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Education Reform

  • 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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  • The Smoke And The Fire From Evaluations Of Teach For America

    Written on March 12, 2015

    A recent study by the always reliable research organization Mathematica takes a look at the characteristics and test-based effectiveness of Teach For America (TFA) teachers who were recruited as part of a $50 million federal “Investing in Innovation” grant, which is supporting a substantial scale-up of TFA’s presence in U.S. public schools.

    The results of this study pertain to a small group of recruits (and comparison non-TFA teachers) from the first two years of the program – i.e., a sample of 156 PK-5 teachers (66 TFA and 90 non-TFA) in 36 schools spread throughout 10 states. What distinguishes the analysis methodologically is that it exploits the random assignment of students to teachers in these schools, which ensures that any measured differences between TFA and comparison teachers are not due to unobserved differences in the students they are assigned to teach.

    The Mathematica researchers found, in short, that the estimated differences in the impact of TFA and comparison teachers on math and reading scores across all grades were modest in magnitude and not statistically discernible at any conventional level. There were, however, meaningful positive estimated differences in the earliest grades (PK-2), though they were only statistically significant in reading, and the coefficient in reading for grades 3-5 was negative (and not significant). Let’s take a quick look at these and other findings from this report and what they might mean.

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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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  • New York Public Schools And Governor Andrew Cuomo: An Essay, In List Form

    Written on February 6, 2015

    A point-by-point commentary on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s newly-announced education plan.*

    1. New York State now has most racially and economically segregated schools in the nation, worse than Mississippi.
    2. New York is violating Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling of highest state court to provide full, equitable funding to high poverty schools.
    3. As a result, New York State owes $6 billion it had promised to school districts with concentrations of poverty.
    4. One would think that a Democratic Governor would be focused on correcting such educational injustices.  But not Andrew Cuomo.
    5. Cuomo is proposing tax credits (aka vouchers) that would divert funds and resources from underfunded public schools to private schools.
    6. Poor and working class kids, students of color who attend public schools would be hurt.
    7. Cuomo is 1st ever Democratic Governor to propose tax credits for private schools, says conservative Checker Finn.
    8. League of Women Voters, Civil Liberties Union, school board ass., sup'ts ass't., teachers union all opposed to Cuomo’s tax credit scheme.
    9. The problem with our public schools, Cuomo says, is teachers.
    10. Teachers think: how convenient that Cuomo, who ignores his responsibilities regarding school segregation and funding, blames us.
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  • Relationships Matter: Putting It All Together

    Written on January 28, 2015

    About six months ago, we published a post entitled The Importance Of Relationships In Educational Reform, by Kara S. Finnigan and Alan J. Daly. This post was the first of an ongoing series on the social side of education. In addition to Finnigan and Daly, scholars such as Carrie R. Leana and Frits K. Pil, Kenneth Frank, and William Penuel have joined this effort by writing about their research and sharing their perspective.

    If there is one take away about the social side approach, it is the idea that relationships matter in education. Teaching and learning are not solo but rather social endeavors and, as such, they are best achieved by working together. The social side perspective: (1) shifts the focus from the individual to the broader context in which individuals operate; (2) highlights the importance of interdependencies at all levels of the system – e.g., among teachers within a school, leaders across a district, schools and the community; and (3) recognizes that crucial resources (e.g., information, advice, support) are exchanged through interpersonal relationships.

    In my previous post I shared a list of resources (e.g., videos, news articles, papers etc.) that I compiled, and which I will periodically update, on the research underpinning the social side lens. Today I want to share two additional materials: First, a short video that I created, which summarizes, in a visual way, the ideas outlined above; second, an interactive image to help you explore our collection of content on this topic.

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  • Resources On The Social Side Of Education Reform

    Written on January 12, 2015

    Updates to this post will be posted here

    For the past few months, we have been insisting, through this blog series, on the idea that education reform has a social dimension or level that often is overlooked in mainstream debate and policy. Under this broad theme, we've covered diverse issues ranging from how teachers' social capital can increase their human capital to how personnel churn can undermine reform efforts, or how too much individual talent can impede a team's overall performance. This collection of issues may prompt a number of important questions: What exactly is the "social side?" What are its key ideas? I would like to offer a few initial thoughts and share some resources that I've compiled.

    The social side is primarily a lens that brings into focus a critical oversight in the public debate on educational reform and its policies: The idea that teaching and learning are not solo but rather social endeavors that are achieved in the context of the school organization, and within the districts where schools are embedded, through relationships and teamwork, rather than competition and a focus on individual prowess. 

    This social side perspective does a few things:

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  • Constitution For Effective School Governance

    Written on December 10, 2014

    Our guest author today is Kenneth Frank, professor in Measurement and Quantitative Methods at the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education at Michigan State University.

    Maybe it’s because I grew up in Michigan, but when I think of how to improve schools, I think about the “Magic Johnson effect." During his time at Michigan State, Earvin “Magic” Johnson scored an average of 17 points per game. Good, but many others have had higher averages. Yet, I would want Magic Johnson on my team because he made everyone around him better. Similarly, the best teachers may be those that make everyone around them better.  This way of thinking is not currently the focus of many current educational reforms, which draw on individual competition and market metaphors.

    So how can we leverage the Magic Johnson effect to make schools better? We have to think of ways that teachers can work together. This might be in terms of co-teaching, sharing materials, or taking the time to engage one another in honest professional dialogues. There is considerable evidence that teachers who can draw on the expertise of colleagues are better able to implement new practices. There is also evidence that when there is an atmosphere of trust teachers can engage in honest dialogues that can improve teaching practices and student achievement (e.g., Bryk and Schneider, 2002).

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  • Feeling Socially Connected Fuels Intrinsic Motivation And Engagement

    Written on November 20, 2014

    Our "social side of education reform" series has emphasized that teaching is a cooperative endeavor, and as such is deeply influenced by the quality of a school's social environment -- i.e., trusting relationships, teamwork and cooperation. But what about learning? To what extent are dispositions such as motivation, persistence and engagement mediated by relationships and the social-relational context?

    This is, of course, a very complex question, which can't be addressed comprehensively here. But I would like to discuss three papers that provide some important answers. In terms of our "social side" theme, the studies I will highlight suggest that efforts to improve learning should include and leverage social-relational processes, such as how learners perceive (and relate to) -- how they think they fit into -- their social contexts. Finally, this research, particularly the last paper, suggests that translating this knowledge into policy may be less about top down, prescriptive regulations and more about what Stanford psychologist Gregory M. Walton has called "wise interventions" -- i.e., small but precise strategies that target recursive processes (more below).

    The first paper, by Lucas P. Butler and Gregory M. Walton (2013), describes the results of two experiments testing whether the perceived collaborative nature of an activity that was done individually would cause greater enjoyment of and persistence on that activity among preschoolers.

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  • Multiple Measures And Singular Conclusions In A Twin City

    Written on November 12, 2014

    A few weeks ago, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published teacher evaluation results for the district’s public school teachers in 2013-14. This decision generated a fair amount of controversy, but it’s worth noting that the Tribune, unlike the Los Angeles Times and New York City newspapers a few years ago, did not publish scores for individual teachers, only totals by school.

    The data once again provide an opportunity to take a look at how results vary by student characteristics. This was indeed the focus of the Tribune’s story, which included the following headline: “Minneapolis’ worst teachers are in the poorest schools, data show." These types of conclusions, which simply take the results of new evaluations at face value, have characterized the discussion since the first new systems came online. Though understandable, they are also frustrating and a potential impediment to the policy process. At this early point, “the city’s teachers with the lowest evaluation ratings” is not the same thing as “the city’s worst teachers." Actually, as discussed in a previous post, the systematic variation in evaluation results by student characteristics, which the Tribune uses to draw conclusions about the distribution of the city’s “worst teachers," could just as easily be viewed as one of the many ways that one might assess the properties and even the validity of those results.

    So, while there are no clear-cut "right" or "wrong" answers here, let’s take a quick look at the data and what they might tell us.

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