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  • Trust: The Foundation Of Student Achievement

    by Esther Quintero on May 21, 2015

    When sharing with me the results of some tests, my doctor once said, "You are a scientist, you know a single piece of data can't provide all the answers or suffice to make a diagnosis. We can't look at a single number in isolation, we need to look at all results in combination." Was my doctor suggesting that I ignore that piece of information we had? No. Was my doctor deemphasizing the result? No. He simply said that we needed additional evidence to make informed decisions. This is, of course, correct.

    In education, however, it is frequently implied or even stated directly that the bottom line when it comes to school performance is student test scores, whereas any other outcomes, such as cooperation between staff or a supportive learning environment, are ultimately "soft" and, at best, of secondary importance. This test-based, individual-focused position is viewed as serious, rigorous, and data driven. Deviation from it -- e.g., equal emphasis on additional, systemic aspects of schools and the people in them -- is sometimes derided as an evidence-free mindset. Now, granted, few people are “purely” in one camp or the other. Most probably see themselves as pragmatists, and, as such, somewhere in between: Test scores are probably not all that matters, but since the rest seems so difficult to measure, we might as well focus on "hard data" and hope for the best.

    Why this narrow focus on individual measures such as student test scores or teacher quality? I am sure there are many reasons but one is probably lack of familiarity with the growing research showing that we must go beyond the individual teacher and student and examine the social-organizational aspects of schools, which are associated (most likely causally) with student achievement. In other words, all the factors skeptics and pragmatists might think are a distraction and/or a luxury, are actually relevant for the one thing we all care about: Student achievement. Moreover, increasing focus on these factors might actually help us understand what’s really important: Not simply whether testing results went up or down, but why or why not.

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  • The Purpose And Potential Impact Of The Common Core

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 19, 2015

    I think it makes sense to have clear, high standards for what students should know and be able to do, and so I am generally a supporter of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). That said, I’m not comfortable with the way CCSS is being advertised as a means for boosting student achievement (i.e., test scores), nor the frequency with which I have heard speculation about whether and when the CCSS will generate a “bump” in NAEP scores.

    To be clear, I think it is plausible to argue that, to the degree that the new standards can help improve the coherence and breadth/depth of the content students must learn, they may lead to some improvement over the long term – for example, by minimizing the degree to which student mobility disrupts learning or by enabling the adoption of coherent learning progressions across grade levels. It remains to be seen whether the standards, as implemented, can be helpful in attaining these goals.

    The standards themselves, after all, only discuss the level and kind of learning that students should be pursuing at a given point in their education. They do not say what particular content should be taught when (curricular frameworks), how it should be taught (instructional materials), who will be doing the teaching and with what professional development, or what resources will be made available to teachers and students. And these are the primary drivers of productivity improvements. Saying how high the bar should be raised (or what it should consist of) is important, but outcomes are determined by whether or not the tools are available with which to accomplish that raising. The purpose of having better or higher standards is just that – better or higher standards. If you're relying on immediate test-based gratification due solely to CCSS, you're confusing a road map with how to get to your destination.

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  • Knowledge For Literacy

    by Marilyn Jager Adams on May 14, 2015

    Our guest author today is Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University. Marilyn is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post is adapted from Literacy Ladders, our anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

    The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

    What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

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  • New Teacher Attrition And The Recession

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 12, 2015

    The Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (BTLS), a terrific project by the National Center for Education Statistics, tracks a nationally representative cohort of beginning teachers (those who started in 2007 or 2008) through their first five years and documents their turnover outcomes. Results from this survey have been trickling out every year (see our post here), but the most recent report presents outcomes from these teachers’ first four years.

    The headline story, as reported in the Washington Post, was that roughly 17 percent of these new teachers had left the profession entirely within their first four years. A number of commenters, including the Post article, hastened to point out that the BTLS estimates are far lower than the “conventional wisdom” statistic that 40-50 percent leave the profession within the first five years (see here for more on this figure; also see Perda 2013 for a similar five-year estimate using longitudinal data). These findings are released within a political context where teacher attrition (somewhat strangely) has become a contentious political issue, one which advocates tend to interpret in a manner that supports their pre-existing beliefs about education policy.

    Putting this source of contention aside, the BTLS results clearly show that new teacher attrition during these years was far lower than is often assumed, and certainly that teachers are not fleeing the classroom at a greater clip than in previous years. This is important, and cannot be "explained away" by any one factor, but we should still be careful about generalizing too strongly these findings beyond this particular time period, given that the BTLS cohort of teachers entered the classroom almost precisely at the time that the "great recession" began. This is, of course, not a new or original point – it was, for instance, mentioned briefly in the Post article. And it's hardly groundbreaking to note that labor market behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Still, given all the commentary about the BTLS results, it may be worth reviewing briefly.

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  • Why We Defend The Public Square

    by Leo Casey on May 7, 2015

    The following are the texts of the two speeches from the opening session of our recent two-day conference, “In Defense of the Public Square,” which was held on May 1-2 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The introduction was delivered by Leo Casey and the keynote address was delivered by Randi Weingarten. The video of the full event will be available soon here.

    Remarks by Leo Casey

    We meet here today in “defense of the public square.”

    The public square is the place where Americans come together as a people and establish common goals in pursuit of our common good.

    The public square is the place where Americans – in all of our rich diversity – promote the general welfare, achieving as a community what we never could do as private individuals.

    The public square is the place where Americans weave together our ideal of political equality and our solidarity with community in a democratic political culture, as de Tocqueville saw so well.

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  • Teaching = Thinking + Relationship

    by Bryan Mascio on May 5, 2015

    Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

    Before I became a teacher I worked as a caretaker for a wide variety of animals. Transitioning from one profession to the other was quite instructive. When I trained dogs, for example, it was straightforward: When the dog sat on command I would give him praise and a treat. After enough training, anyone else could give the command and the dog would perform just as well and as predictably. When I worked with students, on the other hand, it was far more complex – we worked together in a relationship, with give and take as they learned and grew.  Regrettably, when I look at how we train teachers today, it reminds me more of my first profession than my second.

    Teaching is far more than a mechanized set of actions. Our most masterful teachers aren’t just following scripts or using pre-packaged curricula. They are tailoring lessons, making professional judgments, and forging deep bonds with students – all of which is far more difficult to see or understand.  Teaching is a cognitive skill that has human relationships at its center. Unfortunately, we typically don't view teaching this way in the United States. As a result, we usually don't prepare teachers like (or for) this, we don’t evaluate them like this, and we don’t even study them like this. In our public discussion of education, we typically frame teaching as a collection of behaviors, and teachers as though they are simply technicians.  This doesn’t just create a demoralized workforce; it also leaves students in the care of well-meaning and hard-working teachers who are, nonetheless, largely unable to meet their students' individual needs – due either to lack of preparation for, or mandates that prevent, meeting them.

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  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    by Leo Casey on April 30, 2015

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Verbal Ability As The Key To Learning

    by Shanker Institute Staff on April 30, 2015

    We found this 1974 Al Shanker New York Times column to be of interest, both in terms of current debates over variations in "opportunity to learn" and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and in regard to recent research on the importance of oral language development in early childhood (see here for more); we hope you agree. 

    It is regrettable that the important work being done by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement has received such scant notice, not only in the media but in educational circles as well. It deserves better. Founded in 1959, IEA is an organization of 22 national education research centers whose basic purpose, through use of tests, surveys, questionnaires and other methods, is to develop generalizations for education throughout the world. It has done studies of achievement in mathematics, science, reading comprehension, civic education and foreign languages.

    A good summary of the findings of recent IEA research is provided by Benjamin S. Bloom, Professor of Education at the University of Chicago and one of the founding members of the Association, in his article, "Implications of the IEA Studies for Curriculum and Instruction," in the May 1974 issue of the University of Chicago School Review. Bloom, to begin with, sees as a salient virtue of IEA research that its methods have been developed for the specific purpose of international comparison. In previous cross-national studies, he observes, "the evaluation instruments developed in one country typically showed that country to be superior to the other countries included in the study." The procedures which IEA has helped develop avoid such bias. The IEA studies, Bloom reports, reveal that there are vast educational differences between countries. "If school marks were assigned in the various nations on the basis of the highest nation's standards (where perhaps the lowest fifth might be regarded as failing), then almost 50 percent of the students in the lowest scoring of the developed countries would fail but about 85 percent of the students in the average developing nation would fail." In terms of grade norms, "it is evident that the attainment obtained in one year of schooling in the highest nation requires one and one-half or two years of schooling in the less favored nations. To put it in terms of time and human resources spent, it may cost twice as much for a particular level of learning in one place as it does in another."

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  • The Persistence Of School And Residential Segregation

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 24, 2015

    School segregation is a frequent topic of discussion in U.S. education policy debates, and rightfully so (Orfield et al. 2014). The segregation of schools by race, ethnicity and income both reflects and perpetuates inequitable opportunities in the U.S. (e.g., Reardon and Bischoff 2011a; Kaufman and Rosenbaum 1992).

    Needless to say, school segregation, within and between districts, is primarily a function of residential segregation – the spatial isolation of individuals and families by characteristics such as race, ethnicity, income, language, education, etc. There are several different ways to measure segregation, since it can be gauged by different traits (e.g., income, ethnicity), and at different levels – e.g., state, county, city, neighborhood, etc. The choices of variables can have a substantial impact on the conclusions one draws about segregation's levels and trends (Reardon and Owens 2014). One generalization, though, is in order: In the U.S., we have tended to gravitate toward “our own kind,” whether in terms of income or race and ethnicity. This disquieting reality is neither accidental nor mostly the result of individual preferences. In addition to the obvious historical causes (e.g., Jim Crow), segregation arises and is perpetuated by a complex mix of (often institutionalized) factors, such as the spatial patterning of housing costs, density zoning, “steering,” “redlining,” overt discrimination, etc. (e.g., Ondrich et al. 2002). And, finally, there is the stark fact that the nation's poor have very few choices in terms of housing and neighborhood, and many of those choices they do have are bad ones.

    That said, it bears keeping in mind that the majority of families and individuals in America do indeed have the means to make meaningful choices about where and how they live, and even those who desire to live in an integrated neighborhood also weigh many other, meaningful factors – such as housing costs, convenience to stores and transportation, crime rates, schooling options, and so on. There is some evidence of progress in residential (e.g., Ellen et al. 2012) and school integration (e.g., Stroub and Richards 2013) by race and ethnicity, but increasing segregation by income (e.g., Reardon and Bischoff 2011b) Nevertheless, on the whole, integration tends to be unstable, while segregation tends to be more persistent.

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  • Measurement And Incentives In The USED Teacher Preparation Regulations

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 22, 2015

    Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) released a set of regulations, the primary purpose of which is to require states to design formal systems of accountability for teacher preparation (TP) programs. Specifically, states are required to evaluate annually the programs operating within their boundaries, and assign performance ratings. Importantly, the regulations specify that programs receiving low ratings should face possible consequences, such as the loss of federal funding.

    The USED regulations on TP accountability put forth several outcomes that states are to employ in their ratings, including: Student outcomes (e.g., test-based effectiveness of graduates); employment outcomes (e.g., placement/retention); and surveys (e.g., satisfaction among graduates/employers). USED proposes that states have their initial designs completed by the end of this year, and start generating ratings in 2017-18.

    As was the case with the previous generation of teacher evaluations, teacher preparation is an area in which there is widespread agreement about the need for improvement. And formal high stakes accountability systems can (even should) be a part of that at some point. Right now, however, requiring all states to begin assigning performance ratings to schools, and imposing high stakes accountability for those ratings within a few years, is premature. The available measures have very serious problems, and the research on them is in its relative infancy. If we cannot reliably distinguish between programs in terms of their effectiveness, it is ill-advised to hold them formally accountable for that effectiveness. The primary rationale for the current focus on teacher quality and evaluations was established over decades of good research. We are nowhere near that point for TP programs. This is one of those circumstances in which the familiar refrain of “it’s imperfect but better than nothing” is false, and potentially dangerous.

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