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Education Policy

  • We Can't Just Raise Expectations

    Written on April 30, 2014

    * Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    What exactly is "a culture of high expectations" and how is it created? In fact, what are expectations? I ask these questions because I hear this catchphrase a lot, but it doesn't seem like the real barriers to developing such a culture are well understood. If we are serious about raising expectations for all learners, we need to think seriously about what expectations are, how they work and what it might take to create environments that equalize high expectations for what students can achieve.

    In this post I explain why I think the idea of "raising expectations" -- when used carelessly and as a slogan -- is meaningless. Expectations are not test-scores. They are related to standards but are not the same thing. Expectations are a complex and unobservable construct -- succinctly, they are unconscious anticipations of performance. Changing expectations for competence is not easy, but it is possible -- I get at some of that later.

    Certain conditions, however, need to be in place -- e.g., a broad conceptualization of ability, a cooperative environment etc. It is unclear that these conditions are present in many of our schools. In fact, many are worried that the opposite is happening. The research and theory I examine here suggest that extreme standardization and competition are incompatible with equalizing expectations in the classroom. They suggest, rather, that current reforms might be making it more difficult to develop and sustain high expectations for all students, and to create classrooms where all students experience similar opportunities to learn.

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  • The Middle Ground Between Opt Out And All In

    Written on April 11, 2014

    A couple of weeks ago, Michelle Rhee published an op-ed in the Washington Post speaking out against the so-called “opt out movement," which encourages parents to refuse to let their children take standardized tests.

    Personally, I oppose the “opt-out” phenomenon, but I also think it would be a mistake not to pay attention to its proponents’ fundamental issue – that standardized tests are potentially being misused and/or overused. This concern is legitimate and important. My sense is that “opting out” reflects a rather extreme version of this mindset, a belief that we cannot right the ship – i.e., we have gone so far and moved so carelessly with test-based accountability that there is no real hope that it can or will be fixed. This strikes me as a severe overreaction, but I understand the sentiment.

    That said, while most of Ms. Rhee’s op-ed is the standard, reasonable fare, some of it is also laced with precisely the kind of misconceptions that contribute to the apprehensions not only of anti-testing advocates, but also among those of us who occupy a middle ground - i.e., favor some test-based accountability, but are worried about getting it right.

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  • SIG And The High Price Of Cheap Evidence

    Written on March 11, 2014

    A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) released the latest data from schools that received grants via the School Improvement (SIG) program. These data -- consisting solely of changes in proficiency rates -- were widely reported as an indication of “disappointing” or “mixed” results. Some even went as far as proclaiming the program a complete failure.

    Once again, I have to point out that this breaks almost every rule of testing data interpretation and policy analysis. I’m not going to repeat the arguments about why changes in cross-sectional proficiency rates are not policy evidence (see our posts here, here and here, or examples from the research literature here, here and here). Suffice it to say that the changes themselves are not even particularly good indicators of whether students’ test-based performance in these schools actually improved, to say nothing of whether it was the SIG grants that were responsible for the changes. There’s more to policy analysis than subtraction.

    So, in some respects, I would like to come to the defense of Secretary Arne Duncan and USED right now - not because I’m a big fan of the SIG program (I’m ambivalent at best), but rather because I believe in strong, patient policy evaluation, and these proficiency rate changes are virtually meaningless. Unfortunately, however, USED was the first to portray, albeit very cautiously, rate changes as evidence of SIG’s impact. In doing so, they provided a very effective example of why relying on bad evidence is a bad idea even if it supports your desired conclusions.

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  • In Education Policy, Good Things Come In Small Packages

    Written on March 7, 2014

    A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education presented a summary of three recent studies of the differences in the effectiveness of teaching provided advantaged and disadvantaged students (with the former defined in terms of value-added scores, and the latter in terms of subsidized lunch eligibility). The brief characterizes the results of these reports in an accessible manner - that the difference in estimated teaching effectiveness between advantaged and disadvantaged students varied quite widely between districts, but overall is about four percent of the achievement gap in reading and 2-3 percent in math.

    Some observers were not impressed. They wondered why so-called reformers are alienating teachers and hurting students in order to address a mere 2-4 percent improvement in the achievement gap.

    Just to be clear, the 2-4 percent figures describe the gap (and remember that it varies). Whether it can be narrowed or closed – e.g., by improving working conditions or offering incentives or some other means – is a separate issue. Nevertheless, let’s put aside all the substantive aspects surrounding these studies, and the issue of the distribution of teacher quality, and discuss this 2-4 percent thing, as it illustrates what I believe is the among the most important tensions underlying education policy today: Our collective failure to have a reasonable debate about expectations and the power of education policy.

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  • Revisiting The Widget Effect

    Written on March 4, 2014

    In 2009, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report called “The Widget Effect." You would be hard-pressed to find too many more recent publications from an advocacy group that had a larger influence on education policy and the debate surrounding it. To this day, the report is mentioned regularly by advocates and policy makers.

    The primary argument of the report was that teacher performance “is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision making in any meaningful way." More specifically, the report shows that most teachers received “satisfactory” or equivalent ratings, and that evaluations were not tied to most personnel decisions (e.g., compensation, layoffs, etc.). From these findings and arguments comes the catchy title – a “widget” is a fictional product commonly used in situations (e.g., economics classes) where the product doesn’t matter. Thus, treating teachers like widgets means that we treat them all as if they’re the same.

    Given the influence of “The Widget Effect," as well as how different the teacher evaluation landscape is now compared to when it was released, I decided to read it closely. Having done so, I think it’s worth discussing a few points about the report.

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  • Teacher Retention In An Era Of Rapid Reform

    Written on February 7, 2014

    The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a short report on whether teachers were leaving the profession due to reforms implemented during the Obama Administration, as some commentators predicted.

    The authors use data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a wonderful national survey of U.S. teachers, and they report that 70 percent of first-year teachers in 2007-08 were still teaching in 2011-12. They claim that this high retention of beginning teachers, along with the fact that most teachers in 2011-12 had five or more years of experience, show that “the teacher retention concerns were unfounded."

    This report raises a couple of important points about the debate over teacher retention during this time of sweeping reform.

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  • The Year In Research On Market-Based Education Reform: 2013 Edition

    Written on December 17, 2013

    In the three most discussed and controversial areas of market-based education reform – performance pay, charter schools and the use of value-added estimates in teacher evaluations – 2013 saw the release of a couple of truly landmark reports, in addition to the normal flow of strong work coming from the education research community (see our reviews from 2010, 2011 and 2012).*

    In one sense, this building body of evidence is critical and even comforting, given not only the rapid expansion of charter schools, but also and especially the ongoing design and implementation of new teacher evaluations (which, in many cases, include performance-based pay incentives). In another sense, however, there is good cause for anxiety. Although one must try policies before knowing how they work, the sheer speed of policy change in the U.S. right now means that policymakers are making important decisions on the fly, and there is great deal of uncertainty as to how this will all turn out.

    Moreover, while 2013 was without question an important year for research in these three areas, it also illustrated an obvious point: Proper interpretation and application of findings is perhaps just as important as the work itself.

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  • Immediate Gratification And Education Policy

    Written on December 9, 2013

    A couple of months ago, Bill Gates said something that received a lot of attention. With regard to his foundation’s education reform efforts, which focus most prominently on teacher evaluations, but encompass many other areas, he noted, “we don’t know if it will work." In fact, according to Mr. Gates, “we won’t know for probably a decade."

    He’s absolutely correct. Most education policies, including (but not limited to) those geared toward shifting the distribution of teacher quality, take a long time to work (if they do work), and the research assessing these policies requires a great deal of patience. Yet so many of the most prominent figures in education policy routinely espouse the opposite viewpoint: Policies are expected to have an immediate, measurable impact (and their effects are assessed in the crudest manner imaginable).

    A perfect example was the reaction to the recent release of results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

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  • A Research-Based Case For Florida's Education Reforms

    Written on September 26, 2013

    Advocates of the so-called “Florida Formula," a package of market-based reforms enacted throughout the 1990s and 2000s, some of which are now spreading rapidly in other states, traveled to Michigan this week to make their case to the state’s lawmakers, with particular emphasis on Florida's school grading system. In addition to arguments about accessibility and parental involvement, their empirical (i.e., test-based) evidence consisted largely of the standard, invalid claims that cross-sectional NAEP increases prove the reforms’ effectiveness, along with a bonus appearance of the argument that since Florida starting grading schools, the grades have improved, even though this is largely (and demonstrably) a result of changes in the formula.

    As mentioned in a previous post, I continue to be perplexed at advocates’ insistence on using this "evidence," even though there is a decent amount of actual rigorous policy research available, much of it positive.

    So, I thought it would be fun, though slightly strange, for me to try on my market-based reformer cap, and see what it would look like if this kind of testimony about the Florida reforms was actually research-based (at least the test-based evidence). Here’s a very rough outline of what I came up with:

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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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