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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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  • No Presentation Without Representation

    Written on June 26, 2013

    I tend to comment on newly-released teacher surveys, primarily because I think the surveys are important and interesting, but also because teachers' opinions are sometimes misrepresented in our debate about education reform. So, last year, I wrote about a report by the advocacy organization Teach Plus, in which they presented results from a survey focused on identifying differences in attitudes by teacher experience (an important topic). One of my major comments was that the survey was "non-scientific" – it was voluntary, and distributed via social media, e-mail, etc. This means that the results cannot be used to draw strong conclusions about the population of teachers as a whole, since those who responded might be different from those that did not.

    I also noted that, even if the sample was not representative, this did not preclude finding useful information in the results. That is, my primary criticism was that the authors did not even mention the issue, or make an effort to compare the characteristics of their survey respondents with those of teachers in general (which can give a sense of the differences between the sample and the population).

    Well, they have just issued a new report, which also presents the results of a teacher survey, this time focused on teachers’ attitudes toward the evaluation system used in Memphis, Tennessee (called the “Teacher Effectiveness Measure," or TEM). In this case, not only do they raise the issue of representativeness, but they also present a little bit of data comparing their respondents to the population (i.e., all Memphis teachers who were evaluated under TEM).

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  • What Some Call Delay Is At Times Just Good Policy Making

    Written on June 21, 2013

    U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that states will be given the option to postpone using the results of their new teacher evaluations for high-stakes decisions during the phase-in of the new Common Core-aligned assessments. The reaction from some advocates was swift condemnation – calling the decision little more than a “delay” and a “victory for the status quo."

    We hear these kinds of arguments frequently in education. The idea is that change must be as rapid as possible, because “kids can’t wait." I can understand and appreciate the urgency underlying these sentiments. Policy change in education (as in other arenas) can sometimes be painfully slow, and what seem likes small roadblocks can turn out to be massive, permanent obstacles.

    I will not repeat my views regarding the substance of Secretary Duncan’s decision – see this op-ed by Morgan Polikoff and myself. I would, however, like to make one very quick point about these “we need change right now because students can’t wait” arguments: Sometimes, what is called “delay” is actually better described as good policy making, and kids can wait for good policy making.

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  • What Should The Results Of New Teacher Evaluations Look Like?

    Written on June 17, 2013

    In a previous post, I discussed the initial results from new teacher evaluations in several states, and the fact that states with implausibly large proportions of teachers in the higher categories face a difficult situation – achieving greater differentiation while improving the quality and legitimacy of their systems.

    I also expressed concern that pre-existing beliefs about the "proper" distribution of teacher ratings -- in particular, how many teachers should receive the lowest ratings -- might inappropriately influence the process of adjusting the systems based on the first round of results. In other words, there is a risk that states and districts will change their systems in a crude manner that lowers ratings simply for the sake of lowering ratings.

    Such concerns of course imply a more general question: How should we assess the results of new evaluation systems? That’s a complicated issue, and these are largely uncharted waters. Nevertheless, I'd like to offer a few thoughts as states and districts move forward.

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  • Charter School Authorization And Growth

    Written on June 13, 2013

    If you ask a charter school supporter why charter schools tend to exhibit inconsistency in their measured test-based impact, there’s a good chance they’ll talk about authorizing. That is, they will tell you that the quality of authorization laws and practices -- the guidelines by which charters are granted, renewed and revoked -- drives much and perhaps even most of the variation in the performance of charters relative to comparable district schools, and that strengthening these laws is the key to improving performance.

    Accordingly, a recently-announced campaign by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers aims to step up the rate at which charter authorizers close “low-performing schools” and are more selective in allowing new schools to open. In addition, a recent CREDO study found (among other things) that charter middle and high schools’ performance during their first few years is more predictive of future performance than many people may have thought, thus lending support to the idea of opening and closing schools as an improvement strategy.

    Below are a few quick points about the authorization issue, which lead up to a question about the relationship between selectivity and charter sector growth.

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  • On Teacher Evaluation: Slow Down And Get It Right

    Written on May 20, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    The following is written by Morgan S. Polikoff and Matthew Di Carlo. Morgan is Assistant Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

    One of the primary policy levers now being employed in states and districts nationwide is teacher evaluation reform. Well-designed evaluations, which should include measures that capture both teacher practice and student learning, have great potential to inform and improve the performance of teachers and, thus, students. Furthermore, most everyone agrees that the previous systems were largely pro forma, failed to provide useful feedback, and needed replacement.

    The attitude among many policymakers and advocates is that we must implement these systems and begin using them rapidly for decisions about teachers, while design flaws can be fixed later. Such urgency is undoubtedly influenced by the history of slow, incremental progress in education policy. However, we believe this attitude to be imprudent.

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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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  • Is There A "Corporate Education Reform" Movement?

    Written on April 10, 2013

    One of the more thoughtful voices in education, Larry Cuban, has delivered an interesting brief for the argument that there is no such thing as a “corporate reform movement." While he acknowledges that America’s corporate elite largely share a view of how to reform America’s schools, focused on the creation of educational marketplaces and business-model schools as the engines of change, Cuban argues that it is mistake to overstate the homogeneity of perspectives and purposes. The power players of the reform movement have “varied, not uniform motives," are “drawn from overlapping, but distinct spheres of influence," and “vary in their aims and strategies." The use of a term such as “corporate education reform” suggests “far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking."

    Cuban’s argument amalgamates two different senses of the term “corporate education reform” – the notion that there is a movement for education reform led by corporate elites and the idea that there is a movement for education reform that seeks to remake public education in the image and likeness of for-profit corporations in a competitive marketplace.

    In co-mingling these two distinct senses of the term, Cuban is adopting a common usage. And it is a usage not entirely without justification: many of the strongest advocates for transforming public schools into educational corporations are found in the corporate elite. But it is vital, I will argue here, that we separate these two conceptions of “corporate education reform” if we are to adequately understand the complexity of the political terrain on which the battles over the future of public education are being fought.

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  • Greetings From Due Diligence, New Jersey

    Written on March 28, 2013

    Earlier this week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the state will assume control over Camden City School District. Camden will be the fourth NJ district to undergo takeover, though this is the first time that the state will be removing control from an elected local school board, which will now serve in an advisory role (and have three additional members appointed by the Governor). Over the next few weeks, NJ officials will choose a new superintendent, and begin to revamp evaluations, curricula and other core policies.

    Accompanying the announcement, the Governor’s office released a two-page "fact sheet," much of which is devoted to justifying this move to the public.

    Before discussing it, let’s be clear about something - it may indeed be the case that Camden schools are so critically low-performing and/or dysfunctional as to warrant drastic intervention. Moreover, it's at least possible that state takeover is the appropriate type of intervention to help these schools improve (though the research on this latter score is, to be charitable, undeveloped).

    That said, the "fact sheet" presents relatively little valid evidence regarding the academic performance of Camden schools. Given the sheer magnitude of any takeover decision, it is crucial for the state to demonstrate publicly that they have left no stone unturned by presenting a case that is as comprehensive and compelling as possible. However, the discrepancy between that high bar and NJ's evidence, at least that pertaining to academic outcomes, is more than a little disconcerting.

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  • The Ineffective Rating Fetish

    Written on March 21, 2013

    In a story for Education Week, always reliable Stephen Sawchuk reports on what may be a trend in states’ first results from their new teacher evaluation systems: The ratings are skewed toward the top.

    For example, the article notes that, in Michigan, Florida and Georgia, a high proportion of teachers (more than 90 percent) received one of the two top ratings (out of four or five). This has led to some grumbling among advocates and others, citing similarities between these results and those of the old systems, in which the vast majority of teachers were rated “satisfactory," and very few were found to be “unsatisfactory."

    Differentiation is very important in teacher evaluations – it’s kind of the whole point. Thus, it’s a problem when ratings are too heavily concentrated toward one end of the distribution. However, as Aaron Pallas points out, these important conversations about evaluation results sometimes seem less focused on good measurement or even the spread of teachers across categories than on the narrower question of how many teachers end up with the lowest rating - i.e., how many teachers will be fired.

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