Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Blog Posts By vonzastrowc

vonzastrowc's picture

Defining the Gap

An article in yesterday's New York Times reminds us that the common definition of "achievement gap" is quite limited. We usually define it in terms of proficiency on state tests. (In other words, how many kids passed?) We seldom define it in terms of absolute performance on those tests. (How well did kids do?) You can raise the cut score on the state test and watch your gaps widen overnight, but your absolute achievement gap won't have changed a bit. That's what happened in New York State.

It's an object lesson for every state in the country and a reminder that we always need to keep both definitions well in mind. ...

Eagle-eyed Larry Ferlazzo found this modest proposal in Slate Magazine: Fire 80 percent of new teachers every two years. The authors of the study Slate describes admit that their idea might not be practical. (Larry's response: "Ya think?") They see it as a "thought experiment." But here's my question: Could such thought experiments, like Frankenstein, overwhelm their creators and wreak havoc in the wider world?

Such experiments don't tend to stay in the laboratory. They get picked up by the papers and start to change the way people across the country think about teaching and teachers. Papers like Slate admire the bravado of the wonks and economists who float extreme ideas--the bolder, the better--and they love the crazy headlines. But they don't always put things into context.

Slate offers a case in point. It praises Teach for America but fails to note that TFA produces only 4,500 new teachers a year--a drop in the bucket. The article claims that great teachers are "born, not made" and then says nothing at all about staff development.

The Slate article doesn't ask a very important question. Who would want to go into teaching if you have an 80 percent chance of getting the axe in two years? I can see the logic of raising the bar almost impossibly high if we manage to make teaching one of the most alluring jobs in America. Give teachers movie star status, support them in their jobs, and make the job as rewarding as ...

Young teachers aren't buying it, either. That's one of the main findings from a recent Public Agenda poll of teachers from three generations. "Generation Y" teachers are very skeptical of ideas that dominate current debates on school reform. This finding does not bode well for the reform agenda. It suggests that policy makers and pundits may be alienating the very people who must carry out the reforms.

The poll results tell us that resistance to some of the big reform ideas is by no means confined to old union stalwarts. The younger folk don't believe test scores should be the main determinant of teacher pay. They believe it should be easier to remove bad teachers, but they don't think tenure should go the way of the dodo.

It's at least as interesting to note what the young 'uns do want. They want staff development, help with discipline, constructive feedback on their teaching, and the chance to collaborate with their peers. In other words, they want the support and the conditions they need to do their jobs well. Those issues seem largely absent from national discussions of school reform.

Another finding of the Public Agenda poll struck me: Young teachers plan to stick around. Almost seven in ten planned to stay in classroom for more than a decade. The notion that those kids ...

Dubious school turnaround outfits are rushing in where some more experienced groups fear to tread, The New York Times reports. Of course, we can expect this sort of thing to happen whenever speculators and pitchmen smell billions of federal dollars. But the hype that attends much of the talk about school reform can make matters worse.

The uncomfortable truth is that no single turnaround strategy is a sure bet. A recent review  (PDF) of major turnaround models found that none rested on strong evidence. The research base remains thin.

That has not stopped quite a few people from insisting that, to save a struggling school, you have to start from scratch. You have to give the staff its walking papers if you want to see big changes, the theory goes. Powerful people often invoke the Harvard School of Excellence in Chicago as proof of this strategy. After the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) cleaned house at this elementary school, test scores soared.

Few have paid much attention to the Chicago public schools whose gains have equaled or surpassed Harvard's. Cardenas and Cather elementary schools were among the most improved schools in the city, and neither school fired staff to jump start its reform efforts.

Cardenas and Cather are among eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI). Those schools have made big strides since 2007 without replacing staff. And their turnaround efforts have cost a fraction of what the restart model costs. None of the SLI schools has enjoyed the kind of praise heaped on Harvard. (For more information on SLI's work, see our interview with SLI president John Simmons).

Harvard has earned the praise, but the uneven media coverage of school reform efforts offers a very skewed vision of our turnaround options. Indeed, the New York Times piece on turnarounds implicitly endorses the restart model. It quotes someone from AUSL who calls ...

Should teachers be free agents who take their skills to the highest bidder? Or should we encourage them to stay put in stable teams where they work in concert to improve their students' performance?

A thoughtful reader of this blog came out in favor of the former vision. Let great teachers take their talents on the road. Then let the market decide their value.

A different vision appeared in yesterday's New York Times. In Boston, the Times reports, struggling schools are hiring entire teams of experienced teachers to ground their turnaround efforts. The principal of one such school said the strategy "had provided such a strong core of teachers to anchor the school that it helped him recruit other experienced teachers. And it has allowed him to take a chance" on new teachers.

I prefer this vision to the free agent vision. The best schools I've seen--wealthy or poor--have strong teams of great teachers in place, and those teams are more than the sum of their parts. I've also seen excellent departments unravel when they lose their core of experienced teachers. Even platoons of great new teachers couldn't quickly knit those departments ...

Is it any wonder that veteran teachers feel a bit threatened these days? They keep hearing the message that they're so darn expensive. Unless their students' test scores get better and better every year, many pundits are ready to dismiss them as a mere liability on the books. That kind of rhetoric can have a corrosive effect on the teaching profession. The notion that teaching is a young person's game seems jarring in a profession where the demand for new teachers can quickly outstrip supply.

We often hear that a teacher's effectiveness, as measured by test scores, tends to level off after five or so years. Should we be surprised by that finding? Imagine the career of a good teacher. If by her third year on the job her students are showing one year of academic growth for one year in the classroom, what should we expect from her 25 years later? Ten years of growth? Should she be sending her third graders off to Harvard?

Or should her income growth stop when her students' value-added gains level off? If we use value-added measures alone, it's hard to imagine how a good teacher could get better and better for years on end. And if years of experience really don't mean anything, then great young teachers should expect their salaries to stay put after they're 30.

Some people will tell you that income stagnation is just fine. Pay people what they're worth in test scores, and let them leave for some other job when their earnings plateau. One commentator writes that "we can compress the salary schedule so that 5-year veterans and 25-year veterans get paid about ...

If you're considering a teaching career, review the following job description:

  • You must have missionary zeal. This job isn't just work. It's a calling that demands self sacrifice.
  • You should expect to outlive your usefulness in five or ten years. You'll end up being a drag on this system unless someone can figure out how to freeze your salary after you hit thirty-five or forty--and someone might just do that.

So--are you in?

Yes, that job description is absurd, and no, things haven't reached that point. But the current rhetoric of school reform tends to reinforce that vision of the teaching profession. And that sort of rhetoric can taint reality if it makes teaching seem less viable as a long-term career.

I don't mean to argue that we shouldn't debate issues such as accountability and teacher pay. But let's not forget the effect of our words on how people view the profession. For years, teachers were in a sense paid in good will rather than money or status. If the bad teacher ...

The big education story these days is the chilling effect of higher cut scores on New York State tests. The miracle in New York City seemed a bit less miraculous after after the state raised the bar. Most of the sniping among pundits and wonks has focused on the extent to which the new standard undermines the claims of New York City's school reformers. But I think the story raises even bigger questions. For example:

Where Have the Media Been for so Long?
Cut scores have by all accounts been low since 2006, but, as late as 2009, only a few newspapers had addressed that fact. Critics like Diane Ravitch had raised the issue for years. In August of 2009, teacher Diana Senechal showed that students could guess their way to a passing score. Only in September did the New York Times cover that story--and their story didn't mention Senechal.

By the time the Times ran the story, state board Chancellor Merryl Tisch was already on the case. She had the real courage to declare the cut scores bogus and call for a higher standard.

But in this case, the fourth estate lagged behind. Given how heated and political the school reform debate has become, and how ready parties on all sides are to make grand claims about success or failure, that's bad news.

Why Do We Have Such a High Tolerance for Data that Obscure as Much as they Reveal?
The answer to that question is easy: politics. When so much of the debate is driven by ideology, PR and even fear, you can't expect truth-tellers to get rewarded. Those whose jobs depend on the scores point out problems at their own peril. Those who stake their political ...

Lieutenant General Benjamin C. Freakley is the commanding general of the United States Army Accessions Command (USAAC) and oversees recruiting for the U.S. Army's officer, warrant officer and enlisted forces. USAAC has joined forces with the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) to support young people and boost graduation rates. (We wrote about this partnership in a blog posting several months ago. NASBE is a member of LFA.)

LTG Freakley recently spoke with us about the promise of greater collaboration between the military and schools.

Education: A National Security Issue

Public School Insights: Why do you think the military is getting involved in K-12 education?

LTG Freakley: I believe that the preparedness of our youth through education, health and conduct is a national security issue. Right now our young people, regardless of the tact they take for postsecondary, are limiting themselves. They are limiting themselves because they are not getting a good foundational education in K-12. They are not as healthy as they should be, with childhood obesity becoming an epidemic. And they get off track in their conduct, limiting what might be brilliant careers because they chose to get involved with gang violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, etc.

It is disheartening to see all of this potential being limited. We believe that we have got to help our youth to achieve success through supporting our educators who, I believe, are undervalued in America—not recognized like they should be or supported like they should be. We ought to be as close to education as we can so we can sustain our all volunteer force and also so we can have an economically ...

In case you think hundreds of thousands of looming government layoffs--including layoffs of school and district staff--don't matter: 

Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says state and local government layoffs are having an impact. "They are still in a cutting mode and seem likely to cut several hundred thousand jobs going forward," Bernanke recently told Congress. "That is a drag on the economy, no question about it."

(NPR) ...