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  • Do We Know How To Hold Teacher Preparation Programs Accountable?

    by Cory Koedel & Matthew Di Carlo on June 30, 2015

    This piece is co-authored by Cory Koedel and Matthew Di Carlo. Koedel is an Associate Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

    The United States Department of Education (USED) has proposed regulations requiring states to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of their graduates. According to the proposal, states must begin assigning ratings to each program within the next 2-3 years, based on outcomes such as graduates’ “value-added” to student test scores, their classroom observation scores, how long they stay in teaching, whether they teach in high-needs schools, and surveys of their principals’ satisfaction.

    In the long term, we are very receptive to, and indeed optimistic about, the idea of outcomes-based accountability for teacher preparation programs (TPPs). In the short to medium term, however, we contend that the evidence base underlying the USED regulations is nowhere near sufficient to guide a national effort toward high-stakes TPP accountability.

    This is a situation in which the familiar refrain of “it’s imperfect but better than nothing” is false, and rushing into nationwide design and implementation could be quite harmful.

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  • Will Value-Added Reinforce The Walls Of The Egg-Crate School?

    by Susan Moore Johnson on June 25, 2015

    Our guest author today is Susan Moore Johnson, Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Johnson directs the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, which examines how best to recruit, develop, and retain a strong teaching force.

    Academic scholars are often dismayed when policymakers pass laws that disregard or misinterpret their research findings. The use of value-added methods (VAMS) in education policy is a case in point.

    About a decade ago, researchers reported that teachers are the most important school-level factor in students’ learning, and that that their effectiveness varies widely within schools (McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, & Hamilton 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain 2005; Rockoff 2004). Many policymakers interpreted these findings to mean that teacher quality rests with the individual rather than the school and that, because some teachers are more effective than others, schools should concentrate on increasing their number of effective teachers.

    Based on these assumptions, proponents of VAMS began to argue that schools could be improved substantially if they would only dismiss teachers with low VAMS ratings and replace them with teachers who have average or higher ratings (Hanushek 2009). Although panels of scholars warned against using VAMS to make high-stakes decisions because of their statistical limitations (American Statistical Association, 2014; National Research Council & National Academy of Education, 2010), policymakers in many states and districts moved quickly to do just that, requiring that VAMS scores be used as a substantial component in teacher evaluation.

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  • New Policy Brief: The Evidence On The Florida Education Reform Formula

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 22, 2015

    The State of Florida is well known in the U.S. as a hotbed of education reform. The package of policies spearheaded by then Governor Jeb Bush during the late 1990s and early 2000s focused, in general, on test-based accountability, competition, and choice. As a whole, they have come to be known as the “Florida Formula for education success,” or simply the “Florida Formula.”

    The Formula has received a great deal of attention, including a coordinated campaign to advocate (in some cases, successfully) for its export to other states. The campaign and its supporters tend to employ as their evidence changes in aggregate testing results, most notably unadjusted increases in proficiency rates on Florida’s state assessment and/or cohort changes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This approach, for reasons discussed in the policy brief, violates basic principles of causal inference and policy evaluation. Using this method, one could provide evidence that virtually any policy or set of policies “worked” or “didn’t work,” often in the same place and time period.

    Fortunately, we needn’t rely on these crude methods, as there is quite a bit of high quality evidence pertaining to several key components of the Formula, and it provides a basis for tentative conclusions regarding their short- and medium term (mostly test-based impact. Today we published a policy brief, the purpose of which is to summarize this research in a manner that is fair and accessible to policymakers and the public.

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  • How Effective Are Online Credit Recovery Programs?

    by Ly Le on June 16, 2015

    Credit recovery programs in the U.S. have proliferated rapidly since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), particularly in states that are home to a large number of urban schools with high dropout rates (Balfanz and Legters 2004).

    Although definitions vary somewhat, credit recovery is any method by which students can earn missed credits in order to graduate on time (Watson and Gemin 2008). Online credit recovery is a common form of these programs, but others include mixed online/in-person instruction, and in-person instruction (McCabe and Andrie 2012). At least three major school districts – Boston, Chicago, and New York City – offer credit recovery programs, as do several states, including Missouri and Wisconsin. Private companies such as Plato, Pearson, Apex, and Kaplan have also tried to fill this niche by offering to charge between $175 and $1,200 per student per credit. Online credit recovery represents approximately half of all instruction in the $2 billion online education industry.

    Yet, despite the rising presence of online credit recovery programs, there exists scant evidence as to their effectiveness in increasing high school graduation rates, or their impact on other outcomes of interest.

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  • Starting Closest To Home: The Importance Of Developing Teachers’ Understanding Of The Social Contexts Of Their Classrooms

    by John Lane on June 11, 2015

    Our guest author today is John Lane, a former teacher and instructional coach who is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at Michigan State University on a project that investigates the impact of social networks and mentorship on the mathematics instructional practices of beginning teachers. 

    It may seem foolish now, but there was a time in this country when policymakers believed that reforms were self-executing. Legislatures and educational bureaucrats would articulate the terms of the policies and their vision for improving schools, and teachers and others close to schools would translate these visions into practice. In the meantime, over the past fifty years or so, researchers have been able to better understand the vast gulf between reformers’ ideals and teachers’ practice. In short, we have come to understand that improving teacher’s practice is more difficult than anyone imagined.

    Policymakers, however, seem not to have gotten this message, or to have gotten it only partially. For the most part, they still follow a familiar script that reads that teachers either lack the skill or the will to enact reforms, or both. Consequently, reforms typically ratchet up accountability while also including some provision for teacher learning.

    In what follows, I focus on the content of this learning and what it might take to achieve it. First, I discuss why teacher learning is complex and often challenging. Next, I discuss how teacher learning is typically organized, and the substance of what teachers currently learn. Specifically, I contend that in teachers’ typical learning opportunities, reforms are reduced to a set of strategies that “work” across settings, and in which the contexts of teaching become an unwanted entanglement. In this post, I argue that teachers would benefit from opportunities to learn about the social dynamics of classrooms -- it is those dynamics, after all, that affect their own reform efforts and teacher practice more broadly. I then offer some ideas about how teachers might be able to accomplish this.

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  • A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 9, 2015

    At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

    It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

    The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

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  • Teacher To Teacher: Classroom Reform Starts With “The Talk”

    by Melissa Halpern on June 2, 2015

    Our guest author today is Melissa Halpern, a high school English teacher and Ed.M candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For the past 9 years, she's been dedicated to making schooling a happier, more engaging experience for a diverse range of students in Palm Beach County, FL.

    We teachers often complain, justifiably, that policy makers and even school administrators are too disconnected from the classroom to understand how students learn best. Research is one thing, we claim, but experience is another. As the only adults in the school setting who have ongoing, sustained experience with students, we’re in the best position to understand them—but do we really? Do we understand our students’ educational priorities, turn-ons, anxieties, and bones-to-pick in our classrooms and in the school at large?

    The truth is that no amount of research or experience makes us experts on the experiences and perspectives of the unique individuals who inhabit our classrooms. If we want to know what’s going on in their minds, we have to ask. We have to have “the school talk.”

    What have students learned that is important to them, and what do they wish they could learn? What makes them feel happy and empowered at school? What makes them feel bored, stressed, or dehumanized?

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  • Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, And Succeed

    by John P. Papay & Matthew A. Kraft on May 28, 2015

    ** Republished here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay. 

    When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.

    A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.

    The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.

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  • Onboard The Early Childhood Express Train, But Let’s Shift Tracks

    by Emma Gulley on May 26, 2015

    Our guest author today is Emma Gulley, a preschool teacher and current Master’s student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she studies early childhood language acquisition.

    Government-funded early childhood education works. It works for students as they learn academic as well as social-emotional skills. It works for low income and middle class families, who can leave their children in trusted and closely monitored learning environments, rather than in less regulated day care arrangements. It works for school districts that can now, with effective early childhood education in place, avoid expensive early intervention programs, since more students are arriving at school “ready to learn.”

    And it works for the United States broadly, since, according to a recent White House press release, investments in high quality childhood education provide benefits to society of about $8.60 for every $1.00 spent. Why is it, then, that 30 percent of Americans do not favor using federal funds to expand universal preschool? Why do only 39 percent consider preschool to be extremely important, while 69 percent think high school is extremely important?

    If we want increased support for federal funding of early childhood education we need to provide more clarity regarding: A) what actually happens in the early childhood classroom; B) what improved school readiness means for students’ future success; and C) how that $8.60 benefit is calculated and what constitutes those long-term benefits to society. That is to say, abstract statistics are powerful, but they may not be sufficient or salient enough to convince everybody that early childhood education is about more than just finger paint.

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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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