Archives for July 2010

Me on Academy of U

Academy of U (aka Udemy) has an interview with me on their blog.

Teaching badly on TV

If Intervention can get addicts and alcoholics to sober up, can Classroom Intervention turn struggling teachers into Mr. Chips?

The cable channel A&E will premier the new reality show  in September, reports This Week in Education. Each episode will focus on a teacher who’s having trouble in the classroom.

Some of the teachers will be rookies.  Others will be veterans.  Each will be observed, then counseled in an intense evaluation and support program.  Some will improve.  Others will fail. 

If it becomes popular, it could shed enormous light on the plight of classroom teachers and the challenges of helping them improve.

Teachers who want to be on the show — or want to nominate a colleague — should contact A&E. 

I can’t imagine putting my professional troubles on the air, but there always are volunteers for this sort of thing. Look at the shows where a nanny swoops in to help incompetent parents.

Better benefits

The problem with teachers’ pensions isn’t just the underfunding, argue Chad Aldeman and Andrew Rotherham in Better Benefits: Reforming Teacher Pensions for a Changing Work Force (pdf) . 

 The way the plans are structured can negatively influence the teaching work force as a whole. At a time when improving the quality of classroom instruction is a national priority, key structural elements in teacher retirement plans impair the ability of schools to recruit, hire, retain, and compensate high-quality teachers and principals.

The report outlines ways to redesign pensions to match the needs of today’s teacher workforce.

Obama hangs tough

Hit by civil rights groups who oppose Race to the Top, President Obama defended his education reforms in a speech to the Urban League.

“If a school isn’t producing graduates with even the most basic skills, year after year after year after year, something needs to be done differently. You know, the definition, somebody once said, of madness is you do the same thing over and over again and keep expecting a different result.”

. . . Even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure that we’re seeing results in the classroom. If they’re not, let’s work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.”

Obama deserves credit for hanging tough, writes Rick Hess. But he must beware of  Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s hubris.

Every time our earnest Secretary of Education speaks of late, he seems to unearth new things that Washington can and should do to schools. Earlier this month, he promised the NAACP that the administration would see that NCLB reauthorization required turnaround schools to obtain parent and community input as well as lead an “honest, open discussion.” Of course, Duncan is ardently pushing “state-led” national standards and watching his Department of Education flag 19 (!) states as impressive enough to merit being Race to the Top finalists.

In Duncan’s Urban League speech, which promised an commission on education equity, he pandered to the civil rights community, writes Flypaper’s Mike Petrilli, who agrees that Duncan promises more than he can deliver.

“We will ensure that all schools—public, private and charter—serve the kids most in need,” Duncan said. “That is also something you told us was important. We heard you loud and clear, we are responding and these schools will be held accountable.”

Duncan can’t “ensure” that private schools serve needy kids or hold them “accountable, ” Petrilli writes.

Accountable to whom? Most don’t get public funds. Many are more diverse than traditional public schools. What the heck is he talking about?

Ed Week sees Duncan’s speech as a strong defense of Race to the Top, pointing out he told reform critics, “You’re wrong.”

Obama’s education agenda is stalled in Congress, according to the Washington Post.

The calculator crutch

On Community College Spotlight, a dean wonders what to do about calculator-dependent students who can’t pass low-level math classes that require them to do their own arithmetic.  Should college instructors allow calculators?

Starting science early

The sweet spot for science learning is kindergarten through fourth grade, argues an Education Week commentary.

Countries that routinely outperform others in education are teaching science before their students even learn to read and write, by using classroom activities that demonstrate scientific principles. All of these activities take advantage of three fundamental aspects of science: observation, inference, and verification. These concepts can be easily taught in primary school through carefully designed activities and a common language, namely, measurement. Children who understand that measurement is simply a comparison to a known standard have the necessary foundation for learning more-advanced science concepts in later years.

Primary teachers will need training in scientific concepts, the authors add.

“Broad and full of holes” is Common Core’s description of a framework for national science standards released by the National Research Council.

The NRC’s insistence on vague, big-picture thinking about science has created a document that is practically useless. To provide a “broad description” of science knowledge, the writers identify core ideas so general (e.g., “What is energy?”) that it’s possible to imagine any quality of standards, curriculum, and assessments (everything from excellent and clear to shoddy and vague) spinning off of this framework.  When it comes down to it, the NRC document’s just a list of stuff.  And maybe not all of the most important stuff, either.  We’ve caught wind of concern among some of the nation’s most prominent scientists that sections of the framework are not current with the latest science.  And by “latest” we mean knowledge that has already been around for a hundred years or more. 

This is just the first step toward science standards. It’s not part of the common core standards initiative — and Common Core isn’t the group pushing the common core standards.

Measuring 'soft skills'

How do we tell if students are learning “soft skills,”  such as “the ability to work with others, process information from disparate sources, communicate persuasively, or work reliably?”  On Taking Note, John Merrow and Arnold Packer look at the challenge of creating valid, reliable assessments.

With a Kellogg Foundation grant, they’re asking mentors at 28 community-based organizations to assess high and middle school students on “responsibility, work ethic, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.”

We ask the mentors to write a two -sentence description of the context in which each of the traits was demonstrated.  Was the teenager responsible about picking up trash in the park or helping out on the surgical ward?  Communicating to a friend about the homework assignment requires a different skill level than communicating about obesity to a large community audience.  There is no reasonable rubric that will cover this amount of variation.

Finally, mentors also grade the students’ performance on a scale of one (“cannot do it”) to five (“does it well enough teach others”).

This produces a Verified Resume of performance that could be used for job applications and college admissions.

The pilot project will survey employers to see if  the mentors’ evaluations match the new hire’s performance.

We got into this because we believe performance traits like responsibility, tolerance for diversity, ability to communicate and work ethic matter.. Because they matter, we must also figure out how to measure them reliably.

Recommendations are supposed to fill this purpose, but it’s difficult to judge whether the recommenders are setting the bar high or low. And many people are afraid to be honest in recommendations.

The $320,000 kindergarten teacher

Very good kindergarten teachers raise students’ future earnings by $320,000 a year, estimate a team of Harvard economists. They looked at 12,000 Tennessee adults, now about 30 years old, who participated in Project Star in elementary school.

While Project Star was designed to show the impact of small  classes (13 to 17 students) in the early grades, the data also showed some teachers were much more effective than others.

Some teachers’ students earned higher test scores for awhile, but the effect faded out in junior high school. But Raj Chetty and colleagues discovered other effects that didn’t fade. Dave Leonhardt writes in the New York Times:

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

. . . A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

The Harvard researchers “estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year,” based on “the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers,” Leonhardt writes.  He guesses that children learned soft skills — “patience, discipline, manners, perseverance” — that improved their life prospects but not their test scores.

Like Core Knowledge Blog, I wonder why these skills — especially discipline and perseverance — wouldn’t raise reading and math scores over the long haul.

One of my daughter’s very best teachers was her kindergarten teacher, Janet Rose. It was a very good year.

Update: Robert VerBruggen is skeptical about the study.

Best students get nursing slots

On Community College Spotlight:  For years, community colleges have used lotteries or first-come, first-served wait lists to determine who’d get a chance to study nursing. Failure rates were high. Now, many colleges are choosing applicants with the highest grades (and sometimes test scores).  More students are graduating and passing licensure exams.

Return to Harlem Children's Zone

Responding to Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada’s response to their study, Brookings researchers Russ Whitehurst and Michele Croft restate their original thesis:  There’s no evidence that providing support services improves student achievement.  Students at the zone’s Harlem Promise Academy I outscore similar public school students in the city, but are “middling” compared to similar charter students who didn’t receive the array of  services provided in the zone.

Our issue is not with the HCZ as a philanthropically supported endeavor to improve the lives of children in Harlem, but with the use of the HCZ as evidence that investments in wraparound support services and neighborhood improvements are a cost effective approach to increasing academic achievement. In an era of stress on public budgets, we think there should be good evidence that an expensive new approach works before it is scaled up and widely implemented with taxpayer funds.

Canada complained the Brookings analysis did not include both charter schools in the zone and used data that underestimated poverty levels. Whitehurst and Croft recrunched the numbers using test scores from both schools and Canada’s poverty number:  The two Harlem Promise Academy schools continue to be in the middle of the pack for Bronx and Manhattan charter schools serving disadvantaged students.

The competitition is tough: Harlem Success Academy (not in the zone) has very high test scores: Among those students who qualified to receive free or reduced-lunch, 88% of third graders passed reading and 98% passed math, while 88% of fourth graders passed reading and 93% passed math.