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Education Policy

  • Improving Accountability Measurement Under ESSA

    Written on May 25, 2017

    Despite the recent repeal of federal guidelines for states’ compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are steadily submitting their proposals, and they are rightfully receiving some attention. The policies in these proposals will have far-reaching consequences for the future of school accountability (among many other types of policies), as well as, of course, for educators and students in U.S. public schools.

    There are plenty of positive signs in these proposals, which are indicative of progress in the role of proper measurement in school accountability policy. It is important to recognize this progress, but impossible not to see that ESSA perpetuates long-standing measurement problems that were institutionalized under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). These issues, particularly the ongoing failure to distinguish between student and school performance, continue to dominate accountability policy to this day. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that school and student performance are not independent of each other. For example, a test score, by itself, gauges student performance, but it also reflects, at least in part, school effectiveness (i.e., the score might have been higher or lower had the student attended a different school).

    Both student and school performance measures have an important role to play in accountability, but distinguishing between them is crucial. States’ ESSA proposals make the distinction in some respects but not in others. The result may end up being accountability systems that, while better than those under NCLB, are still severely hampered by improper inference and misaligned incentives. Let’s take a look at some of the key areas where we find these issues manifested.

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  • Organizing For Adaptive Change Management

    Written on May 3, 2017

    Our guest author today is Joshua P. Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International. This piece was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan, and it is adapted from his chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform, edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

    One day, when I was a district superintendent, I visited two high schools we had identified as “needing improvement.” I was there to share our strategy to help them boost student achievement and also give teachers and staff a chance to air their thoughts and concerns. The schools faced similar challenges, and they served similar student populations, but the comments I heard on my visits were totally different.

    At one school, faculty complained that students lacked respect for authority, had been poorly prepared by their middle schools, and were being raised by parents who didn’t value education. In short, they pointed to problems beyond their control. They wanted me to remove the kids who were giving them the most trouble, and they also wanted more money.

    At the other school, teachers and staff told me about their collective struggle to improve instruction, talked about their desire for more professional learning, and described how they were challenging and changing their own beliefs about student abilities. That is, they found specific problems lurking in their own teaching practices and believed they had to learn and grow so they could serve students better.

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  • Preparing Future Leaders For Building Relationships

    Written on April 27, 2017

    Our guest author today is Corrie Stone-Johnson, Associate Professor of Educational Administration at the University at Buffalo. She is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools published by Taylor & Francis. Her research in educational change and leadership examines the social contexts and organizational cultures within which teachers, leaders, and school support staff experience and enact change. 

    While many “types” of leadership models, such as instructional leadership, transformative leadership, or moral leadership, have demonstrated positive effects on student learning, one common feature of high-quality leadership is that principals lead not by themselves but “with and through others” (Hargreaves and Harris 2010, p. 36), taking responsibility not just for success and failure but for developing the relationships needed to foster such success. Robust empirical evidence indicates that strong relationships between teachers are a key lever for a variety of important outcomes, including successful and sustainable change, teacher commitment, and student achievement. Relationships matter because they help to create social capital, which Leana and Pil define as the “glue that holds a school together.” The noted benefits of teacher social capital include student achievement gains above and beyond those attributable to teacher experience and instructional ability (see here). In schools where teachers collaborate, students do better in math and reading (see here) and teachers both stay and improve at greater rates (see here).

    Social capital, or the value that inheres in the relationships among people (as opposed to the attributes of individuals), is developed in networks. Networks are important for the exchange of resources and they can be influenced by intentional strategies that build upon the existing relationships (or lack thereof) between and among district and school leaders —see here. There is no doubt that strong networks—to the extent that they generate trust and facilitate professional and organizational learning – can be a successful vehicle for student achievement and teacher retention. But—and this is very important—networks do not just happen; rather, they are the result of deliberate efforts undertaken by school administrators. Starratt (2004, 2005) argues that not only is a leader responsible to multiple stakeholders in the building, the district level and the community, he or she is also responsible for developing relationships with each of these stakeholders.

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  • How Relationships Drive School Improvement—And Actionable Data Foster Strong Relationships

    Written on April 20, 2017

    Our guest authors today are Elaine Allensworth, Molly Gordon and Lucinda Fickel. Allensworth is Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Gordon is Senior Research Analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; and Fickel is Associate Director of Policy at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. Elaine Allensworth explores this topic further in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press: 2017). 

    As researchers at the UChicago Consortium on School Research, we believe in using data to support school improvement, such as data on students’ performance in school (attendance, grades, behavior, test scores), surveys of students and teachers on their school experiences. But data does nothing on its own. In the quarter-century that our organization has been conducting research on Chicago Public Schools, one factor has emerged time and time again as vital both for making good use of data, and the key element in school improvement: relationships.

    Squishy and amorphous as it might initially sound, there is actually solid empirical grounding not only about the importance of relationships for student learning, but also about the organizational factors that foster strong relationships. In 2010, the Consortium published Organizing Schools for Improvement, which drew on a decade of administrative and survey data to examine a framework called the 5Essentials (Bryk et al. 2010). The book details findings that elementary/middle schools strong on the 5Essentials—strong leaders, professional capacity, parent-community ties, instructional guidance, and a student-centered learning climate—were highly likely to improve, while others showed little change or fell behind.

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  • Fix Schools, Not Teachers

    Written on April 18, 2017

    This post was originally published at the Harvard Education Press blog.

    Both John and Jasmine are fifth-grade teachers. Jasmine has a lot of experience under her belt, has been recognized as an excellent educator and, as a content expert in math and science, her colleagues seek her out as a major resource at her school. John has been teaching math and science for two years. His job evaluations show room for improvement but he isn’t always sure how to get there. Due to life circumstances, they both switch schools the following year. John starts working at a school where faculty routinely work collaboratively, which is a rather new experience for him. In Jasmine’s new school, teachers are friendly but they work independently and don’t function as a learning community like in her old school.

    After a year John’s practice has improved considerably; he attributes much of it to the culture of his new school, which is clearly oriented toward professional learning. Jasmine’s instruction continues to be strong but she misses her old school, being sought out by her colleagues for advice, and the mutual learning that she felt resulted from those frequent professional exchanges.

    This story helps to illustrate the limitations of how teachers’ knowledge and skills are often viewed: as rather static and existing in a vacuum, unaffected by the contexts where teachers work. Increasing evidence suggests that understanding teaching and supporting its improvement requires a recognition that the context of teachers’ work, particularly its interpersonal dimension, matters a great deal. Teachers’ professional relations and interactions with colleagues and supervisors can constrain or support their learning and, consequently, that of their students.

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  • Subgroup-Specific Accountability, Teacher Job Assignments, And Teacher Attrition: Lessons For States

    Written on April 5, 2017

    Our guest author today is Matthew Shirrell, assistant professor of educational leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.

    Racial/ethnic gaps in student achievement persist, despite a wide variety of interventions designed to address them (see Reardon, Robinson-Cimpian, & Weathers, 2015). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) took a novel approach to closing these achievement gaps, requiring that schools make yearly improvements not only in overall student achievement, but also in the achievement of students of various subgroups, including racial/ethnic minority subgroups and students from economically disadvantaged families.

    Evidence is mixed on whether NCLB’s “subgroup-specific accountability” accomplished its goal of narrowing racial/ethnic and other achievement gaps. Research on the impacts of the policy, however, has largely neglected the effects of this policy on teachers. Understanding any effects on teachers is important to gaining a more complete picture of the policy’s overall impact; if the policy increased student achievement but resulted in the turnover or attrition of large numbers of teachers, for example, these benefits and costs should be weighed together when assessing the policy’s overall effects.

    In a study just published online in Education Finance and Policy (and supported by funding from the Albert Shanker Institute), I explore the effects of NCLB’s subgroup-specific accountability on teachers. Specifically, I examine whether teaching in a school that was held accountable for a particular subgroup’s performance in the first year of NCLB affected teachers’ job assignments, turnover, and attrition.

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  • Teacher Evaluations And Turnover In Houston

    Written on March 30, 2017

    We are now entering a time period in which we might start to see a lot of studies released about the impact of new teacher evaluations. This incredibly rapid policy shift, perhaps the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s education efforts, was sold based on illustrations of the importance of teacher quality.

    The basic argument was that teacher effectiveness is perhaps the most important factor under schools’ control, and the best way to improve that effectiveness was to identify and remove ineffective teachers via new teacher evaluations. Without question, there was a logic to this approach, but dismissing or compelling the exits of low performing teachers does not occur in a vacuum. Even if a given policy causes more low performers to exit, the effects of this shift can be attenuated by turnover among higher performers, not to mention other important factors, such as the quality of applicants (Adnot et al. 2016).

    A new NBER working paper by Julie Berry Cullen, Cory Koedel, and Eric Parsons, addresses this dynamic directly by looking at the impact on turnover of a new evaluation system in Houston, Texas. It is an important piece of early evidence on one new evaluation system, but the results also speak more broadly to how these systems work.

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  • New Teacher Evaluations And Teacher Job Satisfaction

    Written on February 15, 2017

    Job satisfaction among teachers is a perenially popular topic of conversation in education policy circles. There is good reason for this. For example, whether or not teachers are satisfied with their work has been linked to their likelihood of changing schools or professions (e.g., Ingersoll 2001).

    Yet much of the discussion of teacher satisfaction consists of advocates’ speculation that their policy preferences will make for a more rewarding profession, whereas opponents’ policies are sure to disillusion masses of educators. This was certainly true of the debate surrounding the rapid wave of teacher evaluation reform over the past ten or so years.

    A paper just published in the American Education Research Journal addresses directly the impact of new evaluation systems on teacher job satisfaction. It is, therefore, not only among the first analyses to examine the impact of these systems, but also the first to look at their effect on teachers’ attitudes.

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  • When Our Teachers Learn, Our Students Learn

    Written on November 1, 2016

    Our guest authors today are Mark D. Benigni, Ed. D., Superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut and co-chairperson of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, as well as Erin Benham, President of the Meriden Federation of Teachers and a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education Board of Directors. The authors seek to understand how teacher learning improves student learning outcomes. 

    Our students’ success and ability to graduate college and career ready from our public schools must be society's primary educational objective. The challenge lies in how we create neighborhood public schools where student learning and teacher learning are valued and supported. How do we assure our students' and staff's satisfaction and growth? And, in essence, how do we create schools where students and staff want to be?

    Around the country, some districts are opting for market-based reforms such as privately supported charter schools or online school options. In Meriden we took a different approach and decided to collaborate as a springboard for innovation and improvement. The school district and teachers' union have been strong partners for almost seven years. Such trust and partnership has made possible the reforms that will be described in the rest of this post.

    Collaboration facilitated development of a weekly early-release day for Professional Learning Communities to meet. During this time, teachers review individual student academic data with their data teams. However, the paucity of non-academic information about students emerged as an important area of improvement. We launched a three-phased approach to address climate and culture in our schools. Our climate suite includes: a School Climate Survey completed by students, staff, and families; a Getting to Know You Survey completed by students in the spring, with results shared in the fall with receiving teachers; and a MPS Cares online portal for students to request assistance and support.

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  • Do Subgroup Accountability Measures Affect School Ratings Systems?

    Written on October 28, 2016

    The school accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) institutionalized a focus on the (test-based) performance of student subgroups, such as English language learners, racial and ethnic groups, and students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch (FRL). The idea was to shine a spotlight on achievement gaps in the U.S., and to hold schools accountable for serving all students.

    This was a laudable goal, and disaggregating data by student subgroups is a wise policy, as there is much to learn from such comparisons. Unfortunately, however, NCLB also institutionalized the poor measurement of school performance, and so-called subgroup accountability was not immune. The problem, which we’ve discussed here many times, is that test-based accountability systems in the U.S. tend to interpret how highly students score as a measure of school performance, when it is largely a function of factors out of schools' control, such as student background. In other words, schools (or subgroups of those students) may exhibit higher average scores or proficiency rates simply because their students entered the schools at higher levels, regardless of how effective the school may be in raising scores. Although NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), perpetuates many of these misinterpretations, it still represents some limited progress, as it encourages greater reliance on growth-based measures, which look at how quickly students progress while they attend a school, rather than how highly they score in any given year (see here for more on this).

    Yet this evolution, slow though it may be, presents a somewhat unique challenge for the inclusion of subgroup-based measures in formal school accountability systems. That is, if we stipulate that growth model estimates are the best available test-based way to measure school (rather than student) performance, how should accountability systems apply these models to traditionally lower scoring student subgroups?

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