June 25, 2019

Universal Student Loan Forgiveness Solves the Wrong Problems

Bernie Sanders is proposing to forgive all student loan debt, an outstanding balance of about $1.6 trillion. Lots of people have pointed out flaws with this idea, but Matt Bruenig has one of the simplest explanations for what’s wrong with the Sanders proposal:

Thus it appears that the universe of people selected for this program is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. It is over-inclusive because people who graduate from Harvard’s MBA program in 2021 will receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt relief (though, strangely, people who enroll in that program in 2022 will receive nothing). It is under-inclusive because people who drained $50,000 off their net worth to pay for an undergraduate degree at a public college — but who do not currently carry student debt — will receive no reimbursement for their ongoing financial suffering.

$1.6 trillion is a lot of money. If we’re sticking solely in the education world, that would buy a lot of Pell grants for poor students or slots for Head Start or universal pre-k. Heck, the federal government could wipe out all state pension debt for that kind of money, which would translate into boosting teacher salaries by an average of about 12 percent.

Maybe Senator Sanders is so attached to the idea of universal programs that he just doesn’t care about how well they target benefits. Maybe I’m missing the point, but if we’re going to invest that kind of money, I’d prefer we target it to individuals who need it the most.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 23, 2019

What To Make of the Research on Teacher-Student Race-Match?

Constance Lindsay has a nice run-down of the research on the importance of teacher-student race match. To put it bluntly, black students do better on a host of educational outcomes when they have black educators in their lives. What can we do about this problem?

The simple and most obvious answer is to diversify our teacher workforce. There are a lot of reasons to pursue a more diverse teaching corps, but, given our current trajectory, that could take a very long time.

Another possible lever would be to train or re-train our existing teachers. My Bellwether colleagues Max Marchitello and Justin Trinidad wrote a report on the merits of that approach.

However, training efforts aren’t exactly straightforward. We can’t even train teachers how to teach reading or math effectively, so we may want to be cautious that we’ll be able to train teachers on anti-racism at scale.

And then there’s the sheer size of the teacher workforce. Is it reasonable to expect all 4 million public school teachers to change their attitudes and dispositions? That’s especially true if the race-match effects are being driven by more subtle differences about expectations rather than overt racism.

It would be easy to see these obstacles and throw up our hands, but the race-match finding is too important to simply ignore. Yet instead of addressing the race-match issue through individual teachers, we should be thinking more systemically. Reforms like double-blind disciplinary reviews, universal testing and screening policies, and other policy reforms could take the human element out of the equation and more immediately address the consequences of the teacher-student race-match problem.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 21, 2019

Weekend Edu-Reads

Matt Kraft has a thread about a new OECD study looking at how American teachers compare with teachers in other developed countries. Or read the full study here.

In the context of the charter school debate, David Osborne makes the point that we’ve “privatized” all sorts of public services, from trash and recycling to Medicare and Medicaid. Even in the education sector, we spend billions of public dollars every year on privately provided early childhood and higher education services.

Join me and Education Week‘s Daarel Burnette II to talk about what education reporters need to know about teacher pensions.

On that front, Mike Antonucci has a quick dive into California pension figures.  This is right-on:

We tend to frame the pension issue as a thin line between school districts and the state on one side, and public employees on the other. But as pension obligations grow, it also becomes a tug-of-war between the 300,000 CalSTRS retirees and the 650,000 educators who are enrolled in CalSTRS but still working.

Mike Petrilli with a happy reminder that educational outcomes are trending upward, even if gaps remain and we’ve made more progress for younger than older students.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 19, 2019

Is Teach For America Our Largest Provider of New Teachers of Color?

Yesterday I noted that Teach For America is likely our largest provider of new teachers. Although it’s impossible to prove definitively given current data limitations, TFA is also likely our largest provider of new teachers of color.

First, let’s go with TFA’s estimate that half of their corps members identify as people of color. Since they’re currently placing about 3,500 teachers a year overall, that means TFA is responsible for about 1,750 new teachers of color entering America’s public schools every year.

There are very few teacher preparation programs that prepare that many teachers overall. Even if you count all bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education, only seven institutions train as many total teachers as TFA does teachers of color. And for those other institutions, that’s the total number of prepared teachers; it includes people of all races, people who earn education degrees but never teach, and people who are earning in-service Master’s degrees and aren’t strictly new to the profession.

Once you take those caveats in mind, it’s almost guaranteed that TFA is the largest single provider of new teachers of color.

Maybe this comparison isn’t completely fair. After all, TFA is one national program, but it’s made up of 51 regions across the country. In that way, you could argue TFA is more like a system than one standalone entity.

But even viewed more expansively, TFA is still likely at or near the top of the list. On a cumulative basis, the 101 HBCUs with education programs operating in 2016-17, the most recent year for which we have data, granted a total of about 3,000 bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education.* Again, not all these people will teach, and not all of them are new teachers.

As I mentioned yesterday, the California State University system is probably the closest parallel. It’s impossible to know given current data systems, but it’s likely that TFA’s placement of 1,750 new teachers of color probably outpaces even Cal State.

I went through the evidence on TFA’s impact in more detail yesterday, but it’s worth remembering that TFA is placing its corps members into disadvantaged schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students. On average, TFA corps members are at least as effective with those students as other teachers in the same schools, but there’s also suggestive evidence that TFA corps members have an especially strong positive effect on black and Hispanic students.

We don’t know exactly why TFA gets the results it does, whether it’s the “grit” of their corps members, or the expectations they set for their students, or whether there’s something about the teacher-student race match. But regardless, TFA is helping to diversify our schools, and those efforts are paying off for the students it serves.

*Note that TFA also recruits from and partners with colleges and universities. In the event someone earned an education degree and participated in TFA, they would be double-counted in these numbers. But if they attended the college, graduated with a non-education degree, and then joined TFA, TFA would get the credit in these totals.

Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with TFA in the past. 

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 18, 2019

Teach For America Is Our Largest Provider of New Teachers… And Likely Our Best!

There’s lots of talk today about this ProPublica story on Teach For America. To put it bluntly, I don’t think it’s a very fair or nuanced piece of journalism, and it’s missing two major pieces of context.

One, Teach For America is probably the largest provider of new teachers in the U.S.

This is hard to prove definitively given our fragmented data systems, but I’m quite confident it’s true. Consider our largest teacher preparation programs, in terms of total graduates. I pulled the latest data on all 2016-17 graduates with a bachelor’s or Master’s degree in education. The list of the largest teacher preparation programs may surprise some people, but here’s the top ten:


Institution Total Education Graduates (2016-17)
Grand Canyon University 5037
Western Governors University 4009
Concordia University-Portland 2320
Walden University 2202
Liberty University 2081
Ashford University 2066
National University 1821
University of Phoenix-Arizona 1580
University of Central Florida 1522
Ball State University 1272

These are big numbers, but they reflect graduates, not teachers, let alone new teachers. These are important distinctions. We know based on state and national numbers that many graduates with education degrees do not actually become teachers. Depending on the year and region, 25-40 percent of people who earn degrees in education never use that degree as a teacher.

Moreover, these numbers include bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. it’s impossible to know from the data, but it’s likely that the totals are padded by active teachers pursuing a Master’s degree to boost their salaries.

Let’s use Grand Canyon University as an example. It granted the most bachelor’s and the most Master’s degrees in education, but only 1,564 of those were bachelor’s degrees. If we assume that only those attaining a bachelor’s were truly new, and those graduates went on to teach at the national averages, Grand Canyon might have been responsible for somewhere around 1,000 new teachers that year.

The Cal State system provides another example. While no single institution made the list above, the Cal State system as a whole produced about 2,100 bachelor’s degrees and about 3,100 Master’s degrees in education that year. But in order for those teachers to qualify for a full-time license, California requires teachers to go through their preparation program after completing their bachelor’s degree. So again, these totals are deceptively high in terms of the total new teachers placed by the Cal State system.

In contrast, Teach For America currently has about 7,000 corps members, and they regularly churn out cohorts of 3,000 to 4,000 teachers.* Granted, TFA corps members are spread out all across the country, so it may not be the largest provider in any one state or region, but, collectively, TFA is larger than any other provider of new teachers.

Two, Teach For America may be the best teacher preparation program in the country.

Again, this is a hard statement to prove definitively, but TFA is certainly the most studied, and it reliably produces results that are at least as good if not better than its peers. TFA corps members outperform other incoming teachers in states like North Carolina and Tennessee and they even perform as well as other veteran teachers working in their same schools. TFA teachers do have higher turnover rates than other new teachers, but, on balance, students are still better off. This research mainly focuses on student growth in terms of achievement scores, but TFA teachers may also help boost student attendance

However, there’s a much larger difference across TFA corps members than between TFA and other preparation programs. (If you want to see what this looks like visually, Figures 2-3 here illustrate that point nicely.) That finding alone should make us stop and pause.

In fact, this variance issue plagues much of the journalism about TFA. Given the enormous size of TFA and the wide variety of outcomes of its teachers, it’s easy to find corps members who fit whatever narrative you might want to apply to it.

So I get why TFA is such a lightning rod. It’s huge, and it provides a stark contrast to the traditional teacher preparation programs. But I don’t find the politics around TFA all that interesting or illuminating. I’m much more interested in how this enormous, diffuse, short-term training program manages to produce new teachers who are still roughly on par with their peers.

*TFA often partners with higher education institutions, and when their corps members complete a degree, those completions would be counted toward the host college or university, not TFA. 

Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with TFA in the past. 

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Latest Edu-Reads

Go broad or go deep? I’m on the record suggesting the education field is tilting too far in the direction of specialization. If you’re interested in this question, I strongly recommend this podcast conversation between Patrick O’Shaughnessy and David Epstein. Epstein’s new book Range also looks promising.

Make sure to read Lauren Camera’s deep dive on the Census, and how including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census would affect schools.

Over at The Line, Andy Rotherham writes about America’s “crisis of purpose,” and what we can reasonably ask schools to do to resolve some of society’s thorniest problems.

Max Marchitello on a wonky but important story out of West Virginia. The state’s pension system is massively under-funded, biting into education budgets and teacher paychecks, and yet the state’s efforts to reform its pension plan didn’t go well. Max dives into what happened and what we can learn from it.

Smarter than the average ____? This is an interesting article on the intelligence of bears.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 10, 2019

Better Schools Won’t Fix America… But They Sure Would Help!

Wow, this piece by Nick Hanauer in The Atlantic is one-third correct and two-thirds completely and totally wrong. I’d be happy to see more education funders like Hanauer realize that education alone won’t fix America’s social problems, but, gosh, there’s still a lot more that schools could do to improve our society.

There’s a lot to unpack, but these sentences in particular made me want to scream:

In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow.

No, no, no! First, I don’t know of any study on the sequence that Hanauer is talking about here, while we do have research on how education leads to improvements in individual lives and in broader societies. The education route may not be as fast as Hanauer might prefer, but it’s certainly not zero.

Second, it seems like Hanauer may be defining “great schools” in terms of achievement levels, but that’s the wrong way to look at things. We should define “great schools” as schools that significantly improve the trajectories of the students in their care. Judged that way, education may not be the sole solution to all of America’s social problems, but funders shouldn’t discard it as one lever to improve the outcomes for our most disadvantaged children.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 6, 2019

Weekend Edu-Reads

There’s a new cohort of inspiring Pahara-Aspan Education Fellows.

“Put simply, LAUSD needs to stop spending more than it receives from the state and federal government,” warns the Los Angeles County of Education in the wake of a failed parcel tax. Reminder: This is the long-term fiscal picture LAUSD is facing.

We already knew there were large teacher quality gaps. On average, disadvantaged students get the worst teachers, no matter how you define “quality” or “disadvantage.” A new paper from Jason Grissom, Brendan Bartanen, and Hajime Mitani finds similar gaps in principal quality. They conclude that, “by virtually every quality measure, we find that schools serving larger fractions of low-income students, students of color, and low-achieving students are led by less qualified, less effective principals.”

When states give low ratings to early childhood programs, parents respond by voting with their feet, and the programs respond by making improvements. That’s exactly how things are supposed to work, yet we’re still debating whether “summative ratings” are a good idea or not.

This EdNext piece digging into the data on summer learning loss is really worth your time. Paul von Hippel found that the common narrative about summer learning loss is based on a test administered to 883 Baltimore first graders in 1982. Needless to say, things have changed since then, and newer, better tests don’t show the same summer slide.

In case anyone is curious, no one in my unscientific poll thought Joe Biden had the “the most energetically liberal presidential agenda in American history.” See here for context.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 4, 2019

How Teacher Pension Plans Work

Andy Rotherham and I have a new “explainer” deck out today on teacher pensions. Read it here. But “why pensions?” you might ask. Well, if you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that pensions are affecting your work, whether you want them to or not.
Pensions intersect with issues around teacher recruitment and retention, school funding inequities, charter schools, and a whole lot more. I’ve personally been working on pension issues for 10 years now, and here’s what keeps me going:
  • Pension costs are rising rapidly, and they’re driving out funds that could be going toward teacher salaries, textbooks, pre-k or arts programs, or anything else we might value in education.
  • Despite their overall cost, the plans are not that great for the typical teacher. Depending on the state, the plans really only provide a decent benefit to teachers who remain in one state for their entire career. The rest will leave their years of teaching with no pension at all, or a meager one.
  • The plans are also inequitable. The biggest winners under the current systems are districts with high salaries and low employee turnover–aka the exact group that doesn’t need an extra subsidy from the state. Meanwhile, poor schools with higher employee turnover lose out.

The deck has a lot more, including examples of states that have been able to offer retirement plans that are better for both teachers and taxpayers. Read it here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 3, 2019

Weekend Edu-Reads

“Be cautious of the long-run benefits from $6 solutions.” That’s University of Pittsburgh researcher Lindsay Page talking about “nudges” designed to help high school students make better decisions about college.

Over at TeacherPensions.org, I have a piece looking at what age most teachers enter the profession, including some state-level breakdowns.

Don’t read Conor Williams unless you want to be depressed.

Rick Hess calls Joe Biden’s education platform “the most energetically liberal presidential agenda in American history.” Really? That seems a bit hyperbolic. Or maybe Rick is just defining the field narrowly? One could argue that many of our most “energetically liberal” federal education policies came during Republican administrations.

On K-12 education policy alone, I think I’d rank the presidents something like this, from most to least energetically liberal:

1. George W. Bush

2. LBJ

3. Ike

4. Carter

5. George H.W. Bush

6. Clinton

7. Obama

45. Trump

I’d put Biden’s platform, which essentially boils down to “more money and more resources without any new accountability,” somewhere after Obama on this list. But I’d love to read your rankings and justifications in the comments.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman