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Education Debate

  • About Value-Added And "Junk Science"

    Written on May 6, 2013

    One can often hear opponents of value-added referring to these methods as “junk science." The term is meant to express the argument that value-added is unreliable and/or invalid, and that its scientific “façade” is without merit.

    Now, I personally am not opposed to using these estimates in evaluations and other personnel policies, but I certainly understand opponents’ skepticism. For one thing, there are some states and districts in which design and implementation has been somewhat careless, and, in these situations, I very much share the skepticism. Moreover, the common argument that evaluations, in order to be "meaningful," must consist of value-added measures in a heavily-weighted role (e.g., 45-50 percent) is, in my view, unsupportable.

    All that said, calling value-added “junk science” completely obscures the important issues. The real questions here are less about the merits of the models per se than how they're being used.

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  • Is There A "Corporate Education Reform" Movement?

    Written on April 10, 2013

    One of the more thoughtful voices in education, Larry Cuban, has delivered an interesting brief for the argument that there is no such thing as a “corporate reform movement." While he acknowledges that America’s corporate elite largely share a view of how to reform America’s schools, focused on the creation of educational marketplaces and business-model schools as the engines of change, Cuban argues that it is mistake to overstate the homogeneity of perspectives and purposes. The power players of the reform movement have “varied, not uniform motives," are “drawn from overlapping, but distinct spheres of influence," and “vary in their aims and strategies." The use of a term such as “corporate education reform” suggests “far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking."

    Cuban’s argument amalgamates two different senses of the term “corporate education reform” – the notion that there is a movement for education reform led by corporate elites and the idea that there is a movement for education reform that seeks to remake public education in the image and likeness of for-profit corporations in a competitive marketplace.

    In co-mingling these two distinct senses of the term, Cuban is adopting a common usage. And it is a usage not entirely without justification: many of the strongest advocates for transforming public schools into educational corporations are found in the corporate elite. But it is vital, I will argue here, that we separate these two conceptions of “corporate education reform” if we are to adequately understand the complexity of the political terrain on which the battles over the future of public education are being fought.

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  • On Teacher Evaluations, Between Myth And Fact Lies Truth

    Written on April 8, 2013

    Controversial proposals for new teacher evaluation systems have generated a tremendous amount of misinformation. It has come from both “sides," ranging from minor misunderstandings to gross inaccuracies. Ostensibly to address some of these misconceptions, the advocacy group Students First (SF) recently released a "myth/fact sheet” on evaluations.

    Despite the need for oversimplification inherent in “myth/fact” sheets, the genre can be useful, especially about topics such as evaluation, about which there is much confusion. When advocacy groups produce them, however, the myths and facts sometimes take the form of “arguments we don’t like versus arguments we do like."

    This SF document falls into that trap. In fact, several of its claims are a little shocking. I would still like to discuss the sheet, not because I enjoy picking apart the work of others (I don’t), but rather because I think elements of both the “myths” and “facts” in this sheet could be recast as "dual myths” in a new sheet. That is, this document helps to illustrate how, in many of our most heated education debates, the polar opposite viewpoints that receive the most attention are often both incorrect, or at least severely overstated, and usually serve to preclude more productive, nuanced discussions.

    Let’s take all four of SF’s “myth/fact” combinations in turn.

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  • The Ineffective Rating Fetish

    Written on March 21, 2013

    In a story for Education Week, always reliable Stephen Sawchuk reports on what may be a trend in states’ first results from their new teacher evaluation systems: The ratings are skewed toward the top.

    For example, the article notes that, in Michigan, Florida and Georgia, a high proportion of teachers (more than 90 percent) received one of the two top ratings (out of four or five). This has led to some grumbling among advocates and others, citing similarities between these results and those of the old systems, in which the vast majority of teachers were rated “satisfactory," and very few were found to be “unsatisfactory."

    Differentiation is very important in teacher evaluations – it’s kind of the whole point. Thus, it’s a problem when ratings are too heavily concentrated toward one end of the distribution. However, as Aaron Pallas points out, these important conversations about evaluation results sometimes seem less focused on good measurement or even the spread of teachers across categories than on the narrower question of how many teachers end up with the lowest rating - i.e., how many teachers will be fired.

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  • Causality Rules Everything Around Me

    Written on March 6, 2013

    In a Slate article published last October, Daniel Engber bemoans the frequently shallow use of the classic warning that “correlation does not imply causation." Mr. Engber argues that the correlation/causation distinction has become so overused in online comments sections and other public fora as to hinder real debate. He also posits that correlation does not mean causation, but “it sure as hell provides a hint," and can “set us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality."

    Correlations are extremely useful, in fact essential, for guiding all kinds of inquiry. And Engber is no doubt correct that the argument is overused in public debates, often in lieu of more substantive comments. But let’s also be clear about something – careless causal inferences likely do more damage to the quality and substance of policy debates on any given day than the misuse of the correlation/causation argument does over the course of months or even years.

    We see this in education constantly. For example, mayors and superintendents often claim credit for marginal increases in testing results that coincide with their holding office. The causal leaps here are pretty stunning.

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  • School Choice And Segregation In Charter And Regular Public Schools

    Written on February 25, 2013

    A recent article in Reuters, one that received a great deal of attention, sheds light on practices that some charter schools are using essentially to screen students who apply for admission. These policies include requiring long and difficult applications, family interviews, parental contracts, and even demonstrations of past academic performance.

    It remains unclear how common these practices might be in the grand scheme of things, but regardless of how frequently they occur, most of these tactics are terrible, perhaps even illegal, and should be stopped. At the same time, there are two side points to keep in mind when you hear about charges such as these, as well as the accusations (and denials) of charter exclusion and segregation that tend to follow.

    The first is that some degree of (self-)sorting and segregation of students by abilities, interests and other characteristics is part of the deal in a choice-based system. The second point is that screening and segregation are most certainly not unique to charter/private schools, and one primary reason is that there is, in a sense, already a lot of choice among regular public schools.

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  • Why Nobody Wins In The Education "Research Wars"

    Written on February 4, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    In a recent post, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones discusses his growing skepticism about the research behind market-based education reform, and about the claims that supporters of these policies make. He cites a recent Los Angeles Times article, which discusses how, in 2000, the San Jose Unified School District in California instituted a so-called “high expectations” policy requiring all students to pass the courses necessary to attend state universities. The reported percentage of students passing these courses increased quickly, causing the district and many others to declare the policy a success. In 2005, Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second largest district, adopted similar requirements.

    For its part, the Times performed its own analysis, and found that the San Jose pass rate was actually no higher in 2011 compared with 2000 (actually, slightly lower for some subgroups), and that the district had overstated its early results by classifying students in a misleading manner. Mr. Drum, reviewing these results, concludes: “It turns out it was all a crock."

    In one sense, that's true – the district seems to have reported misleading data. On the other hand, neither San Jose Unified's original evidence (with or without the misclassification) nor the Times analysis is anywhere near sufficient for drawing conclusions - "crock"-based or otherwise - about the effects of this policy. This illustrates the deeper problem here, which is less about one “side” or the other misleading with research, but rather something much more difficult to address: Common misconceptions that impede deciphering good evidence from bad.

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  • The Cartography Of High Expectations

    Written on January 25, 2013

    In October of last year, the education advocacy group ConnCAN published a report called “The Roadmap to Closing the Gap” in Connecticut. This report says that the state must close its large achievement gaps by 2020 – that is, within eight years – and they use to data to argue that this goal is “both possible and achievable."

    There is value in compiling data and disaggregating them by district and school. And ConnCAN, to its credit, doesn't use this analysis as a blatant vehicle to showcase its entire policy agenda, as advocacy organizations often do. But I am compelled to comment on this report, mostly as a springboard to a larger point about expectations.

    However, first things first – a couple of very quick points about the analysis. There are 60-70 pages of district-by-district data in this report, all of it portrayed as a “roadmap” to closing Connecticut’s achievement gap. But it doesn't measure gaps and won't close them.

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  • Are Teachers Changing Their Minds About Education Reform?

    Written on December 14, 2012

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    In a recent Washington Post article called “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms," veteran reporter Jay Mathews puts forth an argument that one hears rather frequently – that teachers are “changing their minds," in a favorable direction, about the current wave of education reform. Among other things, Mr. Mathews cites two teacher surveys. One of them, which we discussed here, is a single-year survey that doesn't actually look at trends, and therefore cannot tell us much about shifts in teachers’ attitudes over time (it was also a voluntary online survey).

    His second source, on the other hand, is in fact a useful means of (cautiously) assessing such trends (though the article doesn't actually look at them). That is the Education Sector survey of a nationally-representative sample of U.S. teachers, which they conducted in 2003, 2007 and, most recently, in 2011.

    This is a valuable resource. Like other teacher surveys, it shows that educators’ attitudes toward education policy are diverse. Opinions vary by teacher characteristics, context and, of course, by the policy being queried. Moreover, views among teachers can (and do) change over time, though, when looking at cross-sectional surveys, one must always keep in mind that observed changes (or lack thereof) might be due in part to shifts in the characteristics of the teacher workforce. There's an important distinction between changing minds and changing workers (which Jay Mathews, to his great credit, discusses in this article).*

    That said, when it comes to the many of the more controversial reforms happening in the U.S., those about which teachers might be "changing their minds," the results of this particular survey suggest, if anything, that teachers’ attitudes are actually quite stable.

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  • Surveying The Teacher Opinion Landscape

    Written on October 30, 2012

    I’m a big fan of surveys of teachers’ opinions of education policy, not only because of educators' valuable policy-relevant knowledge, but also because their views are sometimes misrepresented or disregarded in our public discourse.

    For instance, the diverse set of ideas that might be loosely characterized as “market-based reform” faces a bit of tension when it comes to teacher support. Without question, some teachers support the more controversial market-based policy ideas, such as pay and evaluations based substantially on test scores, but most do not. The relatively low levels of teacher endorsement don’t necessarily mean these ideas are “bad," and much of the disagreement is less about the desirability of general policies (e.g., new teacher evaluations) than the specifics (e.g., the measures that comprise those evaluations). In any case, it's a somewhat awkward juxtaposition: A focus on “respecting and elevating the teaching profession” by means of policies that most teachers do not like.

    Sometimes (albeit too infrequently) this tension is discussed meaningfully, other times it is obscured - e.g., by attempts to portray teachers' disagreement as "union opposition." But, as mentioned above, teachers are not a monolith and their opinions can and do change (see here). This is, in my view, a situation always worth monitoring, so I thought I’d take a look at a recent report from the organization Teach Plus, which presents data from a survey that they collected themselves.

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