The Importance Of Relationships In Educational Reform

Posted by on July 7, 2014

* Reprinted here in the Washington Post

This is the first post in a series on “The Social Side Of Reform”, exploring the idea that relationships, social capital, and social networks matter in lasting, systemic educational improvement. For more on this series, click here.

Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, and Alan J. Daly, Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego. Finnigan and Daly have published numerous articles on social network analysis in education in academic and practitioner journals, and recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014), which explores the use and diffusion of different types of evidence across levels of the educational system.

There are many reforms out there; what if these ideas are not working as well as they could because educators are simply not communicating or building meaningful relationships with each other or maybe the conditions in which they do their work do not support productive interactions?  These are important issues to understand and our research, some of which we highlight in this post, underscores the importance of the relational element in reform.  To further explore the social side of the change equation, we draw on social network research as a way to highlight the importance of relationships as conduits through which valued resources flow and can bring about system-wide change.

A few years ago Arne Duncan noted that “[NCLB] has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed.”  We think that may have to do with the over reliance on technical fixes, prescriptive approaches and the scant attention to the context — particularly the social context — in which reforms are implemented.  But what would things look like if we took a more relational approach to educational improvement? Read More »


Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

Posted by on July 3, 2014

Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. This post originally appeared on The Core Knowledge Blog.

I’ll guess that pretty much all educators are aware of the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Even if there is a teacher who hasn’t heard those terms, all teachers have to deal with the consequences—wasting 2 to 5 weeks each fall reteaching content and skills. Naively, I thought the reteaching ritual was so widely lamented that parents, too, were aware of the summer slide. So I was shocked to see that 61% of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer.

The finding comes from a new survey of 1,014 parents with children ages 5–11. Conducted by Harris Interactive, it kicks off the summer campaign by Reading Is Fundamental and Macy’s to provide books to needy children.

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings. Read More »


Teachers And Education Reform, On A Need To Know Basis

Posted by on July 1, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the website Vox.com published an article entitled, “11 facts about U.S. teachers and schools that put the education reform debate in context.” The article, in the wake of the Vergara decision, is supposed to provide readers with the “basic facts” about the current education reform environment, with a particular emphasis on teachers. Most of the 11 facts are based on descriptive statistics.

Vox advertises itself as a source of accessible, essential, summary information — what you “need to know” — for people interested in a topic but not necessarily well-versed in it. Right off the bat, let me say that this is an extraordinarily difficult task, and in constructing lists such as this one, there’s no way to please everyone (I’ve read a couple of Vox’s education articles and they were okay).

That said, someone sent me this particular list, and it’s pretty good overall, especially since it does not reflect overt advocacy for given policy positions, as so many of these types of lists do. But I was compelled to comment on it. I want to say that I did this to make some lofty point about the strengths and weaknesses of data and statistics packaged for consumption by the general public. It would, however, be more accurate to say that I started doing it and just couldn’t stop. In any case, here’s a little supplemental discussion of each of the 11 items: Read More »


Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

Posted by on June 26, 2014

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas” — see here. The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently. Read More »


What Kindergartners Might Teach Us About Test-Based Accountability

Posted by on June 24, 2014

There is an ongoing debate about widespread administration of standardized tests to kindergartners. This is of course a serious decision. My personal opinion about whether this is a good idea depends on several factors, such as how good the tests will be and, most importantly, how the results will be used (and I cannot say that I am optimistic about the latter).

Although the policy itself must be considered seriously on its merits, there is one side aspect of testing kindergarteners that fascinates me: It would demonstrate how absurd it is to judge school performance, as does NCLB, using absolute performance levels – i.e., how highly students score on tests, rather than their progress over time.

Basically, the kindergarten tests would inevitably shake out the same way as those administered in later grades. Schools and districts serving more disadvantaged students would score substantially lower than their counterparts in more affluent areas. If the scores were converted to proficiency rates or similar cut-score measures, they would show extremely low pass rates in urban districts such as Detroit. Read More »


Contrarians At The Gates

Posted by on June 19, 2014

Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have a negative view of the Gates Foundation’s education programs. Although I will admit that part of me is uneasy with the sheer amount of resources (and influence) they wield, and there are a few areas where I don’t see eye-to-eye with their ideas (or grantees), I agree with them on a great many things, and I think that some of their efforts, such as the Measuring Effective Teachers project, are important and beneficial (even if I found their packaging of the MET results a bit overblown).

But I feel obliged to say that I am particularly impressed with their recent announcement of support for a two-year delay on attaching stakes to the results of new assessments aligned with the Common Core. Granted, much of this is due to the fact that I think this is the correct policy decision (see my opinion piece with Morgan Polikoff). Independent of that, however, I think it took intellectual and political courage for them to take this stance, given their efforts toward new teacher evaluations that include test-based productivity measures.

The announcement was guaranteed to please almost nobody. Read More »


The Souls Of Black Teachers: Reading José Luis Vilson With W.E.B. Du Bois

Posted by on June 17, 2014

This article was originally published in Dissent

The heart of education lies in the relationship between teacher and student. The quality of that relationship—its capacity to nurture, to inspire, to awaken the imagination and to cultivate the intellect—is crucial to student learning. This is an ancient truth, equally central to the pedagogy of Socrates in the West, Confucius in the East, and many others in between. But it bears repeating in an age when many self-styled “education reformers” seek to reduce the value of teaching to standardized test scores and statistical algorithms.

José Luis Vilson’s This Is Not A Test (Haymarket Books, 2014) bears witness to the enduring vitality of that relationship. Vilson teaches math to poor black and brown students in New York City middle schools, and his writing is rooted in his classroom experiences. His voice is an authentic teacher’s voice, with the resonance of a teacher’s calling and the timbre of a teacher’s passion for the welfare of his students. Teachers will recognize themselves in Vilson, from his fatherly affection for his students and disarmingly open accounts of classroom triumphs and defeats to his sorrow at a former student’s senseless death and anger over the poverty that throws up so many obstacles to student learning. Read More »


Is Teacher Attrition Actually Increasing?

Posted by on June 12, 2014

Over the past few years, one can find a regular flow of writing attempting to explain the increase in teacher attrition. Usually, these explanations come in the form of advocacy – that is, people who don’t like a given policy or policies assert that they are the reasons for the rise in teachers leaving. Putting aside that these arguments are usually little more than speculation, as well as the fact that they often rely on highly limited approaches to measuring attrition (e.g., teacher experience distributions), there is a prior issue that must be addressed here: Is teacher attrition really increasing?

The short answer, at least at the national level and over the longer term, is yes, but, as usual, it’s more complicated than a simple yes/no answer.

Obviously, not all attrition is “bad,” as it depends on who’s leaving, but any attempt to examine levels of or trends in teacher attrition (leaving the profession) or mobility (switching schools) requires good data. When looking at individual districts, one often must rely on administrative datasets that make it very difficult to determine whether teachers left the profession entirely or simply moved to another district (though remember that whether teachers leave the profession or simply switch schools doesn’t really matter to individual schools, since they must replace the teachers regardless). In addition, the phenomenon of teachers leaving for a temporary period and then returning (e.g., after childbirth) is more common than many people realize. Read More »


A Few More Points About Charter Schools And Extended Time

Posted by on June 9, 2014

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that made a fairly simple point about the practice of expressing estimated charter effects on test scores as “days of additional learning”: Among the handful of states, districts, and multi-site operators that consistently have been shown to have a positive effect on testing outcomes, might not those “days of learning” be explained, at least in part, by the fact that they actually do offer additional days of learning, in the form of much longer school days and years?

That is, there is a small group of charter models/chains that seem to get good results. There are many intangible factors that make a school effective, but to the degree we can chalk this up to concrete practices or policies, additional time may be the most compelling possibility. Although it’s true that school time must be used wisely, it’s difficult to believe that the sheer amount of extra time that the flagship chains offer would not improve testing performance substantially.

To their credit, many charter advocates do acknowledge the potentially crucial role of extended time in explaining their success stories. And the research, tentative though it still is, is rather promising. Nevertheless, there are a few important points that bear repeating when it comes to the idea of massive amounts of additional time, particularly given the fact that there is a push to get regular public schools to adopt the practice. Read More »


A Moral Panic Over Real Accountability?

Posted by on June 6, 2014

The late conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for declaring “there is no alternative” as she executed her laissez-faire economic policies of austerity and privatization, redistributing wealth and helping to concentrate power into the hands of that nation’s rich and powerful. The notion that current ideas and policies are inescapable, that there can be no feasible or desirable alternatives, became a staple of apologies for the status quo long before Thatcher’s declaration. Unfortunately, it has also become a common trope in discussions of U.S. education policy in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

A few weeks ago, noted education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten[i] appeared in the pages of the Huffington Post with an essay declaring that the current accountability regime in American education was badly broken, and that there was indeed an alternative, a system of real accountability, that should be adopted in its stead. What is needed, they reasoned, is nothing less than a paradigm shift from the current fixation on “test and punish” to a “support and improve” model.

Darling-Hammond and Weingarten argued that, after more than a decade of proliferating standardized exams, our curricula had narrowed and too many of our schools had been transformed into ‘test prep’ factories. The linking of these tests to high-stakes decisions about the future of students, educators and schools has created a culture of fear and anxiety that saps student and teacher morale, drains the joy out of teaching and learning and diminishes the quality of education. The mass closure of schools has negatively impacted communities that can least afford to lose their very few public institutions, without meaningfully improving the education of students living in poverty, students of color and immigrant students. Read More »


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 »


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