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Education Reform

  • School Choice And Segregation In Charter And Regular Public Schools

    Written on February 25, 2013

    A recent article in Reuters, one that received a great deal of attention, sheds light on practices that some charter schools are using essentially to screen students who apply for admission. These policies include requiring long and difficult applications, family interviews, parental contracts, and even demonstrations of past academic performance.

    It remains unclear how common these practices might be in the grand scheme of things, but regardless of how frequently they occur, most of these tactics are terrible, perhaps even illegal, and should be stopped. At the same time, there are two side points to keep in mind when you hear about charges such as these, as well as the accusations (and denials) of charter exclusion and segregation that tend to follow.

    The first is that some degree of (self-)sorting and segregation of students by abilities, interests and other characteristics is part of the deal in a choice-based system. The second point is that screening and segregation are most certainly not unique to charter/private schools, and one primary reason is that there is, in a sense, already a lot of choice among regular public schools.

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  • Teacher Leadership As A School Improvement Strategy

    Written on February 19, 2013

    Our guest author today is David B. Cohen, a National Board Certified high school English teacher in Palo Alto, CA, and the associate director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His blog is at InterACT.

    As we settle into 2013, I find myself increasingly optimistic about the future of the teaching profession. There are battles ahead, debates to be had and elections to be contested, but, as Sam Cooke sang, “A change is gonna come."

    The change that I’m most excited about is the potential for a shift towards teacher leadership in schools and school systems. I’m not naive enough to believe it will be a linear or rapid shift, but I’m confident in the long-term growth of teacher leadership because it provides a common ground for stakeholders to achieve their goals, because it’s replicable and scalable, and because it’s working already.

    Much of my understanding of school improvement comes from my teaching career - now approaching two decades in the classroom, mostly in public high schools. However, until six years ago, I hadn’t seen teachers putting forth a compelling argument about how we might begin to transform our profession. A key transition for me was reading a Teacher Solutions report from the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). That 2007 report, Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve, showed how the concept of performance pay could be modified and improved upon with better definitions of a variety of performance, and differentiated pay based on differentiated professional practice, rather than arbitrary test score targets. I ended up joining the CTQ Teacher Leaders Network the same year, and have had the opportunity ever since to learn from exceptional teachers from around the country.

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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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  • Living In The Tails Of The Rhetorical And Teacher Quality Distributions

    Written on January 31, 2013

    A few weeks ago, Students First NY (SFNY) released a report, in which they presented a very simple analysis of the distribution of “unsatisfactory” teacher evaluation ratings (“U-ratings”) across New York City schools in the 2011-12 school year.

    The report finds that U-ratings are distributed unequally. In particular, they are more common in schools with higher poverty, more minorities, and lower proficiency rates. Thus, the authors conclude, the students who are most in need of help are getting the worst teachers.

    There is good reason to believe that schools serving larger proportions of disadvantaged students have a tougher time attracting, developing and retaining good teachers, and there is evidence of this, even based on value-added estimates, which adjust for these characteristics (also see here). However, the assumptions upon which this Students First analysis is based are better seen as empirical questions, and, perhaps more importantly, the recommendations they offer are a rather crude, narrow manifestation of market-based reform principles.

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  • Value-Added As A Screening Device: Part II

    Written on January 29, 2013

    Our guest author today is Douglas N. Harris, associate professor of economics and University Endowed Chair in Public Education at Tulane University in New Orleans. His latest bookValue-Added Measures in Education, provides an accessible review of the technical and practical issues surrounding these models. 

    This past November, I wrote a post for this blog about shifting course in the teacher evaluation movement and using value-added as a “screening device.”  This means that the measures would be used: (1) to help identify teachers who might be struggling and for whom additional classroom observations (and perhaps other information) should be gathered; and (2) to identify classroom observers who might not be doing an effective job.

    Screening takes advantage of the low cost of value-added and the fact that the estimates are more accurate in making general assessments of performance patterns across teachers, while avoiding the weaknesses of value-added—especially that the measures are often inaccurate for individual teachers, as well as confusing and not very credible among teachers when used for high-stakes decisions.

    I want to thank the many people who responded to the first post. There were three main camps.

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  • The Test-Based Evidence On The "Florida Formula"

    Written on January 7, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has become one of the more influential education advocates in the country. He travels the nation armed with a set of core policy prescriptions, sometimes called the “Florida formula," as well as "proof" that they work. The evidence that he and his supporters present consists largely of changes in average statewide test scores – NAEP and the state exam (FCAT) – since the reforms started going into place. The basic idea is that increases in testing results are the direct result of these policies.

    Governor Bush is no doubt sincere in his effort to improve U.S. education, and, as we'll see, a few of the policies comprising the “Florida formula” have some test-based track record. However, his primary empirical argument on their behalf – the coincidence of these policies’ implementation with changes in scores and proficiency rates – though common among both “sides” of the education debate, is simply not valid. We’ve discussed why this is the case many times (see here, here and here), as have countless others, in the Florida context as well as more generally.*

    There is no need to repeat those points, except to say that they embody the most basic principles of data interpretation and causal inference. It would be wonderful if the evaluation of education policies – or of school systems’ performance more generally - was as easy as looking at raw, cross-sectional testing data. But it is not.

    Luckily, one need not rely on these crude methods. We can instead take a look at some of the rigorous research that has specifically evaluated the core reforms comprising the “Florida formula." As usual, it is a far more nuanced picture than supporters (and critics) would have you believe.

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  • The Year In Research On Market-Based Education Reform: 2012 Edition

    Written on December 20, 2012

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    2012 was another busy year for market-based education reform. The rapid proliferation of charter schools continued, while states and districts went about the hard work of designing and implementing new teacher evaluations that incorporate student testing data, and, in many cases, performance pay programs to go along with them.

    As in previous years (see our 2010 and 2011 reviews), much of the research on these three “core areas” – merit pay, charter schools, and the use of value-added and other growth models in teacher evaluations – appeared rather responsive to the direction of policy making, but could not always keep up with its breakneck pace.*

    Some lag time is inevitable, not only because good research takes time, but also because there's a degree to which you have to try things before you can see how they work. Nevertheless, what we don't know about these policies far exceeds what we know, and, given the sheer scope and rapid pace of reforms over the past few years, one cannot help but get the occasional “flying blind" feeling. Moreover, as is often the case, the only unsupportable position is certainty.

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  • The Sensitive Task Of Sorting Value-Added Scores

    Written on December 18, 2012

    The New Teacher Project’s (TNTP) recent report on teacher retention, called “The Irreplaceables," garnered quite a bit of media attention. In a discussion of this report, I argued, among other things, that the label “irreplaceable” is a highly exaggerated way of describing their definitions, which, by the way, varied between the five districts included in the analysis. In general, TNTP's definitions are better-described as “probably above average in at least one subject" (and this distinction matters for how one interprets the results).

    I’d like to elaborate a bit on this issue – that is, how to categorize teachers’ growth model estimates, which one might do, for example, when incorporating them into a final evaluation score. This choice, which receives virtually no discussion in TNTP’s report, is always a judgment call to some degree, but it’s an important one for accountability policies. Many states and districts are drawing those very lines between teachers (and schools), and attaching consequences and rewards to the outcomes.

    Let's take a very quick look, using the publicly-released 2010 “teacher data reports” from New York City (there are details about the data in the first footnote*). Keep in mind that these are just value-added estimates, and are thus, at best, incomplete measures of the performance of teachers (however, importantly, the discussion below is not specific to growth models; it can apply to many different types of performance measures).

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  • Are Teachers Changing Their Minds About Education Reform?

    Written on December 14, 2012

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    In a recent Washington Post article called “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms," veteran reporter Jay Mathews puts forth an argument that one hears rather frequently – that teachers are “changing their minds," in a favorable direction, about the current wave of education reform. Among other things, Mr. Mathews cites two teacher surveys. One of them, which we discussed here, is a single-year survey that doesn't actually look at trends, and therefore cannot tell us much about shifts in teachers’ attitudes over time (it was also a voluntary online survey).

    His second source, on the other hand, is in fact a useful means of (cautiously) assessing such trends (though the article doesn't actually look at them). That is the Education Sector survey of a nationally-representative sample of U.S. teachers, which they conducted in 2003, 2007 and, most recently, in 2011.

    This is a valuable resource. Like other teacher surveys, it shows that educators’ attitudes toward education policy are diverse. Opinions vary by teacher characteristics, context and, of course, by the policy being queried. Moreover, views among teachers can (and do) change over time, though, when looking at cross-sectional surveys, one must always keep in mind that observed changes (or lack thereof) might be due in part to shifts in the characteristics of the teacher workforce. There's an important distinction between changing minds and changing workers (which Jay Mathews, to his great credit, discusses in this article).*

    That said, when it comes to the many of the more controversial reforms happening in the U.S., those about which teachers might be "changing their minds," the results of this particular survey suggest, if anything, that teachers’ attitudes are actually quite stable.

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  • Creating A Valid Process For Using Teacher Value-Added Measures

    Written on November 28, 2012

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest author today is Douglas N. Harris, associate professor of economics and University Endowed Chair in Public Education at Tulane University in New Orleans. His latest book, Value-Added Measures in Education, provides an excellent, accessible review of the technical and practical issues surrounding these models. 

    Now that the election is over, the Obama Administration and policymakers nationally can return to governing.  Of all the education-related decisions that have to be made, the future of teacher evaluation has to be front and center.
    In particular, how should “value-added” measures be used in teacher evaluation? President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative expanded the use of these measures, which attempt to identify how much each teacher contributes to student test scores. In doing so, the initiative embraced and expanded the controversial reliance on standardized tests that started under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind.

    In many respects, The Race was well designed. It addresses an important problem - the vast majority of teachers report receiving limited quality feedback on instruction. As a competitive grants program, it was voluntary for states to participate (though involuntary for many districts within those states). The Administration also smartly embraced the idea of multiple measures of teacher performance.

    But they also made one decision that I think was a mistake.  They encouraged—or required, depending on your vantage point—states to lump value-added or other growth model estimates together with other measures. The raging debate since then has been over what percentage of teachers’ final ratings should be given to value-added versus the other measures. I believe there is a better way to approach this issue, one that focuses on teacher evaluations not as a measure, but rather as a process.

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