Recent Evidence On The New Orleans School Reforms

A new study of New Orleans (NOLA) schools since Katrina, published by the Education Research Alliance (ERA), has caused a predictable stir in education circles (the results are discussed in broader strokes in this EdNext article, while the full paper is forthcoming). The study’s authors, Doug Harris and Matthew Larsen, compare testing outcomes before and after the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, in districts that were affected by those storms. The basic idea, put simply, is to compare NOLA schools to those in other storm-affected districts, in order to assess the general impact of the drastic educational change undertaken in NOLA, using the other schools/districts as a kind of control group.

The results, in brief, indicate that: 1) aggregate testing results after the storms rose more quickly in NOLA vis-à-vis the comparison districts, with the difference in 2012 being equivalent to roughly 15 percentile points ; 2) there was, however, little discernible difference in the trajectories of NOLA students who returned after the storm and their peers in other storm-affected districts (though this latter group could only be followed for a short period, all of which occurred during these cohorts' middle school years). Harris and Larsen also address potential confounding factors, including population change and trauma, finding little or no evidence that these factors generate bias in their results.

The response to this study included the typical of mix of thoughtful, measured commentary and reactionary advocacy (from both “sides”). And, at this point, so much has been said and written about the study, and about New Orleans schools in general, that I am hesitant to join the chorus (I would recommend in particular this op-ed by Doug Harris, as well as his presentation at our recent event on New Orleans).

The Story Behind The Story: Social Capital And The Vista Unified School District

Our guest author today is Devin Vodicka, superintendent of Vista Unified, a California school district serving over 22,000 students that was recently accepted into the League of Innovative Schools. Dr. Vodicka participates in numerous state and national leadership groups, including the Superintendents Technical Working Group of the U.S. Education Department .

Transforming a school district is challenging and complex work, often requiring shifts in paradigms, historical perspective, and maintaining or improving performance. Here, I’d like to share how we approached change at Vista Unified School District (VUSD) and to describe the significant transformation we’ve been undergoing, driven by data, focused on relationships, and based in deep partnerships. Although Vista has been hard at work over many years, this particular chapter starts in July of 2012 when I was hired.  

When I became superintendent, the district was facing numerous challenges: Declining enrollment, financial difficulties, strained labor relations, significant turnover in the management ranks, and unresolved lawsuits were all areas in need of attention. The school board charged me and my team with transforming the district, which serves large numbers of linguistically, culturally, and economically diverse students. While there is still significant room for improvement, much has changed in the past three years, generally trending in a positive direction. Below is the story of how we did it.

Recent Evidence On Teacher Experience And Productivity

The idea that teachers’ test-based productivity does not improve after their first few years in the classroom is, it is fair to say, the “conventional wisdom” among many in the education reform arena. It has been repeated endlessly, and used to advocate forcefully for recent changes in teacher personnel policies, such as those regarding compensation, transfers, and layoffs. 

Following a few other, recent analyses (e.g., Harris and Sass 2011Wiswall 2013; Ladd and Sorensen 2013), a new working paper by researchers John Papay and Matthew Kraft examines this claim about the relationship between experience and (test-based) performance. In this case, the authors compare the various approaches with which the productivity returns to experience have been estimated in the literature, and put forth a new one. The paper did receive some attention, and will hopefully have some impact on the policy debate, as well as on the production of future work on this topic.

It might nevertheless be worthwhile to take a closer look at the “nuts and bolts” of this study, both because it is interesting (at least in my opinion) and policy relevant, and also because it illustrates some important lessons regarding the relationship between research and policy, specifically the fact that what we think we know is not always as straightforward as it appears.

New School Climate Tool Facilitates Early Intervention On Social-Emotional Issues: Bullying And Suicide Prevention

Our guest author today is Dr. Alvin Larson, director of research and evaluation at Meriden Public Schools, a district that serves about 8,900 students in Meriden, CT. Dr. Larson holds a B.A. in Sociology, M. Ed., M.S. in Educational Research and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. The intervention described below was made possible with support from Meriden's community, leadership and education professionals.

For the most part, students' social-emotional concerns start small; if left untreated, though, they can become severe and difficult to manage. Inappropriate behaviors are not only harmful to the student who exhibits them; they can also serve to increase the social bruising of his/her peers and can be detrimental to the climate of the entire school. The problem is that many of these bruises are not directly observable – or not until they become scars. School psychologists and counselors are familiar with bruised students who act out overtly, but some research suggests that 4.3% of our students carry social-emotional scars of which counselors are unaware (Larson, AERA 2014). To develop a more preventative approach, foster pro-social attitudes and a positive school climate, we need to be able to identify and support the students with hidden bruises as well as intervene with pre-bullies early in their school careers.

Since 2011, Connecticut’s Local Education Agencies (LEAs) have been required to purchase or develop a student school climate survey. The rationale for this is that anti-social attitudes and a negative school climate are associated with lower academic achievement, current behavior problems, as well as future criminal behaviors (DeLisi et al 2013; Hawkins et al 2000) and suicide ideation (King et al 2001). There are hundreds of anonymous school climate surveys, but none of them was designed to provide the kind of information that we need to help individual students.

New Policy Brief: The Evidence On The Florida Education Reform Formula

The State of Florida is well known in the U.S. as a hotbed of education reform. The package of policies spearheaded by then Governor Jeb Bush during the late 1990s and early 2000s focused, in general, on test-based accountability, competition, and choice. As a whole, they have come to be known as the “Florida Formula for education success,” or simply the “Florida Formula.”

The Formula has received a great deal of attention, including a coordinated campaign to advocate (in some cases, successfully) for its export to other states. The campaign and its supporters tend to employ as their evidence changes in aggregate testing results, most notably unadjusted increases in proficiency rates on Florida’s state assessment and/or cohort changes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This approach, for reasons discussed in the policy brief, violates basic principles of causal inference and policy evaluation. Using this method, one could provide evidence that virtually any policy or set of policies “worked” or “didn’t work,” often in the same place and time period.

Fortunately, we needn’t rely on these crude methods, as there is quite a bit of high quality evidence pertaining to several key components of the Formula, and it provides a basis for tentative conclusions regarding their short- and medium term (mostly test-based impact. Today we published a policy brief, the purpose of which is to summarize this research in a manner that is fair and accessible to policymakers and the public.

How Effective Are Online Credit Recovery Programs?

Credit recovery programs in the U.S. have proliferated rapidly since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), particularly in states that are home to a large number of urban schools with high dropout rates (Balfanz and Legters 2004).

Although definitions vary somewhat, credit recovery is any method by which students can earn missed credits in order to graduate on time (Watson and Gemin 2008). Online credit recovery is a common form of these programs, but others include mixed online/in-person instruction, and in-person instruction (McCabe and Andrie 2012). At least three major school districts – Boston, Chicago, and New York City – offer credit recovery programs, as do several states, including Missouri and Wisconsin. Private companies such as Plato, Pearson, Apex, and Kaplan have also tried to fill this niche by offering to charge between $175 and $1,200 per student per credit. Online credit recovery represents approximately half of all instruction in the $2 billion online education industry.

Yet, despite the rising presence of online credit recovery programs, there exists scant evidence as to their effectiveness in increasing high school graduation rates, or their impact on other outcomes of interest.

Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, And Succeed

** Republished here in the Washington Post

Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay. 

When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.

A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.

The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.

New Teacher Attrition And The Recession

The Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (BTLS), a terrific project by the National Center for Education Statistics, tracks a nationally representative cohort of beginning teachers (those who started in 2007 or 2008) through their first five years and documents their turnover outcomes. Results from this survey have been trickling out every year (see our post here), but the most recent report presents outcomes from these teachers’ first four years.

The headline story, as reported in the Washington Post, was that roughly 17 percent of these new teachers had left the profession entirely within their first four years. A number of commenters, including the Post article, hastened to point out that the BTLS estimates are far lower than the “conventional wisdom” statistic that 40-50 percent leave the profession within the first five years (see here for more on this figure; also see Perda 2013 for a similar five-year estimate using longitudinal data). These findings are released within a political context where teacher attrition (somewhat strangely) has become a contentious political issue, one which advocates tend to interpret in a manner that supports their pre-existing beliefs about education policy.

Putting this source of contention aside, the BTLS results clearly show that new teacher attrition during these years was far lower than is often assumed, and certainly that teachers are not fleeing the classroom at a greater clip than in previous years. This is important, and cannot be "explained away" by any one factor, but we should still be careful about generalizing too strongly these findings beyond this particular time period, given that the BTLS cohort of teachers entered the classroom almost precisely at the time that the "great recession" began. This is, of course, not a new or original point – it was, for instance, mentioned briefly in the Post article. And it's hardly groundbreaking to note that labor market behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Still, given all the commentary about the BTLS results, it may be worth reviewing briefly.

Is The Social Side Of Education Touchy Feely?

That's right, measuring social and organizational aspects of schools is just... well, "touchy feely." We all intuitively grasp that social relations are important in our work environments, that having mentors on the job can make a world of difference, that knowing how to work with colleagues matters to the quality of the end product, that innovation and improvement relies on the sharing of ideas, that having a good relationship with supervisors influences both engagement and performance, and so on.

I could go on, but I don't have to; we all just know these things. But is there hard evidence, other than common sense and our personal experiences? Behaviors such as collaboration and interaction or qualities like trust are difficult to quantify. In the end, is it possible that they are just 'soft' and that, even if they’re important (and they are), they just don't belong in policy conversations?

Wrong.

In this post, I review three distinct methodological approaches that researchers have used to understand social-organizational aspects of schools. Specifically, I selected studies that examine the relationship between aspects of teachers' social-organizational environments and their students' achievement growth. I focus both on the methods and on the substantive findings. This is because I think some basic sense of how researchers look at complex constructs like trust or collegiality can deepen our understanding of this work and lead us to embrace its implications for policy and practice more fully.

Lessons And Directions From The CREDO Urban Charter School Study

Last week, CREDO, a Stanford University research organization that focuses mostly on charter schools, released an analysis of the test-based effectiveness of charter schools in “urban areas” – that is, charters located in cities located within in 42 urban areas throughout 22 states. The math and reading testing data used in the analysis are from the 2006-07 to 2010-11 school years.

In short, the researchers find that, across all areas included, charters’ estimated impacts on test scores, vis-à-vis the regular public schools to which they are compared, are positive and statistically discernible. The magnitude of the overall estimated effect is somewhat modest in reading, and larger in math. In both cases, as always, results vary substantially by location, with very large and positive impacts in some places and negative impacts in others.

These “horse race” charter school studies are certainly worthwhile, and their findings have useful policy implications. In another sense, however, the public’s relentless focus on the “bottom line” of these analyses is tantamount to asking continually a question ("do charter schools boost test scores?") to which we already know the answer (some do, some do not). This approach is somewhat inconsistent with the whole idea of charter schools, and with harvesting what is their largest potential contribution to U.S. public education. But there are also a few more specific issues and findings in this report that merit a little bit of further discussion, and we’ll start with those.