The $500,000 physics teacher.
Time for another round of MacArthur Foundation grants, and another round of envy from unanointed intelligentsia. (I have at least one friend in media who wonders each year if he will be so honored; do font designers
do this too?)
Two people on the list are relevant to education: Amir Abo-Shaeer
, a Santa Barbara physics teacher who created a technology academy within his high school and runs a notable robotics program, and Emmanuel Saez
, a Berkeley economist who is involved in the research on the value of a kindergarten teacher that got some recent David Leonhardt love
in the New York Times (though, like most economists who touch on education, his portfolio goes way beyond that).
A kindergarten teacher may be worth $320,000, according to Saez and his colleagues, but now a physics teacher is worth $500,000. Props to the foundation for honoring a schoolteacher, and to Abo-Shaeer for devoting his “genius” to the classroom. Congratulations too to my friend David
, whom I know never sat around hoping for a MacArthur, for no other reason than it gives us another whole category of jokes with which to rib him.
A teacher is found dead; report carefully.
I learned through Alexander Russo
that a Los Angeles teacher concerned that his value-added rating
was “less effective” was found dead, a suspected suicide. I urge journalists to consider this principle from a World Health Organization guide to covering suicide: “Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event.” I am not saying an incident like this isn’t worth looking into, but journalists reporting on newsworthy deaths should refrain from DIY diagnoses and be mindful of the complexity of mental health issues.
Perhaps the most famous Strunkian edict is “Omit needless words.” Yes! Nathan Heller of Slate, who is dedicated to “copy-editing the culture,” wishes—as do I—that more people also lived by this one: “Omit needless quote marks.” Heller wants to know
why there are quotation marks around “Superman” in the movie title “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” I can’t say I know why (something copyrightish? how can that be?), but I can say that omitting them is a mistake many writers are making, myself included. So let’s not.
Deadline Monday for college journalism workshop.
Just a reminder that Monday is the deadline for applications to the Campus Coverage Project
, in Phoenix in early January. It’s free, and it’s fascinating, so please tell the college journalists that you know/mentor/edit/are to apply.
ISO a great fifth-grade teacher.
I am looking for an outgoing, creative, articulate fifth-grade teacher to participate in a very exciting project in October. No, s/he will not be written about. It will not take up school time and requires only virtual and perhaps telephonic involvement, so any U.S. location is fine. Interest in classroom innovation is a plus. If you or someone you know might be interested, e-mail me at the address at right.
Grade retention: second time, same as the first?
“It does no one any good to promote a student who is unprepared for the next grade,” a New York schools spokesman said in a piece
by Sharon Otterman of the Times about the huge increase in the city’s student retention rate this year. True enough. It also does no one any good to have students repeat a grade if they are going to be doing the same old ineffective thing all over again. Some school systems put forth an intense effort to make sure retained students are well-supported and provided instruction that does not just repeat what did not work for them the first time around. Some don’t. Judging from Otterman’s story, it does not sound like New York has any systemwide plans that would ensure they’ll be in the former category rather than the latter. I hope there’s far more that we’re not seeing here.
Journalists report on retention rates and the problem of social promotion. We don’t learn enough, though, about what is (or is not) done to make sure those students are being better educated the second time around.
Why does federal funding seem to dry up at the secondary level?
Jason Amos of the Alliance for Excellent Education, writing about
my long-ago newsletter article
on the disproportionate amount of media attention paid to high schools, revealed some surprising information about the tiny amount of federal money that goes to secondary education, compared to preschool, elementary and higher ed. Here’s
the chart. Can anyone share some insight on why this is, or what this calculation might be missing?
Career colleges: the private sector that isn't.
I hate name changes. Why change the name to “media specialist” instead of just acknowledging that the definition of “librarian” has expanded? The always-insightful Steve Burd at New America points out
the irony of the Career Colleges Association changing their name to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities—given that they get nearly all their revenue from the government.
Other thoughts from Vanderbilt.
More thoughts from the Vanderbilt conference on teacher effectiveness.
—Presenters brought up the difficulty, in value-added systems, in determining the teacher of record for a given student; they did not, however, offer much comfort in the way of solutions. This is a fine point always worth
—Nearly all the districts you hear about that have experimented with merit pay are relatively large. Reporters should not ignore what is (and is not) being done for and by small districts in the implementation of Race to the Top and other reforms.
—Jeanne Burns of the Louisiana Board of Regents talked about the state’s value-added system designed to measure teacher preparation programs. One education school, she said, looked good overall, but their graduates did not get good results in elementary school language arts. The obvious question is: then what?
—Asked what happens when the objective data from student tests conflicts with the results of evaluations, Tony Bagshaw of Battelle for Kids, which cosponsored the conference, said, “Folks, that’s gonna be a real challenge in the system.” Jason Kamras of the D.C. Public Schools said that district averages the objective and subjective. What does your district do, or plan to do?
—According to a study by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, 60 percent of special education teachers agreed that achievement gains for their students should be a component of evaluation, but only 21 percent said standardized test scores should be a component. Most said that progress on the IEP should be considered. The complexities of special education and assessment are always worth considering, and there is no exception when it comes to merit pay.
—Analyses that have shown strong relationships between evaluation and value-added results in elementary school have not necessarily shown the same connection at the high school level.
—A recurring theme was the inability of principals to effectively oversee the evaluation and professional development of every employee in their buildings. This, people, is a story-ready topic.
—And while the Vanderbilt conference did not address the hiring process, I’ll continue to emphasize how little school systems do to ensure quality at the front end. Take a look at this McKinsey & Co. report
that just came out.
Labels: teacher_evaluation, teacher_evaluations
College athletics and hidden fees.
USA Today has published a strong investigation
of how universities quietly dun students for an athletics fee that can exceed $1,000 a year. I get that activities fees go toward many things a student may not participate in, but $1,000? That’s a lot. USA Today, by the way, gets a lot of ribbing from smartypants types, but they have consistently been out there doing real investigative journalism on education.
Merit pay: “It simply did not do much of anything.”
Today, Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives released a report
from a three-year controlled experiment on merit pay in the Nashville schools. Teachers in the treatment group, from fifth through eighth grades, stood to earn an extra $15,000 a year if their students improved enough on math tests. Teachers in the control group could not earn bonuses.
With one exception researchers could not fully explain—fifth grade—they found that students of teachers eligible for bonuses performed no better than other students. The teachers in one group did not approach instruction differently from those in the other, and where they did, it did not affect student achievement. Scores went up for both groups, “a trend that is probably due to some combination of increasing familiarity with a criterion-referenced test introduced in 2004 and to an intense, high-profile effort to improve test scores to avoid NCLB sanctions.”
Are you surprised? I am not. Presuming that merit pay alone would elevate student achievement makes sense if you assume teachers have a hidden trove of skills and effort they are not unloosing on their students only because they lack the proper incentives to do so.
Can we predict what happens now in the edublogosphere? Opponents of merit pay will use this study to further dump on Race to the Top. Supporters will say that it doesn’t matter, because there are other reasons for merit pay (people good at their professions should be paid more, it might attract better teachers—Rick Hess critiques the study in this regard here
). Or they will emphasize the limitations of the study. Or both. The researchers, who are proponents for making performance incentives work, emphasize the soundness of the research, while pointing out that they tested only “a particular model of incentive pay.” Others, they wrote, might be more successful.
A more detailed analysis is forthcoming from the center. For now, some survey results: Teachers said that the prospect of bonuses didn’t change their behavior much, because they were already doing the best they could. While they supported merit pay and found no fault with the structure of this particular system, they didn’t think student scores showed whether they were teaching effectively.
What does this mean for reporters? As always, it is important to be clear about what the research does and doesn’t say; we cannot really say that merit pay “works.” Nor can we say that it does not—because we have not yet clearly defined what “works” means.
What’s Tony Danza’s value-added score?
If you have ever wanted to hear an ’80s-era sitcom star utter the phrase “professional development workshops,” then A&E sure has a show for you. “Teach: Tony Danza” debuts October 1, with the first of seven one-hour episodes about the actor teaching—for real—tenth-grade English in a Philadelphia public school.
Naturally I am all in favor of bringing viewers/readers/listeners as deep into the classrom as possible, so they can better understand the challenges, successes and failures of American education. And as an avid gatherer of useless celebrity tidbits, I was happy to collect some about Danza: He is extremely bow-legged; he is obsessed with hand sanitizer; he sweats through his clothes a lot, which a student points out to him. But wow—I feel really bad for the 26 kids in Danza’s class.
No doubt there are plenty of other novice teachers as bad as he is, but it’s hard to imagine any more self-centered. On the first day, Danza told his mentor teacher that he wanted his students to begin working the moment they entered the classroom, yet he also said, “I do wanna speechify.” Guess which approach the showman takes? Yes, he opens the class with stories about his dad the garbage man. Through seven episodes he talks about himself constantly and is deaf to his colleagues’ pleas that he shut up and let the kids talk once in a while.
Any decent teacher will cringe about 14 times per episode—a number so low only because the show spends a lot of time at variety shows and football practice. I kept telling myself that there was a lot I wasn’t seeing. I hoped that the instructions for his first homework assignment consisted of more than “if you can just think of a family story, a friend story, something that happened, half a page minimum.” I hoped that the producers felt that actual instruction was really boring, and that is why they showed us almost none of it.
Tony Danza’s version of education is, it turns out, 1 percent instruction and 99 percent motivation and effort. (When in doubt, speechify!) Just work harder, just practice—I guess when your teacher spends half his time talking about himself, that’s all you can do. When special ed kids want to go to the resource room to take their quizzes, when one of them cries because she doesn’t understand what she’s reading, he insists all they need is to try harder. Accommodations, he suggests, are for wusses. His supervisors smack him down, for lacking compassion and neglecting “legalities”—yes, ladies and gentlemen, a scene about IEPs on prime-time television!
“It’s not about you,” Danza’s mentor tells him, which shows that clearly he has never been friends with an actor before. The school’s principal owns the best line of the show: “You don’t get the tag of teacher until your students are learning.” She is perpetually skeptical of Danza (though not so much so to pass on the whole idea). The kids are rightfully concerned that they’re getting shortchanged by having an actor for a teacher, and so are their parents. At a school football game Danza gets rained on literally and figuratively, by parents who care a lot about their children’s education and nothing for “Who’s the Boss.” They speak to him like any parent would speak to a teacher, about the need for vigilance, communication and agenda books.
These conversations, which feel like they could be happening anywhere, with anyone: That’s where the show is good. Danza cares and tries—he obviously does. He lays bare the difficulty of teaching for the slowest kids in the class without losing the smartest ones, the frustrations faced when a kid simply won’t do his work.
But you don’t need a tap-dancer (yes, sorry to say, Danza tap-dances) to hang a show like that on. You just need a teacher.
Can you turn around what you cannot touch?
We are learning a lot these days about schools in turnaround cleaning house of principals and teachers and janitors and even lunch ladies
, but what about security guards? It is safe (ha!) to say that the people patrolling the hallways have more of an impact on school culture than those doling out the pizza. Bringing order to a chaotic building is nearly always the first piece of the turnaround puzzle.
Yet in many cases, the security force is not under the control of school administrators or even the district—often guards are contracted through the police department, or through other arrangements. So while administrators can “work with” security guards to let them know that hey, when a belligerent student faces another down in the hall during class time, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO SOMETHING, they can be pretty limited beyond that. I am not saying security guards are always part of the problem, but it is no guarantee they are part of the solution.
I would love to see some stories about this: whether and how administrators improve security and overall culture with the help of, or in spite of, security guards not under their charge.
A great opportunity for college journalists.
If you know college journalists—from any medium—please encourage them to apply for the Campus Coverage Project
annual seminar. It’s a three-day conference, cosponsored by EWA, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Student Press Law Center, where college students can bone up on the investigative skills and issue knowledge that will help them cover their campuses more incisively.
Phoenix in January! All expenses paid! (Thanks, Lumina Foundation.)
Last year’s conference was a big hit; the student journalists have access to speakers and mentors who really are tops in the field. Please spread the word. The deadline for applications
is September 27. Graduating seniors are not eligible.
A teacher takes data into his own hands.
I know a lot of teachers who are dissatisfied with the amount and quality of information they get from their school districts’ data systems. This week, Anna Phillips of Gotham Schools writes about
one who took matters into his own hands, developing a database for his Bronx high school that meshed the information the city tracks with further details—including personal anecdotes about children—that teachers felt they needed.
Any administrator will tell you their school is all about “data-based decision-making,” but it’s up to reporters to discern whether that is really the case. What information do educators get from their official systems, what data do they track on their own, and how do they actually use that data to adapt what they are doing? What barriers stand in the way? What giant chunks of important information do they wish they had but don’t get?
Lots to write about data systems, current and future—an element that did, if you recall, make up 9 percent of the scoring rubric
for Race to the Top.
Disruptive reform and the politics of nice.
Read this piece
by Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman about how the arrogance of Washington, D.C., Mayor-for-Now Adrian Fenty pretty much cost him yesterday’s election. Ouch. Michelle Rhee’s fate is pretty clearly entwined with Fenty’s, and her own situation is analogous: It doesn’t matter how much you accomplish if you don’t play the politics. It is an important question: Do you have to be conciliatory/gradual/nice in order to make huge, uncomfortable reforms without getting booted out on your butt?
No matter how successful big reforms are, change is hard and chafing—particularly in the education world, who are used to niceness as a prime directive. Things didn’t work out so great for Alan Bersin, or Paul Vallas, or suburban supes in districts I covered whose school boards pushed them out after they made the changes they were hired to make, because they were “brash” or “arrogant.” Yet Joel Klein has made enemies and he is still in charge in New York.
Does it matter how much you get done, if you don’t get to finish the job?
Your proxy in Nashville, on teacher quality.
You are interested in teacher quality, right? Check out the agenda
for this conference at the Vanderbilt Center for Performance Incentives, called Evaluating and Rewarding Educator Effectiveness. I am going next week. Let’s make a deal: I’ll take copious notes for you on any of the sessions you tell me you are interested in, and I’ll eat your share of barbecue.
Who do we value more: professors or coaches?
As if the answer to that question isn’t obvious. My ambivalence about sports has been documented
; I won’t reiterate it. But no matter how much of a sports fan you are, you have to admit there is a story in the inflated salaries of many college coaches. The Boston Globe editorializes here
. Any higher ed reporter could do a salary comparison between coaches, deans and professors.
Journalism: dying field, endangered course?
Corey Jones of the Topeka Capital-Journal reports
on Kansas eliminating funds for high school journalism class because it’s not a growth field. The funding has been provided through vocational streams, which is why it is at risk. But why isn’t it funded as an English class? As a profession, journalism cannot be any more endangered than humanities scholar, but students still learn Shakespeare.
We won RTTT! So now what?
Here are suggestions for those of you covering states that won Race to the Top money. This comes from advice I gave someone whose state won in the first round, so some of it is specific to that application, but I’ll reheat it and toss it with a bit of fresh parsley and see if it gives you a little food for thought.
1. If your state is creating a separate school district to manage turnaround schools, you need to need to cover this as you would any other district. Does it have a school board? What kind of oversight/public accountability will be built in?
2. I think a fairly decent if simplistic template for a few of these issues is: How are things done now? How will they be done? What is gained or lost in going from point A to point B—potential unintended consequences, intended consequences, etc. Take teacher evaluation as an example. It would be great to show people what evaluation looks like now (most people have no idea) and what will change in the futue—and what concerns/benefits there are around that.
3. Get into nitty-gritty on the teacher effectiveness measures. If the applications call for inclusion of “student achievement measures” beyond value-added scores, what will they be? What about teachers in non-tested grades and subjects? What will be done to address mobility, co-teaching, pull-outs, student absences and other factors that don't reflect individual teacher performance but could affect value-added scores? What are other places doing about this? (D.C., for example, has found some ways—as yet not well tested—to work around some of those issues, but it means that the vast majority of teachers won’t be judged on value-added anytime soon.)
4. Use of data. It’s all over these applications and the edusphere. Any in-school reporting you can do to show how teachers and principals do (and don’t!) use data now, what they do with conflicting pieces of data, whether they have the resources to deal with problems the data identify and so on would be extremely valuable.
5. Professional development! This is a big part of several proposals and allows for the opportunity to write about how ridiculous a lot of professional development is now and how while states promise all these things, and there are some promising models out there, I am not sure any have been proven successful. It would be great to have more detail in this area.
6. Principal quality! This gets just brief mention in some applications, but it is truly important and definitely undercovered.
7. Will there be a burden on small districts? How will they develop the capacity to administer various elements of the state proposals?
8. There is definitely a lot to be written about scale issues. Tennessee’s application suggests bringing in nonprofits and private groups to turn around 200 schools. Wait—did you say 200? Successful reform or start-ups have not happened on that scale—yet.
9. What happens if state leadership changes—the governor, the ed commissioner? Yes, promises are built into the application, but what about momentum and nitty-gritty planning? Do the people up for new leadership roles have people on their teams figuring out how they would keep the ball rolling on RTTT? They should.
Labels: teacher_evaluation, teacher_evaluations
Line of the week.
From the Washington City Paper
, on Michelle Rhee (and her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, whom they endorse):
“When it comes to reforming a failed school system, you either go monomaniacal or go home.”
*and about those bubble tests...
I should add that while many stories about the upcoming generation of assessments talk about supplanting fill-in-the-bubble multiple-choice tests, nothing in the applications indicated that would be the case. Well, yes, insofar as you do not fill in a bubble when you take a test online; you click on the right answer, or whatever.
What is being proposed is a combination of questions and tasks that includes written answers but also multiple-choice (or “selected-response,” as it’s formally called). The proposals promise better
selected-response questions—ones that are more challenging, require more critical thinking, etc.—not a move away from them.
I read the assessment grant applications, so you don’t have to.
I spent part of the Labor Day weekend reading the grant applications for the assessment consortia that won the Race to the Top grants
. I know, I know—but don’t worry, I still found time to cook
The applications left most of the details to the future, so it was not sparklingly clear what will make the new assessments considerably more comprehensive and rigorous than the hodgepodge they replace. There were assurances; for example, the PARCC application promised “items that assess higher-order knowledge skills better than most traditional selected-response items.” I would love to see examples of what they mean.
Among the observations and questions that arose, many of which lend themselves to further exploration by curious journalists:
—Who will be developing the tests (and getting the money)?
—Will weaknesses in current scoring processes be addressed? Having interviewed many scorers when I wrote Tested, who all went into great detail about how haphazard the system is, this is a bugaboo of mine. The eleven or so pages the applications devoted to scoring, out of about 500, don’t give much to work with. PARCC emphasizes vendor or teacher scoring; SMARTER favors teacher or computer scoring; neither really address the degree to which human scoring can be a sloppy process now, even with relatively simple tests. And SMARTER basically says, “Hey, automated scoring should be up to speed by the time we need it.” I think it would be great to read about the state of play of computer scoring.
—SMARTER mentions computer adaptive testing; unless I am missing something (which is possible), PARCC does not. I have watched many students take tests so above or below their level that the assessments were a poor measurement tool; potentially, adaptive tests can address this, though I am not sure how they fit into accountability systems.
—Both consortia will incorporate some sort of research task, at least for older students. SMARTER assessments include “performance events,” up to six for high schoolers, and I wasn’t sure whether they “count” or how they would be scored. The PARCC speaking and listening assessment, part of the language arts battery, won’t count. Why not?
—It was not clear to me what information, exactly, will be available to whom, and when. I got the feeling teachers will be getting item-by-item results on student responses on the benchmark assessments, which is great, but I wasn’t sure about the end-of-year ones.
—YAY: PARCC says that higher education officials will play a role in developing the high school assessments. It’s crazy, now, the disconnect between what students are expected to know to pass high school exams and what they have to know to pass placement exams once in college (to avoid remediation). The feeling I got was that PARCC envisions a system where those tests are, essentially, one and the same.
—PARCC emphasizes “transparent prompts” (for constructed responses, I believe). Does this mean teachers are going to know exactly what questions to anticipate? Understanding expectations is good; preparing narrowly for a specific test question can be awful. I watched third graders, for a whole school year, copy from the overhead dozens of times a paragraph that started, “I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, stanzas and rhythm”—because that was the prompt teachers expected on the test. Not once did the kids actually write a poem. The teachers knew that was not the way to build an enduring understanding of poetry; they knew it wasn’t good teaching. But the kids could write the paragraph when the test came.
This is all just me thinking out loud. Nothing too radical here, nothing that stinks, nothing that shines ... but given that the world revolves around whatever these tests are going to be, I feel like these projects should get at least as much attention as all the other grants that have come down the pike.
The strong union-strong schools suggestion.
PolitiFact takes on
the strong union state/strong student performance claim, repeated by Randi Weingarten in her ABC’s This Week
appearance. They declare it half-true: Yes, strongly unionized states tend to rank above non-unionized ones in test scores, but the data suggests mere correlation rather than causation. That weak link goes both ways: It hasn’t been proven that unionization, per se, brings achievement down either.
While you’re at it, check out all the Truth-o-Meters on education
Our L.A. Times value-added podcast available.
The podcast for EWA’s audioconference with Los Angeles Times journalists about their value-added project is up on our homepage
—click on the first “What’s New” item.
Jobs for the endlessly energetic.
I met with a young woman recently who had left the education beat at a small-city newspaper to go work for AOL’s Patch.com
. She got a pay increase and a pretty open-ended mandate: to cover her community in whatever way she sees fit. Not everyone thinks
being a Patch local editor is a great job—there can be long hours, and you spend a good chunk of your time getting people to amass restaurant listings. But it is worth knowing the opportunity is out there
if you are looking for something new, want to work at home and like being in charge of something. You can probably squeak some education coverage in there too.
Before I started this blog, I wrote a column for the EWA newsletter, one of which
suggested that you have to visit elementary schools to see how high schools got so bad—but that in the earlier grades, the dysfunction is harder to discern. Here is how I described the high school:
It was 9:30 in the morning, yet of the school’s 900 students, we saw no more than 15 in class. For every student in a classroom, we saw 10 in the hallway (and it was not passing time). In three of the four rooms with students in them, the kids sat at their desks—filling in worksheets, doing art projects, texting on contraband cell phones—and the teachers sat at their. No interaction.
In the fourth room, though, a teacher taught!
“What are the people in the picture wearing?” “Why do you think they were wearing their dress clothes?” “Where are they going?”
Granted, the conversation was at about a third-grade level. But such is the state of the school that that bit of instruction, complete with students’ eyes in textbooks, seemed like a minor miracle to us.
If that was a minor miracle, today I saw a major one.
I toured Anacostia High School again, a year after the D.C. school system turned it over to outside management
, which replaced most of the staff and has begun to build an entirely new culture (including a new name, Academies at Anacostia, if that matters). Yes, I saw two contraband cellphones. I saw two teachers clearly in over their heads, and some obnoxious sassing. But you know what else I saw? Hallways populated not by idle teenagers but by an awful lot of men in suits.
Lots of teaching, and some of what looked to me like learning.
Students at desks! Teachers asking questions, and students answering them! You may criticize the methods, you may want to reserve judgment until you see data, and I understand that. But even the briefest of visits would show you that something important in that building has already been turned around. If you are a reporter in a district with schools on the block for turnaround, you’d better get in there fast before anything changes—so that you will be able to explain compellingly what happens when things do.
Get the L.A. Times value-added team on the horn!
If you are a journalist with burning—or even smoldering—questions about the Los Angeles Times’ value-added project
, join EWA for an audioconference tomorrow (Thursday, Sept. 2) at 1 p.m. eastern with reporters Jason Song and Jason Felch and editor Beth Shuster. We will be talking process, ethics and whatever else you want to ask about. If you want to participate, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for dial-in instructions. Working journalists only, please.