** 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 »
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. 
Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.
Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions “were the Goliath to the school reformers’ David.”
How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science. Read More »
Last week, in “Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?”, I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.
The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions. Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today.  At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack.  Read More »
Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College’s interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.
Critics of higher education’s growing reliance on nontenure-track (NTT) faculty for undergraduate teaching routinely assert that NTT faculty are inferior teachers, and, therefore, that the quality of undergraduate education is deteriorating. This is true even of critics such as Marc Bousquet, the author of How the University Works (2008), who see themselves as friends of exploited NTT faculty and supporters of efforts to organize them into unions.
I think that these critics are wrong, and that their error has two important negative consequences: first, it devalues the work that NTT faculty do; and second, it impedes our understanding of one of the major successes of the “neoliberal” model – that it has been able to introduce a two-tiered faculty system in which many newer faculty are paid half or less of what the top tier is paid per class, without dramatic decline in the quality of undergraduate education that would de-legitimize the two-track system.
To understand how this has been possible – and where the critics go wrong – we need to start by asking: What determines teaching quality? I would suggest that there are five major determinants: Read More »
** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
Last week, I attended a Center for American Progress (CAP) discussion, where UC Berkeley professor David Kirp spoke about his research on Union City’s school system, and offered some ideas from his new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.
Kirp’s work and Union City have received a lot of attention in the last month or so, and while most find the story heartening, a few commentators have had more skeptical reactions. True, this is the story of one district in one state finding success through collaboration and hard work, but research from other disciplines – sociology, business, management, organizational studies – suggests that similar human dynamics can be observed in settings other than schools and school districts. I would like to situate Kirp’s work in this broader framework; that is, among a myriad of studies – case studies, if you will – pointing to the same fundamental phenomena.
Union City is a community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average, where three-quarters of public school students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. About 25 years ago, the school district was in so much trouble that state officials threatened a state takeover. Since then, Union City’s measured performance has improved considerably. In 2011, almost 90 percent of the district’s students graduated from high school, and 60 percent went on to college. The change is large enough to suggest some degree of “real” improvement, and it’s plausible to believe that better school quality had at least something to do with that. So, what was Union City’s school improvement strategy? Read More »
One of the more thoughtful voices in education, Larry Cuban, has delivered an interesting brief for the argument that there is no such thing as a “corporate reform movement.” While he acknowledges that America’s corporate elite largely share a view of how to reform America’s schools, focused on the creation of educational marketplaces and business-model schools as the engines of change, Cuban argues that it is mistake to overstate the homogeneity of perspectives and purposes. The power players of the reform movement have “varied, not uniform motives,” are “drawn from overlapping, but distinct spheres of influence,” and “vary in their aims and strategies.” The use of a term such as “corporate education reform” suggests “far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking.”
Cuban’s argument amalgamates two different senses of the term “corporate education reform” – the notion that there is a movement for education reform led by corporate elites and the idea that there is a movement for education reform that seeks to remake public education in the image and likeness of for-profit corporations in a competitive marketplace.
In co-mingling these two distinct senses of the term, Cuban is adopting a common usage. And it is a usage not entirely without justification: many of the strongest advocates for transforming public schools into educational corporations are found in the corporate elite. But it is vital, I will argue here, that we separate these two conceptions of “corporate education reform” if we are to adequately understand the complexity of the political terrain on which the battles over the future of public education are being fought. Read More »
Controversial proposals for new teacher evaluation systems have generated a tremendous amount of misinformation. It has come from both “sides,” ranging from minor misunderstandings to gross inaccuracies. Ostensibly to address some of these misconceptions, the advocacy group Students First (SF) recently released a “myth/fact sheet” on evaluations.
Despite the need for oversimplification inherent in “myth/fact” sheets, the genre can be useful, especially about topics such as evaluation, about which there is much confusion. When advocacy groups produce them, however, the myths and facts sometimes take the form of “arguments we don’t like versus arguments we do like.”
This SF document falls into that trap. In fact, several of its claims are a little shocking. I would still like to discuss the sheet, not because I enjoy picking apart the work of others (I don’t), but rather because I think elements of both the “myths” and “facts” in this sheet could be recast as “dual myths” in a new sheet. That is, this document helps to illustrate how, in many of our most heated education debates, the polar opposite viewpoints that receive the most attention are often both incorrect, or at least severely overstated, and usually serve to preclude more productive, nuanced discussions.
Let’s take all four of SF’s “myth/fact” combinations in turn. Read More »
Our guest author today is Jalila Al-Salman, a Bahraini teacher and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA). A leader in the Bahraini uprisings of Arab Spring, she was arrested, held in prison under abusive conditions, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison. Released late in 2012, Ms. Al-Salman continues to advocate for a peaceful, democratic transition in Bahrain.
Since the outbreak of protests in Bahrain in February 2011, people there have faced varied and numerous forms of oppression by the Government of Bahrain. Peaceful protesters have been arrested and beaten, detainees have been tortured, public and private sector employees have been wrongfully terminated from their positions for participating in protests, and over 100 people have been killed.
Shortly after the uprising began, the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA), of which I am the vice president, participated in a three-day strike from February 20 to 23. Up until then, we had been escalating our calls for improvements to the education system, so it seemed like an appropriate time to make our voices heard. In addition to calls for political reform, educators expressed frustration with the Bahrain government’s policy of hiring foreign educators from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – a practice that limits opportunities for domestic educators to teach in Bahrain’s schools. Following the strike, an estimated 9,000 teachers marched to the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle in the heart of Manama that served as the epicenter of the 2011 protests. It was the largest protest by educators in Bahrain’s history. Read More »
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is often called “the nation’s report card.” Advocates sometimes use the results of the main NAEP tests to argue for their policy agendas. One example (among many) is when supporters of the so-called “Florida Formula,” a battery of market-based reforms that went into effect throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s and are currently spreading throughout the nation, make their case primarily on Florida’s NAEP performance. The basic logic is that average test scores increased during this time period, and thus whatever Florida did must have worked, and should be exported en masse to other states.
However, since 2003, the state that has brought home the most proverbial A’s on the nation’s report card is not Florida. It is Maryland. In fact, the increase in math and reading performance among fourth and eighth graders in the state’s public schools can only be called the “Maryland Miracle.”
There’s too much at stake for policy makers to waste time worrying about trivial details, such as policy analysis. Whatever laws and practices were in place in Maryland during this time period are clearly responsible for the Miracle. They should serve as a model for the nation. Read More »
Earlier this week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the state will assume control over Camden City School District. Camden will be the fourth NJ district to undergo takeover, though this is the first time that the state will be removing control from an elected local school board, which will now serve in an advisory role (and have three additional members appointed by the Governor). Over the next few weeks, NJ officials will choose a new superintendent, and begin to revamp evaluations, curricula and other core policies.
Accompanying the announcement, the Governor’s office released a two-page “fact sheet,” much of which is devoted to justifying this move to the public.
Before discussing it, let’s be clear about something - it may indeed be the case that Camden schools are so critically low-performing and/or dysfunctional as to warrant drastic intervention. Moreover, it’s at least possible that state takeover is the appropriate type of intervention to help these schools improve (though the research on this latter score is, to be charitable, undeveloped).
That said, the “fact sheet” presents relatively little valid evidence regarding the academic performance of Camden schools. Given the sheer magnitude of any takeover decision, it is crucial for the state to demonstrate publicly that they have left no stone unturned by presenting a case that is as comprehensive and compelling as possible. However, the discrepancy between that high bar and NJ’s evidence, at least that pertaining to academic outcomes, is more than a little disconcerting.
Read More »
In 2006, the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) commissioned the largest and, to my knowledge, most recent national survey on the availability of nursing services in U.S. public schools. It was administered to a sample of over 1,000 schools in all 50 states and D.C.
The primary purpose was to gather basic information on the health staff in these schools, as well as a few core characteristics, such as school size and student demographics.
I must confess that I was a little surprised by the results. Here is the distribution of schools by nursing availability, summarized very briefly (these proportions vary by school size, type and other characteristics): Read More »
In a story for Education Week, always reliable Stephen Sawchuk reports on what may be a trend in states’ first results from their new teacher evaluation systems: The ratings are skewed toward the top.
For example, the article notes that, in Michigan, Florida and Georgia, a high proportion of teachers (more than 90 percent) received one of the two top ratings (out of four or five). This has led to some grumbling among advocates and others, citing similarities between these results and those of the old systems, in which the vast majority of teachers were rated “satisfactory,” and very few were found to be “unsatisfactory.”
Differentiation is very important in teacher evaluations – it’s kind of the whole point. Thus, it’s a problem when ratings are too heavily concentrated toward one end of the distribution. However, as Aaron Pallas points out, these important conversations about evaluation results sometimes seem less focused on good measurement or even the spread of teachers across categories than on the narrower question of how many teachers end up with the lowest rating – i.e., how many teachers will be fired.
Read More »
** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
Our guest author today is Stephen Lazar, a founding teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, where he teaches Social Studies. A National Board certified teacher, he blogs at Outside the Cave. Stephen is also one of the organizers of Insightful Social Studies, a grass roots campaign of teachers to reform the newly proposed New York State Social Studies standards.
The Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) seek to define “college and career readiness expectations.” Forty-five states have adopted them, and are moving briskly towards full implementation in the coming year. Last January, I wrote that the standards “represent the greatest opportunity for history teaching and learning to be widely re-imagined since the Committee of Ten set the basic outlines for American education over a hundred years ago.”
While I stand by that statement, with each step towards implementation I see the opportunity being squandered. We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally. Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings. New curricula will need to ensure students use an inquiry-based approach to go in depth with a smaller amount of content to gain the wider breadth of skills and dispositions required for civic, college, and career readiness. Read More »
A recent Mathematica report on the performance of KIPP charter schools expands and elaborates on their prior analyses of these schools’ (estimated) effects on average test scores and other outcomes (also here). These findings are important and interesting, and were covered extensively elsewhere.
As is usually the case with KIPP, the results stirred the full spectrum of reactions. To over-generalize a bit, critics sometimes seem unwilling to acknowledge that KIPP’s results are real no matter how well-documented they might be, whereas some proponents are quick to use KIPP to proclaim a triumph for the charter movement, one that can justify the expansion of charter sectors nationwide.
Despite all this controversy, there may be more opportunity for agreement here than meets the eye. So, let’s try to lay out a few reasonable conclusions and see if we might find some of that common ground. Read More »
In a Slate article published last October, Daniel Engber bemoans the frequently shallow use of the classic warning that “correlation does not imply causation.” Mr. Engber argues that the correlation/causation distinction has become so overused in online comments sections and other public fora as to hinder real debate. He also posits that correlation does not mean causation, but “it sure as hell provides a hint,” and can “set us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality.”
Correlations are extremely useful, in fact essential, for guiding all kinds of inquiry. And Engber is no doubt correct that the argument is overused in public debates, often in lieu of more substantive comments. But let’s also be clear about something – careless causal inferences likely do more damage to the quality and substance of policy debates on any given day than the misuse of the correlation/causation argument does over the course of months or even years.
We see this in education constantly. For example, mayors and superintendents often claim credit for marginal increases in testing results that coincide with their holding office. The causal leaps here are pretty stunning. Read More »