** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has become one of the more influential education advocates in the country. He travels the nation armed with a set of core policy prescriptions, sometimes called the “Florida formula,” as well as “proof” that they work. The evidence that he and his supporters present consists largely of changes in average statewide test scores – NAEP and the state exam (FCAT) – since the reforms started going into place. The basic idea is that increases in testing results are the direct result of these policies.
Governor Bush is no doubt sincere in his effort to improve U.S. education, and, as we’ll see, a few of the policies comprising the “Florida formula” have some test-based track record. However, his primary empirical argument on their behalf – the coincidence of these policies’ implementation with changes in scores and proficiency rates – though common among both “sides” of the education debate, is simply not valid. We’ve discussed why this is the case many times (see here, here and here), as have countless others, in the Florida context as well as more generally.*
There is no need to repeat those points, except to say that they embody the most basic principles of data interpretation and causal inference. It would be wonderful if the evaluation of education policies – or of school systems’ performance more generally – was as easy as looking at raw, cross-sectional testing data. But it is not.
Luckily, one need not rely on these crude methods. We can instead take a look at some of the rigorous research that has specifically evaluated the core reforms comprising the “Florida formula.” As usual, it is a far more nuanced picture than supporters (and critics) would have you believe. Read More »
** Reprinted here in the Washington Post
2012 was another busy year for market-based education reform. The rapid proliferation of charter schools continued, while states and districts went about the hard work of designing and implementing new teacher evaluations that incorporate student testing data, and, in many cases, performance pay programs to go along with them.
As in previous years (see our 2010 and 2011 reviews), much of the research on these three “core areas” – merit pay, charter schools, and the use of value-added and other growth models in teacher evaluations – appeared rather responsive to the direction of policy making, but could not always keep up with its breakneck pace.*
Some lag time is inevitable, not only because good research takes time, but also because there’s a degree to which you have to try things before you can see how they work. Nevertheless, what we don’t know about these policies far exceeds what we know, and, given the sheer scope and rapid pace of reforms over the past few years, one cannot help but get the occasional “flying blind” feeling. Moreover, as is often the case, the only unsupportable position is certainty. Read More »
When I point out that raw changes in state proficiency rates or NAEP scores are not valid evidence that a policy or set of policies is “working,” I often get the following response: “Oh Matt, we can’t have a randomized trial or peer-reviewed article for everything. We have to make decisions and conclusions based on imperfect information sometimes.”
This statement is obviously true. In this case, however, it’s also a straw man. There’s a huge middle ground between the highest-quality research and the kind of speculation that often drives our education debate. I’m not saying we always need experiments or highly complex analyses to guide policy decisions (though, in general, these are always preferred and sometimes required). The point, rather, is that we shouldn’t draw conclusions based on evidence that doesn’t support those conclusions.
This, unfortunately, happens all the time. In fact, many of the more prominent advocates in education today make their cases based largely on raw changes in outcomes immediately after (or sometimes even before) their preferred policies were implemented (also see here, here, here, here, here, and here). In order to illustrate the monumental assumptions upon which these and similar claims ride, I thought it might be fun to break them down quickly, in a highly simplified fashion. So, here are the four “requirements” that must be met in order to attribute raw test score changes to a specific policy (note that most of this can be applied not only to claims that policies are working, but also to claims that they’re not working because scores or rates are flat):
Read More »
The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has released a new report on teacher retention in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). It is a spinoff of their “The Irreplaceables” report, which was released a few months ago, and which is discussed in this post. The four (unnamed) districts from that report are also used in this one, and their results are compared with those from DCPS.
I want to look quickly at this new supplemental analysis, not to rehash the issues I raised about“The Irreplaceables,” but rather because of DCPS’s potential importance as a field test site for a host of policy reform ideas – indeed, the majority of core market-based reform policies have been in place in D.C. for several years, including teacher evaluations in which test-based measures are the dominant component, automatic dismissals based on those ratings, large performance bonuses, mutual consent for excessed teachers and a huge charter sector. There are many people itching to render a sweeping verdict, positive or negative, on these reforms, most often based on pre-existing beliefs, rather than solid evidence.
Although I will take issue with a couple of the conclusions offered in this report, I’m not going to review it systematically. I think research on retention is important, and it’s difficult to produce reports with original analysis, while very easy to pick them apart. Instead, I’m going to list a couple of findings in the report that I think are worth examining, mostly because they speak to larger issues. Read More »
You don’t have to look very far to find very strong opinions about Race to the Top (RTTT), the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED) stimulus-funded state-level grant program (which has recently been joined by a district-level spinoff). There are those who think it is a smashing success, while others assert that it is a dismal failure. The truth, of course, is that these claims, particularly the extreme views on either side, are little more than speculation.*
To win the grants, states were strongly encouraged to make several different types of changes, such as adoption of new standards, the lifting/raising of charter school caps, the installation of new data systems and the implementation of brand new teacher evaluations. This means that any real evaluation of the program’s impact will take some years and will have to be multifaceted – that is, it is certain that the implementation/effects will vary not only by each of these components, but also between states.
In other words, the success or failure of RTTT is an empirical question, one that is still almost entirely open. But there is a silver lining here: USED is at least asking that question, in the form of a five-year, $19 million evaluation program, administered through the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, designed to assess the impact and implementation of various RTTT-fueled policy changes, as well as those of the controversial School Improvement Grants (SIGs). Read More »
One claim that gets tossed around a lot in education circles is that “the most effective teachers produce a year and a half of learning per year, while the least effective produce a half of a year of learning.”
This talking point is used all the time in advocacy materials and news articles. Its implications are pretty clear: Effective teachers can make all the difference, while ineffective teachers can do permanent damage.
As with most prepackaged talking points circulated in education debates, the “year and a half of learning” argument, when used without qualification, is both somewhat valid and somewhat misleading. So, seeing as it comes up so often, let’s very quickly identify its origins and what it means. Read More »
Our guest authors today are Morgan Polikoff and Andrew McEachin. Morgan is Assistant Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Andrew is an Institute of Education Science postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.
By now, it is painfully clear that Congress will not be revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) before the November elections. And with the new ESEA waivers, who knows when the revision will happen? Congress, however, seems to have some ideas about what next-generation accountability should look like, so we thought it might be useful to examine one leading proposal and see what the likely results would be.
The proposal we refer to is the Harkin-Enzi plan, available here for review. Briefly, the plan identifies 15 percent of schools as targets of intervention, classified in three groups. First are the persistently low-achieving schools (PLAS); these are the 5 percent of schools that are the lowest performers, based on achievement level or a combination of level and growth. Next are the achievement gap schools (AGS); these are the 5 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps between any two subgroups. Last are the lowest subgroup achievement schools (LSAS); these are the 5 percent of schools with the lowest achievement for any significant subgroup.
The goal of this proposal is both to reduce the number of schools that are identified as low-performing and to create a new operational definition of consistently low-performing schools. To that end, we wanted to know what kinds of schools these groups would target and how stable the classifications would be over time. 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 »
Our guest author today is Ed Fuller, Associate Professor in the Education Leadership Department at Penn State University. He is also the Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis as well as the Associate Director for Policy of the University Council for Educational Administration.
“No one knows who I am,” exclaimed a senior in a high-poverty, predominantly minority and low-performing high school in the Austin area. She explained, “I have been at this school four years and had four principals and six algebra I teachers.”
Elsewhere in Texas, the first school to be closed by the state for low performance was Johnston High School, which was led by 13 principals in the 11 years preceding closure. The school also had a teacher turnover rate greater than 25 percent for almost all of the years and greater than 30 percent for 7 of the years.
While the above examples are rather extreme cases, they do underscore two interconnected issues – teacher and principal turnover – that often plague low-performing schools and, in the case of principal turnover, afflict a wide range of schools regardless of performance or school demographics. Read More »
A recent Economist article on charter schools, though slightly more nuanced than most mainstream media treatments of the charter evidence, contains a very common, somewhat misleading argument that I’d like to address quickly. It’s about the findings of the so-called “CREDO study,” the important (albeit over-cited) 2009 national comparison of student achievement in charter and regular public schools in 16 states.
Specifically, the article asserts that the CREDO analysis, which finds a statistically discernible but very small negative impact of charters overall (with wide underlying variation), also finds a significant positive effect among low-income students. This leads the Economist to conclude that the entire CREDO study “has been misinterpreted,” because it’s real value is in showing that “the children who most need charters have been served well.”
Whether or not an intervention affects outcomes among subgroups of students is obviously important (though one has hardly “misinterpreted” a study by focusing on its overall results). And CREDO does indeed find a statistically significant, positive test-based impact of charters on low-income students, vis-à-vis their counterparts in regular public schools. However, as discussed here (and in countless textbooks and methods courses), statistical significance only means we can be confident that the difference is non-zero (it cannot be chalked up to random fluctuation). Significant differences are often not large enough to be practically meaningful.
And this is certainly the case with CREDO and low-income students. Read More »
Our guest author today is David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell University, and a fellow of both the American Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association.
When I was a younger academic, I often taught a class on research methods in the behavioral sciences. On the first day of that class, I took as my mission to teach students only one thing—that conducting research in the behavioral sciences ages a person. I meant that in two ways. First, conducting research is humbling and frustrating. I cannot count the number of pet ideas I have had through the years, all of them beloved, that have gone to die in the laboratory at the hands of data unwilling to verify them.
But, second, there is another, more positive way in which research ages a person. At times, data come back and verify a cherished idea, or even reveal a more provocative or valuable one that no one has never expected. It is a heady experience in those moments for the researcher to know something that perhaps no one else knows, to be wiser—more aged if you will—in a small corner of the human experience that he or she cares about deeply. Read More »
There is currently an ongoing rhetorical war of sorts over the gender wage gap. One “side” makes the common argument that women earn around 75 cents on the male dollar (see here, for example).
Others assert that the gender gap is a myth, or that it is so small as to be unimportant.
Often, these types of exchanges are enough to exasperate the casual observer, and inspire claims such as “statistics can be made to say anything.” In truth, however, the controversy over the gender gap is a good example of how descriptive statistics, by themselves, say nothing. What matters is how they’re interpreted.
Moreover, the manner in which one must interpret various statistics on the gender gap applies almost perfectly to the achievement gaps that are so often mentioned in education debates. 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 »
Charter schools in New Orleans (NOLA) now serve over four out of five students in the city – the largest market share of any big city in the nation. As of the 2011-12 school year, most of the city’s schools (around 80 percent), charter and regular public, are overseen by the Recovery School District (RSD), a statewide agency created in 2003 to take over low-performing schools, which assumed control of most NOLA schools in Katrina’s aftermath.
Around three-quarters of these RSD schools (50 out of 66) are charters. The remainder of NOLA’s schools are overseen either by the Orleans Parish School Board (which is responsible for 11 charters and six regular public schools, and taxing authority for all parish schools) or by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (which is directly responsible for three charters, and also supervises the RSD).
New Orleans is often held up as a model for the rapid expansion of charter schools in other urban districts, based on the argument that charter proliferation since 2005-06 has generated rapid improvements in student outcomes. There are two separate claims potentially embedded in this argument. The first is that the city’s schools perform better that they did pre-Katrina. The second is that NOLA’s charters have outperformed the city’s dwindling supply of traditional public schools since the hurricane.
Although I tend strongly toward the viewpoint that whether charter schools “work” is far less important than why – e.g., specific policies and practices – it might nevertheless be useful to quickly address both of the claims above, given all the attention paid to charters in New Orleans. Read More »
Those following education know that policy focused on “teacher quality” is by far the dominant paradigm for improving schools over the past few years. Some (but not nearly all) components of this all-hands-on-deck effort are perplexing to many teachers, and have generated quite a bit of pushback. No matter one’s opinion of this approach, however, what drives it is the tantalizing allure of variation in teacher quality.
Fueled by the ever-increasing availability of detailed test score datasets linking teachers to students, the research literature on teachers’ test-based effectiveness has grown rapidly, in both size and sophistication. Analysis after analysis finds that, all else being equal, the variation in teachers’ estimated effects on students’ test growth – the difference between the “top” and “bottom” teachers – is very large. In any given year, some teachers’ students make huge progress, others’ very little. Even if part of this estimated variation is attributable to confounding factors, the discrepancies are still larger than most any other measured “input” within the jurisdiction of education policy. The underlying assumption here is that “true” teacher quality varies to a degree that is at least somewhat comparable in magnitude to the spread of the test-based estimates.
Perhaps that’s the case, but it does not, by itself, help much. The key question is whether and how we can measure teacher performance at the individual level and, more importantly, influence the distribution – that is, to raise the ceiling, the middle and/or the floor. The variation hangs out there like a drug to which we’re addicted, but haven’t really figured out how to administer. If there was some way to harness it efficiently, the potential benefits could be considerable. The focus of current education policy is in large part an effort to do anything and everything to try and figure this out. And, as might be expected given the enormity of the task, progress has been slow. Read More »