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  • In The Classroom, Differences Can Become Assets

    by Esther Quintero on August 4, 2011

    Author, speaker and education expert Sir Ken Robinson argues that today’s education system is anachronistic and needs to be rethought. Robinson notes that our current model, shaped by the industrial revolution, reveals a "production line" approach: for example, we group kids by "date of manufacture", instruct them "by batches", and subject them all to standardized tests. Yet, we often miss the most fundamental questions - for example, Robinson asks, "Why is age the most important thing kids have in common?"

    In spite of the various theories about the stages of cognitive development (Piaget, etc.), it is difficult to decide how to group children. Academically and linguistically diverse classrooms have become a prevalent phenomenon in the U.S. and other parts of the world, posing important challenges for educators whose mission is to support the learning of all students.

    It’s not only that children are dissimilar in terms of their interests, ethnicity, social class, skills, and other attributes; what’s even more consequential is that human interactions are built on the basis of those differences. In other words, individuals create patterns of relations that reflect and perpetuate social distinctions.

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  • Big Labor?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on August 3, 2011

    As you may know, Congressional Republicans have stalled legislation to reauthorize the operation of Federal Aviation Administration, partially closing down the agency since July 25 at the cost to the U.S. government of $30 million a day in lost tax revenue. This state of affairs will continue at least until Congress resumes in September. What you may not know is that the source of the dispute is whether airline and railroad workers in the  private sector should have the right to organize unions by winning a simple majority of votes (the way elections are conducted in every other public- and private-sector union election). Republicans are against this, and are instead insisting that unionization should require a majority of all possible votes within the unit, irrespective of turnout.

    For me, at least, this was objectionable in and of itself, but it's always a little odd to hear the rhetoric used by some Republicans in these types of situations, specifically when they are reported to see themselves fighting off an advance by "big labor" in the private sector.

    Big labor. The pejorative is beginning to carry the ring of someone living in a time warp. What do I mean?

    Most people know that union membership in the U.S. has declined over the past few decades, but it seems that many aren’t aware of the extent and breakdown of this trend. So here are the basic data on union membership over time.

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  • Matt Damon, Jon Stewart And The "Teacher In The Family Effect"

    by Matthew Di Carlo on August 1, 2011

    Over the past year or so, two high-profile celebrities – Jon Stewart and Matt Damon – have expressed skepticism about the market-based education reform policies currently spreading throughout the U.S. One cannot help but notice that they share one characteristic that they both acknowledge has helped to guide their opinions: Their mothers were both PK-12 educators. I’m also the son of a teacher and I know that this has had a substantial effect on my opinions about public education. No doubt the same is true of people who are married to teachers.

    It’s hardly surprising that your occupation can help to influence the views of your family members, especially those pertaining directly to that career (i.e., education policy and teachers’ families). But I found myself wondering if there was some way to get a sense of just how strong this “effect” might be. In other words, how much more likely are non-teachers from “teacher families” – those with a mother, father, or spouse who is a K-12 teacher – to hold different views toward education policy, compared with non-teachers who don’t have any teachers in their immediate families.

    Let’s take a very quick look.

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  • Underestimating Context (But Selectively)

    by Esther Quintero on July 28, 2011

    Imagine that for some reason you were lifted out of your usual place in society and dropped into somebody else’s spot — the place of someone whose behavior you have never understood. For example, you are an anarchist who suddenly becomes a top cabinet member. Or you are an environmentalist who is critical of big business who suddenly finds yourself responsible for developing environmental policy for ExxonMobil or BP.

    As systems thinker Donella Meadows points out in her book Thinking in Systems, in any given position, "you experience the information flows, the incentives and disincentives, the goals and discrepancies, the pressure […] that goes with that position." It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that you might remember how things looked from where you were before. If you become a manager, you’ll probably see labor less as a deserving partner, and more as a cost to be minimized. If you become a labor leader, every questionable business decision will start to seem like a deliberate attack on your members.

    How do we know?

    The best psychological experiments ask questions about human nature. What makes a person strong? Or evil? Are good and evil dispositional hardwired traits, permanent once unleashed? Or is there something about the situations in which people find themselves that influences their behavior?

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  • Success Via The Presumption Of Accuracy

    by Matthew Di Carlo on July 27, 2011

    In our previous post, Professor David K. Cohen argued that reforms such as D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system (IMPACT) will not by themselves lead to real educational improvement, because they focus on the individual rather than systemic causes of low performance. He framed this argument in terms of the new round of IMPACT results, which were released two weeks ago. While the preliminary information was limited, it seems that the distribution of teachers across the four ratings categories (highly effective, effective, minimally effective, and ineffective) were roughly similar to last year’s - including a small group of teachers fired for receiving the lowest “ineffective” rating, and a somewhat larger group (roughly 200) fired for having received the “minimally effective” label for two consecutive years.

    Cohen’s argument on the importance of infrastructure does not necessarily mean that we should abandon the testing of new evaluation systems, only that we should be very careful about how we interpret their results and the policy conclusions we draw from them (which is good advice at all times). Unfortunately, however, it seems that caution is in short supply. For instance, shortly after the IMPACT results were announced, the Washington Post ran an editorial, entitled “DC Teacher Performance Evaluations Are Working," in which a couple of pieces of “powerful evidence” were put forward in an attempt to support this bold claim. The first was that 58 percent of the teachers who received a “minimally effective” rating last year and remained in the district were rated either “effective” or “highly effective” this year. The second was that around 16 percent of DC teachers were rated “highly effective” this year, and will be offered bonuses, which the editorial writers argued shows that most teachers “are doing a good job” and being rewarded for it.

    The Post’s claim that these facts represent evidence - much less “powerful evidence” - of IMPACT’s success is a picture-perfect example of the flawed evidentiary standards that too often drive our education debate. The unfortunate reality is that we have virtually no idea whether IMPACT is actually “working," and we won’t have even a preliminary grasp for some time. Let’s quickly review the Post’s evidence.

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  • Evaluating Individual Teachers Won't Solve Systemic Educational Problems

    by David K. Cohen on July 26, 2011

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post

    Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors.  

    What are we to make of recent articles (here and here) extolling IMPACT, Washington DC’s fledging teacher evaluation system, for how many "ineffective" teachers have been identified and fired, how many "highly effective" teachers rewarded? It’s hard to say.

    In a forthcoming book, Teaching and Its Predicaments (Harvard University Press, August 2011), I argue that fragmented school governance in the U.S. coupled with the lack of coherent educational infrastructure make it difficult either to broadly improve teaching and learning or to have valid knowledge of the extent of improvement. Merriam-Webster defines "infrastructure" as: "the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)." The term is commonly used to refer to the roads, rail systems, and other frameworks that facilitate the movement of things and people, or to the physical and electronic mechanisms that enable voice and video communication. But social systems also can have such "underlying foundations or basic frameworks". For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

    Like many recent reform efforts that focus on teacher performance and accountability, IMPACT does not attempt to build infrastructure, but rather assumes that weak individual teachers are the problem. There are some weak individual teachers, but the chief problem has been a non-system that offers no guidance or support for strong teaching and learning, precisely because there has been no infrastructure. IMPACT frames reform as a matter of solving individual problems when the weakness is systemic.

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  • First, Know-What; Then, Know-How

    by Esther Quintero on July 25, 2011

    It is satisfying to read a book that examines education without claiming to be an education book. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered feels fresh and inspiring, despite having been around since the early 1970s. In it, British economist E.F. Schumacher attempts to address fundamental questions, as opposed to dwelling on the politics around nonessential issues, even the politics around the politics.

    Schumacher argues that education will only help society if it helps that society become wiser. And we get wiser by thinking first about where we want to go (i.e., know-what), not how to get there. Today, the education world seems focused on the latter. Science, technology, engineering, all teach know-how. But who is concerned with the know-what? In my view, efforts like the Albert Shanker Institute’s "Call for Common Content" are a step in this direction.

    Schumacher points out that we often look at education as the answer to all kinds of problems. "[A]ll history – as well as all current experience – points to the fact that it is man, not nature, who provides the primary resource: that the key factor of all economic development comes out of the mind of man." If our civilization is in a state of crisis "it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education." We believe that for every new challenge ahead there ought to be a scientific and technological solution: more and better education will solve all problems to come. Yet, with all of our scientific and technological advances, our social problems still seem intractable. Why is that?

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  • Atlanta: Bellwether Or Whistleblower For Test-Driven Reform?

    by Eugenia Kemble on July 22, 2011

    Early in the life of No Child Left Behind, one amateur but insightful futurist on the Shanker Institute Board remarked to me: "Well, if you tie teacher pay, labeling failing schools, and evaluations of teachers and principals all to student test results—guess what?—you’ll get student test results. But some 20, years down the road when these kids get out of high school, we may discover they don’t know anything."

    The quip did not necessarily suggest that we were headed for massive cheating scandals. Nor did it mean that students should never be assessed to find out how well they were learning what had been taught. It was just a warning that the incentives to produce score results would produce them —one way or another—and whether or not they stood for any true reflection on learning. Meaning, in this case, that a system that defines success narrowly in terms of test score gains will, at minimum, invite exaggerated claims and, at worst, encourage corruption.

    An important report was released this spring that should bring some U. S. education "reformers" up short as they pursue policies based on test-based incentives. Instead, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, by the National Research Council (NRC), was received as a blip on their screens. A serious research review, the report looked at "15 test-based incentive programs, including large scale policies of NCLB, its predecessors, and state high school exit exams as well as a number of experiments and programs carried out in the United States and other countries." Its conclusion: "Despite using them [test-based incentives] for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education."

    In other words, given the methods we are now using to grant performance pay, design evaluation plans, or fix low performing schools, these incentives don’t work. Moreover, looking at recent education history, they haven’t worked for quite a long time.

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  • A "Decent Work" Solution To America's Jobs Crisis

    by Randall Garton on July 21, 2011

    Decent work? Some days, it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind an old saying, favored by the AFL-CIO’s late president, Lane Kirkland, that if work were so great, the rich would have kept it for themselves.

    But the truth is that work is one of life’s realities. For most people, it is the sole source of income. Work also can bring great personal satisfaction. Whether self-employed or working for a large multinational corporation, we all aspire to jobs that are interesting, safe, and pay a good wage with benefits – a job that can support a family, with something left over. Even these days, when people are happy to have ANY job, we still want THAT kind of a job: Decent work at decent pay.

    But "decent work" is much more than a daydream – it is a concrete social and economic policy issue that is at the heart of a decade-long campaign by a major United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization, (ILO). Since 1999, the ILO, with support from member governments as well as employer and labor representatives, has pushed the "Decent Work Agenda". This document declares that "work is central to people's well-being." Not only does work provide income, it can bring about broad "social and economic advancement" and strengthen "individuals, their families and communities", in other words, "decent work" creates "upward mobility" or as Americans often put it, "raises all boats."

    But these broader "social and economic" gains don’t come with just any work, the ILO argues.

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  • Teacher Evaluations: Don't Begin Assembly Until You Have All The Parts

    by Matthew Di Carlo on July 19, 2011

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

    Over the past year or two, roughly 15-20 states have passed or are considering legislation calling for the overhaul of teacher evaluation. The central feature of most of these laws is a mandate to incorporate measures of student test score growth, in most cases specifying a minimum percentage of a teacher’s total score that must consist of these estimates.

    There’s some variation across states, but the percentages are all quite high. For example, Florida and Colorado both require that at least 50 percent of an evaluation must be based on growth measures, while New York mandates a minimum of 40 percent. These laws also vary in terms of other specifics, such as the degree to which the growth measure proportion must be based on state tests (rather than other assessments), how much flexibility districts have in designing their systems, and how teachers in untested grades and subjects are evaluated. But they all share that defining feature of mandating a minimum proportion – or “weight” – that must be attached to a test-based estimate of teacher effects (at least for those teachers in tested grades and subjects).

    Unfortunately, this is typical of the misguided manner in which many lawmakers (and the advocates advising them) have approached the difficult task of overhauling teacher evaluation systems. For instance, I have discussed previously the failure of most systems to account for random error. The weighting issue is another important example, and it violates a basic rule of designing performance assessment systems: You should exercise extreme caution in pre-deciding the importance of any one component until you know what the other components will be. Put simply, you should have all the parts in front of you before you begin the assembly process.

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