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  • Immediate Gratification And Education Policy

    Written on December 9, 2013

    A couple of months ago, Bill Gates said something that received a lot of attention. With regard to his foundation’s education reform efforts, which focus most prominently on teacher evaluations, but encompass many other areas, he noted, “we don’t know if it will work." In fact, according to Mr. Gates, “we won’t know for probably a decade."

    He’s absolutely correct. Most education policies, including (but not limited to) those geared toward shifting the distribution of teacher quality, take a long time to work (if they do work), and the research assessing these policies requires a great deal of patience. Yet so many of the most prominent figures in education policy routinely espouse the opposite viewpoint: Policies are expected to have an immediate, measurable impact (and their effects are assessed in the crudest manner imaginable).

    A perfect example was the reaction to the recent release of results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

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  • A Few Points About The New CREDO Charter School Analysis

    Written on July 1, 2013

    A new report from CREDO on charter schools’ test-based performance received a great deal of attention, and rightfully so - it includes 27 states, which together serve 95 percent of the nation's charter students.

    The analysis as a whole, like its predecessor, is a great contribution. Its sheer scope, as well as a few specific parts (examination of trends), are new and important. And most of the findings serve to reaffirm the core conclusions of the existing research on charters' estimated test-based effects. Such an interpretation may not be particularly satisfying to charter supporters and opponents looking for new ammunition, but the fact that this national analysis will not settle anything in the contentious debate about charter schools once again suggests the need to start asking a different set of questions.

    Along these lines, as well as others, there are a few points worth discussing quickly. 

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  • Relationship Counseling

    Written on June 10, 2013

    A correlation between two variables measures the strength of the linear relationship between them. Put simply, two variables are positively correlated to the extent that individuals with relatively high or low values on one measure tend to have relatively high or low values on the other, and negatively correlated to the extent that high values on one measure are associated with low values on the other.

    Correlations are used frequently in the debate about teacher evaluations. For example, researchers might assess the relationship between classroom observations and value-added measures, which is one of the simpler ways to gather information about the “validity” of one or the other – i.e., whether it is telling us what we want to know. In this case, if teachers with higher observation scores also tend to get higher value-added scores, this might be interpreted as a sign that both are capturing, at least to some extent, "true" teacher performance.

    Yet there seems to be a tendency among some advocates and policy makers to get a little overeager when interpreting correlations.

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  • How Are Students Assigned To Teachers?

    Written on May 23, 2013

    Education researchers have paid a lot of attention to the sorting of teachers across schools. For example, it is well known that schools serving more low-income students tend to employ teachers who are, on average, less qualified (in terms of experience, degree, certification, etc.; also see here).

    Far less well-researched, however, is the issue of sorting within schools – for example, whether teachers with certain characteristics are assigned to classes with different students than their colleagues in the same school. In addition to the obvious fact that which teachers are in front of which students every day is important, this question bears on a few major issues in education policy today. For example, there is evidence that teacher turnover is influenced by the characteristics of the students teachers teach, which means that classroom assignments might either exacerbate or mitigate mobility and attrition. In addition, teacher productivity measures such as value-added may be affected by the sorting of students into classes based on characteristics for which the models do not account, and a better understanding of the teacher/student matching process could help inform this issue.

    A recent article, which was published in the journal Sociology of Education, sheds light on these topics with a very interesting look at the distribution of students across teachers' classrooms in Miami-Dade between 2003-04 and 2010-11. The authors’ primary question is: Are certain characteristics, most notably race/ethnicity, gender, experience, or pre-service qualifications (e.g., SAT scores), associated with assignment to higher or lower-scoring students among teachers in the same school, grade, and year?

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  • How Important Is Undergraduate Teaching In Public R1 Universities? How Important Should It Be?

    Written on April 29, 2013

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College's interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    I ended my previous post by arguing that (1) if teaching is at least as valuable as research, and (2) nontenure-track (NTT) faculty teach at least as well as tenure-track (TT) faculty, then the very large pay disparities between the two classes of faculty that characterize American universities today violate a basic principle of workplace fairness: equal pay for equal work. When conditions (1) and (2) are met, then, all an institution can do to defend current practice is plead poverty: we can’t afford to do what we ourselves must acknowledge to be “the right thing."

    But what about places like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where I work? Is condition (1) met in what are sometimes called “R1” universities like mine? If not, maybe big pay disparities are warranted by the fact that, in such universities, research is a much higher institutional priority than undergraduate teaching. If teaching is a low enough priority, current pay inequalities could be justified by the fact that NTT faculty are not paid to do research and publishing – even though many of them do it – and, conversely, that most TT faculty pay is for their research and publishing, rather than their teaching.

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  • The Arcane Rules That Drive Outcomes Under NCLB

    Written on April 22, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    A big part of successful policy making is unyielding attention to detail (an argument that regular readers of this blog hear often). Choices about design and implementation that may seem unimportant can play a substantial role in determining how policies play out in practice.

    A new paper, co-authored by Elizabeth Davidson, Randall Reback, Jonah Rockoff and Heather Schwartz, and presented at last month’s annual conference of The Association for Education Finance and Policy, illustrates this principle vividly, and on a grand scale: With an analysis of outcomes in all 50 states during the early years of NCLB.

    After a terrific summary of the law's rules and implementation challenges, as well as some quick descriptive statistics, the paper's main analysis is a straightforward examination of why the proportion of schools meeting AYP varied quite a bit between states. For instance, in 2003, the first year of results, 32 percent of U.S. schools failed to make AYP, but the proportion ranged from one percent in Iowa to over 80 percent in Florida.

    Surprisingly, the results suggest that the primary reasons for this variation seem to have had little to do with differences in student performance. Rather, the big factors are subtle differences in rather arcane rules that each state chose during the implementation process. These decisions received little attention, yet they had a dramatic impact on the outcomes of NCLB during this time period.

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  • The Plural Of Anecdote Is Data

    Written on April 11, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Last week, I attended a Center for American Progress (CAP) discussion, where UC Berkeley professor David Kirp spoke about his research on Union City’s school system, and offered some ideas from his new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

    Kirp’s work and Union City have received a lot of attention in the last month or so, and while most find the story heartening, a few commentators have had more skeptical reactions. True, this is the story of one district in one state finding success through collaboration and hard work, but research from other disciplines – sociology, business, management, organizational studies – suggests that similar human dynamics can be observed in settings other than schools and school districts. I would like to situate Kirp’s work in this broader framework; that is, among a myriad of studies – case studies, if you will – pointing to the same fundamental phenomena.

    Union City is a community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average, where three-quarters of public school students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. About 25 years ago, the school district was in so much trouble that state officials threatened a state takeover. Since then, Union City’s measured performance has improved considerably. In 2011, almost 90 percent of the district’s students graduated from high school, and 60 percent went on to college. The change is large enough to suggest some degree of "real" improvement, and it’s plausible to believe that better school quality had at least something to do with that. So, what was Union City’s school improvement strategy?

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  • A Controversial Consensus On KIPP Charter Schools

    Written on March 12, 2013

    A recent Mathematica report on the performance of KIPP charter schools expands and elaborates on their prior analyses of these schools' (estimated) effects on average test scores and other outcomes (also here). These findings are important and interesting, and were covered extensively elsewhere.

    As is usually the case with KIPP, the results stirred the full spectrum of reactions. To over-generalize a bit, critics sometimes seem unwilling to acknowledge that KIPP's results are real no matter how well-documented they might be, whereas some proponents are quick to use KIPP to proclaim a triumph for the charter movement, one that can justify the expansion of charter sectors nationwide.

    Despite all this controversy, there may be more opportunity for agreement here than meets the eye. So, let’s try to lay out a few reasonable conclusions and see if we might find some of that common ground.

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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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  • Revisiting The "Best Evidence" Theory Of Charter School Performance

    Written on February 14, 2013

    Among the more persistent arguments one hears in the debate over charter schools is that the “best evidence” shows charters are more effective. I have discussed this issue before (as have others), but it seems to come up from time to time, even in mainstream media coverage.

    The basic point is that we should essentially dismiss – or at least regard with extreme skepticism - the two dozen or so high-quality “non-experimental” studies, which, on the whole, show modest or no differences in test-based effectiveness between charters and comparable regular public schools. In contrast, “randomized controlled trials” (RCTs), which exploit the random assignment of admission lotteries to control for differences between students, tend to yield positive results. Since, so the story goes, the “gold standard” research shows that charters are superior, we should go with that conclusion.

    RCTs, though not without their own limitations, are without question powerful, and there is plenty of subpar charter research out there. That said, however, the “best evidence” argument is not particularly compelling (and it's also a distraction from the positive shift away from obsessing about whether charters do or don't work toward an examination of why). A full discussion of the methodological issues in the charter school literature would be long and burdensome, but it might be helpful to lay out three very basic points to bear in mind when you hear this argument.

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