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  • Educational Unilateralism

    by Randall Garton on September 24, 2010

    In New York City this week, a special "plenary summit" of the UN General Assembly met to encourage the world to step up support for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) first okayed by the UN in 2000. These eight goals – which include slashing poverty, combating disease, fighting hunger, protecting the environment, and boosting education – had a 2015 target date for their achievement. Ten years on, the summit reviewed progress and urged participants to speed up the pace.While the eradication of disease and hunger was named as the key priority, the nations of the world also recognized the crucial importance of education. Goal 2 focuses on the right of all kids to at least a primary school education. Goal 3 promotes the right of girls to have the same access to education as boys – a major problem in much of the developing world. 

    Although the U.S. is the world’s largest donor country, surveys show that few Americans have heard about it. President Obama, who during his campaign pledged to fund a $2 billion Global Fund for Education, has done little – what with the financial crisis and debates over both the means and ends of foreign assistance programs getting in the way. In the meanwhile, critics call MDG little more than a laundry list of needs, with no real strategy on how to achieve them. Still, the goals are well worth reading, if only as a reflection of what the world believes (at least on paper) are the rock-bottom problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

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  • Persistently Low-Performing Incentives

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 21, 2010

    Today, the National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI) and the RAND Corporation released a long-awaited experimental evaluation of teacher performance pay in Nashville, Tenn. It finds that performance bonuses have virtually no effect on student math test scores (there were small but significant gains by fifth graders, but only in two of the three years examined, and the gains did not last into sixth grade).

    Since this is such a politically contentious issue, these findings are likely to spark a lot of posturing and debate. So it’s worth trying to put them in context. As I discussed in a prior post, we now have at least preliminary results from three randomized experimental evaluations of merit pay in the U.S., the first contemporary, high-quality evidence of its kind.  This Nashville report and the two previously-released studies – one from Chicago and one from New York City's schoolwide bonus program – reached the same conclusion: Performance bonuses for teachers have little or no discernable effect on student test scores. 

    Although the NYC and Chicago findings are preliminary (the evaluations are still in progress), the NYC program provides schoolwide and not individual bonuses, and one additional study (Round Rock, Tex.) is yet to be released, the three already-released reports do represent a fairly impressive, though still very tentative, body of evidence on merit pay’s utility as a means to improve test scores.

    And at this point, it’s a good bet that, when all the evaluations are final and the smoke has cleared, we will have to conclude that performance bonuses are, at the very least, a very unpromising policy for producing short-term test score gains. 

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  • Research Wars

    by Eugenia Kemble on September 20, 2010

    Weeks before the fact, a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center has sparked some interesting debate over at the National Journal. The event, centered around the recent book, Think Tank Research Quality: Lessons for Policy Makers, the Media and the Public, is an effort to separate "the junk research from the science."

    The crux of the debate is whether the recent explosion of self-published reports by various educational think tanks has helped or hindered the effort to improve the quality of educational research. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute is often called a "think tank" and we frequently self-publish.) The push and pull of dueling experts and conflicting reports, say some, has turned education research into a political football—moved down the field by one faction, only to be punted all the way to the other end by a rival faction—each citing "research" as their guide.

    "My research says this works and that doesn’t," can always be countered by, "Oh yeah, well my research says that works and this doesn’t." There are even arguments about what "what works" means because, except for performance on standardized tests, our goals remain diverse, decentralized and subject to local control. As a result, public education is plagued by trial and error policies that rise and fall, district by district and state by state, like some sort of crazed popularity contest.

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  • Teacher Quality On The Red Carpet; Accuracy Swept Under The Rug

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 16, 2010

    The media campaign surrounding “Waiting for Superman," which has already drawn considerable coverage, only promises to get bigger. While I would argue – at least in theory – that increased coverage of education is a good thing, it also means that this is a critically important (and, in some respects, dangerous) time. Millions of new people will be tuning in, believing that they are hearing serious discussions about the state of public education in America and “what the research says” about how it can be improved.

    It’s therefore a sure bet that what I’ve called the “teacher effects talking point” will be making regular appearances. It goes something like this: Teachers are the most important schooling factor influencing student achievement. This argument provides much of the empirical backbone for the current push toward changes in teacher personnel policies. It is an important finding based on high-quality research, one with clear policy implications. It is also potentially very misleading.

    The same body of evidence that shows that teachers are the most important within-school factor influencing test score gains also demonstrates that non-school factors matter a great deal more. The first wave of high-profile articles in our newly-energized education debate not only seem to be failing to provide this context, but are ignoring it completely. Deliberately or not, they are publishing incorrect information dressed up as empirical fact, spreading it throughout a mass audience new to the topic, to the detriment of us all.

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  • More Than One Way Of Winning

    by James R. Stone on September 16, 2010

    In recent years, a consensus has emerged among education researchers and policymakers that all students should graduate from high school both "college- and career-ready." President Obama has made this part of his education agenda. And numerous advocacy organizations have championed the notion. But what does the phrase actually mean?

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  • Extra Time: More From The Magazine's Education Poll

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 14, 2010

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

    A recent education poll conducted by Time Magazine has gotten a lot of attention. Many of the questions are worded so badly that the results are rather meaningless. The question on merit pay, for example, defines the practice as “paying teachers according to their effectiveness” (who would oppose that, if it could be accurately measured?). Other questions are very interesting, such as the one asking whether respondents would pay higher taxes to improve public schools (56 percent would). Or the finding that, when asked what will “improve student achievement the most," more than twice as many people choose “more involved parents” (54 percent) over “more effective teachers” (24 percent).

    But, as is sometimes the case, a few of the survey’s most interesting results were not included in the published article, which highlighted only 11 out of 40-50 or so total questions (the full set of results is available here). Here are three or four unpublished items that caught my eye (the sample size is 1,000, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percent):

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  • Labor Day In Hell

    by Burnie Bond on September 13, 2010

    The new Albert Shanker Institute-supported report, The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, released on Labor Day by the human rights organization Freedom House, has received some notable attention in the press, both here and around the world. One photo essay in Foreign Policy, titled "Labor Day in Hell," illustrates 14 of the worst-offending nations, among them Belarus, North Korea, and Sudan (see the screenshot below).

    Indeed, the report, which examined the state of labor rights in the world for the year 2009, found serious violations of workers’ freedoms in all parts of the world except Western Europe. Countries were ranked on a five-category scale of Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive.

    The United States was rated as Mostly Free—the same rank accorded to Bolivia, Mongolia, Romania, and Zambia—less free than all of Western Europe and such nations as Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa, and South Korea. As the report notes, although American law recognizes core labor rights, the U.S. political environment is "distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest." So not Hell, but not Heaven either.

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  • Public Apples, Private Oranges: A More Ripened Look

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 10, 2010

    So, how does the public/private wage gap look when we compare professionals in the two sectors by both occupation and experience/responsibilities?

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  • Green Shoots At The Grassroots

    by Randall Garton on September 10, 2010

    How can unions regain strength in a political and economic environment that has been hostile for decades? What can unions accomplish for working people in the dismal current economy?

    These are tough questions that unionists grapple with every day – not just on Labor Day – and there’s probably no simple answer. One line of thinking is the coalition-oriented view that unions must embrace a "social movement" approach, and connect with other progressive groups that focus on "social identity, the environment, and globalization" (see here). Indeed, according to a recent article in The Nation, unions and environmentalists in New England are doing just that, and enjoying some success. Groups whose primary focus is teaching people how to save energy have joined with unions and community groups in coalitions that seek both to promote environmental stewardship and to create "high road" green jobs. According to activists, these will be good union jobs in sustainable, green industries. By recognizing shared interests and overlapping constituencies, they maintain, traditional tensions between unions and environmental groups have been overcome to the benefit of both.

    This social movement model is founded on three essentials: "deep coalitions, policy research, and political action." It’s an approach in which the article’s author, Amy Dean, has a wealth of experience, and which she describes in a book she recently co-authored. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute provided some support to Ms. Dean for the writing of this book.)

    So does social movement unionism really blaze a grassroots trail to a union renaissance? That’s impossible to say with any certainty, but I have a few related points.

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  • Are Value-Added Models Objective?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 8, 2010

    In recent discussions about teacher evaluation, some people try to distinguish between "subjective" measures (such as principal and peer observations) and "objective" measures (usually referring to value-added estimates of teachers’ effects on student test scores).

    In practical usage, objectivity refers to the relative absence of bias from human judgment ("pure" objectivity being unattainable). Value-added models are called "objective" because they use standardized testing data and a single tool for analyzing them: All students in a given grade/subject take the same test and all teachers’ "effects" in a given district or state are estimated by the same model. Put differently, all teachers are treated the same (at least those 25 percent or so who teach grades and subjects that are tested), and human judgment is relatively absent.

    By this standard, are value-added models objective? No. And it is somewhat misleading to suggest that they are.

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