Do teachers have it rough?

So I was reading an article this morning about how U.S. Teachers have it so much worse than most of the rest of the world. This conclusion is drawn on the basis of a survey:

Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

The article is interesting, as far as it goes — though one might quibble with the jump that gets made from “teachers think they have harder jobs” (which is what the survey actually measures) to “teachers have harder jobs.” I’m certainly open to the idea that at least public school teachers have a raw deal in this country in terms of their working conditions and the sort of bureaucratic structures in which they are forced to operate.

There were two things in this article in particular that caught my eye. The first was an almost casual reference to something rare and wonderful.

Along with these challenges, U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development. This schedule — a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s — makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with their colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents.

The emphasis is mine. What sort of wonderful world would we live in where we depended on the teachers themselves to design the curriculum (or curricula)? But isn’t that exactly what everyone seems hell-bent on killing these days?

A seocnd thing that jumped out at me was this statistic:

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate.

That seems like an awful lot. Unless *all* the disadvantaged kids are smashed into schools with insanely high student:teacher ratios (not an entirely implausible notion), that means that there are a LOT of disadvantaged students to go around. I can’t do the math without knowing the student:teacher ratio data, but just intuitively it would seem that you’d need somewhere between 40 and 50% of students to be disadvantaged.

I suspect this has something to do with response bias. But when I tried to go into the survey itself and see the data (here) I was unable to either export a working data file or to find the United States’ results on the webpage. It seems much more trouble than it’s worth for a blog post.

If anyone has more success, please leave notice in the comments!

An Amazon for aid

Single Stop, known for helping low-income community college students access   benefits, is creating an Amazon-like platform to link needy people with government and community aid.  That will include student grants and loans, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and food pantries

Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.

Soul of a black/Latino teacher

José Luis Vilson, a middle-school math teacher in New York City (and a blogger), writes about race, class, and education in This Is Not A Test.

“The heart of education lies in the relationship between teacher and student,” writes Leo Casey in a review in Dissent. “This Is Not A Test bears witness to the enduring vitality of that relationship.”

Vilson grew up in a poor “drug-tainted” neighborhood in the city, earned a computer science degree and became a math teacher for black and brown students.

He faces the challenges of his students’ poverty, troubled families and violent neighborhoods. He also copes with incompetent administrators. At one point, a supervisor “threatened him with an unsatisfactory evaluation not because of his teaching, but because she disliked the aesthetics of his classroom bulletin board.”

Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Childhood’s ‘long shadow’

Only 4 percent of low-income Baltimore children had earned a college degree by age 28, concludes a Johns Hopkins study that followed 790 first graders for 22 years. Forty-five percent of higher-income children went on to earn a degree.

“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander says The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood.

White men from low-income backgrounds were less likely to attend college, but more likely to find well-paying blue-collar jobs. At age 28, 45 percent were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds.

At age 18, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black drop-outs.

White women from low-income backgrounds were much more likely than black women to be in stable family unions with a working spouse or partner.

At age 28, 49 percent of black men and 41 percent of white men from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction. But whites were much more likely to be working because of their stronger social networks, the study found.

In students’ words: Challenge us

When students who transfer from low-performing to high-performing high schools, they realize what they’ve been missing, writes Brooke Haycock in The View From the Lighthouse. It’s not enough for teachers to care about their students. They have to care about students’ learning.

At Elmont Memorial High School, teachers “get to know you so they can help you — so they can teach you,” says Keisha. “They’re, like, first your teacher — but your friend too. My other school, it was more like, they’re your friends but they kinda missed the teacher part.”

At Granger High School in rural Yakima Valley, Wash., George, a junior, reflected on his relationship with a math teacher at his old school: “He was really nice but he never made us do anything. And, like, if we were late for another class, even if it was our fault, we could just go by his classroom and he’d write us a pass. At the time, I liked it. And he was my favorite teacher. But now, I’m kinda mad, because I realize we weren’t learning anything. I don’t think he meant to do that — I think he was just more worried about us liking him.

“When educators can connect rigorous learning to student goals and opportunities beyond school and make students feel worthy and capable of real rigor, students don’t complain about the work or question its relevance,” writes Brooke Haycock, who’s writing Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series. It takes getting used to, students say. “In many cases, this is the first time they’re being asked to do anything that is genuinely hard.”

Some high school classes are easy and unfulfilling, say low-income achievers who talked to Ed Trust researchers for the Falling Out of the Lead report.

Actor David Duchovny’s high school basketball coach “respected me by demanding that I respect myself and a game,” he writes. “I never knew if he liked me. That wasn’t so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself.”

Why did Kyle get rejected?

When his family was homeless, Kyle studied in the school library and earned straight A’s. He competed in cross country, despite his epilepsy. As a National Honor Society member, he volunteered in the community. His “excellent grades” were backed by high test scores. Why did so many colleges reject Kyle?, asks Michele Kerr on Hypersensitive.

All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

Kyle will go to Brown on a full scholarship. But Kerr is “shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.”

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

Elite schools say they’re eager to admit disadvantaged minority students who are academically prepared. Kerr wonders if they’re saving their “black” admissions for athletes in major sports, the children of black alumni or students from networked, media-savvy charter schools.

Kyle is “a great kid – funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat,” she writes. “His success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity — and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.”

On their way

Work Hard. Go to College. Change the World! is the motto of Democracy Prep Charter High in Harlem. The first graduating class shows where they’ll be going to college in the fall.

Who gets to graduate?

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college. Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist. Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.” Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through. UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training. Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. . . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

Vanessa Brewer failed a statistics test in her first month at UT. She was shaken: High school math had been easy. But she persevered, pulling out a B+ for the semester. When she struggled with chemistry, she spent six or more hours a week at the tutoring center. She earns A’s or B’s on every test. And she’s met two juniors, also black women majoring in nursing. She told Tough: “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”