September 17, 2014

The Three-Year College Degree?

It’s getting to be ideas season with the presidential campaign set to being in earnest in just few weeks. Paul Weinstein has an early entrant in the ideas primary: A three-year college degree. It’s not the seven minute abs of higher ed policy, check it out.


September 16, 2014

EduJob: Director, DC Metro-Area Education Pioneers

Education Pioneers is a high-impact pipeline for talent.  They’re seeking a director for their DC-area operation. Great opportunity to not only help organizations now but also help build the network for talent coming into the education sector. Details here.


September 15, 2014

Edujob: Senior Director & Chief Of Research – PLE @ UVA

The Partnership for Leaders in Education* is an innovative program at the University of Virgina jointly sponsored by the education school and business school there.  The PLE works with struggling schools around the country and is producing results for school districts. They’re seeking someone to lead their research efforts to help learn more about what’s working and document it. Great role in an interesting organization inside a dynamic university. And Charlottesville consistently ranks on lists of best places to live, best outdoors towns, and so forth. It’s truly a lovely place to live.  More details here.

*Past BW client.


September 12, 2014

Reading Partners

“Fixes” blog in The Times takes a look at Reading Partners – and mentions recent MDRC eval.


High School Rankings, Context Please!

Libby Nelson turns in an interesting piece critical of high school rankings in Vox. It caught my eye because she focuses on the Newsweek approach to high school rankings, an approach I’ve criticized as well (pdf).  In my view it rewards the wrong things.

But two aspects of Nelson’s argument are worth a closer look. First, she inexplicably ignores the U.S. News high school rankings – which were designed to address the very shortcomings she raises. (Full disc, subsequent to our analysis of the Newsweek rankings I became a contributor to U.S. News in 2007 and helped design the rankings methodology). No ranking is without flaws but the U.S. News method takes into account equity issues. In particular the rankings consider achievement gaps, economic disadvantage, and college preparation. The result is that it’s not merely a list of selective admission (or affluent) public schools.* Open-admission schools crack the top-10 and the top 100 is an interesting list every year.

Second, Nelson writes that,

College rankings, at least in theory, are responding to a need in the market. Students applying to prestigious, selective colleges — particularly students who have the academic qualifications and the financial means to go to college anywhere — have quite a few to choose from. Enter rankings, a way to sort through it all.

Public high school doesn’t work this way. The most useful information for you is what the best high school in your city, state, or school district is. If you’re the parent of a smart kid in Scottsdale, Arizona, who cares more about academics than anything else, you might try to get into the BASIS Charter School via lottery.

This is true but incomplete in two ways. First, the U.S. News rankings allow you to break out schools by state or type of school so the geography becomes more bite-sized for parents. And knowing how your school stacks up on these measures relative to other schools near it is useful.

Second, yes, college is about choice. If you want a small northeastern liberal arts college and live in California you can still choose to go to Colby in Maine. And if you live in Maine but want a big land grant experience you can go to a Big 10 school. But there is value in knowledge even without geographic flexibility. Just knowing what the highly ranked high schools are doing and how they’re doing it can help other schools – especially if rankings consider things that matter, like effectiveness serving low-income students. Granted, in education today that sort of curiosity and culture of learning is quite ironically frequently absent. Too often the culture is about tearing down rather than building up. Still, from the start U.S. News has taken steps to foster it via various types of collaboration and dissemination.

*Lost in all the back and forth about public charter schools, which are lottery-based if over-subscribed, is the reality of selective admissions public schools, which almost no one complains about and are common. Score another one for politics.


Friday Fish Porn: The Roza Return

photo photo-2The Roza family are fish porn regulars here.

They’re back today with some action from Labor Day weekend in Idaho.  Today, one of Marguerite “Commodore” Roza’s daughters and her husband with some nice looking trout.  Roza is a school finance expert, currently based out of Georgetown University but working all over the country.

Eight years(!) of past fish porn via this link, all sorts of education types and their families with fish they’ve caught.


September 10, 2014

Edujob: Research And Policy Associate, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Get your Gadfly on! Fordham is hiring for a research and policy associate. Fast-paced think tank doing work on a variety of issues (and they have a roof deck). Great opportunity in the DC education policy community. Learn more about the role and its requirements here.


Edujob: IDEA Public Schools

Bellwether is helping IDEA Public Schools with its Director of Communications search.  Check out the position description on our site. This position plays a leadership role in developing an integrated internal communications strategy, growing and strengthening the network’s brand, and positioning IDEA as a thought leader and quality education advocate at the local, state and national levels. IDEA has a mission-centric, entrepreneurial, and high-performance culture where people who are good fits thrive.


September 9, 2014

Pension Reform

If the Rhode Island Democratic primary results are any clue pension reform might not be the third rail critics claim.


The Pianist – What A Young Prodigy Tells Us About The Key Challenge Facing Public Education

Customization. At its core that’s what the public education challenge is about. Customization encompasses issues that get more attention such as better academic quality, teacher effectiveness, safety, choice, and meeting parents where they are in life. But when you scratch beneath the surface with parents the frustrations they voice all come down to aspects of a “system” rather than an institution that works for whatever their child’s unique needs are. Of course, at some level, every child is unique and so universal accommodation for uniqueness is neither possible nor even desirable in education. But within the realm of the reasonable parents rightly expect more customization and schools can provide it.

So when you read a story like this one in this morning’s Washington Post about a family battling the school system over truancy rules it highlights the problem. No one is for truancy but the student profiled in the story is not spending her day on a couch watching TV. She’s a piano prodigy and travels some to play at various events. The school system is unaccommodating. Her parents can’t afford to go private in Washington’s market. (This is how private school choice advocates are created, by the way). They’re stuck.

If public schools want to be a provider of first choice rather than last resort for parents in the future their leaders have to find ways to offer parents more customization. In this case it would involve more work for teachers and some reciprocal accountability from the parents but is hardly an insurmountable challenge. And in the process they’d create an ambassador for the public schools rather than a story in the paper that leaves people shaking their heads.

More generally, the fight against allowing homeschoolers to take some classes or play sports, much of the debate about public charter schools, and the resistance to productivity enhancing reforms that can customize the in-classroom experience for students more highlight how public schools are alienating their base of support. The political price for that will be high.

Give the people what they want!

Update: DCPS responds – it’s not us, it’s the bureaucracy!  Probably should have just talked to the columnist in the first place? They’d be on stronger ground saying she didn’t “collect the facts…”

Update II: More good strategy, DCPS response triggers second column from the columnist.


September 8, 2014

Questions On Teacher Gender & Teacher Pay

In case you missed it over the weekend, Motoko Rich had an interesting article in The Times on gender and teaching.  Big issue and worth discussing but I wish the article had looked at a few contextual issues – especially because the primary underlying issue here is compensation.

Two caveats: (1) It’s unfair to lay all of this below on Rich, a single article, especially in print, can only do so much. (2) I think the evidence shows that teachers are underpaid, overpaid, and everything in between. Whaaat? You say. What I mean is that teacher compensation is a place averages tell us very little. There is tremendous variance and that’s where the action is in terms of understanding the issue and thinking about policy options. Meanwhile, outstanding teachers everywhere are underpaid and the much smaller number of underperforming counterparts are overpaid and rewarded by an approach to human resources that is largely indifferent to effectiveness.

A few thoughts on the article:

First, there was a bump of men going into teaching during the Vietnam-era (it was a draft-deferred occupation). There has not been a lot of analysis of that trend and its impact on demographics going forward. The article didn’t get into it but it would be great to see more analysis of the effects it had long-term, if any.

Second, Rich raises the issue of respect for the teaching profession. But this is a more complicated issue than just a binary respect/not-respected one that provides an easy talking point. In practice, teachers are well-regarded – an inconvenient fact for those saying no one respects teachers. But that respect has not translated into higher salaries or more professional norms for teaching. This could certainly be wholly or in part a gender issue. But it could be something else, too.

So, third, what about how teachers are paid and how many of them there are? It’s well-established that since the 1970s schools pursued a strategy of hiring more teachers (even relative to changes in student enrollment). A different choice would have been to drive up salaries instead. Fewer teachers means substantially better pay. And education remains one of the few fields where technology hasn’t leveraged some productivity gains (that also could lead to higher pay if deployed in that direction). There is also the the politically-charged issue of what effect the single-salary steps and lanes approach to salary (compensation overwhelmingly based on years taught and courses taken rather than other aspects of contribution to mission) has on overall salary. There is some evidence it depresses it.

Fourth, what about structure of the work?  We pay too little attention to the structure of the school week as well. There is remarkably little innovation in how schools schedule teachers’ time. Not only to allow time for collaboration but also to allow more work – life flexibility, something today’s professional workers want. Is there a gender component there? Possibly when it comes to (increasingly dated among the professional class) perceptions around childcare and work schedules.

And, finally, there is the issue of deferred compensation through defined-beneift pensions. You can’t consider teacher compensation without also looking at that issue and it’s an issue that changes what teacher comp looks like (and also  some interesting wonky issues there around Social Security participation, survivor benefits, and life-expectancy with regard to gender). Rich also falls into the trap of non-annualized salary comparisons, which depresses what teachers appear to earn because comparing 10 months to 12 months skews the result. But that’s just one way that apples to apples discussions of compensation tend to elude what’s a very value-laden issue.


September 5, 2014

Friday Fish Porn: Virginia Edition

photo 2[2] photo 1[1]Chad Ratliff is in the leadership of Albemarle County Public Schools (county that surrounds Charlottesville) and he recently took his kids fishing on the Elk River in West Virginia – with good results.

Past fish porn via this link.


September 2, 2014

Oklahoma’s Waiver Fight: A Surrey With Fringe On Top?

Anne Hyslop takes a look at how Oklahoma may have won by losing in its fight with the Department of Education about its No Child Left Behind waiver.


August 29, 2014

Friday Fish Porn – Recovering Pol Edition

photo 1Stephen Dyer was a state legislator in Ohio with a keen interest in education. And also fishing.

Here’s his wife Melissa and sons Carson and Logan with a shark(!) they caught this summer in South Carolina.

Past fish porn via this link.


Weekend Reading: Vergara Decision

All the fireworks earlier this summer about California’s Vergara lawsuit about granting of tenure, teacher dismissal, and last in/first out layoff policies in California were based on a cursory preliminary ruling. The final decision was released yesterday – you can read it here (pdf). And you should. It’s an important case and the gap between the issues in the case, the analysis about them, what it means and doesn’t mean, and the claims being made about the case is enormous.


Teacher Evaluation Rhetoric V. Teacher Evaluation Reality

Earlier this week Bellwether released an analysis by Chad Aldeman and Carolyn Chuong looking at the state of play on teacher evaluations around the country (pdf). It’s based on 17 states and DC. The punchline is that not unlike a few other issues there is a de facto conspiracy of hype happening here. Some advocates of improved evaluations and some public officials are touting changes that the data are not bearing out. Meanwhile critics (easily found on blogs and twitter) citing a teacherpocalypse clearly overstate what’s actually happening.

This builds on this earlier analysis that shows that the actual changes to evaluation schemes are generally different than the way they’re talked about publicly (pdf). For instance, the role of test scores, linkage to tenure and so forth.


August 28, 2014

Race, Urban Teaching, And Can The Education Community Talk About Anything In A Sensible Way These Days?

A Washington Post column on tenure and race is getting some attention. It argues that Vergara-like efforts to reform tenure laws are really an attack on black professionals. The author, ed school dean Andre Perry, acknowledges that parts of the Vergara case have merit:

Vergara’s defenders are onto something when they say schools need faster ways to remove ineffective, racist, sexist and uncommitted teachers. I personally believe that, along with evaluations, the period before one is granted tenure should at least be longer than the duration after which the average teacher leaves the profession (4-5 years). Still, changes like these can be made in the current framework of teacher tenure laws.

But he argues that,

Vergara activists must not only prove how gutting tenure laws leads to better schooling; they must show how the entire community benefits.

Ignore for a moment that the Vergara decision didn’t actually jettison all due process rights, that’s a talking point. The judge explicitly pointed out that the case was about changes to due process. In other words, changes within the “framework” of tenure laws (that he left it up to the legislature to sort out if the ruling stands on appeal). And Vergara-advocates want longer tenure periods and faster dismissal, too. Other than last in/first out rules that’s what the case was about!

So while one can quibble with those issues as well as with some of Perry’s assertions (that raising the bar for teaching must come at the expense of diversity, for instance), the more basic point – that there is an inescapable racial dimension to urban reform efforts – is an important one to discuss, whether you agree with him or not.

It’s hard, though, to have that discussion because of what the column doesn’t say rather than what it does. Perry is correct that the effect of some personnel reforms in urban schools have been layoffs of black teachers. Richard Whitmire quickly pointed that out on Twitter. Yet Perry doesn’t just say that’s the effect of some reforms, he seems to be implicitly arguing that it’s the intent. Or at a minimum he’s not clearly saying that it’s not, which in America’s combustible dialogue about race is not a small thing. He writes that,

…an attack on bad teacher tenure laws (and ineffective teachers in general) is actually an attack on black professionals.

In today’s weaponized education debate that unfortunate and inflammatory tone is catnip for the usual suspects. For instance, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (consider her a known offender here, in the past she has been quick to whip up racial animosity even as she has called for changing the tone of the education conversation) took to Twitter with a few tweets touting the article). It should probably go without saying that she offered no nuance or caveats.

In a way it’s an interesting issue for Weingarten to seize on because in many ways Perry’s argument is an anagram of a different issue embroiling the teachers unions – how to deal with sex abusers in schools. Union leaders are frequently accused of wanting to shield sex offenders from consequences. In my experience this isn’t the case, they’re as appalled by that conduct as the rest of us. But they do believe that a substantial due process procedure is necessary to protect all teachers even if it has the inadvertent effect of complicating efforts to address sexual abuse. I disagree with the prevailing policies now but I don’t think those defending them countenance sexual abuse, they just see a different set of trade-offs.

That nuance, which is shared by many, is of course mostly lost.

In the same way, there is a great deal of concern about the impact of demographic changes to urban teaching forces, the effects of personnel policies, and so forth. Reasonable people can disagree about where the trade-offs are and how policies should account for them. But it’s a charged conversation and an easy one for the usual suspects to hijack especially with language like Perry employs.

Why does this matter? It’s about a lot more than a poorly reasoned op-ed. Another combustible and important issue that is commonly discussed behind the scenes but not as much in public – race and urban education reform – is beginning to get a more public airing. It’s a chance to repeat the same mistakes or learn something. Takeaway number one: These are complicated issues.

So let’s hope that the conversation has some texture to it that reflects that, even if it’s just a quick but sincere disclaimer that there is often a big distinction between effects and intent.


August 27, 2014

UI On School Segregation

New data from Urban Institute on school demographics and segregation. 


August 26, 2014

Is Arne Duncan’s Teacher Evaluation Moratorium Unnecessary?

Guestpost by Chad Aldeman and Carolyn Chuong:

In his back-to-school speech last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised several states for their progress in developing new teacher evaluation systems. In noting that too much testing can “rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress,” Secretary Duncan called for states to postpone using test results to evaluate teachers for one school year.

Yet some states now using student test scores to evaluate teachers don’t seem to be producing results that should cause much stress for teachers. Hawaii and Delaware, for instance, now both include student growth in their teacher evaluation systems. But out of 11,300 teachers in Hawaii, only 25 teachers (0.2 percent) were deemed “unsatisfactory.” In Delaware, 0 percent of teachers were rated “ineffective” (the lowest rating) and only 1 percent were found to “need improvement.”

Hawaii and Delaware are not exceptions: Across the country, the “new” teacher evaluations that include student growth continue to look a lot like the old ones that did not consider student performance. How could this be? In our new paper, Teacher Evaluations in an Era of Rapid Change: From “Unsatisfactory” to “Needs Improvement,” (pdf) we examine the ongoing effort to revamp teacher evaluations.

After collecting and synthesizing data from 17 states and the District of Columbia, we found that, despite state policy changes, many districts still don’t factor student growth into teacher evaluation ratings in a meaningful way. And, despite concerns that one-size-fits-all teacher evaluation models would limit local autonomy, districts continue to have wide discretion even under “statewide” evaluation systems—and that’s not entirely a good thing. The result is that in many places there is still no clear connection between student academic achievement and educator evaluations.

To read about the new evaluation systems and the preliminary lessons for policymakers, download the full report here.

Chad Aldeman is an associate partner at Bellwther Education where Carolyn Chuong is an analyst.


August 25, 2014

More Unschooling

The Times takes a look at unschooling. Within the bounds of safety I favor a lot of latitude for parents doing what they think is best, but this debate is still mostly driven by anecdote: ‘Homeschoolers win spelling bees!’ is now being replaced with ‘unschoolers are artists and entrepreneurs!’


August 22, 2014

Friday Fish Porn – The Rookie

boat photo 2Mark Medema has worked in education for two decades including with KIPP and currently with Building Hope. He’s an expert on education facilities finance. I recently got this great note and picture from him.

He writes: I probably never would have thought about spending a day fishing if I hadn’t seen so many others do it. A rookie, a striper, and a good day off Cape Cod…

Outstanding! That’s the whole point of this feature. Whether you’re trying something new with friends (or ideally young people), recapturing memories of simple afternoons sitting on a dock, or challenging yourself with a difficult target species get outside and go fishing!

Past fish porn dating to vintage 2006 stuff here. 


Be A Level Setter!

The SBAC Common Core assessment consortia is crowdsourcing cut scores and you can participate. More information here and registration materials here. Wondering what a cut score is? Learn more here (pdf).


August 21, 2014

Jim Epstein On The Education Debate: “Where even distinguished professors wield spiked bats”

Harsh, but worth pausing for this look at the education “conversation.”


TNTP & PoliticsK12 On Dep’t Of Ed Eval Announcement

You’ll hear a lot about the Department of Education’s latest waiver waiver waiver gambit with regard to teacher evaluation but this Politics K-12 post offers some context and this TNTP reaction is worth reading – all points.


Book Event The Opportunity Equation W/ Eric Schwartz

On Monday evening, September 8th, Eric Schwartz will be in Washington, DC, to discuss his new book, The Opportunity Equation. You can learn more and RSVP here.  If you don’t know Eric he’s the founder of Citizen Schools, an impactful extended learning time initiative and one of the most interesting social entrepreneurs out there.


Edujob @ Pahara Institute

Pahara Institute runs highly regarded fellowship programs in the education sector for teacher leaders and other educational leaders as well as next generation leaders. Originally launched by Bellwether co-founder Kim Smith Pahara is now an independent organization based in California.

They’re growing and hiring for a few roles, in particular for a director for their next generation network. More details through those links but it’s a great role for someone interested in both growth and sustainability of innovative solutions in the sector.


August 20, 2014

Virginia Tries To Boil A Frog: The School Accreditation – Performance Disconnect Emerges Again

A lot of handwringing in Virginia over the prospect that the percent of schools with full accreditation from the state may drop again this year as standards rise (modestly).  The percent of schools that are accredited matters a lot. Because that figure has until recently been in the high 90s it has long functioned as the way the state’s iron-triangle of interests opposed to reform has fended-off efforts to improve the schools. ‘We don’t need reform, 96 percent of schools are fully accredited’ goes the argument.  It also matters because Virginia has no other accountability system, so accreditation is the whole ballgame. It also, of course, matters as a proxy for student learning.

A few thoughts on all this:

Virginia is fortunate that it has relatively few schools that are genuine fiascos. Schools where 10 percent of the students are proficient, for instance, are rare. That’s not the case in many other jurisdictions. There are pockets of acute problems, yes, but Virginia starts from a better place than many states.

But the commonwealth does have a pervasive problem of middling performance and big achievement gaps. That’s been obscured by an accreditation system which does not disaggregate by student subgroups (for instance racial and ethnic minorities or children with special needs) and only requires about 7 in 10 students to pass the state’s reading and math tests at an unambitious level of performance in order for a school to be accredited. Meanwhile, national media indexes that overweight inputs (income levels in Virginia for example) and underweight outputs (actual school outcomes) have created a culture of complacency.

This explains why Virginia could at once have an impressive number of schools accredited and such a feel good spirit about educational quality when at the same time only 17 percent of black students are proficient in reading by 8th-grade on the National Assessment of Education Progress (a college and career ready standard of performance as opposed to what constitutes passing under Virginia’s assessments). Just 17 percent of poor students reach that standard. And only 45 percent of white students. In math the numbers are no better, 17 percent of poor students, one in four Hispanic students, and just 15 percent of black students are proficient by 8th-grade across the commonwealth.

Bottom line: It’s safe to say that at best half of Virginia students are not leaving school at a genuine college/career ready level of performance. In last year’s graduating class 49 percent of students received the “advanced studies diploma,” which is the best approximation of a college/career ready standard of course taking and achievement. Slightly more than half of white students received that diploma, about a third of minority graduates did.

Reconciling this discrepancy – perceived high-performance and actual problematic performance – is as much a political problem as a substantive one. For a long time the prevailing ethos has been one emphasizing good news and happy talk rather than an honest accounting about educational performance. The embarrassment about Virginia’s absurdly low-expectations for some students as part of is No Child Left Behind waiver was an awkward light on all that.

Today, that even a modest bump in performance expectations can cause consternation and potentially cause so many schools to fall out of full-accreditation speaks volumes about where things are, the fragility of the quality myth and the enormous leadership challenge facing state policymakers to bring about genuine improvements aligning the reality of Virginia’s schools with the rhetoric about them.


August 18, 2014

New Class Of Pahara-Aspen Fellows for Fall 2014

Great group comprising the next cohort of Pahara-Aspen fellows. Learn more about them and the fellowship here.


Will The Reformer Who Thinks Only Test Scores Matter And Schools Should Run Like Businesses Please Report To The Front Office

I usually find David Kirp’s writing to be interesting but his weekend op-ed in The Times was full of straw men and an unfortunate exception. Kirp writes that,

TODAY’S education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy.

The first part of that sentence is generally true (and is true for generations of reformers across a range of social policy issues, if something is working, why reform it?) but the second part? You hear this claim a lot but a more accurate rendition would be something along the lines of, ‘and reformers believe there are lessons to be learned from other sectors, including business, the non-profit sector, the military, medicine, and other professions.” I hear businesspeople sometimes say that schools should run like businesses but you rarely hear it from someone actually in the education world.  Later in the piece Kirp points out places schools could learn from business.

He then writes,

“High-stakes reading and math tests are treated as the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.” 

That would be a stronger point with an example of someone actually saying it. That’s going to be hard though because no one really does. The simultaneous and ongoing criticism of reformers for favoring choice and competition and for wanting test scores included in accountability systems show’s why this is a strawman. To varying degrees reformers believe that accountability systems can’t capture everything that matters about schools and the best way to capture those other elements is by giving parents choice. For some that means choice in the public sectors, for others via public charter schools as well, and for others (on the right and left) those options  and/or  private school choice is the remedy they see is optimal with test scores used for informational purposes or not at all. In fact, the only people essentially arguing that test scores or similar metrics alone are the only way to judge schools are those supporting high metric but low-choice policy models. They believe that more centralized systems, like those often found in Europe, provide more coherence and that choice is a distraction. And you know where you generally find people who believe that’s the best approach? Hint: It’s not the reform world.

All this is too bad because Kirp points up two important issues: Human endeavors like schools are messy and policy must find ways to account for that messiness, including just getting out of the way of it at times. And technology isn’t going to render those issues obsolete.  But those ideas won’t get the hearing they should because I know a lot of people who stopped reading after those first few caricaturing lines.

Update: Neerav Kingsland with additional thoughts. 


No Win On New York Tests!

Big NY Post story over the weekend about adjustments to New York’s tests based on this year’s results. 

It’s a no win situation because if the state doesn’t adjust the cut score to reflect differences in difficulty in the questions used then they get attacked for trying to make the schools look bad (to privatize then, natch). If they do adjust the scores then they get attacked for goosing the scores for political reasons. And what’s really fun about education today is that it’s the exact same people who will attack you either way.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is the pervasive lack of transparency around assessments and the process that derives cut scores in the first place (pdf). States could save themselves a lot of headaches if they were more upfront about all this in the first place and just explained clearly how decisions were made and their effect.

Less noticed, unfortunately, is an interesting NY pilot using Race to the Top dollars to help schools move away from traditional tests in some non-core subjects. ”Tests” get lumped together but the majority of assessments a student sees over the course of the year are driven by state, district, or school policies. Federal requirements are just reading and math, grades 3-8 (and in high school). Federal policy explicitly does not require stakes to be attached to those tests for students. Lost in all the back and forth about testing is that issue and steps that could be taken to clear away a lot of the underbrush.