Weekend Reading List

Some good weekend reads:

  • Catherine Gewertz on more states moving to the ACT* or SAT as their high school accountability test.
  • Sandy Kress doesn’t pull any punches on current NCLB reauthorization proposals.
  • Mary Nguyen Barry asks if we need a “NAEP for Higher Ed.”
  • Here’s the GAO on teacher prep and the lack of state oversight. Key quote: “Some states reported that they do not assess whether TPPs are low-performing, as required by federal law. 
  • And Sara Mead on America’s broken approach to teacher preparation.
  • On that note, Kevin Carey makes the point that researchers basically can’t tell universities apart from one another, because they’re just a collection if disjointed departments and faculty members. If that’s true for entire universities, what does that mean for colleges of education, which typically offer multiple distinct prep programs, each of which may only have a handful of students?
  • On enrolling newly hired University of California employees into a new 401k-style plan rather than the existing defined benefit pension system, Janet Napolitano said, “Pension reform needs to happen. It’s the responsible thing to do.”

*Disclosure: ACT is a former client. 

–Chad Aldeman

Teacher Shortage? Blame the Economy

*Cross posted at the Teacherpensions.org blog

What’s causing teacher shortages across the country? Although it might be fun to blame your least favorite thing in education–the Common Core, say, or teacher evaluations or millennials–new research suggests the economy is the primary driver in the supply of new teachers (h/t InsideHigherEd).

The new paper looks at the college majors of students who turned age 20 between 1960 and 2011. Then, it linked the students’ decisions with data on macroeconomic trends to examine how business cycles affect student choices. Of the 38 majors included in the study, education was the biggest loser. When recessions hit, both men and women were less likely to want to become teachers and instead turned to fields like accounting and engineering. In number terms, the researchers estimate that, “each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate…decreases the share of women choosing Early and Elementary Education by a little more than 6 percent.” (For men it was even higher.)

To put that in context, the national unemployment rate rose from 4.4 percent in May 2007 to 10.0 percent in October 2009. Using the paper’s estimates, that would imply the recent recession caused a decline in female enrollment in elementary education of 33.6 percent (the 5.6 percentage point change in the unemployment rate multiplied by the 6 percent figure above).

A 34 percent decline due purely to economic conditions may sound high at first blush, but it would help explain much of what we’re seeing out in the field. For example, it would explain most but not all of the decline in program completers that we documented in our recent paper on California’s teacher pipeline. State-by-state changes in economic conditions may also help explain why some, but not all, states are experiencing declining interest in teacher preparation programs. (And all of these figures put Teach for America’s much-publicized 10 percent decline in perspective. So far, TFA has weathered the decline better than other preparation programs.)

While the declines are not good news for schools–it means they’re competing for a smaller number of candidates–a recent paper found that teachers hired during the recent recession tended to be stronger than those hired during better economic times.

What’s ironic about all current attention to teacher shortages is that teacher shortages are the exact thing that will lead to the next boomlet in teacher prep. The media will cover the shortages, districts will raise their wages to attract workers, and we’ll start this cyle all over again. And then the next recession will hit and we’ll be back to hearing about teachers who can’t find teaching jobs. And so on, and on…

–Chad Aldeman

Updated: Who Are the 12 Percent?

Last year the Center for Public Education (CPE) released their first report in a series on high school graduates who do not go on to college. In that report, author Jim Hull found that only 12 percent of high school graduates did NOT go on to college. When nearly everyone goes, the “college or career” dichotomy is mostly a myth (and a shrinking one at that).

CPE’s latest report in the series looks at what happens to these students. According to their analysis, some things don’t seem to matter–in general, the number of courses students completed, how much homework they did, or how involved they were extracurricular activities did not affect their future earnings potential. However, completing certain courses in math and science (and certain combinations of courses) and attaining a professional certification or licensure DID have an impact on earnings as well as non-economic outcomes like voting and volunteering.

Check out the full report here.

Update: My friend Ben Miller asked how this would change if we looked at high school students earlier in their career. Luckily, NCES has a national survey on high school sophomores and their outcomes 10 years later. For every 100 public high school students who were sophomores in 2002, 3 dropped out before graduating, 13 graduated high school but not go on to college, and the rest attended at least some form of postsecondary education (50 of the original 100 attained some postsecondary credential) within 10 years. See Table 1 here.

–Chad Aldeman

The Every Child Achieves Act Is Loose-Loose

Spend enough time in education policy, and you’re bound to hear someone articulate the concept that federal education policy should be “tight-loose.” That is, federal policy should be “tight” on the expectations for what students should know and be able to do, but “loose” on how students and schools meet those expectations. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli has been one of the most active champions of this concept, articulating in a 2011 “Briefing Book” (with Checker Finn, Fordham’s President at the time) exactly how this tight-loose construction should work. (The slogan became so ubiquitous that Fordham released a joke video in 2013 where “tight loose” played a prominent role.)

But times have changed, and although you may hear the same phrase, it no longer means what it used to. Petrilli now supports a Senate bill, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), that is loose on goals AND loose on means.

I’m not just aiming potshots at Petrilli for the sake of it. I consider Mike a friend, but I find it troubling that he and others seem willing to walk away from his good policy ideas simply because the political winds today are less friendly to federal involvement in education policy.

For my purposes here, Petrilli presents the opportunity to show that what used to pass for a sensible, “reform realist” conservative policy is now considered anathema. So as a useful historical exercise, here’s a list of key policy issues with how Fordham circa 2011 proposed tackling it, compared with how today’s ECAA does it. On nearly every aspect, the ECAA is looser than what Fordham and Petrilli supported just a few years ago:

Issue Comparison
Standards Fordham: “As a condition of receiving federal Title I funds, require states to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math, OR to demonstrate that their existing standards are just as rigorous as the Common Core. Standards developed apart from the Common Core initiative would be peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts…” 

ECAA: States must “provide an assurance that the State has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards,” but states are not required to submit their standards to anyone.


Verdict: Looser

Achievement Goals Fordham: “As a condition of receipt of Title I funds, require states to set achievement standards such that students will be college- and career-ready by the time they graduate from high school. Require states to back-map achievement standards down to at least third grade, so that passing the state assessment in each grade indicates that a student is on track to graduate from twelfth grade ready for college or a career. States…would have their standards peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts.” 

ECAA: States must establish goals, “that take into account the progress necessary for all students and each of the categories of students to graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation,” but there is no federal oversight and the Secretary is explicitly prohibited from establishing any “criterion that specifies, defines, or prescribes…the specific goals that States establish.”


Verdict: Looser

Student Growth Fordham: “In the spirit of “tight-loose” and transparency, we think it’s reasonable for the federal government to require, as condition of Title I funding, that states be able to measure student growth.” 

ECAA: Student growth is left to state discretion, and the Secretary is explicitly prohibited from requiring states to measure student growth.


Verdict: Looser

Other Subjects Fordham: “Require states to develop grade-level science standards; for history (or history/civics/geography), require standards in at least three grade bands. Require annual testing in science and at least one test in history in each of the elementary, middle, and high school levels.”“States must report separately their schools’ reading, math, science, and history scores.”


ECAA: States must develop standards in science. They must test students in science at least once per grade band and release the results on state report cards. States may also administer assessments in other subjects at their discretion.


Verdict: Looser

School Accountability Measures Fordham: “State rating systems cannot be pass/fail, but should indicate a range of effectiveness.”“All schools should be judged, at least in part, by how many of their students are on a trajectory to reach college and career readiness by the end of the twelfth grade.”

“Individual student growth must feed into a school’s rating system, though states should have the flexibility to determine the specifics of this requirement. States must have data systems that make this possible.”


ECAA: States must establish “a system of annually identifying and meaningfully differentiating among all public schools in the State” that include student proficiency and graduation rates, in significant part, plus at least one other “valid and reliable indicator of school quality,” but states are free to weight factors as they choose and omit student growth. At their discretion, states could give schools binary pass/fail ratings.


Verdict: Looser

Subgroup Performance Fordham: “State rating systems must incorporate subgroup performance into school ratings. Schools may not receive the highest rating if any of their subgroups is performing poorly.” 

ECAA: State accountability systems must include all students and subgroups of students, but the bill does not include any protections if individual subgroups are low-performing.


Verdict: Looser

In sum, although some conservatives may want to claim the ECAA is tight on goals and loose on means, it’s actually loose on both.  If the bill goes forward as is, I think conservatives like Mike Petrilli will regret everything they gave up to get a bill, any bill, through this Congress. That’s a shame, because there is a small-c conservative vision for federal education policy that has real merit. It would start with setting national priorities for transparency on measures that matter (like student growth and college-readiness) and add in a strong federal role in research and innovation. One potential path forward would be to hold states accountable for student outcomes while leaving the details (content standards, assessments, curricula, interventions, and more) to the discretion of each state. The ECAA has none of those things. It’s just loose-loose.

–Chad Aldeman

Studies in Contast

It’s hard not to contrast two new studies out today:

In “The Mirage,” TNTP estimates that districts spend 6-9 percent of their budgets on professional development for teachers, which produces approximately 0.0 effects on student learning.

In “Good News for New Orleans,” Douglas Harris estimates that the suite of school choice reforms adopted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina produced student learning gains of .2 to .4 standard deviations, at the cost of approximately 9 percent* of spending. For context on those effect sizes, Harris and his co-authors concluded they were, “not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

*That’s a VERY rough estimate. The report cites a cost figure of $1,000 per pupil. For comparison’s sake, I converted it to a percentage of expenditures using Louisiana’s per pupil spending figures here.

–Chad Aldeman

A Third Way on Teacher Pensions?

Third Way has a new brief suggesting three steps the federal government could take immediately to improve retirement security for all teachers. To address widespread under-funding, state and local pension plans have made it harder for teachers to qualify for a retirement benefit, raised contribution rates, and changed benefit formulas to penalize teachers not willing to commit to a full career in one spot. They note that teacher pension plans are actually moving in the opposite direction of workers in the private sector:

So while the vast majority of American workers are being afforded greater retirement security under federal law—and better assurances that they will get to keep the money their employers are contributing off the top of their salary—teachers have found themselves at the whim of state legislators that in most cases are making it harder for them to qualify for even a minimum pension.

Their solutions are sensible: 1. Have the IRS lay out clear guidelines outlining what constitutes an acceptable alternative plan; 2. Require state governments to either offer Social Security to their workers or provide more teachers with at least a minimal retirement benefit; and 3. Update federal guidelines to ensure state and local pension plans offer retirement benefits that are at least as generous as those of non-public-sector plans. Read the full brief here.

–Chad Aldeman

The Politics of Teacher Evaluation Formulas

As states revamp their teacher evaluation systems, they continue to search for that magic number: the percentage of a teacher evaluation rating that should be based on student academic performance. Here’s how this has played out over the past month:

  • The Ohio State Legislature voted to lower the weighting for student growth from 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to 42.5 percent. Why the seemingly random choice of 42.5 percent? Because the state Senate wanted it revised downward to 35 percent and the House wanted to keep the weighting at 50 percent. Legislators compromised on 42.5 because it lies smack dab in the middle of 35 and 50.
  • In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie signed an executive order mandating that statewide exams account for 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation this upcoming school year rather than the previously decided upon 30 percent. It will climb to 20 percent in 2015-16.

The issue here isn’t whether 10 or 35 or 50 percent is the right amount of student growth in teacher evaluations. No one knows for sure what that number is, and no one knew it when states set their initial student growth weightings either.

Ironically, we have better evidence now than we did when states made their initial decisions. The 2013 MET Project report found that weighting student growth between 33 and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score would provide the best combination of predictive power and year-to-year stability. The MET Project is by no means definitive and we could certainly use more research in this realm. But before seeing any results or carrying out their own analyses, states are pre-emptively lowering their student growth weighting. And instead of using the evidence that does exist, states are allowing political battles to drive their decisions.

–Chad Aldeman and Carolyn Chuong

Americans Stink at Math (But We’re Much Better Now)

Elizabeth Green’s story for Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” is a must-read. Green illustrates our national struggles with math in numerous and at-times painful ways–in particular, read about how customers preferred McDonald’s 1/4-pound hamburger over A&W’s 1/3-pound patty because they thought it had more meat. Her piece is entertaining and seamlessly brings in education topics like teacher preparation, the structure of the school day, poorly aligned textbooks, Common Core, etc. It’s easy to forget she’s writing about math.

But for all the time Green spends documenting the ways Americans stink at math, she never mentions that we’ve gotten much better. That’s unfortunate, because the math results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are one of the brightest spots in education. Between 1973 and 2012, the long-term trend scores of 9-year-olds rose 25 points. Due to Simpson’s Paradox, where the size of the group can mask aggregated data, the scores of white students, black students, and Hispanic students all gained more than the national average. Scores improved across all performance levels and achievement gaps narrowed. The same trends hold true for 13-year-olds. Across both ages and all groups of students, math achievement in 2012 was higher than it had ever been.

It’s worth noting that the scores for 17-year-olds have been flat overall, although the scores of white, black, and Hispanic students have all risen and achievement gaps have narrowed over time.  Still, the results of 9- and 13-year-olds would have been the most relevant for Green to include because her article mainly focuses on the basic math skills students learn in elementary grades.

No one knows for sure why math achievement has risen so rapidly, but it’s likely some combination of standards-based reforms, rising education expenditures, and falling class sizes. It may also be due to the curricular and instructional changes Green documents; I just wish she’d done a little more math.

–Chad Aldeman


Ain’t No Party Like a Common Core Party But a Common Core Party May Stop

K-12 education is planning a Common Party (Theme: College- and Career-Ready Standards.) The party’s been planned for years. States, districts, schools, teachers, and parents have spent countless hours and billions of dollars on the planning committee. The RSVP’s are mostly in (although Indiana, Louisiana, and others are getting cold feet). There’s even a punchbowl in the corner.

But what if the guest of honor, colleges and universities, don’t come? Colleges have said they’re interested—who doesn’t like parties or high standards in the abstract?—but they won’t make any promises. Without their admissions or remediation policies, the party won’t be the same.

As Lindsey Tepe writes in a fantastic report from New America, we’re at a real risk of exactly this scenario playing out. Although higher education leaders participated in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards and have expressed support for them generally, they have so far stopped short of adopting policies to ensure that a student deemed “proficient” at the K-12 level qualifies for college-level coursework. The awkward truth is that colleges determine what “college-ready” means. Read Tepe’s report for the implications.

–Chad Aldeman