examine the size and nature of the effects. In this paper, economists Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra put forth one of the first rigorous tests of how one particular group of employees – school counselors – affect both discipline and achievement outcomes. The authors use a unique administrative dataset of third, fourth, and fifth graders in Alachua County, Florida, a diverse district that serves over 30,000 students.  Their approach exploits year-to-year variation in the number of counselors in each school – i.e., whether the outcomes of a given school change from the previous year when a counselor is added to the staff.

    Their results are pretty striking: The addition of a single full-time counselor is associated with a 0.04 standard deviation increase in boys’ achievement (about 1.2 percentile points). These effects are robust across different specifications (including sibling and student fixed effects). The disciplinary effects are, as expected, even more impressive. A single additional counselor helps to decrease boys’ disciplinary infractions between 15 to 26 percent.

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  • Middle Class Overvalues

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 13, 2011

    It is a staple of American politics that elected officials routinely frame their appeals to the "middle class." The idea is simple: Since the vast majority of Americans consider themselves members of the middle class, it makes sense to use this label as shorthand for "people like you." The practice of people locating themselves within a class structure – rather than being "assigned" to classes based on particular characteristics, such as income or occupation – is often called "subjective class identification."

    Now, I don’t know whether the daily use of the "middle class" appeal is smart politics (I assume it has been poll-tested and focus-grouped ad nauseum). But I can say that the underlying assumption – that virtually all Americans identify subjectively as middle class – is not correct. Or, more accurately, it depends on how you ask the question.

    If you give people a three-category class structure (upper, middle, lower) in which they must place themselves, a huge plurality opts for the middle. On the other hand, in the simple tabulation below, I demonstrate what happens when you add a fourth category to the menu of options – "working class." The data come from the General Social Survey (GSS) for 2010, and it’s a representative, unrestricted sample of all Americans over age 18. One of the survey questions is: "If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?"

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  • Great Expectations

    by Esther Quintero on June 9, 2011

    A couple of years ago, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert explored the negative side of our unrealistically high expectations for artists and, more generally, for those who rely on their creativity to make a living. In ancient Rome, Gilbert recounts, creativity was associated with a sort of divine spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unfathomable reasons. The Romans referred to this intangible spirit as a genius. An individual was not a genius, but rather had a genius - a magical entity who was believed to live in the walls of an artist's studio and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with his/her work. The lesson Gilbert draws is one of humility (i.e., successes are not entirely ours – don’t be such a narcissist) and emancipatory relief (i.e., failures are not completely our fault either – can’t hurt to try).

    What does all this have to do with education and teachers? It seems to me that our expectations for both teachers and artists are sometimes unrealistic and unproductive, if not detrimental. Great teachers are often portrayed as superheroes, unencumbered by anything that might distract them from their teaching crusade – "refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls." As a recent article in The Atlantic explained, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about how they have overcome the challenges in their lives and uses these answers to rate their perseverance.

    Yet the meaning of "Great Teacher" rarely gets analyzed. Instead, our definition of greatness – or even competence – remains a convenient black box, leading some to suggest that the question of what makes a teacher great is less important than separating the wheat from the chaff. In turn, this reveals a simplistic and, in my view, negative assumption that greatness, unlike Gilbert’s genius, is a stable, static, innate, and independent attribute. You either have it or you don’t.

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  • No Excuses In Anti-Poverty Policy As Well

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 8, 2011

    Much of the current education debate consists of a constant, ongoing argument about the role of poverty. One “side” is accused of using poverty as an excuse for not improving schools, and of saying that poverty is destiny in regard to educational outcomes. The other “side” is accused of completely ignoring the detrimental effects of poverty, and of arguing that market-based reforms can by themselves transform our public education system.

    Both portrayals are inaccurate, and both “sides” know it, yet the accusations continue. Of course there is a core of truth in the characterizations, but the differences are far more nuanced than the opponents usually communicate. It’s really a matter of degree. In addition to differences in the specifics of what should be done, a lot boils down to variations in how much improvement we believe can be gained by teacher-focused education reform (or by education reform in general) by itself. In other words, some people have higher expectations than others.

    I have previously argued that the reasonable expectation for teacher quality-based reforms is that, if everything goes perfectly (which is far from certain), they will generate very slow, gradual improvement over a period of years and decades. This means we should make these changes, but be very careful to design them sensibly, monitor their effects, and maintain realistic expectations (for the record, I think we are, in many respects, falling short on all three counts).

    But the thing that I find a little frustrating about the whole poverty/education thing is that, while nobody should use poverty as an excuse in education policy, it’s not uncommon to hear education used as an excuse, of sorts, in discussions about anti-poverty policy.

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  • In Census Finance Data, Most Charters Are Not Quite Public Schools

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 6, 2011

    Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual public K-12 school finance report (and accompanying datasets). The data, which are for FY 2009 (there’s always a lag in finance data), show that spending increased roughly two percent from the previous year. This represents much slower growth than usual.

    These data are a valuable resource that has rightfully gotten a lot of attention. But there’s a serious problem within them, which, while slightly technical, hasn’t received any attention at all: The vast majority of public charter schools are not included in the data.

    To gather its data, the Census Bureau relies on reporting from “government entities." Some charter schools fit this description neatly, such as those operated by governments or government-affiliated bodies, including states, districts, counties, and public universities. But most charter schools are operated by private organizations (mostly non-profits), and finance figures for these schools are not included in the report (the Census classifies them as "private charter schools").

    What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the overall spending figures (total dollar amounts) are a bit understated. Charters only account for a relatively small proportion of all public school enrollments (around 5-6 percent); still, given the huge amounts of money we’re dealing with here (the U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year), we’re talking about quite a bit in absolute terms. Perhaps more important is the potential effect on per-pupil spending figures – the way that education financing is usually expressed.

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  • Another Tiananmen Anniversary: Will There Be A Reckoning?

    by Randall Garton on June 3, 2011

    This Saturday, June 4, 2011, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of pro-democracy activists were killed, injured or imprisoned by Chinese authorities.  This year’s Tiananmen anniversary comes at a time of greatly increased political repression in China.  According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “Chinese authorities have launched a broad crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers in what international observers have described as one of the harshest crackdowns in years."

    Over the last several months, activist groups such as Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) have repeatedly tried to draw attention to this harsh renewal of repression in China. In an article entitled “Missing before Action” in the March issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, a CHRD writer noted that hundreds of Chinese human rights activists, lawyers, and pro-democracy dissidents from across the country have been affected by the crackdown. Police have used “violence, arbitrary detention, "disappearances," and other forms of harassment and intimidation” to put a damper on any nascent protest movement.  Other dissidents --or non-dissident citizens walking the streets -- have been picked up for questioning.

    Although authorities  began tightening the political screws in the period leading up to  the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it appears that the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East have given added impetus to this policy.

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