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 »

New York City: The Mississippi Of The Twenty-First Century?

Posted by on April 7, 2014

Last month saw the publication of a new report, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation, produced by UCLA’s highly regarded Civil Rights Project. It confirmed what New York educators have suspected for some time: our schools are now the most racially segregated schools in the United States. New York’s African-American and Latino students experience “the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools.”

Driving the statewide numbers were schools in New York City, particularly charter schools. Inside New York City, “the vast majority of the charter schools were intensely segregated,” the report concluded, significantly worse in this regard “than the record for public schools.”

New York State’s Extreme School Segregation provides a window into the intersection of race and class in the city’s schools. As a rule, the city’s racially integrated schools are middle class, in which middle-class white, Asian, African-American and Latino students all experience the educational benefits of racial diversity. By contrast, the city’s racially segregated public schools are generally segregated by both race and class: extreme school segregation involves high concentrations of African-American and Latino students living in poverty. Read More »

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

Posted by on April 4, 2014

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

The research on implicit bias both fascinates and disturbs people. It’s pretty cool to realize that many everyday mental processes happen so quickly as to be imperceptible. But the fact that they are so automatic, and therefore outside of our conscious control, can be harder to stomach.

In other words, the invisible mental shortcuts that allow us to function can be quite problematic – and real barrier to social equality and fairness – in contexts where careful thinking and decision-making are necessary. Accumulating evidence reveals that “implicit biases” are linked to discriminatory outcomes ranging from the seemingly mundane, such as poorer quality interactions, to the highly consequential, such as constrained employment opportunities and a decreased likelihood of receiving life-saving emergency medical treatments.

Two excellent questions about implicit bias came up during our last Good Schools Seminar on “Creating Safe and Supportive Schools.” Read More »

When Growth Isn’t Really Growth, Part Two

Posted by on March 31, 2014

Last year, we published a post that included a very simple graphical illustration of what changes in cross-sectional proficiency rates or scores actually tell us about schools’ test-based effectiveness (basically nothing).

In reality, year-to-year changes in cross-sectional average rates or scores may reflect “real” improvement, at least to some degree, but, especially when measured at the school- or grade-level, they tend to be mostly error/imprecision (e.g., changes in the composition of the samples taking the test, measurement error and serious issues with converting scores to rates using cutpoints). This is why changes in scores often conflict with more rigorous indicators that employ longitudinal data.

In the aforementioned post, however, I wanted to show what the changes meant even if most of these issues disappeared magicallyIn this one, I would like to extend this very simple illustration, as doing so will hopefully help shed a bit more light on the common (though mistaken) assumption that effective schools or policies should generate perpetual rate/score increases.

Read More »

Estimated Versus Actual Days Of Learning In Charter School Studies

Posted by on March 19, 2014

One of the purely presentational aspects that separates the new “generation” of CREDO charter school analyses from the old is that the more recent reports convert estimated effect sizes from standard deviations into a “days of learning” metric. You can find similar approaches in other reports and papers as well.

I am very supportive of efforts to make interpretation easier for those who aren’t accustomed to thinking in terms of standard deviations, so I like the basic motivation behind this. I do have concerns about this particular conversion — specifically, that it overstates things a bit — but I don’t want to get into that issue. If we just take CREDO’s “days of learning” conversion at face value, my primary, far more simple reaction to hearing that a given charter school sector’s impact is equivalent to a given number of additional “days of learning” is to wonder: Does this charter sector actually offer additional “days of learning,” in the form of longer school days and/or years?

This matters to me because I (and many others) have long advocated moving past the charter versus regular public school “horserace” and trying to figure out why some charters seem to do very well and others do not. Additional time is one of the more compelling observable possibilities, and while they’re not perfectly comparable, it fits nicely with the “days of learning” expression of effect sizes. Take New York City charter schools, for example. Read More »

Valuing Home Languages Sets The Foundation For Early Learning

Posted by on March 17, 2014

Our guest author today is Candis Grover, the Literacy & Spanish Content Manager at, an online resource that models interactive oral language development activities that parents and caregivers of young children can do to encourage learning.

Many advocates, policymakers, and researchers now recognize that a strong start requires more than just a year of pre-K. Research shows that promoting children’s success starts with helping parents recognize the importance of loving interactions and “conversations” with their babies.

The above statement, which is taken from a recent report, Subprime Learning: Early Education in America since the Great Recession, emphasizes the role of parents as the earliest investors in the academic success of their children. This same report states that more than one in five of these families speaks a primary language other than English, and that this statistic could reach 40 percent by 2030. Despite the magnitude of these numbers, the Subprime Learning report asserts that the research on dual language learners has been largely ignored by those developing early childhood education policies and programs. Read More »


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