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  • A Big Fish In A Small Causal Pond

    Written on April 13, 2011

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

    In three previous posts, I discussed what I’ve begun to call the “trifecta” of teacher-focused education reform talking points:

    In many respects, this “trifecta” is driving the current education debate. You would have trouble finding many education reform articles, reports, or speeches that don’t use at least one of these arguments.

    Indeed, they are guiding principles behind much of the Obama Administration’s education agenda, as well as the philosophies of high-profile market-based reformers, such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. The talking points have undeniable appeal. They imply, deliberately or otherwise, that policies focused on improving teacher quality in and of themselves can take us a very long way - not all the way, but perhaps most of the way - towards solving all of our education problems.

    This is a fantasy.

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  • Straight Up, Between The Lines

    Written on April 12, 2011

    Read carefully between the lines in Rick Hess’ recent blog post, “Can the Common Core Coalition Keeps [sic] Its Finlandophiles in Check?"

    Predicting a “fifty-fifty chance that the Common Core effort will dissolve into an ideological clash," Hess writes that in “one short document, the Shankerites managed to do much to undermine the loose confederation that had supported the Common Core." He also lumps a broad spectrum of signatories into one supposedly errant educational faction. People such as former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Reagan appointee Checker Finn, George H.W. Bush appointee Charlie Kolb, George W. Bush appointee Susan B. Neuman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, and the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kate Walsh — all are labeled as being “a slew of left-leaning academics and consultants, dotted with my pal Checker Finn and a few long-retired Republican governors”—and the whole crew is charged with being “Finlandophiles." God forbid.

    What’s going on here? What have we wrought with the Albert Shanker Institute’s "A Call for Common Content?"

    I think Hess is doing more than cooking up a soup of crocodile tears and polemics. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the direction that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will take education in this country, but he's not willing to take a clear position either way. Given his dilemma, attacking a sound strategy for implementing the standards seems like little more than undermining them without the political risk of having to register a truly “straight up” objection. And this is not the first time he has attempted to evoke tensions among potential supporters of the Common Core standards. I cannot help but suspect that he has made up his mind, but can't quite bring himself to say so.

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  • The Elephant In The Classroom

    Written on April 5, 2011

    The current education debate seems to have developed a laser-like focus on teaching. In response, some have offered serious commentary; others have resorted to humor; many others have expressed outrage at the seeming myopia.

    Since common sense is said to be the least common of senses and a picture is worth a thousand words, here are my 1350 words—1000 of them in illustrations.

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  • College For All, Profit For Some

    Written on March 30, 2011

    The ideal of "College for All”—usually interpreted as meaning the acquisition of a four-year degree—is every bit as noble as it is unattainable, at least judging from actual graduation rates. It is within this tension that for-profit colleges wish to live—a kind of pseudo knight in shining armor riding gallantly into the battle for equal opportunity. But too many for-profit colleges (a.k.a., career colleges) are not solving educational issues. Rather, they are perpetuating inequalities and obscuring the fact that what is preached (e.g., “College for All”) has nothing to do with what gets achieved.

    Many have pointed out that, by enshrining a path so few end up traveling (to say nothing of completing), we may be doing a great disservice to our youth. This argument is loud and clear; what may not be totally obvious is the variegated ways in which this constitutes a disservice. By idealizing the B.A./B.S. path, not only are we discouraging young people from exploring equally valid post high-school options, but we inadvertently may have also made them more vulnerable to the allure of disreputable for-profit colleges and/or encouraged for-profits to exploit this vulnerability.

    As a matter of fact, one consequence (unintended, I am sure) of the “College for All” ideal may have been to widen the niche for for-profit career colleges. I am hardly the first to point out that the worst career colleges sell fake dreams by arm-twisting and sweet-talking potential students into taking out unsustainable—often federally-subsidized—loans for products of uncertain value. For-profit colleges did not create this dream. We did. They have only done what we would expect a for-profit entity to do: Exploit it.

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  • Teacher Quality Is Not A Policy

    Written on March 29, 2011

    I often hear the following argument: Improving teacher quality is more cost-effective than other options, such as reducing class size (see here, for example). I am all for evaluating policy alternatives based on their costs relative to their benefits, even though we tend to define the benefits side of the equation very narrowly - in terms of test score gains.

    But “improving teacher quality” cannot yet be included in a concrete costs/benefits comparison with class size or anything else. It is not an actual policy. At best, it is a category of policy options, all of which are focused on recruitment, preparation, retention, improvement, and dismissal of teachers. When people invoke it, they are presumably referring to the fact that teachers vary widely in their test-based effectiveness. Yes, teachers matter, but altering the quality distribution is whole different ballgame from measuring it overall. It’s actually a whole different sport.

    I think it is reasonable to speculate that we might get more bang for our buck if we could somehow get substantially better teachers, rather than more of them, as would be necessary to reduce class sizes. But the sad, often unstated truth about teacher quality is that there is very little evidence, at least as yet, that public policy can be used to improve it, whether cost-effectively or otherwise

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  • Among Charter Schools, Inconsistency Begets Opportunity

    Written on March 23, 2011

    Andrew Rotherham – who writes the blog "Eduwonk" – has also recently started writing a weekly column for Time Magazine. Most of his articles have been interesting and relatively fair, even on the controversial issues. He has a point of view, just like the rest of us, but usually makes a good-faith effort to present alternate viewpoints and the relevant research.

    His most recent piece was a partial disappointment. In it, Rotherham takes up the issue of charter schools. His overarching argument is that too many people focus on whether or not charter schools are “better” or “worse” than regular public schools, rather than why – which policies and practices are associated with success or failure.

    As I stated in my very first post on this blog (and others), I completely agree. Given the overt politicization of the charter school discussion, the public desperately needs a move away from the pro/anti-charter framework, towards a more useful conversation about how and why particular schools do or don’t work. Their inconsistent performance has caused controversy, but it also an opportunity.

    But, when Rotherham lays out the characteristics (“ethos and operations”) that these successful charters supposedly share, the factors he specifies are vague and unsubstantiated – it’s hard to figure what they mean, to say nothing of whether they actually have the stated effect.

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  • Settling Scores

    Written on March 21, 2011

    In 2007, when the D.C. City Council passed a law giving the mayor control of public schools, it required that a five-year independent evaluation be conducted to document the law’s effects and suggest changes. The National Research Council (a division of the National Academies) was charged with performing this task. As reported by Bill Turque in the Washington Post, the first report was released a couple of weeks ago.

    The primary purpose of this first report was to give “first impressions” and offer advice on how the actual evaluation should proceed. It covered several areas – finance, special programs, organizational structure, etc. – but, given the controversy surrounding Michelle Rhee’s tenure, the section on achievement results got the most attention. The team was only able to analyze preliminary performance data; the same data that are used constantly by Rhee, her supporters, and her detractors to judge her tenure at the helm of DCPS.

    It was one of those reports that tells us what we should already know, but too often fail to consider.

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  • In Performance Evaluations, Subjectivity Is Not Random

    Written on March 18, 2011

    Employment policies associated with unions – e.g., seniority, salary schedules – are frequently criticized for not placing the highest premium on performance. Detractors also argue that such policies, originally designed to protect workers against discrimination (by gender, race, etc.), are no longer necessary now that federal laws are in place. Accordingly, those seeking to limit collective bargaining among teachers have proposed that current policies be replaced by “performance-based” evaluations – or at least a system that would make it easier to reward and punish based on performance.

    Be careful, argues Samuel A. Culbert in a recent New York Times article, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You." Culbert warns that there are serious risks to deregulating the employment relationship, and leaving it even partially in the hands of the employer and his/her performance review:

    Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance ... is subjective.
    This viewpoint may sound obvious, but social science research reminds us that the whims of subjective human judgment are not random. The inefficiencies that Culbert mentions are inevitable, but so is the fact that bias tends to operate in a manner that disproportionately affects workers from traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as women and African Americans. What’s worse – it’s just as likely to occur within as between groups, and we often do it without realizing.
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  • How Many Teachers Does It Take To Close An Achievement Gap?

    Written on March 17, 2011

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

    Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof made a persuasive argument that teachers should be paid more. In making his case, he also put forth a point that you’ve probably heard before: “One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap."

    This is an instance of what we might call the "X consecutive teachers” argument (sometimes it’s three, sometimes four or five). It is often invoked to support, directly or indirectly, specific policy prescriptions, such as merit pay, ending tenure, or, in this case, higher salaries (see also here and here). To his credit, Kristof’s use of the argument is on the cautious side, but there are plenty of examples in which it used as evidence supporting particular policies.

    Actually, the day after the column ran, in a 60 Minutes segment featuring “The Equity Project," a charter school that pays its teachers $125,000 a year, the school’s principal was asked how he planned to narrow the achievement gap with his school. His reply was: “The difference between a great teacher and a mediocre or poor teacher is several grade levels of achievement in a given year. A school that focuses all of its energy and its resources on fantastic teaching can bridge the achievement gap."

    Indeed, it is among the most common arguments in our education policy debate today.  In reality, however, it is little more than a stylistic riff on empirical research findings, and a rough one at that. It is not at all useful when it comes to choosing between different policy options.

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  • Are Americans Really Unwilling To Pay More To Prevent Education Cuts?

    Written on March 14, 2011

    In a speech earlier today, President Obama asserted, “We will not cut education," and implied that doing so would be “reckless” and “irresponsible." The president’s heartening remark, however, comes as  education funding is taking a massive hit at the state and local levels in most states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and, yes, Wisconsin. The damage will likely last for many years.

    In all the debate about what to cut and how deeply, there seems to be an assumption that an increase in revenue for education – to avert these massive cuts - is not an option. Although there are exceptions, very few Democratic governors are supporting tax increases to make up their states’ shortfalls, while Republicans governors are, of course, adamantly opposed.

    Among many members of both parties, the presumption seems to be that raising revenue is simply a non-starter, because the American people are unwilling to pay more.

    I’m not so sure. There is some evidence to suggest that this assumption deserves a second look.

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