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Education Reform

  • "Show Me What Democracy Looks Like"

    Written on April 29, 2014

    Our guest author today is John McCrann, a Math teacher and experiential educator at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. John is a member of the America Achieves Fellowship, Youth Opportunities Program, and Teacher Leader Study Group. He tweets at @JohnTroutMcCran.

    New York City’s third through eighth graders are in the middle of state tests, and many of our city’s citizens have taken strong positions on the value (or lack thereof) of these assessments.  The protests, arguments and activism surrounding these tests remind me of a day when I was a substitute civics teacher during summer school.  “I need help," Charlotte said as she approached my desk, “what is democracy?"

    On that day, my mind flashed to a scene I witnessed outside the White House in the spring of 2003.  On one side of the fence, protestors shouted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  On the other side worked an administration who had invaded another country in an effort to “expand democracy." Passionate, bright people on both sides of that fence believed in the idea that Charlotte was asking about, but came to very different conclusions about how to enact the concept. 

  • The Middle Ground Between Opt Out And All In

    Written on April 11, 2014

    A couple of weeks ago, Michelle Rhee published an op-ed in the Washington Post speaking out against the so-called “opt out movement," which encourages parents to refuse to let their children take standardized tests.

    Personally, I oppose the “opt-out” phenomenon, but I also think it would be a mistake not to pay attention to its proponents’ fundamental issue – that standardized tests are potentially being misused and/or overused. This concern is legitimate and important. My sense is that “opting out” reflects a rather extreme version of this mindset, a belief that we cannot right the ship – i.e., we have gone so far and moved so carelessly with test-based accountability that there is no real hope that it can or will be fixed. This strikes me as a severe overreaction, but I understand the sentiment.

    That said, while most of Ms. Rhee’s op-ed is the standard, reasonable fare, some of it is also laced with precisely the kind of misconceptions that contribute to the apprehensions not only of anti-testing advocates, but also among those of us who occupy a middle ground - i.e., favor some test-based accountability, but are worried about getting it right.

  • SIG And The High Price Of Cheap Evidence

    Written on March 11, 2014

    A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) released the latest data from schools that received grants via the School Improvement (SIG) program. These data -- consisting solely of changes in proficiency rates -- were widely reported as an indication of “disappointing” or “mixed” results. Some even went as far as proclaiming the program a complete failure.

    Once again, I have to point out that this breaks almost every rule of testing data interpretation and policy analysis. I’m not going to repeat the arguments about why changes in cross-sectional proficiency rates are not policy evidence (see our posts here, here and here, or examples from the research literature here, here and here). Suffice it to say that the changes themselves are not even particularly good indicators of whether students’ test-based performance in these schools actually improved, to say nothing of whether it was the SIG grants that were responsible for the changes. There’s more to policy analysis than subtraction.

    So, in some respects, I would like to come to the defense of Secretary Arne Duncan and USED right now - not because I’m a big fan of the SIG program (I’m ambivalent at best), but rather because I believe in strong, patient policy evaluation, and these proficiency rate changes are virtually meaningless. Unfortunately, however, USED was the first to portray, albeit very cautiously, rate changes as evidence of SIG’s impact. In doing so, they provided a very effective example of why relying on bad evidence is a bad idea even if it supports your desired conclusions.

  • In Education Policy, Good Things Come In Small Packages

    Written on March 7, 2014

    A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education presented a summary of three recent studies of the differences in the effectiveness of teaching provided advantaged and disadvantaged students (with the former defined in terms of value-added scores, and the latter in terms of subsidized lunch eligibility). The brief characterizes the results of these reports in an accessible manner - that the difference in estimated teaching effectiveness between advantaged and disadvantaged students varied quite widely between districts, but overall is about four percent of the achievement gap in reading and 2-3 percent in math.

    Some observers were not impressed. They wondered why so-called reformers are alienating teachers and hurting students in order to address a mere 2-4 percent improvement in the achievement gap.

    Just to be clear, the 2-4 percent figures describe the gap (and remember that it varies). Whether it can be narrowed or closed – e.g., by improving working conditions or offering incentives or some other means – is a separate issue. Nevertheless, let’s put aside all the substantive aspects surrounding these studies, and the issue of the distribution of teacher quality, and discuss this 2-4 percent thing, as it illustrates what I believe is the among the most important tensions underlying education policy today: Our collective failure to have a reasonable debate about expectations and the power of education policy.

  • Revisiting The Widget Effect

    Written on March 4, 2014

    In 2009, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report called “The Widget Effect." You would be hard-pressed to find too many more recent publications from an advocacy group that had a larger influence on education policy and the debate surrounding it. To this day, the report is mentioned regularly by advocates and policy makers.

    The primary argument of the report was that teacher performance “is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision making in any meaningful way." More specifically, the report shows that most teachers received “satisfactory” or equivalent ratings, and that evaluations were not tied to most personnel decisions (e.g., compensation, layoffs, etc.). From these findings and arguments comes the catchy title – a “widget” is a fictional product commonly used in situations (e.g., economics classes) where the product doesn’t matter. Thus, treating teachers like widgets means that we treat them all as if they’re the same.

    Given the influence of “The Widget Effect," as well as how different the teacher evaluation landscape is now compared to when it was released, I decided to read it closely. Having done so, I think it’s worth discussing a few points about the report.

  • Matching Up Teacher Value-Added Between Different Tests

    Written on February 11, 2014

    The U.S. Department of Education has released a very short, readable report on the comparability of value-added estimates using two different tests in Indiana – one of them norm-referenced (the Measures of Academic Progress test, or MAP), and the other criterion-referenced (the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus, or ISTEP+, which is also the state’s official test for NCLB purposes).

    The research design here is straightforward – fourth and fifth grade students in 46 schools across 10 districts in Indiana took both tests, their teachers’ value-added scores were calculated, and the scores were compared. Since both sets of scores were based on the same students and teachers, this is allows a direct comparison of how teachers’ value-added estimates compare between these two tests. The results are not surprising, and they square with similar prior studies (see here, here, here, for example): The estimates based on the two tests are moderately correlated. Depending on the grade/subject, they are between 0.4 and 0.7. If you’re not used to interpreting correlation coefficients, consider that only around one-third of teachers were in the same quintile (fifth) on both tests, and another 40 or so percent were one quintile higher or lower. So, most teachers were within a quartile, about a quarter of teachers moved two or more quintiles, and a small percentage moved from top to bottom or vice-versa.

    Although, as mentioned above, these findings are in line with prior research, it is worth remembering why this “instability” occurs (and what can be done about it).

  • Is Selective Admission A School Improvement Plan?

    Written on January 23, 2014

    The Washington Post reports that parents and alumni of D.C.’s Dunbar High School have quietly been putting together a proposal to revitalize what the article calls "one of the District's worst performing schools."

    Those behind the proposal are not ready to speak about it publicly, and details are still very thin, but the Post article reports that it calls for greater flexibility in hiring, spending and other core policies. Moreover, the core of the plan – or at least its most drastic element - is to make Dunbar a selective high school, to which students must apply and be accepted, presumably based on testing results and other performance indicators (the story characterizes the proposal as a whole with the term “autonomy”). I will offer no opinion as to whether this conversion, if it is indeed submitted to the District for consideration, is a good idea. That will be up to administrators, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders.

    I am, however, a bit struck by two interrelated aspects of this story. The first is the unquestioned characterization of Dunbar as a “low performing” or “struggling” school. This fateful label appears to be based mostly on the school’s proficiency rates, which are indeed dismally low – 20 percent in math and 29 percent in reading.

  • Extended School Time Proposals And Charter Schools

    Written on January 22, 2014

    One of the (many) education reform proposals that has received national attention over the past few years is “extended learning time” – that is, expanding the day and/or year to give students more time in school.

    Although how schools use the time they have with students, of course, is not necessarily more or less important than how much time they have with those students, the proposal to expand the school day/year may have merit, particularly for schools and districts serving larger proportions of students who need to catch up. I have noticed that one of the motivations for the extended time push is the (correct) observation that the charter school models that have proven effective (at least by the standard of test score gains) utilize extended time.

    On the one hand, this is a good example of what many (including myself) have long advocated – that the handful of successful charter school models can potentially provide a great deal of guidance for all schools, regardless of their governance structure. On the other hand, it is also important to bear in mind that many of the high-profile charter chains that receive national attention don’t just expand their school years by a few days or even a few weeks, as has been proposed in several states. In many cases, they extend it by months.

  • The Year In Research On Market-Based Education Reform: 2013 Edition

    Written on December 17, 2013

    In the three most discussed and controversial areas of market-based education reform – performance pay, charter schools and the use of value-added estimates in teacher evaluations – 2013 saw the release of a couple of truly landmark reports, in addition to the normal flow of strong work coming from the education research community (see our reviews from 2010, 2011 and 2012).*

    In one sense, this building body of evidence is critical and even comforting, given not only the rapid expansion of charter schools, but also and especially the ongoing design and implementation of new teacher evaluations (which, in many cases, include performance-based pay incentives). In another sense, however, there is good cause for anxiety. Although one must try policies before knowing how they work, the sheer speed of policy change in the U.S. right now means that policymakers are making important decisions on the fly, and there is great deal of uncertainty as to how this will all turn out.

    Moreover, while 2013 was without question an important year for research in these three areas, it also illustrated an obvious point: Proper interpretation and application of findings is perhaps just as important as the work itself.

  • Being Kevin Huffman

    Written on December 11, 2013

    In a post earlier this week, I noted how several state and local education leaders, advocates and especially the editorial boards of major newspapers used the results of the recently-released NAEP results inappropriately – i.e., to argue that recent reforms in states such as Tennessee and D.C. are “working." I also discussed how this illustrates a larger phenomenon in which many people seem to expect education policies to generate immediate, measurable results in terms of aggregate student test scores, which I argued is both unrealistic and dangerous.

    Mike G. from Boston, a friend whose comments I always appreciate, agrees with me, but asks a question that I think gets to the pragmatic heart of the matter. He wonders whether individuals in high-level education positions have any alternative. For instance, Mike asks, what would I suggest to Kevin Huffman, who is the head of Tennessee’s education department? Insofar as Huffman’s opponents “would use any data…to bash him if it’s trending down," would I advise him to forego using the data in his favor when they show improvement?*

    I have never held any important high-level leadership positions. My political experience and skills are (and I’m being charitable here) underdeveloped, and I have no doubt many more seasoned folks in education would disagree with me. But my answer is: Yes, I would advise him to forego using the data in this manner. Here’s why.



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