Monthly Archives: November 2007

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Turns out firing people isn’t supposed to be adversarial

teacher-policy experts say [New York City] is going about the job of removing incompetent teachers the wrong way. Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, criticized the approach as “adversarial.”

Leo Casey Gets E-Whacked! By A Mouse!

Fun as this would be, it sounds just too good to be true…especially because the Stossel thing turned out to be a boon for ABC! But who knows…more than a technical glitch? Could the mouse be that vindictive?

Update: Uh oh. Does it matter if a story is true or not so long as it catches mice? Mike A. says technical errors are the culprit here rather than retribution and has some evidence. Looks like the mouse is off the hook. Update II: I didn’t realize that AFTie Ed had gone into full moralizing mode over this…he saw it as a teachable moment and a lesson, and now I suspect others will, too, just not the way he’d hoped…

Programming Note

I’m traveling next week to Boston and Chicago so posting will be pretty light, but Michael Goldstein, of gone wild fame but now known as Agent 99, will be here all week guestblogging. I’m sure he’ll have more on the high school rankings and other goings on.

US News Pulls Rank!

US News has a new ranking of American high schools out today. The list is here, my take on what it means and why it matters here, and here is a paper explaining the methodology (pdf). WaPo story here, local and regional here.

A bit of background. In 2006 Sara Mead and I criticized Newsweek’s high school rankings. First, in this paper and then we subsequently debated the issue of what makes a good ranking with Jay Mathews, The Washington Post reporter who developed the Newsweek method called the “Challenge Index.” I’m obviously biased (because I had a hand in helping come up with this new method) but think it addresses the problems that Sara and I raised to the extent they can be addressed (a) with the data available today and (b) in an inter-state ranking. And, it represents measures that are more aligned with what high schools are expected to do today. So, as the kids say, props to US News. This list also shows the power of the work that S & P is doing on education and why Schoolmatters is a great resource (and it shows why S & P’s Paul Gazzerro is such a badass in our field).

Basically, the US News method doesn’t abandon the college prep focus of the Challenge Index. Instead, it augments it with a couple of screens intended to ensure that schools under consideration are providing a good education overall to their study body, and especially to disadvantaged students, as well as good college prep.

There is a lot of data on this list but a few quick takeaways that jump out already. Rural schools are under-represented on the list, obvious implications for policymakers there in terms of college-prep courses like Advanced Placement. Charter schools are over-represented, that’s indicative of the number that are focusing on college prep for urban kids. And some states are over/under represented. Lessons there, too.

The fact that the top high school is a selective one will cause some to write off the whole list. But, while 1 in 5 schools on the list are selective, that means 4 in 5, including some schools with diverse student bodies, also make it into this elite company. And, there are selective high schools that don’t make the cut. So it’s a leg up but not a determinent. The distribution of high poverty – high minority schools on the list should at once offer us some lessons but also call attention to the scale of the challenge. In other words, it’s a list that does showcase some of the best schools out there but doesn’t sugar coat the equity problems that exist today.

Mind-Readers Among Us!

Per this post from a while back, The American Prospect posted a clarification, sort of, a few weeks ago.

Recall that Richard Rothstein and Larry Mishel wrote recently in a cover story that, Rick Hess and I had written to the effect that we:

“worry that the urgent “competitiveness agenda” could be derailed if we are distracted by a focus on equity-improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. Attention will now have to be turned, they conclude, to further improving the technological savvy of those already primed to succeed.”

Problem is, we wrote no such thing. As Rothstein and Mishel now acknowledge:

Hess and Rotherham now complain that, while their essay stated that the educational goals of equity and competitiveness are in conflict, they did not explicitly say that equity should be sacrificed to competitiveness. We acknowledge this, and are happy to correct the record in this respect.

That’s apparently not enough to get The Prospect to actually, you know, correct the paragraph, just to add a link for “further discussion” to our objection and a fantastic response.

In the course of acknowledging that we didn’t actually write this, buried, natch, beneath a paragraph pointing out all the things we don’t dispute, Rothstein and Mishel argue that I nonetheless must be thinking it! It’s the “clear implication” they say. To be clear, this is notwithstanding that (a) as they acknowledge we didn’t write it (b) I’ve written the opposite and they know this (c) Rick and I actually held an event to debate the issue where again the inaccurate nature of this characterization was made clear and (d) our objection to that characterization now. In other words no textual grounding for the assertion, no context, and two authors saying, ‘no, that’s not what was meant.’ Otherwise, they’re on very firm ground.

In addition to endorsing mind-reading as a legitimate method of policy analysis and journalism, Rothstein and Mishel seem to argue that if I didn’t very secretly think that the equity argument should be derailed by the competitiveness argument why would I raise any tension between competitiveness policies and equity ones since equity is so firmly carrying the day?

Perhaps that would be at least somewhat convincing if indeed no one at all were talking about competitiveness and advanced students and so we were manufacturing a controversy out of absolutely whole cloth. But in fact it’s a complete misreading of the environment today. Sure, in the No Child Left Behind-era equity policies are dominant but you can hardly open The Washington Post op-ed or news pages without reading another piece about how gifted kids are being shortchanged by NCLB. Meanwhile on the Hill there is an ongoing debate about how much No Child’s accountability policies should focus on high-performing students. And, the President recently signed a competitiveness bill. You get the idea, a lot of people are trying to change the emphasis. In fact, in their article Rothstein and Mishel point out that a lot of people are, well, talking about competitiveness a lot. In other words the tension Rick and I document is a very live issue right now and as we show in the article this has been a historical tension and back and forth for the last 50 years. It’s nothing new.

Moreover, one can believe that there is a long-term competitiveness challenge but also see a more near-term equity problem. That happens to be what I believe and think that equity policies should take precedence now when hard choices inevitably have to be made. I worry more about what it means for the country that we tolerate 50 percent dropout rates for minorities than what it means that more Chinese students are going to college. One of those is an immediate challenge for America, the other a generational one. Others, including Hess, see it differently and it’s an important debate to have as a predicate to some clarity in the policies.

The point that Rick and I made in our article is that while it’s easy to say we can just do it all and ignore that debate, there are actually hard choices that have to be made around policies. For instance you can’t hold schools accountable for everything at once. As Rothstein himself has pointed out in other settings a standard can’t be both very advanced and attainable by all students. These tensions are too often misunderstood in policymaking and policytalk leading to confused policies that try to do everything, whipsawing educators in the process.

But, of course, sometimes people just want to confuse. When the RothsteinMishel article originally came out I assumed this was just an overzealous research assistant trying to score points with the powers that be at an organization and a quick clarification would take care of it. Turns out that was too charitable. I’d speculate more about what they’re up to but, alas, I can’t read minds.

There’s Gonna Be A Fight After School…But What About Striking A Deal Instead?

The after-school research debate continues. A new study (pdf) making the rounds up on Capitol Hill, purports to show the wrongness of the 2005 Mathematica study (pdf) on federally funded after school programs. Ed Week’s Viadero reports here.

There is at once less and more here than meets the eye.In the less department: The basic punchline is that if you go out and find really high quality after-school programs, they’re good for kids. Wow. I also hear it gets awfully cold in Chicago in the wintertime. The effect sizes in the new study seem a little too good to be true but I don’t think you’ll find many people that dispute the underlying premise.

Problem is, not every program is a high quality one and the federal government spends almost a billion dollars a year on after-school programs. In fact, in most of the attention to extending learning time almost no one mentions that the feds are already in that game in a big way through the after-school program and also some Title I funds (via No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions per Sherman Dorn’s comment below).

That’s why the Mathematica study offered more analytic leverage than this new one, it was randomized (for students at the elementary school level and schools at the middle school level). In other words a random selection of programs, not a deliberate sample of good programs. Unfortunately, Viadero covered that more like a horse race than just explaining the issue to readers. But this is education…methods…we don’t need no stinkin’ methods!

Still, program quality problems are (a) hardly surprising considering how quickly these programs came on-line and (b) not a reason to just cut the funding as many congressional Republicans want. See this paper for more on all that.

So, in the more than meets the eye department, here’s a radical idea to address two (maybe three) problems: Why not convert the entire after-school funding stream into portable vouchers (call them “coupons” or some such thing if it goes down easier) that eligible families can use to purchase after-school services either via traditional after school programs or through the various supplemental services programs that have sprung up in the wake of No Child Left Behind? At the same time, eliminate the supplemental services (eg tutoring) provisions of Title I, which are something of a disaster anyway and distract from the intended purpose of that program. But, means-test the program so that it’s aimed at low-income kids.

This would be one step to (a) get on top of the quality problem in after-school by introducing some actual competition though you’d still need some sort of certification process for providers, something that’s been a joke under the current law (b) possibly turn the supplemental services idea into a more effective one by making it a genuine “wrap-around” for at-risk kids and (c) it might be enough of a choice program to ease the demand for vouchers and, as in 2001, put together enough of a coalition to pass a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind without vouchers becoming a flashpoint. What you’d basically have would be a billion dollar program through repurposed dollars that you could target to poor kids in struggling schools to get them extra help.

By empowering parents you’d get around the fox guarding the henhouse challenges of No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions but school districts could also compete to serve these kids or encourage parents to pool the dollars for various programs.

The burgeoning after school industry won’t like it, nor will the public school establishment (though taking supplemental services out of Title I might ease their pain a bit), and middle class parents will be pissed if this impacts their after-school programs, but it just might be good for poor kids…

Irony…Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Some Freedom Of Action

From Toledo:

The Toledo Public Schools teachers’ union president wants to take the district’s lowest-performing school, remove the principal, and let teachers supervise themselves.

“Our proposal is that there would be no administrators and it will be totally teacher-led,” said Francine Lawrence, Toledo Federation of Teachers president…

…The idea has several hurdles, including state law that requires administrative leadership in schools and the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel union’s contract that states there will be a principal in every school…

…David McClellan, president of the principal’s union, said he hasn’t seen Ms. Lawrence’s written proposal.

“I have heard she presented something to the board and that it is totally in opposition to our contract,” Mr. McClellan said.

“It is a very obvious violation of our agreement, and we are not going to let that happen.”

Ms. Lawrence said her goal is to increase student achievement.

This amusing impasse aside, it’s worth noting that Lawrence’s plan seems to have some elements to help get around this issue although decisonmaking and execution can be a challenge under this model.

Update: Mike A. is on this, too, and on board…

Smarick Goes Paradigm Shift!

New Ed Next is worth checking out, a lot of interesting stuff. In particular, Andy Smarick’s provocative article about charter schools and urban school districts demands a read. I don’t agree with it, seems he under-estimates the challenges of scale, politics when ideas move to scale, and that ultimately the goal is to turn these districts into high-performing organizations but it’s well worth reading. And, my critique notwithstanding, he basically calls for some oil-spotting, which seems a good strategy for reformers.

Performance Pay…The New Vouchers!

Sure seems like in the ’08 presidential campaign “performance pay” is becoming the new “school vouchers.” Used to be that vouchers were the big issue that pundits would use to size up Democratic candidates on education and benchmark their reform creds. Didn’t make a lot of sense but it was the way it worked. Now, in several debates the questions have been about performance-based pay for teachers and aside from the No Child Left Behind rhetoric it’s the most discussed education issue in the race.

Too bad, because like school choice, regardless of where one comes down on it, performance-based pay is just one piece of the school improvement puzzle.

Most Obvious Headline Ever: Part Deux

Last week I pointed to this as the most obvious headline ever. That was wrong. Yesterday’s WaPo: ‘No Child’ Data on Violence Skewed’

Take somewhat ambiguous reporting terminology, let states and schools decide what it really means, and attach consequences to the reporting like student transfer rights and public identification as a “persistently dangerous school….”

How’s all that turning out?

Anyway, aside from the fox guarding the henhouse aspect of all this, I never got the transfer idea. Wouldn’t just letting all kids have more choices among public schools be a more effective strategy on this and some other issues?*

Gloating Buckeye Kevin Carey weighs-in here, he’s all for some stigma. But for now the public relationists are, well, schooling the realists.

*See for instance this debate with Matt Ladner about special education vouchers in Florida (though should note that I got a brief sneak preview of some data coming out of Florida soon that may indicate that some of the concerns that Sara Mead and I have had about that program might be overstated, see here and here for background).

All The News…

First, caste-breaker and former member of Congress (and House Ed and Labor chair) Gus Hawkins passed away this week, services tomorrow, 9am viewing & 11am funeral services at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capital St., Washington DC 20003, 202-543-4200.

WestEd’s Max McConkey is the new chair of the Knowledge Alliance. And, per all this, AFTie One-L crows about not crowing…

Mass Insight has produced some must-read materials on turning-around low-performing schools. Ed Week here. This is the nut issue of No Child Left Behind…though I increasingly think that it’s the middling schools, not the lowest-performers where “turnaround” work should be focused and that we need to think even more radically about the lowest-cohort.

Speaking of Ed Week, they’ve got a new blog about NOLA post-Katrina, worth checking out.

In DE they want to shift from the grade-level focus under No Child Left Behind. More here. There is some play there to do that in a way that doesn’t eliminate standards, but not a whole lot before you get into quicksand.

Hot teacher on teacher action in CA. And, some hot teacher pension action coming. Ed Week on that here.

And, per this post about peer review, this comment makes the main page:

I agree that tenure should be challenging to obtain and meaningful to hold. But after 30+ years of having it signify little more than drawing breath, I’m loath to rate my fellow teachers. It’s not my fault someone hired people who speak no discernible language, who don’t bathe, who see the gym class as a singles meet, who can’t focus because their mail-order spouses have fooled them for green cards the third time in a row, or whatever.The fact is the interview process for teachers ought to be more rigorous than that at Burger King, where they actually don’t hire you if you talk to yourself, drool while thinking, or forget to wear your clothes. And until they do that, don’t lay this mess on me.

Peer Reviewed, Or If Rick Kahlenberg Had A Nuclear Bomb…

In the WaPo Rick Kahlenberg continues to channel Al Shanker, this time on peer review for teachers. It’s a good piece and well-worth reading because the peer review idea has merit. I’m a fan of what they’ve built in Toledo. But, too often this stuff gets romanticized. A couple of uncomfortable caveats are too often overlooked in this discussion. Kahlenberg writes that:

In practice, in Toledo and elsewhere, it turns out that teachers are even harder on colleagues than principals are, because a fourth-grade teacher doesn’t want to get stuck with kids who haven’t learned anything in third grade.

That’s true, but it’s a pretty low-bar…What we don’t know is whether teachers are as “hard” as they need to be. In the case of Toledo, for instance, when you compare the number of teachers that have been dismissed through “peer review” to the number of teachers overall since the program’s inception, you have to conclude that Toledo does a much better job on the hiring front than most other districts. It’s a big number in absolute terms, not so much in relative terms and relative to the achievement picture.

But, that actually could be the case, good hiring, less need to dismiss. Problem is, we just don’t know because we’ve never used data to really analyze whether the teachers who get dismissed are indeed lower-performing than their colleagues or just perceived to be. Or (more likely in my view) how many teachers who are similarly ineffective don’t get removed through this system? With value-added data we could figure this out and it’s important to know both to gauge effectiveness and build standards that are genuinely linked with student learning. Often various standards that are agreed upon as being very important turn out not to be nearly as powerful as people wanted to believe. See, for instance, Board, National…

Also, it’s easy to romanticize the willingness of any profession to police its own. Many fields wrestle with and address this tension in different ways, but in education too often we just pretend it doesn’t exist at all. The incentives are often skewed against really being, in Kahlenberg terminology, “hard” about this. Consider that lousy lawyers don’t get disbarred, just some of the actually crooked or genuinely incompetent ones. Yet we know that lousy teachers –especially a few in a row — can really hurt a students chances (pdf) so we need a higher bar than that.

None of this is an absolute argument against peer review. Only an argument for being cognizant that there are not easy answers here.

See also ES’ Elena Silva on the same at Q & E.

Method Madness

Per this whole controversy about the Upward Bound evaluation, AERA’s always fabulous newsletter about what is happening in the research world reports that that there is an amendment in the education spending bill in the Senate to prescribe the methodology for the evaluation and shift it away from a randomized design. AERA is not pleased about it, and rightly so, this opens up a whole can of worms. Do we really want legislators deciding on the methodology for evaluating programs that they may — or may not – support? Why not just use the most optimal design?

Eduaction! Carey, Julian, Simmons, Utah, And, Mixed Message: Semantics Or Some Antics?

Kevin Carey gets all pissed-off about all this. And, post diss, he gets Richard Simmons to dish about No Child…Over at Gadfly Liam Julian turns-in a piece on Tuesday’s election returns that is well worth reading. Many readers have written to ask why I haven’t blogged more on the Utah voucher issue and offer their takes on it. The reason is that I didn’t think the plan would improve the schools there, and I don’t think its defeat does either. It’s a tired debate and not about kids or learning much at all.

Meanwhile, I’m completely confused about the merit pay/performance-pay differentiations that are a hot issue in teachers’ union circles. Here AFTie One-L* pushes back on Tapped’s Dana Goldstein writing that, “[The AFT] objected to the federal mandate that student test scores must be used to determine whether teachers get the incentive” in the Miller-McKeon No Child Left Behind draft proposal. But in New York City test scores are part of the bonus plan that was just put in place, the rewards can go to the whole school or just some teachers depending on what they decide at the school. Yet that’s not merit pay, says UFT Pres Randi Weingarten: “Unlike merit-pay plans that provide financial incentives to individual educators, the schoolwide bonus plan will reward the entire staff of any participating school that shows a significant gain in academic achievement.” I’d love for someone to sort this all out.

Seems to me that any plan that deviates from the standard “steps and lane” ** approach to consider factors like market incentives for shortage subjects, how challenging schools and communities are, or performance-pay plans can all be considered to be “differentiated pay.” In other words, all performance-pay is differentiated pay but not all differentiated pay is performance-pay.

Now as to the difference between performance-pay and merit-pay? I have absolutely no idea though it seems performance-pay plans can come in many shapes, sizes, and flavors. But in any event this all seems sort of passé since teachers elsewhere have embraced individualized performance-pay anyway! I’m not sure it’s a great idea in the education context but am happy to see the innovation so we can find out. On this pay-for-performance or whatever you want to call it issue, several new papers from Center for American Progress worth checking out: One by free-range former AFTie Joan Snowden and the other by former Eduwonk guestblogger Robin Chait.

*By the way, shouldn’t the teachers’ unions be crowing and flexing not explaining themselves on blogs?  They basically killed NCLB reauthorization for this year. And that’s OK, it’s called democratic debate. Remember that in its post-mortem after the 2001 law Education Week wrote a big story about how the unions were basically cut out of the loop and rolled. Now they’re back baby! I wish AFTie One-L would just take a victory lap and maybe kick sand in someone’s face rather than playing the misunderstood victim card! There were loads of things they didn’t like about the Miller-McKeon proposal and that’s OK, too! Update: NEA gloating here.

**I’m posting the UFT schedule here because they do a nice job making it easy to find, it’s illustrative of what most look like on form.

Tin Soldiers And Dillon Coming!

NYT’s Sam Dillon turns in an important story on charter schools in Ohio.* It’s really two stories, the Ohio narrative and the larger political story. On the former, two key quotes:

“If chronically lousy charters aren’t closed, the charter movement will continue under assault from its opponents” – Todd Ziebarth

“Mr. Ryan said it was hypocritical to sue failing charters without moving against Ohio’s scores of failing neighborhood schools.”

On Ziebarth, couldn’t agree more. On Ryan, not sure it’s hypocritical, the circumstances are different, but it’s surely both political and not in the best interest of kids. Here is where the Joe Williams “no crap” doctrine comes in — states shouldn’t tolerate lousy schools of any stripe. Sure, it lacks the elegance of say the Monroe Doctrine, but for poor kids it’s more important right now.

Dillon also does a nice job explaining why Ohio is somewhat anomalous as a charter school state. That points up the basic narrative here and why what’s happening in Ohio is worthy of the front page of The Times…the political story and possible implications.

*I was also surprised to see from the photo accompanying the article that Uma Thurman has been teaching at a low-performing charter school in Ohio. Who knew?

NAPCS’ Nelson Smith on the same here.

The Textbook Wars, Begun They Have

In the NYT Sam Freedman looks at one tech battle, but it’s USAT’s Greg Toppo who has the goods on what people have been murmuring about:

….a Florida textbook adoption committee approved Free-Reading, a remediation program for primary-school children that’s believed to be the first free, open-source reading program for K-12 public schools. It’s awaiting approval by Eric Smith, the state’s incoming education commissioner, who could approve it by mid-December.

A lot of money at stake here. Wireless Generation has its nose under the tent…but expect the empire to strike back.

Bart Peterson

It would be a big understatement to say I’m stunned by what happened in Indy yesterday and incredibly disappointed. Bart Peterson is among the very best public servants I’ve ever worked with and not just because he is so good on schools. Overall he was outstanding for the city and made some tough calls to improve things. It’s a shame the tax issue remains as potent as it does, a real challenge for Democrats and good government in general.

One reason Peterson’s charter school initiative received so much praise is because he was a very diligent authorizer, said no to opening a lot of schools and held those he did open accountable. Let’s hope the new mayor is as deliberate.

In the meantime, Peterson’s Mind Trust initiative will continue to go forward and grow. Keep an eye on that.

Update: Gee, thanks guys! Smart strategery!

Update II: See Ed Week’s must-read on this and also Joe Williams.

Tech Trouble

Blogger, the service I use to push posts live to the blog, seems to be having some troubles yesterday and today. I know that some people have published comments that have not shown up and that the comment counters under some posts are not working and registering 0 when in fact there are comments. Thanks for bringing that to my attention and sorry about it. The problem appears to be on their end so I can’t do much about it. Comments are not moderated so no one is being deliberately stiff-armed! And, some posts are showing up and then vanishing because they’re having publishing problems today. Just refresh as necessary and apologies for the inconvenience there as well. Update: Seems mostly fixed now. Update II: That was premature optimism. Posts are still coming and going and it’s spectacularly unhelpful that this post is one of them…

Posted on Nov 6, 2007 @ 10:13am

LA: Strength In Numbers

Gosh, it was hard to see this coming.

On the substance of the issue, school-site autonomy sounds great as a topline theme but earned autonomy seems a better way to go as a policy. The theory of action that struggling schools just left to their own devices will somehow improve seems very incomplete. They’re struggling precisely because they don’t know what to do and need help…It makes sense for a school district to give its high performers autonomy, work with the middle tier to turn them into high performers, and then really get intensive about the low-performers including bringing in outside service providers and so forth. Seems like that is what LA Sup’t Brewer was trying to do here.

Also, at least based on the rhetoric in the LAT article, it doesn’t seem like the teachers’ union in LA has learned a damn thing from the Green Dot episode. That’s too bad.

Posted on Nov 6, 2007 @ 9:29am