Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

Posted by on June 4, 2014

Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics. Read More »

The Proportionality Principle In Teacher Evaluations

Posted by on May 27, 2014

Our guest author today is Cory Koedel, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri.

In a 2012 post on this blog, Dr. Di Carlo reviewed an article that I coauthored with colleagues Mark Ehlert, Eric Parsons and Michael Podgursky. The initial article (full version here, or for a shorter, less-technical version, see here) argues for the policy value of growth models that are designed to force comparisons to be between schools and teachers in observationally-similar circumstances.

The discussion is couched within the context of achieving three key policy objectives that we associate with the adoption of more-rigorous educational evaluation systems: (1) improving system-wide instruction by providing useful performance signals to schools and teachers; (2) eliciting optimal effort from school personnel; and (3) ensuring that current labor-market inequities between advantaged and disadvantaged schools are not exacerbated by the introduction of the new systems.

We argue that a model that forces comparisons to be between equally-circumstanced schools and teachers – which we describe as a “proportional” model – is best-suited to achieve these policy objectives. The conceptual appeal of the proportional approach is that it fully levels the playing field between high- and low-poverty schools. In contrast, some other growth models have been shown to produce estimates that are consistently associated with the characteristics of students being served (e.g., Student Growth Percentiles). Read More »

Expectations For Student Performance Under NCLB Waivers

Posted by on May 20, 2014

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune notes that Illinois’ NCLB waiver plan sets lower targets for certain student subgroups, including minority and low-income students. This, according to the article, means that “Illinois students of different backgrounds no longer will be held to the same standards,” and goes on to quote advocates who are concerned that this amounts to lower expectations for traditionally lower-scoring groups of children.

The argument that expectations should not vary by student characteristics is, of course, valid and important. Nevertheless, as Chad Aldeman notes, the policy of setting different targets for different groups of students has been legally required since the enactment of NCLB, under which states must “give credit to lower-performing groups that demonstrate progress.” This was supposed to ensure, albeit with exceedingly crude measures, that schools weren’t punished due to the students they serve, and how far behind were those students upon entry into the schools.

I would take that a step further by adding two additional points. The first is quite obvious, and is mentioned briefly in the Tribune article, but too often is obscured in these kinds of conversations: Neither NCLB nor the waivers actually hold students to different standards. The cut scores above which students are deemed “proficient,” somewhat arbitrary though they may be, do not vary by student subgroup, or by any other factor within a given state. All students are held to the same exact standard. Read More »

Performance Measurement In Healthcare And Education

Posted by on May 15, 2014

A recent story in the New York Times reports that, according to an Obama Administration-commissioned panel, the measures being used to evaluate the performance of healthcare providers are unfairly penalizing those that serve larger proportions of disadvantaged patients (thanks to Mike Petrilli for sending me the article). For example, if you’re grading hospitals based on simple, unadjusted re-admittance rates, it might appear as if hospitals serving high poverty populations are doing worse — even if the quality of their service is excellent — since readmissions are more likely for patients who can’t afford medication, or aren’t able to take off from work, or don’t have home support systems.

The panel recommended adjusting the performance measures, which, for instance, are used for Medicare reimbursement, using variables such as patient income and education, as this would provide a more fair accountability system – one that does not penalize healthcare institutions and their personnel for factors that are out of their control.

There are of course very strong, very obvious parallels here to education accountability policy, in which schools are judged in part based on raw proficiency rates that make no attempt to account for differences in the populations of students in different schools. The comparison also reveals an important feature of formal accountability systems in other policy fields. Read More »

Can Early Language Development Promote Children’s Psychological Wellbeing?

Posted by on May 13, 2014

We know oral language is young children’s door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?

A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.

A recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that “language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay.” This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions. Read More »

Invisible Labor Redux

Posted by on May 8, 2014

Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum –  ever more narrowly –  to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.

What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been — so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.

There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality.  In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example.   In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance. Read More »

An Education Hearing I’d Like To See

Posted by on May 7, 2014

At the end of February, the District of Columbia Council’s Education Committee held its annual hearing on the performance of the District’s Public Schools (DCPS). The hearing (full video is available here) lasted over four hours, and included discussion on a variety of topics, but there was, inevitably, a block of time devoted to the discussion of DCPS testing results (and these questions were the focus of the news coverage).

These exchanges between Council members and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson focused particularly on the low-stakes Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).* Though it was all very constructive and not even remotely hostile, it’s fair to say that Ms. Henderson was grilled quite a bit (as is often the case at these kinds of hearings). Unfortunately, the arguments from both sides of the dais were fraught with the typical misinterpretations of TUDA, and I could not get past how tragic it is to see legislators question the superintendent of a large urban school district based on a misinterpretation of what the data mean – and to hear that superintendent respond based on the same flawed premises.

But what I really kept thinking — as I have before in similar contexts — was how effective Chancellor Henderson could have been in answering the Council’s questions had she chosen to interpret the data properly (and I still hold out hope that this will become the norm some day). So, let’s take a quick look at a few major arguments that were raised during the hearing, and how they might have been answered. Read More »

We Can’t Just Raise Expectations

Posted by on April 30, 2014

* Reprinted here in the Washington Post

What exactly is “a culture of high expectations” and how is it created? In fact, what are expectations? I ask these questions because I hear this catchphrase a lot, but it doesn’t seem like the real barriers to developing such a culture are well understood. If we are serious about raising expectations for all learners, we need to think seriously about what expectations are, how they work and what it might take to create environments that equalize high expectations for what students can achieve.

In this post I explain why I think the idea of “raising expectations” — when used carelessly and as a slogan — is meaningless. Expectations are not test-scores. They are related to standards but are not the same thing. Expectations are a complex and unobservable construct — succinctly, they are unconscious anticipations of performance. Changing expectations for competence is not easy, but it is possible — I get at some of that later.

Certain conditions, however, need to be in place — e.g., a broad conceptualization of ability, a cooperative environment etc. It is unclear that these conditions are present in many of our schools. In fact, many are worried that the opposite is happening. The research and theory I examine here suggest that extreme standardization and competition are incompatible with equalizing expectations in the classroom. They suggest, rather, that current reforms might be making it more difficult to develop and sustain high expectations for all students, and to create classrooms where all students experience similar opportunities to learn. Read More »

“Show Me What Democracy Looks Like”

Posted by on April 29, 2014

Our guest author today is John McCrann, a Math teacher and experiential educator at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. John is a member of the America Achieves Fellowship, Youth Opportunities Program, and Teacher Leader Study Group. He tweets at @JohnTroutMcCran.

New York City’s third through eighth graders are in the middle of state tests, and many of our city’s citizens have taken strong positions on the value (or lack thereof) of these assessments.  The protests, arguments and activism surrounding these tests remind me of a day when I was a substitute civics teacher during summer school.  “I need help,” Charlotte said as she approached my desk, “what is democracy?”

On that day, my mind flashed to a scene I witnessed outside the White House in the spring of 2003.  On one side of the fence, protestors shouted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  On the other side worked an administration who had invaded another country in an effort to “expand democracy.” Passionate, bright people on both sides of that fence believed in the idea that Charlotte was asking about, but came to very different conclusions about how to enact the concept.  Read More »

Why A Diverse Teaching Force?

Posted by on April 24, 2014

This is the third in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the first and second parts.

The arguments for increasing the representation of people of color in teaching are often based around two broad rationales. First is the idea that, in a diverse, democratic society, teachers of color can serve as important role models for all children. The second idea is that teachers of color are particularly well suited to teaching students of color because they possess an inherent understanding of the culture and backgrounds of these learners.

I can think of at least two additional pro-diversity arguments that are relevant here, not only for schools but also for the broader landscape of work organizations. First, diversity can increase everyone’s sense of “fitting in” in a given setting; social belonging is a basic human need that can in turn predict a wide range of favorable outcomes. Second, diversity can do more than offer role models. Repeated exposure to male pre-K teachers or black, female high school principals can challenge and expand our thinking about who is or is not  suited to certain tasks – and even the nature of those jobs and the skills required to do them. This is important to the much broader goal of fairness and equality because it contributes to disrupting strong stereotypic associations present in our culture that too often limit opportunities for people of color and women.

As I noted the first two posts of my implicit bias series (here and here), intergroup contact is one of the best researched means of reducing explicit (here and here) and unconscious (racial, gender) bias (here and here). This post explains why and how faculty diversity can act as an institution-level “de-biasing” policy or strategy. Read More »

The Wonder In Language

Posted by on April 23, 2014

Our guest author today is Daniela O’Neill, Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. You can learn more about her work here.

In a wonderful bookNarratives from the Crib, a little two-year-old girl’s talk to herself in her crib before going to sleep was recorded by her parents and carefully transcribed by child language researchers, who then explored and wrote about the many interesting things captured in this self-talk.

Narratives in the Crib is a collection of the work of these scholars. Emily was the name of the little girl, and her talk was a fascinating window into her mind – into what she was wondering about, thinking about and trying to understand. Many years ago, when I was “listening” to Emily talk as I read the book, a little word caught my attention, because she used it a lot – it was the little word maybe.

Why did it catch my attention? Because, at the time, I’d been thinking about three- and four-year-olds’ understanding of themselves in time – that is, their understanding that they have a “past-self,” a “present-self” and a “future-self,” and that these are all connected in time. When children reach three- to four years old, there appears to be a pretty big shift in understanding of this concept, one which coincides, for example, with children beginning to understand and use words like “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” Read More »

Will the SAT Overhaul Help Achieve Equity?

Posted by on April 22, 2014

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, acknowledges that historically its tests have been biased in favor of the children of wealthy, well educated elites – those who live in the best zip codes, are surrounded by books, go to the best regarded schools (both public and private), enjoy summer enrichment programs, and can avail themselves of as much tutoring and SAT test-prep coaching as they need. That’s why, early last month, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would undergo significant changes, with the aim of making it more fair and equitable for disadvantaged students.

Among the key changes, which are expected to take effect in 2016, are: the democratization of access to test-prep courses (by trying to make them less necessary and entering into an agreement with the Khan Academy to offer free, online practice problems*); ensuring that every exam include a reading passage from one of the nation’s “founding documents,” such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; and replacing “arcane ‘SAT words’ (‘depreciatory,’ ‘membranous’),” with words that are more “commonly used in college courses, such as ‘synthesis’ and ‘empirical.’” (See here.)

Will this help? Well, maybe, but the SAT’s long held — but always elusive — mission to help identify and reward merit, rather than just privilege, will only be met insofar as its creators can be sure that all students have had an equal opportunity to learn these particular vocabulary words and have read these particular “founding documents” and texts. That is, it comes down to a question of curriculum. Read More »

What Is Implicit Bias, And How Might It Affect Teachers And Students? (Part II – Solutions)

Posted by on April 17, 2014

This is the second in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the first and third parts.

In my first post on this topic, I argued that teachers are better positioned than, say, doctors or judges, to learn specifics about the individuals they serve. This strategy – called “individuating” – has proven to be effective in reducing implicit biases (related to race, gender, ethnicity, etc.). This post offers additional thoughts on how we might support teachers’ orientation to get to know their students. Second, I discuss additional strategies that have been proven to be effective in mitigating the effects of implicit biases.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague asked a great question during the Shanker Institute’s Good Schools Seminar on “Creating Safe and Supportive Schools.” His question was motivated by a presentation on implicit bias by Kirwan Institute director Sharon Davies. The question was: Wouldn’t you expect more conscious, systematic decision-making (and fewer automatic, snap judgments) from teachers who, after all, see their students everyday and get to know them well? (See here, minute 50:55.)

As I related in the previous post, individuating (or learning about the particulars of a person, his/her interests, skills, family, etc.) can be a very effective “de-biasing” tool.* So, how might we leverage and support teachers’ natural inclination to get to know students well? How might a potential de-biasing intervention build on this feature of teachers’ work? Read More »

What Is A Standard Deviation?

Posted by on April 14, 2014

Anyone who follows education policy debates might hear the term “standard deviation” fairly often. Most people have at least some idea of what it means, but I thought it might be useful to lay out a quick, (hopefully) clear explanation, since it’s useful for the proper interpretation of education data and research (as well as that in other fields).

Many outcomes or measures, such as height or blood pressure, assume what’s called a “normal distribution.” Simply put, this means that such measures tend to cluster around the mean (or average), and taper off in both directions the further one moves away from the mean (due to its shape, this is often called a “bell curve”). In practice, and especially when samples are small, distributions are imperfect — e.g., the bell is messy or a bit skewed to one side — but in general, with many measures, there is clustering around the average.

Let’s use test scores as our example. Suppose we have a group of 1,000 students who take a test (scored 0-20). A simulated score distribution is presented in the figure below (called a “histogram”). Read More »

The Middle Ground Between Opt Out And All In

Posted by on April 11, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, Michelle Rhee published an op-ed in the Washington Post speaking out against the so-called “opt out movement,” which encourages parents to refuse to let their children take standardized tests.

Personally, I oppose the “opt-out” phenomenon, but I also think it would be a mistake not to pay attention to its proponents’ fundamental issue – that standardized tests are potentially being misused and/or overused. This concern is legitimate and important. My sense is that “opting out” reflects a rather extreme version of this mindset, a belief that we cannot right the ship – i.e., we have gone so far and moved so carelessly with test-based accountability that there is no real hope that it can or will be fixed. This strikes me as a severe overreaction, but I understand the sentiment.

That said, while most of Ms. Rhee’s op-ed is the standard, reasonable fare, some of it is also laced with precisely the kind of misconceptions that contribute to the apprehensions not only of anti-testing advocates, but also among those of us who occupy a middle ground – i.e., favor some test-based accountability, but are worried about getting it right. Read More »


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