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The Public School Insights Blog

The received wisdom these days is that the United States will sink into permanent economic ruin because its youth are just awful, awful at STEM. (To the uninitiated: that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) Yet new research punches some holes in that assumption. It even suggests that, golly, factors outside of schools will have an impact on our economic fate.

Who is responsible for this heresy? A couple of professors at Georgetown and Rutgers who had a look at the "STEM pipeline." They found that the supply of STEM students has held steady over the past four decades. Their more alarming finding was that the highest performers "have been dropping out of the STEM pipeline at a substantial rate." Yikes. So perhaps schools aren't the only leaky spots in the pipeline:

[T]his analysis does strongly suggest that students are not leaving STEM pathways because of lack of preparation or ability. Instead, it does suggest that we turn our attention to factors other than ...

Emily and Bryan Hassel have an idea: Don't get too hung up on plans to make teachers better. Instead, figure out how to help the best teachers reach far more students. After all, they argue, the top 20 percent of teachers are three times as effective as the bottom 20 percent.

Try as they might, though, they cannot escape the need to support teachers through good old fashioned staff development, curriculum and assessment. It's time the education economists paid much closer attention to these critical areas, which are just so déclassé these days.

Of course, the Hassels' argument raises all sorts of questions. How do you identify the top 20 percent of teachers? Do we trust test scores? Will teachers stay in the top 20 percent from year to year? Are the "top" teachers good in every kind of school? Are they effective with every kind of student?

But the Hassels face an even bigger challenge. Their plan will require nothing short of a massive investment in all those things their fellow educonomists find oh-so tedious: Teacher training. New curricula. Much, much better tests. If we pursue the Hassels' brave new reforms the way we pursue most reforms--on the cheap--then we're going to be in a whole heap of trouble.

The Hassels, like so many of their ideological brethren, seem to believe that great teachers are born, not made. Hence their relatively dim view of staff development. (I've always found it curious that so many reformers who insist that every child ...

How you measure a school's progress matters. A lot. Just ask Beth Madison, principal of a school that is thriving by common-sense measures and failing by official measures.

George Middle School has made robust gains over the past decade. Over 80 percent of George students receive free or reduced price lunch, and a full 23 percent are special education students. Yet students' test scores are at or above state averages in most subjects.

Still, the school has not made Adequate Yearly Progress seven years running. Why? Because year after year, Madison tells us, it has been a hair's breadth away from meeting its targets for one particular subgroup of students in one particular area, like attendance. Madison is bracing herself for the impact of the H1N1 flu, which could hurt her attendance numbers for yet another year. You can't win.

What does Madison want? In short, some flexibility. She feels her school should be judged for its students' academic growth over time rather than against absolute performance targets. The school has made steady strides despite big demographic shifts that have increased its share of low-income students. But it still falls short of state goals.

Madison is no whiner. She praises No Child Left Behind for pushing schools to do much more for vulnerable children. She believes the extra money she has received for missing performance targets has helped the school improve. But she still feels No Child Left Behind is a "messed up" law.

She can thank her lucky stars that the Portland school district will not throw George Middle School on a Procrustean bed of reform. District leaders will not hobble her by imposing one-size-fits-all reform strategies. (Madison has particularly harsh words for strategies that require struggling schools to fire most teachers. She calls them a “train wreck.”)

The district listens when she describes her school’s success, Madison told us. And the district offers support tailored to her school’s specific needs.

George Middle School is not in thrall to the official version of success. That's good news for teachers and students alike.

Listen to Madison's interview on the Public School Insights podcast (~26 minutes).

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Or read an edited transcript:  

Public School Insights: George Middle School has made tremendous strides since the early 2000s. But you've missed Adequate Yearly Progress seven times. Could you tell me a little bit about how you see the school’s progress in the light of the AYP issue?

Madison: AYP in Oregon is not a growth-based model. It is a model with many subcategories within English language arts and math in which [the state] judges students' ability based on a RIT score [which is essentially] a simple score of grade level. [AYP also includes student attendance measures, again divided into subcategories].

So regardless of the fact that the kids who come in at very low levels of previous performance may make years and years of growth gains in one year — or at least their testing shows they do — that may not be enough to meet the magic number.

If Oregon used a growth-based model, then I think that we would not have had any trouble making AYP the last three years. But we have a very large population of special education students -- about 23 percent. Many of these kids come in [to sixth grade] with their learning achievement level between Kindergarten and second grade. We have one of the ...

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In Memoriam

This week, the education community lost two giants: Jerry Bracey and Ted Sizer.

I never met Bracey, and I often didn't agree with him, but his passion for public education set him in a class all his own.  He was always ready to overturn the received wisdom about education reform, a trait that is all too rare even among people who should know better. The education debate will be much the poorer without him.

Ted SIzer left an indelible mark on me the one time I met him. Some years ago, I invited him to speak at a two-day event on high school reform. He never mentioned an honorarium. Nor did he utter a word of complaint when we inadvertently put him through the ringer. 

We botched his airport limousine reservation, so he had to make his own way from Dulles airport to the down-market conference center where we were holding our event. We quartered him in a room that had all the charm and elbow room of a submarine bunk. The next morning, ...

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Reporters Get Schooled

Linda Perlstein's new blog aims to keep reporters honest, and she's off to a running start. Yesterday she took on the oft-repeated claim that teachers are the single most important factor in student success.

Not true, she writes.

Before people get their knickers in a twist, they should consider her larger argument. "Of the various factors inside school," she writes, "teacher quality has had more effect on student scores than any other that has been measured.... When you read that teachers are the most important school factor, you can’t drop the 'school' and pass it on."

Of course, that's exactly what happens. Reporters, commentators and politicians commonly drop the "school" and pass it on. In doing so they help sustain the tiresome pitched battles between "in-school" and "out-of school" factors that affect students' learning.

Teachers are awfully, awfully important. (How many teachers want to hear that they don't really make much of a difference?) But choosing between teachers and ...

The Baltimore Sun compares Baltimore's and Washington DC's school reforms, and it finds DC's wanting.

To be more precise: The Sun finds DC's Chancellor Rhee to be wanting. The paper sees little difference between the two districts' reform plans:

there's little doubt the personal leadership styles of the two CEOs have largely determined how reform efforts have been received. In public, at least, Mr. Alonso eschews drama. Ms. Rhee, by contrast, once appeared on the cover of a national news magazine wielding a broom to symbolize her intention of cleaning house.

Which city has a better shot at success down the road? The Sun votes for Baltimore:

We're betting on Baltimore getting there first, if for no other reason than that Mr. Alonso's style seems to mesh better with the players in a city that also seems to have fewer structural obstacles in the way of reform than comparable urban school systems. It's freer from ...

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Welcome to Our World

"Welcome to my world," said the traditional public school to the charter.

Reformers who get mugged by reality can sound an awful lot like the dreaded "establishment." Take, for example, the story of the Opportunity Charter School in Harlem. Started by ardent reformers, the school now faces closure if it can't raise students' scores by next year. The reformers are crying foul.

Their arguments sound familiar and reasonable. The school takes the city's lowest achievers, half of them with learning disabilities, so it has a tougher road to travel. The state's tests can't measure the kinds of progress the school has made with those students. And the one-year deadline is unreasonable.

The reformers are on shakier ground when they seek to distance themselves from traditional public schools. The charter's assistant principal claims that the state can't "expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed ...

A funny thing about merit pay programs. The more successful they are, the more they cost. In tough economic times, they can easily fall victim to their own success.

That's apparently what happened to Chicago's program to give students cash for good grades. The program began amidst much hoopla two years ago, only to die a quiet death this year as money grew tight. The school district couldn't count on outside donors to keep the program going during these dark days.

Actually, I should be careful not to tout the program's success prematurely. The verdict is still out on the its results. What is clear is that, as more students earn good grades, the program gets more expensive and therefore more likely to end up on the chopping block.

So teachers have every right to be concerned about merit pay schemes that depend on unstable budgets or even less stable grants and donations. In Chicago, they have to explain to their students that an "A" just ain't worth what it used to be. Can they trust those who would tie teacher pay to student test scores to fund merit pay programs for success?

Hat tip: Alexander Russo ...

Have economists brought nothing but woe upon public schools? Has all the talk of efficiency, productivity, merit pay and market incentives poisoned the field? Well, it depends. Do those economists have a clear vision for how their favored policies will affect teaching and learning?

According to two articles published yesterday, the answer so far has been yes and no.

The Harvard Education Letter paints a rosier picture of "the invisible hand" than you might expect. The HEL reminds us, for example, that economist James Heckman has done about as much as anyone to push early childhood education. In the process, he has set the stage for richer conversations about program quality. Overall, economists can spur us to pay closer attention the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

Then there's Russ Whitehurst's recent article: Don't Forget Curriculum! He says economists just don't get the importance of curriculum. Here's the money quote from his piece: "[P]olicy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice...may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.”

Whitehurst elaborates:

The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers. For the governance types, teaching ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Show Us the Evidence

To each his own evidence. Those seem to be words to live by at the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Let's start with the Post. A Post editorial cites DC's impressive gains in NAEP mathematics results and chalks them up to Michelle Rhee's reforms:

Those seeking to block the changes being pursued by Ms. Rhee...might want to think again.

The evidence is in, they imply. The Chancellor's reform program works. But is that really what the evidence tells us? The NAEP gains began before Rhee took the reins, so her all-but-forgotten predecessor Clifford Janey should share in the glory. And what reforms, exactly, deserve the credit?  The much better standards and curricula Janey put in place? Rhee's changes to central office structure? The new principals she has hired? It's hard to say. 

How about Rhee's signature reform, which would tie teacher pay to test scores? Well, that reform doesn't deserve the credit because it is not yet in place. But that didn't stop the Post.

Now for the Times. Nicholas Kristof urges teacher groups to "cooperate with evidence-based reforms." Among these reforms: charter schools and ...

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