Archives for August 2010

Duncan invited staff to Sharpton rally

Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited 4,000 department employees to attend the Rev. Al Sharpton’s “Reclaim the Dream” rally, organized to counter Glenn Beck’s and Sarah Palin’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, reports the Washington Examiner.

Although the e-mail does not violate the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from participating in political campaigns, Education Department workers should feel uneasy, said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.

“It sends a signal that activity on behalf of one side of a political debate is expected within a department. It’s highly inappropriate … even in the absence of a direct threat,” Boaz said. “If we think of a Bush cabinet official sending an e-mail to civil servants asking them to attend a Glenn Beck rally, there would be a lot of outrage over that.”

Brookings Institution director Russ Whitehurst, a Department of Education program director from 2001 to 2008, said, “Only political appointees would have been made aware of such an event and encouraged to attend.”

Sharpton’s event, held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, featured praise of President Obama and jabs at the Tea Party, the Examiner reports.

“[Conservatives] think we showed up [to vote for Barack Obama] in 2008 and that we won’t show up again. But we know how to sucker-punch, and we’re coming out again in 2010,” Sharpton said.

In his remarks, Duncan called education “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya defended Duncan’s decision to speak at the rally and ask department employees to attend. “This was a back-to-school event,” she said.


President Obama will give his second annual Back to School speech on Tuesday, Sept. 14. It will be available for broadcast in schools and online. Last year’s speech raised a lot of fuss, culminating in a big fizzle as Obama told students to work hard in school.

Evaluating teachers

While the debate rages about value-added analysis of Los Angeles’ teachers, NPR looks at how value-added data is used in North Carolina’s Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District. The district began using the data three years ago, notes Robert Siegel, the host. The information is not made public, explains Superintendent Donald Martin

Dr. MARTIN: . . . if you’re red, your students are performing two standard errors below your — sort of comparable counterparts. If you’re yellow, you’re right in the average performance. And if you’re green, you’re two standard errors above.

And if a teacher has one red, you know, their first year, then we literally just have a – it’s like a growth conference with them. They have a personal, you know, individual plan. We talk to them about what are they going to do differently next year.

Then in the second year, if there’s two reds in a row, the teacher has consecutive reds, then we have a trigger for what we call a plan of assistance. And that plan of assistance may involve going to training. It may involve sending in some central office folks to work with that person and to really work on, you know, a very formal plan that’s now, you know – could trigger dismissal at the end of the year if it is unsuccessful.

Principals rarely are surprised by which teachers are red or green, Martin says. But, without data, teacher evaluations suffer from “a Lake Wobegon issue. Everybody is above average.” Administrators are to blame for failing to be honest about teacher effectiveness.

Value-added data is available only for a fraction of teachers, writes Sara Mead on Policy Notebook. She’s concerned about the validity of classroom observations.

There is currently no value-added data for kindergarten and early elementary teachers, teachers in non-core subjects, or high school teachers in most places. My brother-in-law, who teaches middle school band and drama, and sister, who teaches high school composition and literature, do not have value-added data.

When available, value-added data should be used to “inform teacher evaluations,” Mead writes, but the larger issue is developing ways to evaluate all teachers. For example, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) measures the extent to which teachers are teaching in ways linked to improved student outcomes.  Mead is concerned “that the observational rubrics many districts and states will put into place under their proposed evaluation systems have not yet been validated.”

While an Economic Policy Institute report urges caution in relying on value-added data, others say the alternative ways to assess teachers, such as classroom observations, are much less reliable than value-added, notes Teacher Beat.  “I think people are right to point out the potential flaws of [value-added modeling], but it should be compared against what we have, not some nirvana that doesn’t exist,” said Daniel Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington in Bothell.

In response to teacher feedback, Houston Superintendent Terry Grier has told principals to collaborate with teachers on an individual plan setting out each teacher’s goals for the year and how the principal will help the teacher meet them.  The Houston Federation of Teachers sees this as a nefarious plot to make teachers look bad, writes Rick Hess. HFT is telling teachers not to admit to any performance weaknesses or allow test scores to be used to judge their success.  There’s a lot of fear out there.

Update: Here’s the New York Times’ value-added story.

The future of digital learning

How can technology help students learn? National Journal’s Education Experts look at the “digital learning gap.” 

The recently launched Digital Learning Council and other groups are working to translate powerful ideas about technology and education to powerful results in the classroom. A minority of schools, such as School of One, are already taking advantage of technology to provide innovative instruction models.

Digital learning will “boost persistence and performance” and make public education more efficient, writes Tom Vander Ark.  

 Virtual options will double in enrollment in the next few years, but most students will learn in blended settings that combine the best of multiple learning modalities. Blended learning hold the promise of extending quality affordable secondary education to more than 500 million young people worldwide.

Sherman Dorn is skeptical. Technology is not a silver bullet, he warns.

 The reality is that the appropriate and inventive use of technology in education is as much of a tough slog as anything else in a classroom.

. . . In addition, I worry about “technological individualization” becoming one more boondoggle that diverts scarce resources to vendors who are far better at marketing than at programming or education. Experienced teachers around the country are already familiar with district administrators and governing boards who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bells-and-whistles programs that would supposedly save hundreds of hours of time… and ended up being useless.

“Technology should be in the service of solid instruction and not the other way around,” Dorn concludes.

On Education Next, Mark Bauerlein critiques “the century-old child-centered premises at the root of the techno-pedagogy vision,” in response to Connie Yowell, a digital learning enthusiast.

Teaching community college teachers how to teach

On Community College Spotlight:  Some instructors are earning graduate certificates in community college teaching.

Also, Project Win-Win says the U.S. could raise the number of associate degrees by 12 percent just by identifying students who completed the credits but never got the degree and those who need only a few credits to finish.

Bill Gates and son enroll in Khan Academy

Bill Gates is a big fan of Khan Academy’s online mini-lectures, reports Fortune.

This past spring a colleague at his small think tank, bgC3, e-mailed (Gates) about the nonprofit, a vast digital trove of free mini-lectures all narrated by (Salman) Khan, an ebullient, articulate Harvard MBA and former hedge fund manager. Gates replied within minutes. “This guy is amazing,” he wrote. “It is awesome how much he has done with very little in the way of resources.” Gates and his 11-year-old son, Rory, began soaking up videos, from algebra to biology.

Then, several weeks ago, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in front of 2,000 people, Gates gave the 33-year-old Khan a shout-out that any entrepreneur would kill for. Ruminating on what he called the “mind-blowing misallocation” of resources away from education, Gates touted the “unbelievable” 10- to 15-minute Khan Academy tutorials “I’ve been using with my kids.” With admiration and surprise, the world’s second-richest person noted that Khan “was a hedge fund guy making lots of money.” Now, Gates said, “I’d say we’ve moved about 160 IQ points from the hedge fund category to the teaching-many-people-in-a-leveraged-way category. It was a good day his wife let him quit his job.”

Khan provides video tutorials for free.  Silicon Valley bigwigs are funding the academy.

Via Slashdot and Instapundit.

No gold stars for LA teachers

Los Angeles doesn’t reward, recognize or try to learn from its most effective teachers, reports the LA Times in a follow-up to its value-added analysis of third- through fifth-grade teachers’ effects on their students’ test scores.

The Times found that the 100 most effective teachers were scattered across the city, from Pacoima to Gardena, Woodland Hills to Bell. They varied widely in race, age, years of experience and education level. They taught students who were wealthy and poor, gifted and struggling.

In visits to several of their classrooms, reporters found their teaching styles and personalities to differ significantly. They were quiet and animated, smiling and stern. Some stuck to the basics, while others veered far from the district’s often-rigid curriculum. Those interviewed said repeatedly that being effective at raising students’ performance does not mean simply “teaching to the test,” as critics of value-added analysis say they fear.

On average, these teachers’ students improved by 12 percentile points on tests of English, from the 58th to the 70th, and 17 percentile points in math, from 58th to 75th, in a year.

Thomas Kane, a Harvard education researcher, tested the reliability of the value-added approach in Los Angeles, the Times reports.  Kane predicted the student gains for  156 teachers who volunteered for the experiment.

Value-added analysis was a strong predictor of how much a teacher would help students improve on standardized tests. The approach also controlled well for differences among students, the study found.

With $45 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kane and other researchers are now following 3,000 teachers in six school districts to see if other types of evaluation — including sophisticated classroom observations, surveys of teachers and reviews of student work — are also good measures of teacher performance.

In the meantime, Kane said that, although it is not perfect, “there is currently not a better measure of teacher effectiveness than the value-added approach.”

Teachers on the Times’ most effective list said they’d never been recognized for excellence.  Aldo Pinto, a 32-year-old teacher at Gridley Street Elementary School in San Fernando, said, “The culture of the union is: Everyone is the same. You can’t single out anyone for doing badly. So as a result, we don’t point out the good either.”

Value-added is the worst form of teacher evaluation, but it’s better than everything else, writes Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed.

Los Angeles Unified now plans to share value-added data with teachers privately and hopes to negotiate its use in teacher evaluations with the teachers’ union.  Tennessee did just the opposite, Aldeman notes. “Every year since the  mid-1990’s every single eligible teacher has received a report on their (value-added) results.”

When these results were first introduced, teachers were explicitly told their results would never be published in newspapers and that the data may be used in evaluations. In reality, they had never really been used in evaluations until the state passed a law last January requiring the data to make up 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. This bill, and 100% teacher support for the state’s Race to the Top application that included it, was a key reason the state won a $500 million grant in the first round.

While LA teachers are angry and confused, Tennessee teachers have had time to understand how value-added analysis works and  prepare to accept it.

What teachers want from parents

If teachers could get parents to do one thing what would it be? Dan Willingham has the answer: Make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep before school. An estimated 25 percent of adolescents don’t get enough sleep.

In search of a better job

It’s career day on Community College Spotlight.  Laid-off workers are training as green managers. Former white-collar auto industry employees are studying to be nursing assistants in hopes of breaking into more lucrative health careers.  And homeland security courses are expanding to prepare students for work as emergency responders.

Houston pays kids, parents for math scores

Houston will  pay fifth graders and their parents at 25 schools to see if incentives, worh up to $1,020 per family, can boost low math scores. The Dallas-based Liemandt Foundation is providing $1.5 million for the experiment.

The pilot program — thought to be the first that offers joint incentives for parents and students — will allow fifth-graders to earn up to $440 for passing short math tests that show they have mastered key concepts, according to the draft proposal. Parents will get slightly less money for their children doing the work, and they can earn an extra $180 for attending nine conferences with teachers to review the youngsters’ progress.

Teachers can earn up to $40 per student for holding the parent conferences. The district already rewards teachers and school staff for boosting students’ scores on standardized tests.

In HISD, the students and their parents will get $2 for each math objective the child masters. Students will get practice math assignments on a total of 200 concepts and then will take a five-question test. They will get the money for correctly answering at least four questions on each, according to the draft proposal.

Parents will get their money in the form of debit-like cards. The district plans to encourage the students to get their money directly deposited into a savings account that HISD will help set up. Workshops on savings and financial management are included in the project.

Previous pay-for-performance experiments have shown mixed results.

LA Times lists ‘effective’ teachers, schools

The Los Angeles has posted its list of the most and least effective third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and schools with teachers’ comments. A few teachers are challenging the data, saying that they’re listed as teaching in years when they were on leave. The value-added analysis of schools is interesting.

On City Journal, dducation researcher Marcus Winters looks at the pros and cons of value-added analysis and comes out against release individual teachers’ scores. 

 Test-score analysis is “correct” on average—it can tell us a great deal about aggregate teacher quality. It can also help to evaluate individual teachers. But given its messiness—especially when tied to stakes as high as people’s jobs—it cannot be used in isolation.

Critics go too far, however, when they claim that these limitations justify abandoning the value-added approach altogether. The real lesson is that test scores are best used to raise red flags about a teacher’s objective performance; rigorous subjective assessment should follow, to ensure that the teacher is truly performing poorly. If both analyses show that a teacher is ineffective, then action should be taken, including removal from the classroom.

Economic Policy Institute also sees Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers.