A Big Open Question: Do Value-Added Estimates Match Up With Teachers' Opinions Of Their Colleagues?

A recent article about the implementation of new teacher evaluations in Tennessee details some of the complicated issues with which state officials, teachers and administrators are dealing in adapting to the new system. One of these issues is somewhat technical – whether the various components of evaluations, most notably principal observations and test-based productivity measures (e.g., value-added) – tend to “match up." That is, whether teachers who score high on one measure tend to do similarly well on the other (see here for more on this issue).

In discussing this type of validation exercise, the article notes:

If they don't match up, the system's usefulness and reliability could come into question, and it could lose credibility among educators.
Value-added and other test-based measures of teacher productivity may have a credibility problem among many (but definitely not all) teachers, but I don’t think it’s due to – or can be helped much by – whether or not these estimates match up with observations or other measures being incorporated into states’ new systems. I’m all for this type of research (see here and here), but I’ve never seen what I think would be an extremely useful study for addressing the credibility issue among teachers: One that looked at the relationship between value-added estimates and teachers’ opinions of each other.

Why Do Most Americans Support "Assistance To The Poor" But Oppose "Welfare"?

Politicians and other public figures spend a great deal of resources – time and money – on crafting their messages so as to elicit a desired response. A famous example is the effort to relabel the estate tax as the death tax – the former conjures images of very wealthy people paying their fair share, whereas the latter obscures this limited applicability, and invokes outrage at being “taxed just for dying."

As everyone knows, words matter, and these efforts pay off. You don’t need to look at the results of too many surveys or polls to realize that people respond very differently depending on what you call something or how you describe it (e.g., see this post on attitudes toward teacher tenure).

One other particularly interesting – and important – example of this description-based divergence of attitudes toward social programs for the poor.

Americans Do NOT Want To Cut Government Programs

Conservatives sometimes assert and often imply that Americans want to cut government spending on social assistance and other programs. This is a myth.

In fact, when it comes to the types of programs that get most of the attention in our national debate, almost nobody supports spending reductions and, in many cases, there is strong support for increases.

Take a look at the figure below, which presents General Social Survey data for 2010. Each bar presents the distribution of responses to questions of whether the U.S. spends too much (red), about the right amount (yellow) or too little (green) on several different types of programs and public resources.

Do Americans Think Government Should Reduce Income Inequality?

With all the recent coverage of Occupy Wall Street and President Obama’s jobs bill, we’ve heard a lot of polling results showing that a large plurality of Americans supports raising taxes on high earners, and that this support is strong among both Democrats and Republicans.

The campaign to raise taxes on high-income households is part of a larger ideological notion that reducing inequality by such means as taxation and welfare programs is a proper function of government. Supporters (e.g., Democrats) argue that progressive taxation helps to ensure that high earners pay their “fair share” in supporting the public resources, such as schools, roads and law enforcement, that are necessary (but not sufficient) for their success. Republicans, on the other hand, tend frame the issue directly in terms of government intrusion – the government is unfairly “picking winners and losers," and stifling innovation and risk-taking. The assumption seems to be that many Americans don't care for the generic idea of government taking an active role in reducing the gap between rich and poor, even though they tend to support many of the specific means by which this occurs, including not only raising taxes on high earners, but also public education and programs like Medicaid.

So, it might be interesting to see what Americans think of the broader idea that government has a legitimate role in reducing income inequality. Let’s take a quick look.

Character Education

I’m always uncomfortable with personal accusations in our education debate, and they come from both “sides." For instance, I don’t like hearing accusations that market-based reformers are “profiteers." The implication is that these people seek to dismantle or otherwise alter the public education system for their own economic advantage.

It’s true that a significant proportion of market-based reformers support various forms of privatization, such as vouchers, and that this support is in part based on the power of competition and the profit motive to increase efficiency. It’s also true that there are some who stand to profit personally off certain policy changes. But the overwhelming majority of people on the “reform side” have no financial skin in the game, and even those who do might actually still care about education and children. You can and should disagree with them, if you’re so inclined, but accusing them of being motivated solely by personal financial gain, or even implying as much, could well be unfair, but, more importantly, it contributes nothing of substance to the debate.

On the flip side of that coin, however, is the endlessly-repeated “we care about children, not adults” narrative. This little nugget is a common message from the market-based reform crowd. Most recently, Ben Austin, head of a pro-charter school group, was on a panel at NBC’s Education Nation, and repeated the talking point several times. In fact, there’s now a small confederation of advocacy groups nominally based on the “children over adults” accusation – Students First, Stand for Children, etc.

Serious Misconduct

A recent Monmouth University poll of New Jersey residents is being widely touted by Governor Chris Christie and his supporters as evidence that people support his education reform plans. It’s hardly unusual for politicians to ignore the limitations of polling, but I’d urge caution in interpreting these results as a mandate.

Others have commented on how some of the questions are worded in a manner that could skew responses. These wording issues are inherent to polling, and that’s one of the major reasons why they must be interpreted carefully. But one of the questions caught my eye – the question about teacher tenure – and it’s worth quickly discussing.

What Americans Think About Teachers Versus What They're Hearing

The results from the recent Gallup/PDK education survey found that 71 percent of surveyed Americans “have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in public schools." Although this finding received a fair amount of media attention, it is not at all surprising. Polls have long indicated that teachers are among the most trusted professions in the U.S., up there with doctors, nurses and firefighters.

(Side note: The teaching profession also ranks among the most prestigious U.S. occupations – in both analyses of survey data as well as in polls [though see here for an argument that occupational prestige scores are obsolete].)

What was rather surprising, on the other hand, was the Gallup/PDK results for the question about what people are hearing about teachers in the news media. Respondents were asked, “Generally speaking, do you hear more good stories or bad stories about teachers in the news media?"

Over two-thirds (68 percent) said they heard more bad stories than good ones. A little over a quarter (28 percent) said the opposite.

A List Of Education And Related Data Resources

We frequently present quick analyses of data on this blog (and look at those done by others). As a close follower of the education debate, I often get the sense that people are hungry for high-quality information on a variety of different topics, but searching for these data can be daunting, which probably deters many people from trying.

So, while I’m sure that many others have compiled lists of data resources relevant to education, I figured I would do the same, with a focus on more user-friendly sources.

But first, I would be remiss if I didn’t caution you to use these data carefully. Almost all of the resources below have instructions or FAQ’s, most non-technical. Read them. Remember that improper or misleading presentation of data is one of the most counterproductive features of today’s education debates, and it occurs to the detriment of all.

That said, here are a few key resources for education and other related quantitative data. It is far from exhaustive, so feel free to leave comments and suggestions if you think I missed anything important.

Extra Time: More From The Magazine's Education Poll

** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post.

A recent education poll conducted by Time Magazine has gotten a lot of attention. Many of the questions are worded so badly that the results are rather meaningless. The question on merit pay, for example, defines the practice as “paying teachers according to their effectiveness” (who would oppose that, if it could be accurately measured?). Other questions are very interesting, such as the one asking whether respondents would pay higher taxes to improve public schools (56 percent would). Or the finding that, when asked what will “improve student achievement the most," more than twice as many people choose “more involved parents” (54 percent) over “more effective teachers” (24 percent).

But, as is sometimes the case, a few of the survey’s most interesting results were not included in the published article, which highlighted only 11 out of 40-50 or so total questions (the full set of results is available here). Here are three or four unpublished items that caught my eye (the sample size is 1,000, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percent):