Pre-k for all?

Education reform has proven unpopular with teachers’ unions, a key Democratic constituency, so President Obama’s second-term education agenda will focus on preschool and college aid, writes Joy Resmovits on the Huffington Post. “Teacher quality measures have all but dropped off the administration’s billboard agenda . . .  and after Tuesday’s speech, both teachers’ unions issued effusive statements.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, criticized the president’s call for two years of pre-kindergarten for all students.  “The equity agenda was missing from the first term and it’s also missing from the second term,” she said.

” . . . the thing for me that’s missing is the recognition that some schools, some families, some kids need more help than others,” Wilkins said. “When we have a tight budget … poor kids need pre-K first.”

Obama said high-quality preschool saves $7 for every dollar spent. That number comes from the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s, which involved poor black children with low IQs  and dismal prospects and included weekly family visits by well-educated teachers. (The Perry kids did poorly in school and life, but not as poorly as the control group.) Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits. Preschool programs for middle-class kids do not improve school readiness.

Obama’s plan is expected to resemble a Center for American Progress proposal to provide two years of pre-kindergarten to every child, “paid for with federal funds matched by state spending, to the tune of $10,000 per child,” reports Resmovits. That could cost up to $100 billion. “It is unclear how the president would pay for the program while not increasing the deficit, as he promised Tuesday,” she concludes.

First, fix Head Start, argues Education Gadfly.

Teacher absences hurt learning, budgets

Absentee teachers are hurting students’ learning and district budgets, according to a Center for American Progress report, Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement. Nearly 40 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days of school in 2009-10. Districts spent at least $4 billion to hire subs.

“Every 10 absences lowers average mathematics achievement equivalent to the difference between having a novice teacher and one with a bit more experience,” Raegen Miller, the report’s author, writes, citing a 2008 study.

Teachers who work in high-poverty and high-minority schools are absent more often, CAP reports.“It’s plausible that achievement gaps can be attributed, in part, to a teacher attendance gap,” writes Miller.

In New Jersey’s Camden City Public Schools, a district that has struggled with poverty and poor test scores, up to 40 percent of teachers are absent on any given school day, a figure that has forced the district to hire a private substitute-teacher agency to help ensure there’s an adult in each classroom.

Not surprisingly, the more paid sick leave teachers get, the more they use. The report recommends giving teachers at least seven paid sick days per year, but limiting excused absences and using incentives to discourage “frivolous” use of paid leave.

School funding: Quietly unequal

The rich districts get richer in Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina, according to a new Center for American Progress report, The Stealth Inequities of School Funding. In these states, schools in higher-poverty districts receive less state and local dollars than low-poverty districts, the report finds.

On the state level, there’s no relationship between education spending and results, according to a State Budget Solutions study, which analyzed state spending from 2009 to 2011. Spending more didn’t raise graduation rates or ACT scores. Spending less didn’t lower performance.

Massachusetts, which has the strongest academic performance in almost every subject area and the highest ACT scores, spend less of its state budget on education than 45 other states, SBS reported.

Students: School is too easy

School is “too easy,” according to many students concludes a Center for American Progress analysis. Many students aren’t challenged in school and aren’t working very hard, conclude Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal, who analyzed federal education surveys.

Some 37 percent of fourth-graders, nearly one-third of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders say their math work is often or always too easy. Just under half of 12-grade students say they are always or almost always learning in math class.

Civics and history work is easier: More than half of eighth-grade and high school students say their civics and history work is often or always too easy.

For most students, school is not a “pressure cooker,” Boser, a senior fellow at the center, told USA Today.

Only one in five eighth-graders read more than 20 pages a day, either in school or for homework. Most report that they read far less.

“It’s fairly safe to say that potentially high-achieving kids are probably not as challenged as they could be or ought to be,” Boser said.

Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading less than five pages a day.

The report recommends raising expectations and standards.

Here’s an interactive map of the states.

Study: Teacher training rarely helps

Improving teachers’ effectiveness is the “paramount challenge” facing our schools, writes Robert Pianta in Teaching Children Well, a report for the Center for American Progress. But most professional development has little or no impact. Districts waste thousands of dollars per teach each year on one-day, one-time workshops that teach “awareness” rather than specific skills, Pianta writes. Trainers promote “models that have little basis in what is known about effective instruction, curriculum, or classroom interactions.”

The report looks at “new evidence-supported approaches to professional development that have promise for closing not only the evidence gap, but the achievement gap as well.”

MyTeachingPartner, or MTP . . . uses a standardized method of online, individualized coaching and a library of highly focused video clips showing effective teachers in action that are tightly coupled with a standardized metric for observing teacher practice in the classroom, called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS.

CLASS and MTP . . .  include models for observing teachers’ instruction in mathematics lessons that are useful in modeling feedback about instruction in the upper grades. There are now professional-development tools that show promise for improving instruction and children’s math skills in preschool.

In early literacy, there are now videos to provide teachers feedback with demonstrable gains for students’ skills as well as statewide models that connect individualized feedback, coursework, and assessment of students’ school-readiness skills in a program of teacher professional development.

In addition, John Tyler’s paper on Designing High-Quality Evaluation Systems for High School Teachers also was released.

Don’t blame NCLB for high-flyers’ decline

Fordham’s high-flyers’ report, which argued top students are getting short shrift, is a Phantom Menace, argue Ulrich Boser and Diana Epstein of the Center for American Progress. While many high-achieving students don’t maintain their performance over time, there’s no evidence that efforts to close achievement gaps are responsible, they write.

All of Fordham’s data came from the post-NCLB time period, so without a pre-NCLB comparison, there is no way to make a claim that NCLB caused the decline.

Gifted and Talented programs are expanding in many states, write Boser and Epstein.  More fourth and eighth students are scoring at the highest level in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Turning and turning

Turning around low-performing schools isn’t easy, conclude two new Center for American Progress reports.

In A Snapshot of SIG: A Look at Four States’ Approaches to School Turnaround, Jessica Quillin outlines how California, Tennessee, Illinois, and North Carolina have spent federal School Improvement Grants to improve their most underperforming schools.

Melissa Lazarin focuses on charter turnaround efforts in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around The Nation’s Dropout Factories. Only 5 percent of SIG schools, including 11 high schools, have chosen to restart as charter schools. But Green Dot’s takeover of Locke High in Los Angeles and Mastery Charter‘s takeover of Shoemaker Middle School in Philadelphia show the potential.

While charter high school students don’t post higher test scores than comparable students at district schools, they’re 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate and earn a high school diploma, according to a recent RAND report.

Master's pay bump is waste of money

Paying teachers more for a master’s degree wastes money, conclude researchers Marguerite Roza and Raegen Miller in Separation of Degrees by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Center for American Progress.

On average, master’s degrees in education bear no relation to student achievement. Master’s degrees in math and science have been linked to improved student achievement in those subjects, but 90 percent of teachers’ master’s degrees are in education programs — a notoriously unfocused and process-dominated course of study.

In New York, 78 percent of teachers hold master’s degrees, costing an extra $416 per student or $1.12 billion a year.

Teacher pay should be aligned to their ability to boost student achievement, Roza and Miller conclude.

On City Journal, Sol Stern has “seven achievable reforms” in the New York City teachers’ union contract.

. . . (Mayor) Bloomberg’s six-year school-spending binge . . .  fattened the education budget from $12.7 billion in 2003 to $21 billion this year — probably the greatest increase by a school district in the history of American education. The UFT was complicit in the spending, since it reaped a 43 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, an identical hike for the union’s executives and managers, and a commensurate increase in union dues.

One suggestion is to tear up the “irrational salary schedule” and replace it with “a formula that plausibly links pay raises to real academic accomplishment and classroom skills.”