Brookings: Ability grouping is back

Elementary teachers are using ability grouping once again, according to the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless.

Ability grouping was very popular from the 1960’s through the 1980s, but came under attack as inequitable in the 1990’s. In 1961, 80 percent divided children into robins, bluebirds and sparrows, or the like. (I was a bluebird in 1958.) By 1998, only 28 percent of fourth graders were being placed in reading groups by ability. That shot up to 71 percent by 2009, Brookings finds.

Math ability grouping rose from 40 percent of fourth graders in 1996 and 42 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2011.

With more computers in elementary classrooms, teachers may be “more comfortable with students in the same classroom studying different materials and progressing at different rates through curriculum,” writes Loveless.

Although ability grouping is coming back, efforts to de-track middle school math are continuing. However, pushing more eighth graders into algebra isn’t raising achievement, the report finds.

States with rising percentages of eighth graders taking Algebra I, Geometry, and other advanced math classes were no more likely to raise their NAEP scores from 2005-2011 than states with declining percentages of eighth graders in those courses.

When more students take pre-algebra and algebra, the courses appear to be watered down, writes Loveless. However, there’s no watering-down effect for geometry.

The U.S. is often exhorted to emulate the high-scoring  “A+ countries” — Belgium (Flemish), Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore — in math instruction. However, “the average A+ country made no more progress in math achievement than any other country in TIMSS” since 1995, the report finds.

And the Finns may do well on PISA but they’re nothing special on TIMSS.

Obama, Romney confuse student loan issue

President Obama visited colleges and universities on a three-state tour promoting his proposal to keep the interest rate on new federal student loans at 3.4 percent, writes Matthew Chingos on the Brookings Institution’s Up Front Blog. The temporary rate reduction passed in 2007 is scheduled to end in July, which would return the rate to 6.8 percent.

Obama’s proposal — now endorsed by Romney — won’t help current college students, graduates or dropouts, writes Chingos.  It only applies to new loans.

President Obama asked University of North Carolina students, “Anybody here can afford to pay an extra $1,000 right now?” Nobody would. Subsidized loans accrue no interest until students leave college.

There is no doubt that many college students and their families are being squeezed by rising college costs. And there are good reasons for the federal government to provide financial assistance to help low-income students afford college. But charging below-market interest rates on student loans is an inefficient and likely ineffective way to encourage college enrollment and completion because students don’t pay any interest until after they leave college.

“If Obama and Romney want to buy the votes of struggling college students, they should at least propose the more efficient path of increasing the grants that students receive when they attend college, not decreasing the interest they pay after they leave,” Chingos writes.

Federal policy should prioritize grants for low-income students over tuition tax credits that benefit the affluent, argues Education Sector in a new report.

It’s not just the teachers, stupid

Good instructional materials are as important for student learning as good teachers, yet there’s a “scandalous lack of information” about what schools are using and what’s most effective, concludes a new report from Brookings’ Brown Center,  Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness and the Common Core.

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

Choosing better instructional materials “should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick,” compared to improving teacher quality, write Russ Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos. They urge states, the federal government, nonprofit groups and philanthropists to fund research on effectiveness. That would start by collecting data on what instructional materials schools are using.


Brookings: Common Core won’t boost achievement

Common Core standards “will have little to no effect on student achievement,” predicts Tom Loveless, in How Well are American Students Learning?, a report by Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. The quality or rigor of state standards doesn’t correlate with students’ reading or math performance on NAEP, Loveless concludes.

“State standards have really never been able to penetrate down to the classroom and affect teaching and learning.  Common Core advocates believe this time is different.  I’m skeptical that their project has some secret ingredient that previous standards lacked.”

Standards represent the intended curriculum, “what governments want students to learn,” Loveless writes. Then there’s the implemented curriculum, “what teachers teach.”

Two fourth-grade teachers in classrooms next door to each other may teach multiplication in vastly different ways and with different degrees of effectiveness. State policies rarely touch such differences. The attained curriculum is what students learn.

Standards peak in popularity when first proposed, then nosedive when “tests are given and consequences kick in,” Loveless writes. Common Core is already losing support.

The report also looks at achievement gaps on NAEP and the tendency to misinterpret international test scores.

Education Next is hosting a discussion on Common Core math standards today.

New York tops school choice index

Brookings’ interactive Education Choice and Competition Index rates the nation’s 25 largest school districts. The index will be expanded to the largest 100 districts in the future.

New York City earns the highest choice score with Chicago in second place, notes Grover (Russ) Whitehurst. Both received a B grade. The low scorer was Orange County, Florida, which received a grade of D.

New York performed particularly well in its assignment mechanism, its provision of relevant performance data, and its policies and practices for restructuring or closing unpopular schools.  Chicago, in contrast to New York, has more alternative schools, a greater proportion of school funding that is student-based, and superior web-based information and displays to support school choice. If the best characteristics of Chicago were transferred to New York and vice versa, both would receive letter grades of A.

Orange County students must attend their local school — unless they opt for the Florida Virtual School, which is open to all students in the state.

Some of the nation’s biggest choice districts, such as Milwaukee and New Orleans, aren’t included because of size, but will be in the expanded index.

The index doesn’t distinguish between vouchers, charters and magnet schools, complains RiShawn Biddle.

 Because magnets have largely been geared towards desegregation instead of offering families high-quality school options, those forms of choice have done little to improve student achievement. Given that magnet offerings often end up skewing in favor of wealthier households (who can use their political clout within districts in their favor) at the expense of poor and minority families (who cannot), magnets aren’t exactly a high-quality form of choice.

Adding a Parent Power category such as ability of families to overhaul an existing school in their community would also make sense; this could be done simply by looking at which states and cities have Parent Trigger laws already in place.

But the Brookings does reveal the “sobering” reality, Biddle writes. “Far too many families and their children have far too few choices of any kind, much less those of high quality.”

Low tuition, long wait lists

California’s community colleges charge the lowest tuition in the nation, but can’t afford to provide enough classes for students.  The Legislature may let colleges charge more for some classes. Why not let colleges charge a sustainable tuition for all classes?  Students are willing to pay more: They’re turning to the much costlier for-profit sector, which has no wait lists.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Community colleges have the capacity to train workers for rapidly growing “middle-skill jobs,” but too many students fail to complete a credential.

Evaluating teacher evaluations

Brookings’ new report, Passing Muster: Evaluating Teacher Evaluation Systems, looks at how districts evaluate teacher excellence. The report explores “how a state or the federal government could achieve a uniform standard for dispensing funds to school districts for the recognition of exceptional teachers without imposing a uniform evaluation system on those districts.”

Smart people, confusing study, writes Jay Mathews.


Scholars back value-added’s value

Value-added data on student performance adds value to teacher evaluations, concludes a Brookings report by a group of well-respected scholars.  “We conclude that value-added data has an important role to play in teacher evaluation systems, but that there is much to be learned about how best to use value-added information in human resource decisions.”

At Teacher Beat, Stephen Sawchuk summarizes:

While an imperfect measure of teacher effectiveness, the correlation of year-to-year value-added estimates of teacher effectiveness is similar to predictive measures for informing high-stakes decisions in other fields, the report states. Examples include using SAT scores to determine college entrance, mortality rates and patient volume as quality measures for surgeons and hospitals, and batting averages as a gauge for selecting baseball talent.

Statistical predictions in those fields are imprecise, too, but they’re able to predict larger differences across providers than other measures and so are used, the authors write.

The traditional method of evaluating teachers identifies nearly all as effective, the Brookings authors write. That’s both inaccurate and harmful to students.

“When teacher evaluation that incorporates value-added is compared against an abstract ideal, it can easily be found wanting in that it provides only a fuzzy signal. But when it is compared to performance information in other fields in other fields or to evaluations of teachers based on other sources of information, it looks respectable and appears to provide the best signal we’ve got.”

By contrast, the Economic Policy Institute and the National Academy of Sciences issued reports criticizing the reliability of value-added measures and arguing the data should not be used to evaluate teachers.

Broader, bolder, but not better

Providing social services — parenting classes, health care, nutrition help,  afterschool programs and more — hasn’t improved achievement for students at Harlem Children’s Zone‘s Promise Academy, concludes a Brookings study.  The zone’s six-year-old charter school, which includes an elementary, middle and high school, outperforms the New York city average, when adjusted for demographics.  But its performance is only average — a bit higher in math, lower in reading — compared to Bronx and Manhattan charter schools that offer no social or community services. (Scores were adjusted for student poverty levels and the percentage of black, Hispanic and limited English proficient students.)

Zone founder Geoffrey Canada has raised $100 million in private donations to improve the neighborhood and create better schools. However, Promise Academy students living in the zone, who were eligible for the full range of services, did no better than classmates living outside the zone, who received only the chance to attend the charter school, according to a Harvard study. In other words, the school alone made a difference.

Evidence undercuts the Broader, Bolder thesis that comprehensive community services are essential to improving  disadvantaged students’ achievement, argue Brookings authors Russ Whitehurst and Michelle Croft.

There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.

. . .  there is a large and growing body of evidence that schools themselves can have significant impacts on student achievement. The most powerful educational effects over which we have any societal control occur within the walls of schools.  They are the effects produced by good teachers, effective curriculum, and the changes in leadership, management, culture, and time to learn that are incorporated into schools that beat the odds, including successful charter schools.

Improving neighborhoods is a desirable goal, but it’s not education reform, Whitehurst and Croft write. And it’s very expensive.

Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, President Obama is seeking $210 million to create Promise Neighborhoods in 20 cities. That’s not enough to replicate the web of services provided in Harlem, the authors write. If the goal is better schools, the money should be spent on creating better schools. 

After only six years, it’s too soon to write off the Harlem Children’s Zone idea, writes Jay Mathews.