October 17, 2019

Latest Edu-Reads

Chicago teachers are out on strike today. The strike is not primarily about pay or benefits, but those issues are certainly lurking in the background.

A new study finds that universal free school lunch had positive benefits for poor and non-poor students. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates its new rules on school lunch eligibility could take away these very same benefits for up to 982,000 students nationwide (h/t Lauren Camera).

How to read charts accurately, or, how to make your own graphs more accurate.

Millennials aren’t drowning in student debt, argues Beth Akers.

Christopher Ruszkowski points out a recent Collaborative for Student Success estimate that more than 200,000 more students of color were reading at grade level in 2018 versus 2015. Christopher is right; we should be talking about that progress more!

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  

October 16, 2019

New Column–Retirement Plan Options Vary By Education Sector

Why do higher ed employees have different (and, in my opinion, better!) retirement plan options than K-12 employees? This isn’t just an issue of higher ed faculty versus K-12 teachers; we’re also talking about librarians, janitors, bus drivers and secretaries who happen to be employed in one public educator sector or another.

That question is the subject of my new column for The 74 Million which you can read here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  


October 9, 2019

Latest Edu-Reads

David Leonhardt reports that, “For the first time on record, the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate–spanning federal, state and local taxes–than any other income group…” A more progressive tax code could pay for universal pre-k and a bunch of other growth-enhancing investments.

A new experiment out of England finds that low-stakes teacher observations have the potential to significantly boost student learning. We’ve seen similar gains here in American school districts trying similarly low-stakes observations.

“Everyone knows” teachers are more risk-averse than other professionals. The research base to support that theory has been relatively thin, but a new study out of Germany finds some compelling evidence to support it. Another new study out of San Francisco finds “…economically anxious teachers tend to have more negative attitudes about their jobs, have worse attendance, and are 50% more likely to depart the district within 2 years after the survey.”

There’s a big change sweeping community college campuses as they realize that traditional remedial courses are little more than barriers to student completion rates. This PPIC report looks at what’s happening in California. The report is too comprehensive to neatly summarize here, but enrollment in college-level coursework is up 30 percentage points in three years, and those increases in access are translating to much higher completion rates as well. Check out the full report here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  

A Review of How the Other Half Learns

Robert Pondiscio won’t like my review of his new book, How the Other Half Learns.

For starters, I can’t say that I hated Pondiscio’s book. In fact, I quite liked it. His narrative of a year embedded at the Success Academy charter school network is one of the rare education books that I would wholeheartedly recommend to family and friends. It’s readable and compelling and fair in a way that most education books fail to achieve. He weaves together stories about children and teachers in with wonky discussions of reading curriculum and the Coleman Report.

Pondiscio’s reflections on his own past teaching experience in a nearby traditional public school add to the narrative. He is thoughtful about those experiences, and he attempts to honestly reconcile what he saw in his own teaching with what he sees now at Success Academy. He’s searching for truth and brings the reader along with him. It makes for a compelling reading experience.

And yet. Even as I trust Pondiscio as a narrator and an honest observer, I question his interpretation of some key policy questions. Two examples stand out. One is his dislike for standardized testing and the responses it might theoretically generate. He claims that federal accountability pressures forced elementary schools to focus more on math and reading while neglecting other subjects. This is an oft-repeated claim,  but the evidence for it is actually pretty thin. The National Center on Education Statistics found no meaningful differences in time usage when they surveyed public school teachers in 1988 and 2018.

In the book, Pondiscio admits that he wanted to dislike the Success Academy approach to “slam” the state exams in reading and math. And yet, he seems to grudgingly admire it by the end. It’s hard not to. I was personally cheering and on the verge of tears while reading a passage about the excitement and determination Success Academy teachers and scholars showed in the face of the exam.

And why not? Pondiscio’s reporting finds Success Academy schools practice a mixture of determination, discipline, and support. Instruction seems to be rigorous, even to Pondiscio’s watchful gaze. Kids are (mostly) on task and proud of their accomplishments. Teachers hold students to high standards and expect all students to achieve. At the end of the year, Success Academy scholars will perform as well as any other school in the state in reading and math, even ones packed with students from wealthier families. We don’t know yet whether Success Academy’s achievement results will translate into college or career success, but getting tens of thousands of low-income students to read and do math proficiently is no small accomplishment.

My second objection to Pondiscio’s policy excursions is a wonkier one, but it’s no less important. It’s about parents. He spends a good amount of time showing that Success Academy draws parents who are different than the typical public school family. True, Success Academy students are admitted by a random lottery and most of them are low-income. But these are students with engaged, persistent parents who show up at mandatory school uniform fittings, read to their kids daily and keep logs of that time, deliver their kids at the school doors at 7:30 every morning (all without transportation services), and just engage in their child’s schooling process in a way that few schools truly demand.

Pondiscio makes the logical conclusion that the traditional public school system is losing out when these types of families choose to enroll their kids at Success Academy. (At the same time, Pondiscio makes a spirited defense of their right to do so, and excoriates hypocrites who block public school choice even while sending their own kids to elite schools.) This is an entirely logical conclusion, and it’s illustrated all the more so by Pondiscio’s stories of a difficult child named Adama who Success Academy may or may not be trying to pressure out of its schools. Pondiscio does not spare us any of the controversy.

But I think the author is missing something here. Success Academy specifically asks for, and subsequently receives, this high level of parental engagement. If the traditional public school system never demands a similar level of engagement from their parents, this “lost” potential never really existed, did it? It’s like an untapped reservoir of human capital. Even as Success Academy finds a way to unleash that parental power, the traditional public schools won’t miss what they never had.

Economists might add to this by pointing to the possibility that the competition from school choice can help traditional public schools improve as well. Pondiscio almost explicitly discards this argument, but I think that would be a mistake, because, while choice is not a panacea, there is a growing body of literature that the introduction of school choice seems to lift all boats. The competition effect is real.

I’ll end with one more piece of praise for the book, which is that How the Other Half Learns is the best response I’ve read on the question of whether high-performing charter school networks can grow successfully. Charter networks like Success Academy and KIPP and Uncommon and Aspire and IDEA and Harmony and Noble* keep facing questions about whether their models can “scale” and grow. Each of these networks has started small. Each of them produces remarkable results. And each of them churns through young staff. Surely these things cannot last, right?

Pondiscio might respond to this question with two counter-arguments. The first is simply to point at the growth figures. Each of the networks I mentioned above is only a decade or two old, and yet they educate thousands or tens of thousands of students to extremely exacting standards. Success Academy in particular has managed to replicate itself so far with no dilution of results.

The second response is to draw a distinction between the scalability for individuals and the scalability of systems. Pondiscio reminds us regularly that many of the Success Academy teachers and principals are young and inexperienced. And yet Success Academy faculty and staff somehow produce remarkable results that far surpass their experience levels.

Pondiscio implicitly draws this distinction—between individuals and systems—with what is perhaps the best metaphor I’ve read on the question of whether charter schools are sustainable. He writes:

If Success Academy students visit just a few years from now, they might not see even a single familiar face. The de facto model that has evolved is more like the U.S. Army or the Marines; a small and talented officer corps surrounded by enlisted men and women who do a tour, maybe two, then muster out, with new recruits reporting for duty. Teacher turnover, and lack of experience and continuity, is widely assumed to be a problem, particularly in urban schools. But it’s never suggested that our military would be better if only soldiers stayed in uniform longer. So far, the relative inexperience of Success Academy teachers hasn’t seemed to compromise their effectiveness.

In other words, what may not be sustainable for any one individual may endure as a system and a culture.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  

*Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with many of these networks. 

Posted on Oct 9, 2019 @ 11:00am

October 7, 2019

We Should Probably Stop Citing EPI’s “Teacher Wage Gap” Data

When writing about teacher pay, it’s tempting to cite the Economic Policy Institute’s work on the “teacher wage gap.” As of 2019, EPI authors Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel purport to find the teacher wage penalty hitting an all-time high of 21.4 percent.

It’s a compelling statistic that aligns with much of what we hear from teachers across the country. But the underlying methodology is flawed in four key ways that have become increasingly apparent over time:

Flaw #1: It’s measured in weekly wages. 

Allegretto and Mishel are quite transparent that they are measuring the weekly wages of teachers. On one level this makes sense, because teachers need current wages to pay for their current expenses, everything from mortgage payments to groceries to childcare.

But teachers aren’t paid like everyone else. Teachers work plenty hard during the school year, but they typically only teach for 10 or 11 months of the year. As others have pointed out, differences in weekly wages don’t account for the differences in time spent across an entire year.

Still, I wouldn’t classify this as a fatal flaw in the data as long as they are accompanied by appropriate caveats. Other flaws, however, start to compound the issues.

Flaw #2: EPI’s benefit calculations are incomplete. 

To EPI’s credit, they do attempt to factor in the relative advantage teachers have in benefit spending. They’ve improved that methodology over time, and their main analysis attempts to combine the teacher salary gap and the teacher benefit advantage into one overall picture of total compensation.

However, as I pointed out in The Hill earlier this spring, EPI’s benefits methodology is still inaccurate. The comparison group they use includes teachers–that is, EPI is comparing public school teachers to a larger group that also includes teachers, and in fact teachers are largest sub-group within that comparison group. This decision biases the EPI results and makes the teacher benefit advantage appear smaller than it really is. Once you correct for that, total teacher compensation has not budged relative to other professions in at least 10 years.

Moreover, EPI’s calculations take the current benefit spending at face value. If states and districts are under-counting their pension benefits, as many economists believe, then more realistic assumptions would drive the teacher benefit advantages even further away from their private-sector peers.

I would probably rate this as a mid-level concern, but the problems are starting to mount.

Flaw #3: EPI’s state comparisons drop the benefit advantage entirely. 

In their national figures, Allegretto and Mishel carefully combine the teacher wage gap and the teacher benefit advantage to come up with a figure for the total compensation gap. Even though I disagree with EPI’s calculations on benefits, they at least deserve credit for attempting to balance out the changes in salary with the changes in benefits.

But then the authors proceed to drop benefits entirely when they report state-level data. These figures have been endlessly repeated in state and national media stories, but it’s simply irresponsible on EPI’s part to even include them absent more context. In many states, rising benefit costs fully account for flat or declining teacher salaries. EPI seems to recognize this in their national figures even as they ignore it in their state-level section.

Up to this point, I think the EPI wage gap figures might still be worth using given the appropriate context and caveats. But the next problem undermines them entirely.

Flaw #4: EPI’s wage gap methodology assumes credentials matter equally in all settings. 

At first blush, EPI’s wage gap methodology might make sense. They calculate the teacher wage gap as “penalties that remain after controlling for education, experience, state, and other factors known to affect wage levels. Generally, we express the teacher wage penalty as a percent disadvantage—how much less, in percentage terms, the average teacher earns relative to a similar college graduate in another profession.”

But this calculation starts to unravel if you know anything about teacher credentials in the education sector. That is, researchers have concluded that Master’s degrees and advanced credentials do not translate into better teaching performance, and yet school districts across the country have tied teacher pay to teacher credentials. As a result, teachers are now some of the most credentialed professionals in the country: 57 percent of public school teachers have a Master’s degree, up 10 percentage points in just the last 15 years.

As Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine write in a new piece for National Affairs, teachers are now in roughly the 95th percentile when it comes to educational credentials. Under EPI’s assumptions, teachers would have to be paid accordingly in order to be paid fairly. But Biggs and Richwine find some alarming conclusions when they apply the same EPI methodology to other occupations:

EPI’s own pay-gap methodology leads to some other conclusions that are, to put it delicately, less intuitive. Using the same Census data and the same basic techniques that EPI applies to teachers, we find that registered nurses are “overpaid” by 29%. Meanwhile, telemarketers deserve a big raise, as they currently suffer a 26% salary penalty. Aerospace engineers are apparently overpaid by 38%, but “athletes, coaches, and umpires” are paid 21% less than their skills are worth. Photographers should consider going on strike, as they make 16% less than comparable workers. Firefighters are moochers by contrast, taking in 25% above their rightful salaries.

These stats should make anyone question the EPI comparisons. Worse, EPI’s findings of a rising teacher wage gap have been compounded by the changes in the teaching profession. As teachers have gotten more and more advanced degrees, teaching as an occupational group has moved up the credentials ladder. That does not mean, however, that those Master’s degrees would (or should!) be equally valued in the private sector.

To be clear, none of this confirms that teachers are under- or over-paid. Mike Antonucci has read the same studies and concluded that the narrative is more important than the underlying data. But to my mind, I’d still rather have more information about whether schools are able to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, whether higher salaries can solve those issues and for whom, and what happens to teachers who leave the profession. The research consensus so far–which Biggs and Richwine cite–suggests that ex-teachers do not earn higher wages in their next job. A recent paper on ex-teachers in Texas suggests that consensus may be wrong, and it may be skewed downward by people who leave the workforce entirely. Moreover, these types of analyses confirm that different types of teachers have different employment opportunities available to them.

That type of information would allow us to adjust compensation structures accordingly. It’s tempting to look at the sorts of synthetic comparisons that the EPI report constructs, but what we really need to know is if teacher compensation structures–in their unique labor market context–are set up to attract and retain a high-quality teacher workforce.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  

October 2, 2019

Early Childhood Edu Reading

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation authorizing family childcare providers who receive state subsidies to bargain collectively. The legislation would also allow providers to negotiate collectively with health insurance companies for lower cost coverage, and could affect up to 40,000 family childcare providers in the state. More background here.

The Administration for Children and Families is seeking public input on strategies to improve access to quality, affordable childcare in the United States.

Early childhood programs are more segregated by race/ethnicity than public elementary schools.

It’s in the 90’s today in D.C. but they tell me fall is coming. That means it’s almost time for stuffed acorn squash.

–Guest post by Sara Mead 



Posted on Oct 2, 2019 @ 7:23am

September 30, 2019

Education Reading

It’s been 30 years since the Charlottesville Education Summit, but we still haven’t achieved the ambitious goals that emerged from it. Kelly Robson argues it’s time for another National Education Summit.

Over at EdPost, Brandon Lewis describes how Crossroads Academy Charter School, one of the rural charter schools profiled in Bellwether’s recent research on lessons from rural charter schools, partners with Florida A&M, an HBCU, to support its students’ success and build a pipeline of diverse teachers.

Speaking of charter schools, an interesting new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers looks at the pipeline of new charter applicants in Georgia and finds lots of interest in STEM and inquiry-based school models.

Max Marchitello looks at how pensions exacerbate funding inequity between rural and suburban school districts.

A new report for the Minneapolis Fed looks at the childcare market in Montana, underscoring the complex challenges facing the field: parents can’t afford to pay for care, but childcare centers struggle to stay afloat financially, and lack of affordable and accessible childcare creates workforce challenges for business.

Recently published research finds that children randomly assigned to full-day pre-k programs learn more than children in part-day options.

Bittersweet chocolate and pear cake.

–Guest post by Sara Mead


September 24, 2019

Are We Sure We Know How to Teach Reading?

As I pointed out last week, we know a fair amount about how students learn to read, but much less about how to deliver reading instruction. That’s an important distinction and has implications for how we think about fixing the problem.

To wit, Matt Barnum gets at this question in the middle of this Chalkbeat interview with Natalie Wexler about her new book, The Knowledge Gap. In full disclosure, I have not read Wexler’s book yet, but one portion of their conversation gets at the problem I highlighted above:

[Barnum] In your book you say, “There aren’t yet any reliable studies showing that [a coherent knowledge-rich] curriculum will outperform either a skills-focused curriculum or a content-focused one that lacks coherence,” but “it’s reasonable to assume that’s the case.” The fact that there aren’t any reliable studies about this seems like a really big caveat at the heart of your book.

[Wexler] There is evidence that focusing on content can boost kids’ reading comprehension scores. They’re not randomized controlled studies, but there is some evidence of that. What is harder to find evidence of is that you need a curriculum that builds logically from one grade to the next. And that’s hard to get because kids move around, especially in lower income levels, and there aren’t that many schools implementing that kind of a curriculum.

One that comes to mind — there’s a curriculum called Bookworms, and there was a study of a school district that implemented that curriculum. After just one year of implementation, schools implementing that curriculum did better than demographically similar schools in the districts that weren’t implementing that curriculum.

This is an important distinction. There’s a large and convincing body of evidence that students read better when they have content knowledge about the subject. It’s not enough to just teach students generic “reading skills,” because reading is context-dependent. Similarly, there’s also a large body of evidence on the gaps in content knowledge across students, and that those gaps contribute to gaps in reading.

However, these findings do not necessarily translate into practice. We do not yet have a large body of evidence on whether we can take the findings about content knowledge and implement them in schools. That is, can we create a coherent, content-rich curriculum, implement it at scale, and produce better readers? I’ll need to read Wexler’s book to see if she has an answer. But this question strikes me as a harder one to resolve, and from what I’ve seen so far, we’re not there yet.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Posted on Sep 24, 2019 @ 3:19pm

Latest Edu-Reads

Carrie Hahnel has a new piece up at TeacherPensions.org looking at California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposal to spend $850 million to “buy down” school district contribution rates. Hahnel finds that districts with fewer low-income, English learner, and foster youth students will receive more of a benefit, mainly because those districts can afford to pay their teachers higher salaries.

Speaking of pensions, I have a new piece out this week on teachers and other public servants who lack Social Security coverage. Specifically, I write about two special rules Congress created to deal with workers who split their working careers in and out of Social Security. Those two provisions–the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset–are wildly unpopular, but I argue they help preserve the Social Security program’s progressive benefit formula.

A big new study looks at what happened after England got rid of its national teacher pay schedule. The authors conclude that, “These results provide clear evidence that public sector pay scales have a negative impact on productivity. Once schools have the freedom to set salaries, schools in high competition areas experience significant gains in student achievement. The gains in student performance were largest in schools that were the most restrained by national pay scales, those in high wage labor markets with high proportions of disadvantaged students.”

David Deming writes that, “The advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.”

Bellwether’s Gwen Baker argues we need technology-driven learning tools designed to meet students where they are AND whole-course curriculum that assumes students are already performing at grade-level.

The actress Geena Davis is behind an effort to hold television networks accountable for producing children’s content with equal representation of males and females. In my opinion, the online version of the story has an unnecessarily provocative headline, whereas the print version went with the more neutral, “How Geena Davis is making children’s tv more equal with the help of tech.” Either way, it’s a good story.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  

September 20, 2019