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Education Reform

  • 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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  • 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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  • New Evidence On Teaching Quality And The Achievement Gap

    Written on November 17, 2016

    It is an extensively documented fact that low-income students score more poorly on standardized tests than do their higher income peers. This so-called “achievement gap” has persisted for generations and is still one of the most significant challenges confronting the American educational system.

    Some people tend to overstate -- while others tend to understate -- the degree to which this gap is attributable to differences in teacher (and school) effectiveness between lower and higher income students (with income usually defined in terms of students’ eligibility for subsidized lunch assistance). As discussed below, the evidence thus far suggests that lower income students are a more likely than higher income students to have less “effective” teachers -- with effectiveness defined in terms of the ability to help raise student test scores, or value-added, although the magnitude of these discrepancies varies by study. There are also some compelling theories as to the possible mechanisms behind these (often modest) discrepancies, most notably the fact that schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer resources, as well as more trouble recruiting and retaining highly qualified, experienced teachers.

    The Mathematica Policy Research organization recently released a very large, very important study that addresses these issues directly. It focuses on shedding additional light on the magnitude of any measurable differences in access to effective teaching among students of different incomes (the “Effective Teaching Gap”), as well as the way in which hiring, mobility, and retention might contribute to these gaps. The analysis uses data on teachers in grades 4-8 or 6-8 (depending on data availability) over five years (2008-09 to 2012-13) in 26 districts across the nation.

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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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  • Social And Emotional Skills In School: Pivoting From Accountability To Development

    Written on October 25, 2016

    Our guest authors today are David Blazar and Matthew A. Kraft. Blazar is a Lecturer on Education and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University.

    With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015, Congress required that states select a nonacademic indicator with which to assess students’ success in school and, in turn, hold schools accountable. We believe that broadening what it means to be a successful student and school is good policy. Students learn and grow in multifaceted ways, only some of which are captured by standardized achievement tests. Measures such as students’ effort, initiative, and behavior also are key indicators for their long-term success (see here). Thus, by gathering data on students’ progress on a range of measures, both academic and what we refer to as “social and emotional” development, teachers and school leaders may be better equipped to help students improve in these areas.

    In the months following the passage of ESSA, questions about use of social and emotional skills in accountability systems have dominated the debate. What measures should districts use? Is it appropriate to use these measures in high-stakes setting if they are susceptible to potential biases and can be easily coached or manipulated? Many others have written about this important topic before us (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). Like some of them, we agree that including measures of students’ social and emotional development in accountability systems, even with very small associated weights, could serve as a strong signal that schools and educators should value and attend to developing these skills in the classroom. We also recognize concerns about the use of measures that really were developed for research purposes rather than large-scale high-stakes testing with repeated administrations.

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  • The Details Matter In Teacher Evaluations

    Written on September 22, 2016

    Throughout the process of reforming teacher evaluation systems over the past 5-10 years, perhaps the most contentious, discussed issue was the importance, or weights, assigned to different components. Specifically, there was a great deal of debate about the proper weight to assign to test-based teacher productivity measures, such estimates from value-added and other growth models.

    Some commentators, particularly those more enthusiastic about test-based accountability, argued that the new teacher evaluations somehow were not meaningful unless value-added or growth model estimates constituted a substantial proportion of teachers’ final evaluation ratings. Skeptics of test-based accountability, on the other hand, tended toward a rather different viewpoint – that test-based teacher performance measures should play little or no role in the new evaluation systems. Moreover, virtually all of the discussion of these systems’ results, once they were finally implemented, focused on the distribution of final ratings, particularly the proportions of teachers rated “ineffective.”

    A recent working paper by Matthew Steinberg and Matthew Kraft directly addresses and informs this debate. Their very straightforward analysis shows just how consequential these weighting decisions, as well as choices of where to set the cutpoints for final rating categories (e.g., how many points does a teacher need to be given an “effective” versus “ineffective” rating), are for the distribution of final ratings.

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  • A Small But Meaningful Change In Florida's School Grades System

    Written on July 28, 2016

    Beginning in the late 1990s, Florida became one of the first states to assign performance ratings to public schools. The purpose of these ratings, which are in the form of A-F grades, is to communicate to the public “how schools are performing relative to state standards.” For elementary and middle schools, the grades are based entirely on standardized testing results.

    We have written extensively here about Florida’s school grading system (see here for just one example), and have used it to illustrate features that can be found in most other states’ school ratings. The primary issue is the heavy reliance that states place on how highly students score on tests, which tells you more about the students the schools serve than about how well they serve those students – i.e., it conflates school and student performance. Put simply, some schools exhibit lower absolute testing performance levels than do other schools, largely because their students enter performing at lower levels. As a result, schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to receive lower grades, even though many of these schools are very successful in helping their students make fast progress during their few short years of attendance.

    Although virtually every states’ school rating system has this same basic structure to varying degrees, Florida’s system warrants special attention, as it was one of the first in the nation and has been widely touted and copied (as well as researched -- see our policy brief for a review of this evidence). It is also noteworthy because it contains a couple of interesting features, one of which exacerbates the aforementioned conflation of student and school performance in a largely unnoticed manner. But, this feature, discussed below, has just been changed by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). This correction merits discussion, as it may be a sign of improvement in how policymakers think about these systems.

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