** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
A big part of successful policy making is unyielding attention to detail (an argument that regular readers of this blog hear often). Choices about design and implementation that may seem unimportant can play a substantial role in determining how policies play out in practice.
A new paper, co-authored by Elizabeth Davidson, Randall Reback, Jonah Rockoff and Heather Schwartz, and presented at last month’s annual conference of The Association for Education Finance and Policy, illustrates this principle vividly, and on a grand scale: With an analysis of outcomes in all 50 states during the early years of NCLB.
After a terrific summary of the law’s rules and implementation challenges, as well as some quick descriptive statistics, the paper’s main analysis is a straightforward examination of why the proportion of schools meeting AYP varied quite a bit between states. For instance, in 2003, the first year of results, 32 percent of U.S. schools failed to make AYP, but the proportion ranged from one percent in Iowa to over 80 percent in Florida.
Surprisingly, the results suggest that the primary reasons for this variation seem to have had little to do with differences in student performance. Rather, the big factors are subtle differences in rather arcane rules that each state chose during the implementation process. These decisions received little attention, yet they had a dramatic impact on the outcomes of NCLB during this time period. Read More »
Charter schools, though they comprise a remarkably diverse sector, are quite often subject to broad generalizations. Opponents, for example, promote the characterization of charters as test prep factories, though this is a sweeping claim without empirical support. Another common stereotype is that charter schools exclude students with special needs. It is often (but not always) true that charters serve disproportionately fewer students with disabilities, but the reasons for this are complicated and vary a great deal, and there is certainly no evidence for asserting a widespread campaign of exclusion.
Of course, these types of characterizations, which are also leveled frequently at regular public schools, don’t always take the form of criticism. For instance, it is an article of faith among many charter supporters that these schools, thanks to the fact that relatively few are unionized, are better able to aggressively identify and fire low-performing teachers (and, perhaps, retain high performers). Unlike many of the generalizations from both “sides,” this one is a bit more amenable to empirical testing.
A recent paper by Joshua Cowen and Marcus Winters, published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is among the first to take a look, and some of the results might be surprising. Read More »
Drawing on a half century of empirical evidence, as well as new data and analysis, a team of scholars has challenged the substance of many of the attacks on public employees and their unions –urging political leaders and the research community to take this “transformational” moment in the divisive and ideologically driven debate over the role of government and the value of public services to deepen their commitment to evidence-based policy ideas.
These arguments were outlined in “The Great New Debate about Unionism and Collective Bargaining in U.S. State and Local Governments,” published by Cornell University’s ILR Review. The authors – David Lewin (UCLA), Jeffrey Keefe (Rutgers), and Thomas Kochan (MIT) – point out that, with half a century of experience, there is now a wealth of data by which to evaluate public sector unionism and its effects.
In that context, the authors spell out the history, arguments and empirical findings on three key issues: 1) Are public employees overpaid?; 2) Do labor-management dispute resolution procedures, which are part of many state and local government collective bargaining laws, enhance or hinder effective governance?; 3) Have unions and managers in the public sector demonstrated the ability to respond constructively to fiscal crises? Read More »
In education policy debates, we like the “big picture.” We love to say things like “hold schools accountable” and “set high expectations.” Much less frequent are substantive discussions about the details of accountability systems, but it’s these details that make or break policy. The technical specs just aren’t that sexy. But even the best ideas with the sexiest catchphrases won’t improve things a bit unless they’re designed and executed well.
In this vein, I want to recommend a very interesting CALDER working paper by Mark Ehlert, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons and Michael Podgursky. The paper takes a quick look at one of these extremely important, yet frequently under-discussed details in school (and teacher) accountability systems: The choice of growth model.
When value-added or other growth models come up in our debates, they’re usually discussed en masse, as if they’re all the same. They’re not. It’s well-known (though perhaps overstated) that different models can, in many cases, lead to different conclusions for the same school or teacher. This paper, which focuses on school-level models but might easily be extended to teacher evaluations as well, helps illustrate this point in a policy-relevant manner.
Read More »
** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post
The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has a new, highly-publicized report about what it calls “irreplaceables,” a catchy term that is supposed to describe those teachers who are “so successful they are nearly impossible to replace.” The report’s primary conclusion is that these “irreplaceable” teachers often leave the profession voluntarily, and TNTP offers several recommendations for how to improve this.
I’m not going to discuss this report fully. It shines a light on teacher retention, which is a good thing. Its primary purpose is to promulgate the conceptual argument that not all teacher turnover is created equal – i.e., that it depends on whether “good” or “bad” teachers are leaving (see here for a strong analysis on this topic). The report’s recommendations are standard fare – improve working conditions, tailor pay to “performance” (see here for a review of evidence on incentives and retention), etc. Many are widely-supported, while others are more controversial. All of them merit discussion.
I just want to make one quick (and, in many respects, semantic) point about the manner in which TNTP identifies high-performing teachers, as I think it illustrates larger issues. In my view, the term “irreplaceable” doesn’t apply, and I think it would have been a better analysis without it. Read More »
Economist Jesse Rothstein recently released a working paper about which I am compelled to write, as it speaks directly to so many of the issues that we have raised here over the past year or two. The purpose of Rothstein’s analysis is to move beyond the talking points about teaching quality in order to see if strategies that have been proposed for improving it might yield benefits. In particular, he examines two labor market-oriented policies: performance pay and dismissing teachers.
Both strategies are, at their cores, focused on selection (and deselection) – in other words, attracting and retaining higher-performing candidates and exiting, directly or indirectly, lower-performing incumbents. Both also take time to work and have yet to be experimented with systematically in most places; thus, there is relatively little evidence on the long-term effects of either.
Rothstein’s approach is to model this complex dynamic, specifically the labor market behavior of teachers under these policies (i.e., choosing, leaving and staying in teaching), which is often ignored or assumed away, despite the fact that it is so fundamental to the policies themselves. He then calculates what would happen under this model as a result of performance pay and dismissal policies – that is, how they would affect the teacher labor market and, ultimately, student performance.*
Of course, this is just a simulation, and must be (carefully) interpreted as such, but I think the approach and findings help shed light on three fundamental points about education reform in the U.S. Read More »
The majority of social science research does not explicitly dwell on how we go from situation A to situation B. Instead, most social scientists focus on associations between different outcomes. This “static” approach has advantages but also limitations. Looking at associations might reveal that teachers who experience condition A are twice as likely to leave their schools than teachers who experience condition B. But what does this knowledge tell us about how to move from condition A to condition B? In many cases, very little.
Many social science findings are not easily “actionable” for policy purposes precisely because they say nothing about processes or sequences of events and activities unfolding over time, and in context. While conventional quantitative research provides indications of what works — on average — across large samples, a look at processes reveals how factors or events (situated in time and space) are associated with each other. This kind of research provides the detail that we need, not just to understand the world, but to do so in a way that is useful and enables us to act on it constructively.
Although this kind of work is rare, every now then a quantitative study showing “process sensitivity” sees the light of day. This is the case of a recent paper by Morgan and colleagues (2010) examining how the events that teachers experience routinely affect their commitment to remain in the profession. Read More »
There’s a fairly large body of research showing that charter schools vary widely in test-based performance relative to regular public schools, both by location as well as subgroup. Yet, you’ll often hear people point out that the highest-quality evidence suggests otherwise (see here, here and here) – i.e., that there are a handful of studies using experimental methods (randomized controlled trials, or RCTs) and these analyses generally find stronger, more uniform positive charter impacts.
Sometimes, this argument is used to imply that the evidence, as a whole, clearly favors charters, and, perhaps by extension, that many of the rigorous non-experimental charter studies – those using sophisticated techniques to control for differences between students – would lead to different conclusions were they RCTs.*
Though these latter assertions are based on a valid point about the power of experimental studies (the few of which we have are often ignored in the debate over charters), they are dubiously overstated for a couple of reasons, discussed below. But a new report from the (indispensable) organization Mathematica addresses the issue head on, by directly comparing estimates of charter school effects that come from an experimental analysis with those from non-experimental analyses of the same group of schools.
The researchers find that there are differences in the results, but many are not statistically significant and those that are don’t usually alter the conclusions. This is an important (and somewhat rare) study, one that does not, of course, settle the issue, but does provide some additional tentative support for the use of strong non-experimental charter research in policy decisions.
Read More »
In a previous post, I discussed the idea of “attracting the best candidates” to teaching by reviewing the research on the association between pre-service characteristics and future performance (usually defined in terms of teachers’ estimated effect on test scores once they get into the classroom). In general, this body of work indicates that, while far from futile, it’s extremely difficult to predict who will be an “effective” teacher based on their paper traits, including those that are typically used to define “top candidates,” such as the selectivity of the undergraduate institutions they attend, certification test scores and GPA (see here, here, here and here, for examples).
There is some very limited evidence that other, “non-traditional” measures might help. For example, a working paper, released last year, found a statistically discernible, fairly strong association between first-year math value-added and an index constructed from surveys administered to Teach for America candidates. There was, however, no association in reading (note that the sample was small), and no relationships in either subject found during these teachers’ second years.*
A recently-published paper – which appears in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, originally released as working paper in 2008 – represents another step forward in this area. The analysis, presented by the respected quartet of Jonah Rockoff, Brian Jacob, Thomas Kane, and Douglas Staiger (RJKS), attempts to look beyond the set of characteristics that researchers are typically constrained (by data availability) to examine.
In short, the results do reveal some meaningful, potentially policy-relevant associations between pre-service characteristics and future outcomes. From a more general perspective, however, they are also a testament to the difficulties inherent in predicting who will be a good teacher based on observable traits. Read More »
Despite all the heated talk about how to identify and dismiss low-performing teachers, there’s relatively little research on how administrators choose whom to dismiss, whether various dismissal options might actually serve to improve performance, and other aspects in this area. A paper by economist Brian Jacob, released as working paper in 2010 and published late last year in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, helps address at least one of these voids, by providing one of the few recent glimpses into administrators’ actual dismissal decisions.
Jacob exploits a change in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) personnel policy that took effect for the 2004-05 school year, one which strengthened principals’ ability to dismiss probationary teachers, allowing non-renewal for any reason, with minimal documentation. He was able to link these personnel records to student test scores, teacher and school characteristics and other variables, in order to examine the characteristics that principals might be considering, directly or indirectly, in deciding who would and would not be dismissed.
Jacob’s findings are intriguing, suggesting a more complicated situation than is sometimes acknowledged in the ongoing debate over teacher dismissal policy. Read More »
A new report, commissioned by the District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray and conducted by the Chicago-based consulting organization IFF, was supposed to provide guidance on how the District might act and invest strategically in school improvement, including optimizing the distribution of students across schools, many of which are either over- or under-enrolled.
Needless to say, this is a monumental task. Not only does it entail the identification of high- and low-performing schools, but plans for improving them as well. Even the most rigorous efforts to achieve these goals, especially in a large city like D.C., would be to some degree speculative and error-prone.
This is not a rigorous effort. IFF’s final report is polished and attractive, with lovely maps and color-coded tables presenting a lot of summary statistics. But there’s no emperor underneath those clothes. The report’s data and analysis are so deeply flawed that its (rather non-specific) recommendations should not be taken seriously. Read More »
In a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper on teacher value-added, researchers Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff present results from their analysis of an incredibly detailed dataset linking teachers and students in one large urban school district. The data include students’ testing results between 1991 and 2009, as well as proxies for future student outcomes, mostly from tax records, including college attendance (whether they were reported to have paid tuition or received scholarships), childbearing (whether they claimed dependents) and eventual earnings (as reported on the returns). Needless to say, the actual analysis includes only those students for whom testing data were available, and who could be successfully linked with teachers (with the latter group of course limited to those teaching math or reading in grades 4-8).
The paper caused a remarkable stir last week, and for good reason: It’s one of the most dense, important and interesting analyses on this topic in a very long time. Much of the reaction, however, was less than cautious, specifically the manner in which the research findings were interpreted to support actual policy implications (also see Bruce Baker’s excellent post).
What this paper shows – using an extremely detailed dataset and sophisticated, thoroughly-documented methods – is that teachers matter, perhaps in ways that some didn’t realize. What it does not show is how to measure and improve teacher quality, which are still open questions. This is a crucial distinction, one which has been discussed on this blog numerous times (also here and here), as it is frequently obscured or outright ignored in discussions of how research findings should inform concrete education policy. Read More »
An organization called “The Third Way” released a report last week, in which they present descriptive data on what they call “middle class schools.” The primary conclusion of their analysis is that “middle class schools” aren’t “making the grade,” and that they are “falling short on their most basic 21st century mission: To prepare kids to get a college degree.” They also argue that “middle class schools” are largely ignored in our debate and policymaking, and we need a “second phase of school reform” in order to address this deficit.
The Wall Street Journal swallowed the report whole, running a story presenting Third Way’s findings under the headline “Middle class schools fail to make the grade.”
To be clear, I think that our education policy debates do focus on lower-income schools to a degree that sometimes ignores those closer to the middle of the distribution. So, it’s definitely worthwhile to take a look at “middle class schools’” performance and how it can be improved. In other words, I’m very receptive to the underlying purpose of the report.
That said, this analysis consists mostly of arbitrary measurement and flawed, vague interpretations. As a result, it actually offers little meaningful insight. Read More »
NOTE: With this post, we are starting a new “feature” here at Shanker Blog – periodically summarizing research papers that carry interesting and/or important implications for the education policy debates. We intend to focus on papers that are either published in peer-reviewed journals or are still in working paper form, and are unlikely to get significant notice. Here is the first:
Are School Counselors a Cost-Effective Education Input?
Scott E. Carrell and Mark Hoekstra, Working paper (link to PDF), September 2010
Most teachers and principals will tell you that non-instructional school staff can make a big difference in school performance. Although we may all know this, it’s always useful to have empirical research to confirm it, and to examine the size and nature of the effects. In this paper, economists Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra put forth one of the first rigorous tests of how one particular group of employees – school counselors – affect both discipline and achievement outcomes. The authors use a unique administrative dataset of third, fourth, and fifth graders in Alachua County, Florida, a diverse district that serves over 30,000 students. Their approach exploits year-to-year variation in the number of counselors in each school – i.e., whether the outcomes of a given school change from the previous year when a counselor is added to the staff.
Their results are pretty striking: The addition of a single full-time counselor is associated with a 0.04 standard deviation increase in boys’ achievement (about 1.2 percentile points). These effects are robust across different specifications (including sibling and student fixed effects). The disciplinary effects are, as expected, even more impressive. A single additional counselor helps to decrease boys’ disciplinary infractions between 15 to 26 percent. Read More »