Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 35
September 23, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
Would a Republican Congress be good for school reform?
A party in search of a platform
Movie review: Waiting for 'Superman'
It isn't perfect, but it's well-worth the watch
"Cracking the code," or ed reformers on crack?
Hubris alert! We don't have it all figured out yet
Phineas Gage's field day
"Learning styles" theory gets another nail in its coffin
Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching
Fresh thinking on improving the teaching profession
Is it Just a Bad Class? Assessing the Stability of Measured Teacher Performance
Value-added measures have their place but are no panacea
Searching for Effective Teachers with Imperfect Information
A little teacher quality info goes a long way
Parallel Patterns: Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools
Charter and district teachers aren't so different, after all
Stafford's write-in campaign
Mike and Stafford debate the long-term merits of Waiting for "Superman," throw down about standards for virtual education, and see eye-to-eye on inclusion. Amber dissects a meaty study on value-added metrics and Rate that Reform goes dumpster diving.
One of the most interesting developments of recent years has been the rise of reform-minded Democrats. It’s not just President Obama and Secretary Duncan; all over the country we see state legislators and municipal leaders beginning to challenge the unions and embrace charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, even public-sector pension reform. One case in point is Colorado, where the successful push for ground-breaking tenure reform legislation was led by Senator Mike Johnston and Representative Christine Scanlan, Democrats both.
Left unsaid—and taken as a given—is that Republicans are already in the reform column. And that’s often true at the state and local level. Indeed, in the Centennial State, the entire Republican caucus voted for the tenure-reform bill, leaving Johnston and Scanlan needing to scrounge up just six Democratic votes in the majority-Democratic House. Some joke that the country doesn’t need “Republicans for Education Reform” because that’s simply synonymous with “Republicans.”
Alas, that’s not so in Washington. There, it’s fairly obvious that the GOP doesn’t know what it stands for on education anymore—partly because much of its reform agenda has been co-opted by Messrs. Duncan and Obama, partly because it has long tended (at least in Congress) to ignore this topic, and partly because it has much else on its none-too-robust policy platter. The House GOP’s brand-new Pledge to America doesn’t even mention the word “education.”
Where you can detect at least a pulse on education, you can spot Republican instincts on
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 23, 2010
Feeling just a bit sheepish about being one of the few people in the throng who hadn’t already seen this film, I went last week (with Fordham research director Amber Winkler) to the big Paramount/Viacom-sponsored Washington premiere of Waiting for 'Superman'—the much-discussed new education movie. It was, as they say, a glittering crowd, at least as much as this town can muster, a sort of Hollywood-meets-Washington-meets-education-reform soirée. It was mobbed and sorta swanky, too.
Aside from all that glitz and glamour, Waiting for 'Superman' is quite a movie to boot. See it if you haven’t. It’s emotionally wringing, as a few of these needy-earnest-capable kids with anxious, hopeful parents make it through the lottery into high-performance charter schools while others—far too many others—do not. Maybe 80 percent of today’s most compelling ed-reform issues are aired, and nearly always from the reformers’ perspective. The cinematography is terrific as are most of the graphics and animations.
The film isn’t perfect. The “superman” angle is a little hokey. The ending is a little forced. Davis Guggenheim cannot curb his Gore-o-phile predilections when selecting unflattering film clips of GOP presidents. But it surely gets an A- as a high-status, Hollywood-generated boost to the kinds of changes that a lot of us have been pushing for a very long time. (A veteran D.C. pundit leaned over during the event and suggested that my life has not been lived in vain!) The education “blob”—mainly the teacher unions but also school boards, bureaucracies, etc.—gets the drubbing that
Michael J. Petrilli / September 23, 2010
Hubris alert! My friends in the education reform community are feeling triumphant, now that Waiting for 'Superman' is about to hit the theaters with its “To the Barricades!” message. Count me as worried; just consider what happened to Adrian Fenty when he got over-confident and morally righteous. Here’s an example of what concerns me, from Dom Giordano in the Philadelphia Daily News:
Guggenheim told me that we now know what to do to educate and advance every kid. He said, “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods.”
I echo this. And my mantra is—it’s a mystery? We know what to do. The only question is do we have the will to do it?
We’ve “cracked the code”? We “know what to do”? Look, what KIPP, and Achievement First, and the other high-flying charter management organizations are achieving is extraordinary, worth celebrating, and worth replicating. But let me offer three sobering points that we fans of school reform ought to ponder seriously nonetheless:
1. Maybe we’ve “cracked the code” on making high-poverty schools more effective, but we’re far from “cracking the code” on how to scale them up to serve lots more kids. We have a few hundred excellent urban schools when we need tens of thousands.
2. There’s little doubt that one of the reasons these schools succeed
September 23, 2010
Left/Right Brain Theory is Bunk, by Daniel Willingham, Washington Post, September 20, 2010.
There is no link between creative processes and any particular brain structure, says Psychological Bulletin. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry, because Daniel Willingham will translate: left/right brain theory is bunk. As Willingham explains, this theory avers that one’s logic and quantitative skills originate in the brain’s left hemisphere, while one’s artistic skills and emotions come from the right one. But how does this relate to education? Left/right brain theory is behind the partially discredited “learning styles” pedagogical theory—which states that students' “learning styles” (or whether they are left- or right-brain dominant) dictate whether they will be any good at math or art. In practice, this means teachers spend a lot of time worrying whether Suzie should learn the material orally, visually, kinesthetically, etc., rather than focusing on the material itself—and blaming non-mastery on the style of teaching instead of the rigor of the content. But, now that the theory behind the theory is also bunk, let’s hope we can retire the concept of “learning styles” permanently.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / September 29, 2010
Byron Auguste, Paul Kihn, and Matt Miller, Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching, (McKinsey and Co., September 2010).
This thoughtful McKinsey report examines the advantages and feasibility of boosting the quality of the American teacher workforce by attracting more of it from the top third of the college class. Today, the authors estimate, we draw 23 percent of new teachers from this upper-tier—and in high-poverty schools, just 14 percent. After the requisite extolling of the benefits of having smarter and better educated teachers (especially for needy kids) and reminding us that high-achieving countries do far better than the U.S. at making the teaching occupation appealing to high-ability people, the authors break into the meat of their report. Here, they offer a number of strategies for upping the reputation of U.S. teachers. Some are costly (e.g., boosting salaries overall); others are less expensive in dollar terms but challenging in other ways. (For example, they suggest making high-need schools safer and better led, giving performance bonuses to top-achieving instructors, and focusing on “turnaround” and/or STEM schools.) Cautiously, the paper points to possible offsetting savings, such as targeting a larger share of the school dollar on instruction; they estimate that we could redirect $50 billion by simply lowering our high “non-educator expenditures”(e.g. admin, transport, and ancillary services) to the OECD average. They are even so bold as to suggest larger classes and more extensive use of instructional
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / September 23, 2010
Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen, Is it Just a Bad Class? Assessing the Stability of Measured Teacher Performance CEDR Working Paper 2010-3 (Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Center for Education Data & Research, 2010).
One legitimate criticism of value-added measures (VAM) of teacher effectiveness is that they’re too unstable from year to year to be considered reliable gauges. Because of measurement errors and “statistical noise,” the effectiveness of individual teachers seems to bounce around a lot from year to year. But is it possible that some of this fluctuation is due to actual changes in effectiveness, rather than measurement-and-analysis problems? In this uber-technical study, labor economists Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen deploy a longitudinal dataset from North Carolina to track students and teachers over ten years. Using a less conventional model to estimate value-added (one that detects changes within teachers over time), the analysts find that there is indeed a fair degree of instability. Teachers really do seem to have good and bad years. Further, the researchers argue that high stability is not necessarily good—it could, in fact, reduce the motivational effect of such policies (i.e., if the same teachers get rewarded every year, why should the unrewarded teachers try harder?). This study is an important contribution to our understanding of VAM. Still, stability is not the whole story—plenty of other issues deserve attention as we seek to improve this measure (like data quality, transparency of methods, quality of
Stafford Palmieri / September 23, 2010
Douglas O. Staiger and Jonah E. Rockoff, "Searching for Effective Teachers with Imperfect Information," (Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(3): 97–118, Summer 2010).
District leaders who don't know what to do with the immense amount of teacher quality and evaluation research to date would be wise to pick up this study. In it, the authors apply teacher quality indicators (like years in the classroom, decisions of tenure, and pre-hire evaluation tools) to the human resource practices of school districts, guided by a simple question: Based on what we know, how should districts recruit, retain, and fire teachers in an economically rational way? Keeping an eye on the bottom line, they run a few models, changing factors like the timing of tenure and the amount/quality of teacher evaluation tools available. They conclude that we should lower the bar for new applicants, since pre-hire information is poor, but significantly raise it for tenure, because the long-term cost of one bad teacher swamps the short-term cost of hiring a new one. (A Hamilton Project report from Brookings made a similar recommendation back in 2006.) In the meantime, the authors argue, investing in better pre-hire and on-the-job evaluation tools is worth the cost and bother because even just a little bit more information can fine tune the timing and levels of rigor exercised at each step of hiring, retaining, and firing.
Amanda Olberg / September 23, 2010
Betheny Gross and Michael DeArmond, Parallel Patterns: Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, September 2010).
Do charter schools really have much higher levels of teacher burnout and turnover than traditional schools? Through two different methodologies, CRPE’s latest study tackles this question of teacher attrition. Using ten years of data from Wisconsin, the paper finds that attrition levels in charter and district schools are not all that different: When researchers controlled for teacher characteristics (such as academic degrees and ethnicity) and school characteristics (such as concentration of minority students and percent of students passing assessments), they found that charter teachers are only 6 percent more likely to leave their schools and 14 percent more likely to exit the system versus their counterparts in district schools, neither of which is statistically significant. Analysts also conclude that in urban settings, charters fare better at retaining teachers: Educators working in urban charter schools are 31 percent less likely to switch schools and 24 percent less likely to exit the system than their counterparts in traditional urban public schools. As for why teachers exit either sector, the researchers turned to a series of national surveys administered to departing school teachers, and rounded up the usual suspects: concerns about job security, workplace conditions, and job responsibilities.