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  • The War On Error

    by Matthew Di Carlo on December 7, 2010

    The debate on the use of value-added models (VAM) in teacher evaluations has reached an impasse of sorts. Opponents of VAM use contend that the imprecision is too high for the measures to be used in evaluation; supporters argue that current systems are inadequate, that all measures entail error but this doesn’t preclude using the estimates. 

    This back-and-forth may be missing the mark, and it is not particularly useful in the states and districts that are already moving ahead. The more salient issue, in my view, is less about the amount of error than about how it is dealt with when the estimates are used (along with other measures) in evaluation systems.

    Teachers certainly understand that some level of imprecision is inherent in any evaluation method—indeed, many will tell you about colleagues who shouldn’t be in the classroom, but receive good evaluation ratings from principals year after year. Proponents of VAM often point to this tendency of current evaluation systems to give “false positive” ratings as a reason to push forward quickly. But moving so carelessly that we disregard the error in current VAM estimates—and possible methods to reduce its negative impacts—is no different than ignoring false positives in existing systems.

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  • A Matter Of Time

    by Matthew Di Carlo on December 3, 2010

    Extended school time is an education reform option that seems to be gaining in popularity. President Obama gave his endorsement earlier this year, while districts such as DCPS have extended time legislation under consideration.

    The idea is fairly simple: Make the school day and/or year longer, so kids will have more time to learn.  Unlike many of the policy proposals flying around these days, it’s an idea that actually has some basis in research. While, by itself, more time yields negligible improvements in achievement, there is some evidence (albeit mixed evidence) that additional time devoted to “academic learning” can have a positive effect, especially for students with low initial test scores. So, more time might have potential benefits (at least in terms of test scores), but the time must be used wisely.

    Still, extending schools days/years, like all policy options, must of course be evaluated in terms of cost effectiveness.  Small increases, such as adding a few days to the school calendar, are inconsistently and minimally effective, while larger increases in school time are an expensive intervention that must be weighed against alternatives, as well as against the fact that states and districts are, facing a few more years of fiscal crisis, cutting other potentially effective programs.

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  • Attention To Pay

    by Matthew Di Carlo on November 30, 2010

    The debate over how best to restructure teacher salary systems is older than I am—with good reason: Instructional salaries represent roughly 40 percent of current K-12 public school expenditures.  And some of the arguments for changing current salary structures make sense, at least in theory. 

    For instance, there is a case for tying step increases (typically awarded according to years of service) to additional measures, such as strengthened evaluation systems and curriculum-linked professional development (as is the case in the recently-ratified Baltimore contract). These types of changes, if they are bargained and approved by teachers, could be of real benefit to all stakeholders.

    At the same time, it’s unfortunate that some of the talking points used commonly by those who wish to overhaul teacher salary systems are rather misleading and oversimplified. Not only do they sometimes seem designed to inspire outrage against teachers, they also tend to obscure or ignore important facts about the relationship between teacher pay and teacher quality.  Three such arguments seem particularly pervasive.

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  • A Call For Democracy And Human Rights In The Arab States

    by Randall Garton on November 23, 2010

    On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.

    Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.

    The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.

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  • The Teaching Experience

    by Matthew Di Carlo on November 18, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    The topic of teacher experience is getting a lot of attention in education debates.  In part, this makes sense, since experience (years of service) does play several important roles in education policy, including teachers’ raises and transfer/layoff policies. 

    Usually, experience is discussed in terms of its relationship to performance –whether more experienced teachers produce larger student test score gains than less experienced teachers.  There is a pretty impressive body of research on this topic, the findings of which are sometimes used to argue for policy changes that eliminate the role of experience in salary and other employment policies.  Proponents of these changes often argue that experience is only weakly related to performance, and therefore shouldn’t be used in determining salary and other conditions of work.  It is not unusual to hear people say that experience doesn’t matter at all.

    As is often the case when empirical research finds its way into policy debates, the “weakly related” characterization of the findings on the experience/achievement relationship borders on oversimplification, while the claim that experience doesn’t matter is flat-out wrong.  The relationship is substantial but context-dependent, and blanket statements about it often hide as much as they reveal.

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  • Learning Versus Punishment And Accountability

    by Jeffrey Pfeffer on November 15, 2010

    Our guest author today is Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. We find it intriguing, given the current obsession with “accountability” in education reform. It is reprinted with permission from Dr. Pfeffer’s blog, Rational Rants, found at http://www.jeffreypfeffer.com.

    People seem to love to exact retribution on those who screw up—it satisfies some primitive sense of justice. For instance, research in experimental economics shows that people will voluntarily give up resources to punish others who have acted unfairly or inappropriately, even though such behavior costs those doing it and even in circumstances where there is going to be no future interaction to be affected by the signal sent through the punishment. In other words, people will mete out retribution even when such behavior is economically irrational.

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  • GDP: Government, Democracy, Prosperity

    by Randall Garton on November 11, 2010

    Public spending has been under relentless attack in the U.S. since before President Ronald Reagan first took office.  The notion that “shrinking government” grows the economy, builds character and may even save our immortal souls is now one of the verities of our political discourse: public=bad; private=good. Indeed, it was the central belief uniting Tea Party members during this year’s campaign. Research and experience don’t support this conviction, but here we are.

    The massive government spending that was deployed to push the economy back from the brink of depression has aggravated the always inflamed passions on this issue. With red lights flashing and sirens wailing, anti-spending Tea Party-backed politicians are now riding to Washington to slay – or at least rein in – the beast of government.

    This is the narrative we live with.

    There is an alternative narrative however, supported by years of research, that tells a different tale, one in which public spending is a positive good, for the economy and society. In this narrative, public spending rises naturally as societies prosper and voters – demanding better infrastructure and better public services for themselves and their families – understand the need to pay for the kind of society in which they want to live.

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  • Evasive Maneuvers

    by Matthew Di Carlo on November 10, 2010

    In a previous post, I showed how the majority of funding for education and other public services comes from state and local tax revenue, and that low-income families pay a disproportionate share of these taxes (as a percentage of income). 

    One of the reasons why this is the case is that many corporations – especially the largest and most profitable – have managed to avoid paying most of the state taxes that they owe (45 states have some form of business tax).  State corporate income taxes (CIT) are levied on business profits – so, for the most part, it’s only the highest-income individuals who are liable (through the businesses they own) for corporate taxes (the top 10 percent wealthiest individuals own about 90 percent of all corporate stock).

    A 2005 joint report by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy took a close look at state CIT payments by 252 Fortune 500 companies between 2001 and 2003. Their findings were astounding. These corporations were able to shelter roughly two-thirds of their actual profits from state taxation, while 71 of them paid not a penny in state taxes during at least one year between 2001 and 2003.  During the years they paid no taxes, these 71 companies reported $86 billion in profits to their shareholders.

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  • "No Comment" Would Have Been Better

    by Matthew Di Carlo on November 9, 2010

    Bruce Baker is a professor at Rutgers University who writes an informative blog called School Finance 101.  He presented some descriptive analysis of New Jersey charter schools in a post, and ended up being asked to comment on the data by a reporter.  The same reporter dutifully asked the New Jersey Charter Schools Association (NJCSA) to comment on the analysis. 

    The NJCSA describes itself as “the leading statewide advocate for charter public schools in New Jersey and a principal source of public information about charter schools in the state.”  The organization issued the following response to Baker’s analysis:

    The New Jersey Charter Schools Association seriously questions the credibility of this biased data. Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker is closely aligned with teachers unions, which have been vocal opponents of charter schools and have a vested financial interest in their ultimate failure.

    Baker is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, which is bankrolled by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. Great Lakes Center members include the National Education Association and the State Education Affiliate Associations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Its chairman is Lu Battaglieri, the executive director of the Michigan Education Association.

    There are now thousands of children on waiting lists for charters schools in New Jersey. This demand shows parents want the option of sending their children to these innovative schools and are satisfied with the results.

    Note the stretch that they have to make to allege that Baker is “closely aligned” with teachers unions—he occasionally reviews papers for an organization that is partly funded by unions. There is no formal connection beyond that. Note also that the NJCSA statement “questions the credibility of [sic] this biased data”—meaning they doubt the credibility of data from the State of New Jersey, which Baker merely recasts as graphs and maps. There is not a shred of substance in this statement that addresses the data or Baker’s description of them. It’s pure guilt by association (and there’s not really even an association).
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  • Shedding Tears For An Elusive Unity

    by Ahmed Elzobier on November 3, 2010

    As anyone who has paid attention to the tragic history of Sudan knows, its internal conflict has been marked by extreme violence toward civilians. In the Darfur region of Northern Sudan, war-related killings, starvation and death from disease have been labeled “genocidal” by international human rights organizations, who have accused the Sudanese government, led by Omar al-Bashir, with attempting to wipe out the black African population of the region. In July, 2010, al-Bashir was charged by the International Criminal Court at the Hague with three counts of genocide in Darfur. He has also been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. For detailed background of this terrible conflict, readers are directed to sites here, here, here, and here. This article by a Sudan Star journalist mocks the sudden emotion over the prospect of Sudan’s partition by politicians, especially from a hitherto ruthless leader of north Sudan, Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie.  Dr. Nafie is known for torturing his teacher, for example, simply for teaching evolution.

    Tensions are mounting in Sudan, in the run-up to a January 2011 referendum in which Southern Sudan will vote on independence. The Sudanese conflict, which began in 1989, has been driven by historic animosities between the predominantly Arab north, and the black African animist and Christian population in the south.  At stake, from an economic perspective, are Sudan’s large oil reserves, most of which straddles the border between north and south.  The Sudan government and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement signed a peace agreement in 2005, and the government signed a framework peace agreement with Darfur region rebels in February, 2010.

     Ahmed Elzobier can be reached at ahmed.elzobir@gmail.com.

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