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Education Research

  • Improving Teaching Through Collaboration

    Written on March 8, 2016

    Our guest author today is Matthew Ronfeldt, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. Ronfeldt seeks to understand how to improve teaching quality, particularly in schools and districts that serve historically marginalized student populations. His research sits at the intersection of educational practice and policy and focuses on teacher preparation, teacher retention, teacher induction, and the assessment of teachers and preparation programs.

    Learning to teach is an ongoing process. To be successful, then, schools must promote not only student learning but also teacher learning across their careers.* Embracing this notion, policymakers have called for the creation of school-based professional learning communities, including organizational structures that promote regular opportunities for teachers to collaborate with teams of colleagues** – also here and here. As the use of instructional teams becomes increasingly common, it is important to examine whether and how collaboration actually improves teaching and learning. The growing evidence, summarized below, suggests that it does. 

    For many decades, educational scholars have conducted qualitative case studies documenting the nature of collaboration among particular groups of teachers working together in departmental teams, reading groups, and other types of instructional teams. This body of work has demonstrated that the kinds and content of collaboration vary substantially across contexts, has shed light on the norms and structures that promote more promising collaboration, and has set the stage for today’s policy focus on “professional learning communities.” However, these studies rarely connected collaboration to teachers’ classroom performance. Thus, they provided little information on whether teachers actually got better at teaching as a result of their participation in collaboration.

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  • Student Sorting And Teacher Classroom Observations

    Written on February 25, 2016

    Although value added and other growth models tend to be the focus of debates surrounding new teacher evaluation systems, the widely known but frequently unacknowledged reality is that most teachers don’t teach in the tested grades and subjects, and won’t even receive these test-based scores. The quality and impact of the new systems therefore will depend heavily upon the quality and impact of other measures, primarily classroom observations.

    These systems have been in use for decades, and yet, until recently, relatively little is known about their properties, such as their association with student and teacher characteristics, and there are, as yet, only a handful of studies of their impact on teachers’ performance (e.g., Taylor and Tyler 2012). The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project, conducted a few years ago, was a huge step forward in this area, though at the time it was perhaps underappreciated the degree to which MET’s contribution was not just in the (very important) reports it produced, but also in its having collected an extensive dataset for researchers to use going forward. A new paper, just published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, is among the many analyses that have and will use MET data to address important questions surrounding teacher evaluation.

    The authors, Rachel Garrett and Matthew Steinberg, look at classroom observation scores, specifically those from Charlotte Danielson’s widely employed Framework for Teaching (FFT) protocol. These results are yet another example of how observation scores share most of the widely-cited (statistical) criticisms of value added scores, most notably their sensitivity to which students are assigned to teachers.

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  • The IMPACT Of Teacher Turnover In DCPS

    Written on February 3, 2016

    Teacher turnover has long been a flashpoint in education policy, yet these debates are rife with complications. For example, it is often implied that turnover is a “bad thing,” even though some turnover, as when low-performing teachers leave, can be beneficial, whereas some retention, as when low-performing teachers stay, can be harmful. The impact of turnover also depends heavily on other factors, such as the pool of candidates available to serve as replacements, and how disruptive turnover is to the teachers who are retained.

    The recent widespread reform of teacher evaluation systems has made the turnover issue, never far below the surface, even more salient in recent years. Critics contend that the new evaluations, particularly their use of test-based productivity measures, will cause teachers to flee the profession. Supporters, on the other hand, are in a sense hoping for this outcome, as they anticipate that, under the new systems, voluntary and involuntary separations will serve to improve the quality of the teacher workforce.

    A new working paper takes a close look the impact of teacher turnover under what is perhaps the most controversial teacher evaluation system in the nation – that used in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It's a very strong analysis that speaks directly to policy in a manner that does not fit well into the tribal structure of education debates today.

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  • The Narrative Of School Failure And Why We Must Pay Attention To Segregation In Educational Policy

    Written on January 28, 2016

    Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education of the University of Rochester, and Jennifer Jellison Holme, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  Finnigan and Holme have published several articles and briefs on the issue of school integration including articles in press in Teachers College Record and Educational Law and Policy Review as well as a research brief for the National Coalition on School Diversity. This is the first of a two-part blog series on this topic.

    Imagine that you wake up one morning with a dull pain in your tooth. You take ibuprofen, apply an ice pack, and try to continue as if things are normal.  But as the pain continues to grow over the next few days, you realize that deep down there is a problem – and you are reminded of this every so often when you bite down and feel a shooting pain.  Eventually, you can’t take it any longer and get an x-ray at the dentist’s office, only to find out that what was originally a small problem has spread throughout the whole tooth and you need a root canal.  Now you wish you hadn’t waited so long.

    Why are we talking about a root canal in a blog post about education? As we thought about how to convey the way we see the situation with low-performing schools, this analogy seemed to capture our point. Most of us can relate to what happens when we overlook a problem with our teeth, and yet we don’t pay attention to what can happen when we overlook the underlying problems that affect educational systems.

    In this blog post, we argue that school segregation by race and poverty is one of the underlying causes of school failure, and that it has been largely overlooked in federal and state educational policy in recent decades.

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  • New Report: Does Money Matter in Education? Second Edition

    Written on January 20, 2016

    In 2012, we released a report entitled “Does Money Matter in Education?,” written by Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker. The report presented a thorough, balanced review of the rather sizable body of research on the relationship between K-12 education spending and outcomes. The motivation for this report was to address the highly contentious yet often painfully oversimplified tribal arguments regarding the impact of education spending and finance reforms, as well as provide an evidence-based guide for policymakers during a time of severe budgetary hardship. It remains our most viewed resource ever, by far.

    Now, almost four years later, education spending in most states and localities is still in trouble. For example, state funding of education is lower in 2016 than it was in 2008 (prior to the recession) in 31 states (Leachman et al. 2016). Moreover, during this time, there has been a continuing effort to convince the public that how much we spend on schools doesn’t matter for outcomes, and that these spending cuts will do no harm.

    As is almost always the case, the evidence on spending in education is far more nuanced and complex than our debates about it (on both “sides” of the issue). And this evidence has been building for decades, with significant advances since the release of our first “Does Money Matter?” report. For this reason, we have today released the second edition, updated by the author. The report is available here.

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  • What Makes Teacher Collaboration Work?

    Written on December 8, 2015

    Today’s guest authors are David Sherer and Johanna Barmore. Sherer is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He specializes in research on policy implementation and the social dynamics of K-12 school reform. Barmore is a former teacher and also a current doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies how policy impacts teachers' instructional practice as well as how teachers learn to improve instruction, with a focus on teacher education.

    You’ve probably attended meetings that were a waste of your time. Perhaps there was no agenda. Perhaps the facilitator of the meeting dominated the conversation. Perhaps people arrived late or the wrong people were in the room in the first place. Maybe the team ran in place and no one had any good ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s common for teamwork to feel ineffective. Good teamwork does not just “happen.” Organizational researchers study teams with a goal of understanding the conditions that foster effective meetings and, more broadly, effective collaboration (see here for a review).

    Meetings can feel like a waste of time in schools, just like they can in other workplaces. However, educational scholars have paid less attention, compared to researchers in other fields, to the conditions that foster productive collaborative work, such as management (see, e.g. Cohen & Bailey, 1997). Educational researchers and practitioners have long advocated that collaboration between teachers should be a cornerstone of efforts to improve instruction – indeed, teachers themselves often cite collaboration with colleagues as one of the key ways they learn. And yet, we know many teams flounder instead of flourish. So why are some teams more productive than others?

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  • Evidence From A Teacher Evaluation Pilot Program In Chicago

    Written on December 4, 2015

    The majority of U.S. states have adopted new teacher evaluation systems over the past 5-10 years. Although these new systems remain among the most contentious issues in education policy today, there is still only minimal evidence on their impact on student performance or other outcomes. This is largely because good research takes time.

    A new article, published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is among the handful of analyses examining the preliminary impact of teacher evaluation systems. The researchers, Matthew Steinberg and Lauren Sartain, take a look at the Excellence in Teaching Project (EITP), a pilot program carried out in Chicago Public Schools starting in the 2008-09 school year. A total of 44 elementary schools participated in EITP in the first year (cohort 1), while an additional 49 schools (cohort 2) implemented the new evaluation systems the following year (2009-10). Participating schools were randomly selected, which permits researchers to gauge the impact of the evaluations experimentally.

    The results of this study are important in themselves, and they also suggest some more general points about new teacher evaluations and the building body of evidence surrounding them.

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  • Who Are (And Should Be) The Teaching Experts?

    Written on November 19, 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.

    How do we fix teaching?  This question is on the mind of many reformers, researchers, politicians, and parents.  Every expert has their own view of the problem, their own perspective on what success should look like, and their own solutions to offer.  The plethora of op-eds, reports, articles, and memoranda, can be mindboggling.  It is important to take a step back and see whether we all even consider teaching expertise to be the same thing.  Just as importantly, where does, and should, it reside?

    In a New York Times op-ed, “Teachers Aren’t Dumb”, Dr. Daniel Willingham explains that teachers aren’t the problem – it’s just how they are trained. As a teacher, I appreciate a respected person from outside of the profession coming to our defense, and I do agree that we need to take a hard look at teacher preparation programs.  I worry, though, that a call to focus more on the “nuts and bolts” of teaching – in contrast to the current emphasis on educational philosophy and theories of development – could create an alarming pendulum swing.

    This recommendation is a common message, promoted both by those in academic research as well as fast-tracked teacher preparation programs.  It sees academics and researchers as the generators and holders of the most important expertise and asks them to then give direction to teachers.  By mistaking different kinds of expertise, it inadvertently lays a path towards teachers as technicians, rather than true professionals.

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  • The Role Of Teacher Diversity In Improving The Academic Performance Of Students Of Color

    Written on October 14, 2015

    Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report on the state of teacher diversity, which garnered fair amount of press attention – see here, here, here, and here. (For a copy of the full report, see here.) This is the second of three posts, which are all drawn from a research review published in the report. The first post can be found here. Together, they help to explain why diversity in the teaching force—or lack thereof—should be  a major concern.

    It has long been argued that there is a particular social and emotional benefit to children of color, and especially those children from high-poverty neighborhoods, from knowing—and being known and recognized by—people who look like themselves who are successful and in positions of authority. But there is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that students derive concrete academic benefits from having access to demographically similar teachers.

    For example, in one important study, Stanford professor Thomas Dee reanalyzed test score data from Tennessee’s Project STAR class size experiment, still one of the largest U.S. studies to employ the random assignment of students and teachers. Dee found that a one-year same-race pairing of students and teachers significantly increased the math and reading test scores of both Black and White students by roughly 3 to 4 percentile points. These effects were even stronger for poor Black students in racially segregated schools (Dee, 2004).

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  • Recent Evidence On The New Orleans School Reforms

    Written on September 30, 2015

    A new study of New Orleans (NOLA) schools since Katrina, published by the Education Research Alliance (ERA), has caused a predictable stir in education circles (the results are discussed in broader strokes in this EdNext article, while the full paper is forthcoming). The study’s authors, Doug Harris and Matthew Larsen, compare testing outcomes before and after the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, in districts that were affected by those storms. The basic idea, put simply, is to compare NOLA schools to those in other storm-affected districts, in order to assess the general impact of the drastic educational change undertaken in NOLA, using the other schools/districts as a kind of control group.

    The results, in brief, indicate that: 1) aggregate testing results after the storms rose more quickly in NOLA vis-à-vis the comparison districts, with the difference in 2012 being equivalent to roughly 15 percentile points ; 2) there was, however, little discernible difference in the trajectories of NOLA students who returned after the storm and their peers in other storm-affected districts (though this latter group could only be followed for a short period, all of which occurred during these cohorts' middle school years). Harris and Larsen also address potential confounding factors, including population change and trauma, finding little or no evidence that these factors generate bias in their results.

    The response to this study included the typical of mix of thoughtful, measured commentary and reactionary advocacy (from both “sides”). And, at this point, so much has been said and written about the study, and about New Orleans schools in general, that I am hesitant to join the chorus (I would recommend in particular this op-ed by Doug Harris, as well as his presentation at our recent event on New Orleans).

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