Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 23
June 17, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Teacher union leaders can be reformers, too
By Stafford Palmieri
Read our lips
Match made in heaven?
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Putting the I back in TEAM
Schools get an MBA: Mutually beneficial arrangement
Diplomas Count 2010: Graduation by the Numbers--Putting Data to Work for Student Success
By Janie Scull
World Cup productivity levels
You won't want to miss this week's debate between Mike and Stafford about teachers cheating, corporate sponsorship in schools, and praise-worthy union leaders. Then Amber explains positive news about ProComp, while Janie sends BP a bill for lost tax-based school dollars.
Stafford Palmieri / June 17, 2010
It’s no secret among education reformers, and among keen-eyed observers of the reform scene (in which select population we brazenly include the Education Gadfly and his Fordham pals), that the two national teacher unions are the largest, richest, shrewdest and most dogged foes of nearly all the most urgently-needed changes in American K-12 education. Not the sole foes, to be sure, but the most potent.
At the same time, however, since the latter days of Al Shanker the unions have contained within their ranks a handful of visionaries and pragmatists who didn’t always let the short-term self-interest of adults blind them to the long-term interests of children. A few of these laudable deviants have been visible in Washington, people like Shanker himself, Bob Chase (for a time), Sandy Feldman (some of the time), even Randi Weingarten (on alternate Thursdays and full-moon Mondays).
Most of this small population, however, is less visible because they operate locally or at the state level. And these folks deserve at least one-handed applause, too, for it takes greater courage to break ranks with their peers outside the Beltway—and to do so without the attention and encouragement of the national reform crowd and media.
The possibility of federal Race to the Top dollars (and status) has brought some of these gutsy individuals into public view. Foundation dollars have lured others. Some sort of external incentive is nearly always involved, mostly in the form of money that their schools and
June 17, 2010
Ever been told to “read between the lines”? Turns out you do so more than you think—in fact, every time you read anything, from a menu to a philosophical treatise. That’s the premise of this piece by curriculum gurus E.D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio. We’ve explained previously in these pages how reading requires contextual knowledge: It’s not just a set of skills (namely, “decoding,” by which we turn symbols into sounds) but getting the point of what the author is trying to say, and this is proportionally easier based on how much you know about the subject matter of the text. Indeed, we should really redefine what being “literate” means: “If reading is the means by which we receive ideas and information, then a good reader is the one who best understand the author’s words.” Unfortunately, that is not how many schools think about literacy, so they increase the amount of time spent on skills while dialing down the time spent on actual content. You can’t teach or test “reading” in the abstract past the point of decoding, insist Hirsch and Pondiscio, and as long as schools, districts, states, and others fail to get this message, we’re wasting a heckuva lot of time trying to teach a skill that’s only half the battle of being a truly “good reader.”
“There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test,” by E.D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio, The American Prospect, June 13,
June 17, 2010
If only we could attract effective teachers to high-poverty schools, we could zap the achievement gap. That’s the thinking, at least, behind a slew of reassignment programs that use everything from financial incentives to blunt force to get more top-notch teachers into lower-performing classrooms. But is the thinking itself misguided? Kirabo Jackson, a Cornell economist, recently found that effectiveness was as tied to environment as it was to practice. In other words, a highly-effective teacher in one school might not be so effective in another. Furthermore, what if the distribution of good teachers is not really as skewed as we think? Indeed, as Eric Hanushek explains, interschool variation in teacher effectiveness is much smaller than intraschool teacher effectiveness, when measured as the impact a teacher has on her students’ achievement. So making Herculean efforts to move teachers from one school to another might be a big waste of time; a better approach would be to exit the low-performers of all schools. Here’s the bottom line: reassignment schemes, like many things in education, might have worthy intentions but could also do more harm than good.
“New Teacher Distribution Methods Hold Promise,” by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, June 10, 2010
“Cincinnati Public Schools to put top teachers at weak schools,” by Jessica Brown, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 14, 2010
June 17, 2010
According to the New York Times, cheating in schools is on the rise. It’s not among students, though, but teachers, who feel increasingly pressured by yearly testing cycles to raise student achievement. And with salaries—and in some cases jobs—on the line, these guilty educators are peeking at the state test beforehand, correcting students over their shoulders during the exam, and erasing and re-bubbling answers after the fact. But is it really fair to call this a new “trend”? Gadfly’s not sold, and neither is Alexander Russo, who rightly points out that anecdotal evidence does not a case make. Indeed, what’s really on the rise is coverage of cheating, which is all the more troublesome because it’s apt to fuel the arguments of testing detractors. Let’s be clear: All industries see some cheating. It’s disgraceful and inexcusable, and the perpetrators might want to take a long hard look in the ethical mirror. But a few bad apples should prompt us to rethink the safety protocols for grading tests, not dump accountability or testing itself.
“Under Pressure, Teachers Tamper With Tests,” by Trip Gabriel, New York Times, June 10, 2010
June 17, 2010
Journalist and Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates is troubled by a paradox: Why was he a failure as a student, but remarkably successful as a professional writer? A college dropout, Coates says that he just needed to learn differently—his own way, and at his own pace—than other students. That’s what makes him so enthused about an on-going project in New York City called the School of One. Launched as a summer school math program last year, and expanded to three middle schools this spring, School of One puts students on their own, customized path through school. Not only do they learn in the style (or “modality”) that suits them best—online, small group, direct instruction, etc, but even more revolutionary, all of their work—the level, the speed, even the material—is individualized. Daily diagnostics plus regular teacher observations about each student are fed into a complicated algorithm that spits out a daily schedule of what subject material should be covered, how the student should learn it, and how much time he or she should spend doing so. The longer a student is in the program, the smarter the algorithm gets about predicting his or her needs. The program won’t be easy to replicate or expand right away—classrooms have to be remodeled, teachers trained, algorithms built and fed with data—but School of One is certainly a promising example of the transformative power of technology.
“The Littlest Schoolhouse," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, July/August 2010
June 17, 2010
What do Rogers & Walker Gun Shop, First Baptist Church, McDonald’s, and The Tennessee Credit Union have in common? They’re picking up the tab for a local school facing budget problems—in return for naming rights, ad space, or a branch on school property. Gadfly can’t help but observe that such partnerships would have been much less palatable before the economic downturn. Indeed, should we be worried that these financial collaborations are pushing a fine line? After all, First Baptist Church’s adopted school provided the parish with the names of parents (with their consent) who were interested in an at-home visit; the church reports that thirteen families have joined the congregation. Or what about the local McDonald’s “McTeacher’s Night,” where “celebrity” teacher burger-flippers served artery-clogging fare to parents and children to raise money? But what’s the alternative? The public purse is empty, and China’s generosity worn thin. Done right—no ads for cigarettes in the cafeteria!—these financial alliances have been mutually beneficial to business and school alike.
“A School Prays for Help” by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2010
Janie Scull / June 30, 2010
Editorial Projects in Education
Did you know that just 2 percent of Americans earned high school diplomas in 1870? That’s just one of the tidbits you’ll find in this year’s Diplomas Count (find 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006 here). In addition to the usual graduation statistics update, this edition attempts to chr onicle “data in action,” i.e., how the smart use of information can raise graduation numbers, mainly by identifying students at risk for dropping out. As usual the news isn’t good: The graduation rate hovers around 70 percent, having actually declined slightly from 2005 to 2007 (the most recent year of available data). But that’s somewhat misleading, because while the overall graduation rate has fallen, rates for every racial group have improved. This is Simpson’s Paradox in action, as the lower overall number can be attributed to the fact that the population of students most at risk of dropping out—minorities, especially Latinos—is composing an increasing percentage of the overall student body. Perhaps most interesting is that just twenty-five of the nations’ 11,000 school districts account for a whopping 20 percent of all dropouts, or 250,000 students. New York City and Los Angeles are the worst offenders, each failing to graduate more than 40,000 students every year. Admittedly, these districts are the nation’s largest and would statistically have more dropouts than smaller ones, but it’s also a lesson in how much difference data systems could make
Denver ProComp: An Outcomes Evaluation of Denver's Alternative Teacher Compensation System 2010 Report
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / June 17, 2010
Edward Wiley, Eleanor Spindler, and Amy Subert
University of Colorado at Boulder
Here’s yet another merit pay system that’s come under recent scrutiny: Denver’s flagship Professional Compensation System for Teachers (a.k.a., ProComp), one of the first merit pay schemes in recent history. Initially piloted in 1999, ProComp layers bonuses onto teacher base salaries for any number of activities and/or accomplishments: raising student achievement, obtaining a master’s degree, completing specialized professional development, demonstrating instructional proficiency, working in a high needs school, etc. The program was made mandatory—in other words, teachers hired after this point had to participate—in 2006. Analysts examined eight years of achievement data (2001-02 to 2008-09) and found that student achievement steadily increased during this timeframe in both math and reading. The kicker: Teachers hired in 2006 or later demonstrated greater first-year gains than those hired prior to the program going district wide—and those differences persisted for the next three years. Schools with greater rates of ProComp participation also had higher rates of retention. The implications are noteworthy: ProComp may actually have succeeded in changing the composition of the teacher workforce, potentially luring in a higher caliber of teacher to Denver schools. Unfortunately, the study’s design is not experimental (unlike a similar analysis of Chicago’s TAP program), so the results are particularly prone to selection bias. In other words, it’s hard to tell the impact is due to the ProComp program or to differences between ProComp participants and
Paul L. Kimmelman
Education is fundamentally a compliance-driven industry, explains Paul Kimmelman. Between federal, state, and district rules and regulations, teachers and administrators are always being told what to do. So how can school leaders do a better job within those constraints? That’s what he sets out to answer with this leadership manual, complete with chapter-end discussion questions. His framework is a simple triangle: compliance, leadership, and innovation. He starts by urging leaders to stop complying and complaining and start leading and innovating; rather than accepting the imperfect system and trucking along as usual, school leaders should think about how to work around compliance structures, which frankly aren’t going away. Then he tackles what that leadership will look like, by outlining some of the fundamentals of leadership theory and urging leaders to think more about contextualizing their leadership decisions in terms of their intended audience. In other words, instead of using the same style in every situation, leaders should think about who is listening and adapt accordingly. Finally, Kimmelman addresses how to get leaders thinking more about innovation, from sitting down to identify each problem to piloting a solution. Overall, though the writing is meandering and tangential at points, the framework is useful and pragmatic. School leaders who want to stop complying and complaining should take note. Buy a copy here.
June 17, 2010
James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries, and Nicholas S. Mader, University of Chicago
National Bureau of Economic Research
“GED” actually stands for “General Education Development,” not “General Equivalency Degree” as is often thought. And for good reason: It is not the equivalent of a high school diploma, explain the authors, even though 12 percent of all high school credentials issued are GEDs. Indeed, students who drop out of high school but later earn a GED "are equivalent to uncredentialed dropouts in terms of their labor market outcomes and their general performance in society." Because of this, the GED actually distorts social science research by over-counting secondary education finishers. For example, if GED holders were actually categorized as dropouts instead of high school graduates, then the black male high school graduation rate would have remained the same from 1960 to the present. Instead, the extensive use of the GED at prisons and juvenile facilities makes the high school attainment rate appear to have risen among black males. That the GED is not tied to workplace success has another cause, however: GED-takers tend to be deficient in “noncognitive skills” such as persistence, motivation, and reliability. And making the GED so readily available and low cost actually serves as an incentive for dropping out, particularly amongst the population that can least afford to take this short cut. “None of this would matter if the GED were harmless, like wearing a