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Education Policy

  • Do We Know How To Hold Teacher Preparation Programs Accountable?

    Written on June 30, 2015

    This piece is co-authored by Cory Koedel and Matthew Di Carlo. Koedel is an Associate Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

    The United States Department of Education (USED) has proposed regulations requiring states to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of their graduates. According to the proposal, states must begin assigning ratings to each program within the next 2-3 years, based on outcomes such as graduates’ “value-added” to student test scores, their classroom observation scores, how long they stay in teaching, whether they teach in high-needs schools, and surveys of their principals’ satisfaction.

    In the long term, we are very receptive to, and indeed optimistic about, the idea of outcomes-based accountability for teacher preparation programs (TPPs). In the short to medium term, however, we contend that the evidence base underlying the USED regulations is nowhere near sufficient to guide a national effort toward high-stakes TPP accountability.

    This is a situation in which the familiar refrain of “it’s imperfect but better than nothing” is false, and rushing into nationwide design and implementation could be quite harmful.

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

    Written on June 22, 2015

    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.

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  • How Effective Are Online Credit Recovery Programs?

    Written on June 16, 2015

    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.

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  • Onboard The Early Childhood Express Train, But Let’s Shift Tracks

    Written on May 26, 2015

    Our guest author today is Emma Gulley, a preschool teacher and current Master’s student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she studies early childhood language acquisition.

    Government-funded early childhood education works. It works for students as they learn academic as well as social-emotional skills. It works for low income and middle class families, who can leave their children in trusted and closely monitored learning environments, rather than in less regulated day care arrangements. It works for school districts that can now, with effective early childhood education in place, avoid expensive early intervention programs, since more students are arriving at school “ready to learn.”

    And it works for the United States broadly, since, according to a recent White House press release, investments in high quality childhood education provide benefits to society of about $8.60 for every $1.00 spent. Why is it, then, that 30 percent of Americans do not favor using federal funds to expand universal preschool? Why do only 39 percent consider preschool to be extremely important, while 69 percent think high school is extremely important?

    If we want increased support for federal funding of early childhood education we need to provide more clarity regarding: A) what actually happens in the early childhood classroom; B) what improved school readiness means for students’ future success; and C) how that $8.60 benefit is calculated and what constitutes those long-term benefits to society. That is to say, abstract statistics are powerful, but they may not be sufficient or salient enough to convince everybody that early childhood education is about more than just finger paint.

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  • Trust: The Foundation Of Student Achievement

    Written on May 21, 2015

    When sharing with me the results of some tests, my doctor once said, "You are a scientist, you know a single piece of data can't provide all the answers or suffice to make a diagnosis. We can't look at a single number in isolation, we need to look at all results in combination." Was my doctor suggesting that I ignore that piece of information we had? No. Was my doctor deemphasizing the result? No. He simply said that we needed additional evidence to make informed decisions. This is, of course, correct.

    In education, however, it is frequently implied or even stated directly that the bottom line when it comes to school performance is student test scores, whereas any other outcomes, such as cooperation between staff or a supportive learning environment, are ultimately "soft" and, at best, of secondary importance. This test-based, individual-focused position is viewed as serious, rigorous, and data driven. Deviation from it -- e.g., equal emphasis on additional, systemic aspects of schools and the people in them -- is sometimes derided as an evidence-free mindset. Now, granted, few people are “purely” in one camp or the other. Most probably see themselves as pragmatists, and, as such, somewhere in between: Test scores are probably not all that matters, but since the rest seems so difficult to measure, we might as well focus on "hard data" and hope for the best.

    Why this narrow focus on individual measures such as student test scores or teacher quality? I am sure there are many reasons but one is probably lack of familiarity with the growing research showing that we must go beyond the individual teacher and student and examine the social-organizational aspects of schools, which are associated (most likely causally) with student achievement. In other words, all the factors skeptics and pragmatists might think are a distraction and/or a luxury, are actually relevant for the one thing we all care about: Student achievement. Moreover, increasing focus on these factors might actually help us understand what’s really important: Not simply whether testing results went up or down, but why or why not.

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  • Teaching = Thinking + Relationship

    Written on May 5, 2015

    Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

    Before I became a teacher I worked as a caretaker for a wide variety of animals. Transitioning from one profession to the other was quite instructive. When I trained dogs, for example, it was straightforward: When the dog sat on command I would give him praise and a treat. After enough training, anyone else could give the command and the dog would perform just as well and as predictably. When I worked with students, on the other hand, it was far more complex – we worked together in a relationship, with give and take as they learned and grew.  Regrettably, when I look at how we train teachers today, it reminds me more of my first profession than my second.

    Teaching is far more than a mechanized set of actions. Our most masterful teachers aren’t just following scripts or using pre-packaged curricula. They are tailoring lessons, making professional judgments, and forging deep bonds with students – all of which is far more difficult to see or understand.  Teaching is a cognitive skill that has human relationships at its center. Unfortunately, we typically don't view teaching this way in the United States. As a result, we usually don't prepare teachers like (or for) this, we don’t evaluate them like this, and we don’t even study them like this. In our public discussion of education, we typically frame teaching as a collection of behaviors, and teachers as though they are simply technicians.  This doesn’t just create a demoralized workforce; it also leaves students in the care of well-meaning and hard-working teachers who are, nonetheless, largely unable to meet their students' individual needs – due either to lack of preparation for, or mandates that prevent, meeting them.

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  • Lessons And Directions From The CREDO Urban Charter School Study

    Written on March 26, 2015

    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.

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  • Teacher Quality - Still Plenty Of Room For Debate

    Written on March 17, 2015

    On March 3, the New York Times published one of their “Room for Debate” features, in which panelists were asked "How To Ensure and Improve Teacher Quality?" When I read through the various perspectives, my first reaction was: "Is that it?"

    It's not that I don't think there is value in many of the ideas presented -- I actually do. The problem is that there are important aspects of teacher quality that continue to be ignored in policy discussions, despite compelling evidence suggesting that they matter in the quality equation. In other words, I wasn’t disappointed with what was said but, rather, what wasn’t. Let’s take a look at the panelists’ responses after making a couple of observations on the actual question and issue at hand.

    The first thing that jumped out at me is that teacher quality is presented in a somewhat decontextualized manner. Teachers don't work in a vacuum; quality is produced in specific settings. Placing the quality question in context can help to broaden the conversation to include: 1) the role of the organization in shaping educator learning and effectiveness; and 2) the shining of light on the intersection between teachers and schools and the vital issue of employee-organization "fit."

    Second, the manner in which teacher quality is typically framed -- including in the Times question -- suggests that effectiveness is a (fixed) individual attribute (i.e., human capital) that teachers carry with them across contexts (i.e., it's portable). In reality, however, it is context-dependent and can be (and is indeed) developed among individuals -- as a result of their networks, their professional interactions, and their shared norms and trust (i.e., social capital). In sum, it's not just what teachers know but who they know and where they work -- as well as the interaction of these three.

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  • How Not To Improve New Teacher Evaluation Systems

    Written on March 9, 2015

    One of the more interesting recurring education stories over the past couple of years has been the release of results from several states’ and districts’ new teacher evaluation systems, including those from New York, Indiana, Minneapolis, Michigan and Florida. In most of these instances, the primary focus has been on the distribution of teachers across ratings categories. Specifically, there seems to be a pattern emerging, in which the vast majority of teachers receive one of the higher ratings, whereas very few receive the lowest ratings.

    This has prompted some advocates, and even some high-level officials, essentially to deem as failures the new systems, since their results suggest that the vast majority of teachers are “effective” or better. As I have written before, this issue cuts both ways. On the one hand, the results coming out of some states and districts seem problematic, and these systems may need adjustment. On the other hand, there is a danger here: States may respond by making rash, ill-advised changes in order to achieve “differentiation for the sake of differentiation,” and the changes may end up undermining the credibility and threatening the validity of the systems on which these states have spent so much time and money.

    Granted, whether and how to alter new evaluations are difficult decisions, and there is no tried and true playbook. That said, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposals provide a stunning example of how not to approach these changes. To see why, let’s look at some sound general principles for improving teacher evaluation systems based on the first rounds of results, and how they compare with the New York approach.*

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  • Turning Conflict Into Trust Improves Schools And Student Learning

    Written on March 3, 2015

    Our guest author today is Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at The Century Foundation and author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.

    In recent years, a number of studies (discussed below; also see here and here) have shown that effective public schools are built on strong collaborative relationships, including those between administrators and teachers. These findings have helped to accelerate a movement toward constructing such partnerships in public schools across the U.S. However, the growing research and expanding innovations aimed at nurturing collaboration have largely been neglected by both mainstream media and the policy community.

    Studies that explore the question of what makes successful schools work never find a silver bullet, but they do consistently pinpoint commonalities in how those schools operate. The University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research produced the most compelling research of this type, published in a book called Organizing Schools for Improvement. The consortium gathered demographic and test data, and conducted extensive surveys of stakeholders, in more than 400 Chicago elementary schools from 1990 to 2005. That treasure trove of information enabled the consortium to identify with a high degree of confidence the organizational characteristics and practices associated with schools that produced above-average improvement in student outcomes.

    The most crucial finding was that the most effective schools, based on test score improvement over time after controlling for demographic factors, had developed an unusually high degree of "relational trust" among their administrators, teachers, and parents.

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