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  • Great Expectations

    by Esther Quintero on June 9, 2011

    A couple of years ago, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert explored the negative side of our unrealistically high expectations for artists and, more generally, for those who rely on their creativity to make a living. In ancient Rome, Gilbert recounts, creativity was associated with a sort of divine spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unfathomable reasons. The Romans referred to this intangible spirit as a genius. An individual was not a genius, but rather had a genius - a magical entity who was believed to live in the walls of an artist's studio and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with his/her work. The lesson Gilbert draws is one of humility (i.e., successes are not entirely ours – don’t be such a narcissist) and emancipatory relief (i.e., failures are not completely our fault either – can’t hurt to try).

    What does all this have to do with education and teachers? It seems to me that our expectations for both teachers and artists are sometimes unrealistic and unproductive, if not detrimental. Great teachers are often portrayed as superheroes, unencumbered by anything that might distract them from their teaching crusade – "refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls." As a recent article in The Atlantic explained, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about how they have overcome the challenges in their lives and uses these answers to rate their perseverance.

    Yet the meaning of "Great Teacher" rarely gets analyzed. Instead, our definition of greatness – or even competence – remains a convenient black box, leading some to suggest that the question of what makes a teacher great is less important than separating the wheat from the chaff. In turn, this reveals a simplistic and, in my view, negative assumption that greatness, unlike Gilbert’s genius, is a stable, static, innate, and independent attribute. You either have it or you don’t.

  • No Excuses In Anti-Poverty Policy As Well

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 8, 2011

    Much of the current education debate consists of a constant, ongoing argument about the role of poverty. One “side” is accused of using poverty as an excuse for not improving schools, and of saying that poverty is destiny in regard to educational outcomes. The other “side” is accused of completely ignoring the detrimental effects of poverty, and of arguing that market-based reforms can by themselves transform our public education system.

    Both portrayals are inaccurate, and both “sides” know it, yet the accusations continue. Of course there is a core of truth in the characterizations, but the differences are far more nuanced than the opponents usually communicate. It’s really a matter of degree. In addition to differences in the specifics of what should be done, a lot boils down to variations in how much improvement we believe can be gained by teacher-focused education reform (or by education reform in general) by itself. In other words, some people have higher expectations than others.

    I have previously argued that the reasonable expectation for teacher quality-based reforms is that, if everything goes perfectly (which is far from certain), they will generate very slow, gradual improvement over a period of years and decades. This means we should make these changes, but be very careful to design them sensibly, monitor their effects, and maintain realistic expectations (for the record, I think we are, in many respects, falling short on all three counts).

    But the thing that I find a little frustrating about the whole poverty/education thing is that, while nobody should use poverty as an excuse in education policy, it’s not uncommon to hear education used as an excuse, of sorts, in discussions about anti-poverty policy.

  • In Census Finance Data, Most Charters Are Not Quite Public Schools

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 6, 2011

    Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual public K-12 school finance report (and accompanying datasets). The data, which are for FY 2009 (there’s always a lag in finance data), show that spending increased roughly two percent from the previous year. This represents much slower growth than usual.

    These data are a valuable resource that has rightfully gotten a lot of attention. But there’s a serious problem within them, which, while slightly technical, hasn’t received any attention at all: The vast majority of public charter schools are not included in the data.

    To gather its data, the Census Bureau relies on reporting from “government entities." Some charter schools fit this description neatly, such as those operated by governments or government-affiliated bodies, including states, districts, counties, and public universities. But most charter schools are operated by private organizations (mostly non-profits), and finance figures for these schools are not included in the report (the Census classifies them as "private charter schools").

    What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the overall spending figures (total dollar amounts) are a bit understated. Charters only account for a relatively small proportion of all public school enrollments (around 5-6 percent); still, given the huge amounts of money we’re dealing with here (the U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year), we’re talking about quite a bit in absolute terms. Perhaps more important is the potential effect on per-pupil spending figures – the way that education financing is usually expressed.

  • Another Tiananmen Anniversary: Will There Be A Reckoning?

    by Randall Garton on June 3, 2011

    This Saturday, June 4, 2011, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of pro-democracy activists were killed, injured or imprisoned by Chinese authorities.  This year’s Tiananmen anniversary comes at a time of greatly increased political repression in China.  According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “Chinese authorities have launched a broad crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers in what international observers have described as one of the harshest crackdowns in years."

    Over the last several months, activist groups such as Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) have repeatedly tried to draw attention to this harsh renewal of repression in China. In an article entitled “Missing before Action” in the March issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, a CHRD writer noted that hundreds of Chinese human rights activists, lawyers, and pro-democracy dissidents from across the country have been affected by the crackdown. Police have used “violence, arbitrary detention, "disappearances," and other forms of harassment and intimidation” to put a damper on any nascent protest movement.  Other dissidents --or non-dissident citizens walking the streets -- have been picked up for questioning.

    Although authorities  began tightening the political screws in the period leading up to  the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it appears that the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East have given added impetus to this policy.

  • When It Comes To How We Use Evidence, Is Education Reform The New Welfare Reform?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 2, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    In the mid-1990s, after a long and contentious debate, the U.S. Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed into law. It is usually called the “Welfare Reform Act," as it effectively ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program (which is what most people mean when they say “welfare," even though it was [and its successor is] only a tiny part of our welfare state). Established during the New Deal, AFDC was mostly designed to give assistance to needy young children (it was later expanded to include support for their parents/caretakers as well).

    In place of AFDC was a new program – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF gave block grants to states, which were directed to design their own “welfare” programs. Although the states were given considerable leeway, their new programs were to have two basic features: first, for welfare recipients to receive benefits, they had to be working; and second, there was to be a time limit on benefits, usually 3-5 years over a lifetime, after which individuals were no longer eligible for cash assistance (states could exempt a proportion of their caseload from these requirements). The general idea was that time limits and work requirements would “break the cycle of poverty”; recipients would be motivated (read: forced) to work, and in doing so, would acquire the experience and confidence necessary for a bootstrap-esque transformation.

    There are several similarities between the bipartisan welfare reform movement of the 1990s and the general thrust of the education reform movement happening today. For example, there is the reliance on market-based mechanisms to “cure” longstanding problems, and the unusually strong liberal-conservative alliance of the proponents. Nevertheless, while calling education reform “the new welfare reform” might be a good soundbyte, it would also take the analogy way too far.

    My intention here is not to draw a direct parallel between the two movements in terms of how they approach their respective problems (poverty/unemployment and student achievement), but rather in how we evaluate their success in doing so. In other words, I am concerned that the manner in which we assess the success or failure of education reform in our public debate will proceed using the same flawed and misguided methods that were used by many for welfare reform.

  • The Ethics of Testing Children Solely To Evaluate Adults

    by Esther Quintero on June 1, 2011

    The recent New York Times article, “Tests for Pupils, but the Grades Go to Teachers," alerts us of an emerging paradox in education – the development and use of standardized student testing solely as a means to evaluate teachers, not students. “We are not focusing on teaching and learning anymore; we are focusing on collecting data," says one mother quoted in the article. Now, let’s see: collecting data on minors that is not explicitly for their benefit – does this ring a bell?

    In the world of social/behavioral science research, such an enterprise – collecting data on people, especially on minors – would inevitably require approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). For those not familiar, IRB is a committee that oversees research that involves people and is responsible for ensuring that studies are designed in an ethical manner. Even in conducting a seemingly harmless interview on political attitudes or observing a group studying in a public library, the researcher would almost certainly be required to go through a series of steps to safeguard participants and ensure that the norms governing ethical research will be observed.

    Very succinctly, IRBs’ mission is to see that (1) the risk-benefit ratio of conducting the research is favorable; (2) any suffering or distress that participants may experience during or after the study is understood, minimized, and addressed; and (3) research participants’ agreed to participate freely and knowingly – usually, subjects are requested to sign an informed consent which includes a description of the study’s risks and benefits, a discussion of how confidentiality will be guaranteed, a statement on the voluntary nature of involvement, and a clarification that refusal or withdrawal at any time will involve no penalty or loss of benefits. When the research involves minors, parental consent and sometimes child assent are needed.

    In short, IRB procedures exist to protect people. To my knowledge, student evaluation procedures and standardized testing are exempt from this sort of scrutiny. So the real question is: Should they be? Perhaps not.

  • Value-Added In Teacher Evaluations: Built To Fail

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 31, 2011

    With all the controversy and acrimonious debate surrounding the use of value-added models in teacher evaluation, few seem to be paying much attention to the implementation details in those states and districts that are already moving ahead. This is unfortunate, because most new evaluation systems that use value-added estimates are literally being designed to fail.

    Much of the criticism of value-added (VA) focuses on systematic bias, such as that stemming from non-random classroom assignment (also here). But the truth is that most of the imprecision of value-added estimates stems from random error. Months ago, I lamented the fact that most states and districts incorporating value-added estimates into their teacher evaluations were not making any effort to account for this error. Everyone knows that there is a great deal of imprecision in value-added ratings, but few policymakers seem to realize that there are relatively easy ways to mitigate the problem.

    This is the height of foolishness. Policy is details. The manner in which one uses value-added estimates is just as important – perhaps even more so – than the properties of the models themselves. By ignoring error when incorporating these estimates into evaluation systems, policymakers virtually guarantee that most teachers will receive incorrect ratings. Let me explain.

  • As Membership Has Declined, Have Attitudes Toward Unions Changed Too?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on May 26, 2011

    The sharp decline in U.S. union membership over the past 30-40 years is well known, but does it reflect a change in attitudes towards organized labor? In other words, is decreasing union membership accompanied by decreasing support for labor?

    Of course, if attitudes have in fact changed, they might be both exogenous (membership declines because support decreases, leading to fewer unionization drives and less political support) as well as endogenous (support decreases because membership declines, as fewer people are exposed to unions and to the benefits of membership) to unionization levels. And, to some degree, attitudes and membership likely change independent of each other.

    In any case, it’s worth taking a look at how attitudes towards labor have changed over the past few decades. In the graph below, I present simple trend data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been administered either annually or semi-annually since 1972. Every year, the GSS queries respondents’ confidence in a number of major societal institutions, including organized labor. Granted, there is a difference between having confidence in unions and supporting them per se, but I think it’s safe to assume that the former is a decent indicator of the latter.

  • The High Cost Of Caring

    by Esther Quintero on May 25, 2011

    The field of early childhood education (ECE) is riddled with contradictions. Bluntly, when those we love the most—our children—are at the most consequential stage of their cognitive, social, and emotional development, we leave them in the hands of the people we pay the least. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, childcare workers earn about 4 percent less than animal caretakers—$20,940 and $21,830 per year, respectively.

    I am far from the first to make this embarrassing comparison; more than a decade ago, Marci Whitebook provided an extensive overview. Unfortunately, the comparisons still hold.

    Over the intervening years, there have been many determined efforts to regulate and improve the working conditions of early childhood educators, including raising the qualifications and wages for the profession. Indeed, the demand for worthy salaries is often discussed in combination with workforce development efforts. In other words, we want early childhood workers to be both better trained and better paid. While this may seem to be a perfectly reasonable approach, it suggests that the low wages are a result of inadequate qualifications. Perhaps. But I believe that this obscures another important explanation for these workers’ persistently meager pay.

  • A Response To Joel Klein

    by Edith Shanker on May 24, 2011

    Our guest author today is Edith (Eadie) Shanker, Albert Shanker’s widow and a retired New York City teacher.

    A few months ago, in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Joel Klein invoked Al Shanker’s name as an educator in support of today’s charter school “reform” efforts. Klein wanted the public to believe that Al was the originator of the charter school concept (he wasn’t) and that he would today be supportive of the charter school ”reform” ideology now being spread around New York City and the country as a panacea for low student achievement. Conveniently, Klein did not indicate that Al denounced the idea of charters when it became clear that the concept had changed and was being hijacked by corporate and business interests. In Al’s view, such hijacking would result in the privatization of public education and, ultimately, its destruction - all without improving student outcomes.

    Now, in his recent Atlantic magazine article, Klein trots out a quotation attributed to Al (said in jest if at all) to support the stereotype that, as a union leader, Al cared only about “protecting” the union’s members, including “bad” teachers. Using this alleged quotation – “when school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children” - Klein not only plays fast and loose with Al’s reputation as a union leader but also as a sterling educator. (To be a true expert on Al’s views on how to improve education for children - and how to be a union leader - Klein could check out 27 years’ worth of his “Where We Stand” columns in the New York Times.)




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