Ed Next’s top stories of 2015

Starting in pre–K, children at Hoover School talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Children who aren't proficient in English can learn well in English or their native language -- if they're taught well.

Children at Hoover School in Redwood City, California talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Good teaching is more important than the language of instruction.

Learning English, my story on how “accountability, Common Core and the college-for-all movement are transforming instruction” of students from immigrant families, ranks 10th in Ed Next’s list of the top 20 Education Next Articles of 2015.

That’s not bad considering it didn’t come out till late November.

Overall, readers went for stories on poverty and inequality, say editors. “Five of the articles in the top 20 are from a special issue . .  . on the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report which examined the rise in the number of children growing up in single-parent families.”

AP vs. PDK vs. EdNext: Who ya gonna believe?

Three education polls came out this week from AP-NORC (for the Joyce Foundation), PDK/Gallup and Education Next. Who ya gonna believe?

Education Next‘s Paul Peterson analyzes why EdNext‘s poll differs from the PDK poll:

EdNext: “As you may know, all states are currently deciding whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math. If adopted, these standards would be used to hold the state’s schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the adoption of the Common Core standards in your state?”

Support 65%
Oppose 13
Neutral 23

PDK: “Do you believe Common Core State Standards would help make education in the United States more competitive globally, less competitive globally, or have no effect globally? (Asked only of those who have heard of the Common Core).”

More competitive 41%
Less competitive 24
No effect 35
No opinion 3

While EdNext described Common Core, PDK asked people whether they knew the education “code words,” writes Peterson. The 38 percent who did — a small sample — were asked to predict the future, which people are reluctant to do. “In short, I believe that on this one PDK fished for the answer they wanted,” he concludes.

EdNext asked:How much trust and confidence do you have in public school teachers?,” while PDK asked: “Do you have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools?”

“Talking about the “men and women who are teaching children,” using evocative words such as “children” and hinting at that famous patriotic phrase—the “men and women who serve in our armed forces” encourages positive responses, writes Peterson.

Only 42 percent of the public have “a lot of” or “complete” trust and confidence in public school teachers in EdNext‘s poll, which gave four choices. “PDK forces people to say they do have confidence unless they have ‘no confidence’ in teachers, a polling strategy that will increase the proportion of positive responses.”

The two polls get similar responses on charter schools, but PDK finds a better than 2:1 split against vouchers, while EdNext says the public is divided. Again, PDK has loaded the question, writes Peterson.

The move to tie student test scores to teacher evaluation generates different answers on the AP-NORC PDK/Gallup polls, writes Steven Sawchuck on Teacher Beat.

In the AP poll, 53 percent of parents said changes in students’ statewide test scores should be used either “a great deal” or “quite a bit” in teachers’ evaluations compared with 20 percent who said “only a little” or “not at all.”

On the PDK/Gallup poll, 58 percent of adults surveyed opposed state requirements that teacher evaluations “include how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests.”

Why the differences?

  • AP frames the evaluation question in terms of changes in scores rather than performance on the tests.
  • AP does not reference a state requirement, as PDK does.
  • As colleague Lesli Maxwell points out, the PDK poll prefaced its questions by saying there had been “a significant increase in standardized testing.”

“Not surprisingly, folks on either side of the testing wars are embracing the poll that supports their viewpoint and condemning the other poll as biased or misleading in some way,” concludes Sawchuck.

Education Gadfly has more on the polling trifecta.

Mo' money for schools

The school funding crisis is “phony,” writes James Guthrie, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt,  in Education Next. Chicken Little reporters highlight “budgetary shortfalls, school district bankruptcies, teacher and administrator layoffs, hiring and salary freezes, pension system defaults, shorter school years, ever-larger classes, faculty furloughs, fewer course electives, reduced field trips, foregone or curtailed athletics, outdated textbooks, teachers having to make do with fewer supplies, cuts in school maintenance,” etc. But real spending on education keeps going up, even in recessions, while the number of students stays about the same.

For the past hundred years, with rare and short exceptions and after controlling for inflation, public schools have had both more money and more employees per student in each succeeding year. Teacher salaries have increased more than 42 percent in constant dollars over the past half century, while educators’ working conditions, health plans, and retirement arrangements have become ever more commodious.

In the last 40 years, as school funding increased and teacher-pupil ratios decreased, reading scores and graduation rates have not improved, Guthrie writes.

Turn around, end up in same place

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to “turn around” 5,000 low-performing schools. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to save failing schools, writes Andy Smarick in Education Next. Millions of dollars have been spent trying with little success.

Despite years of experience and great expenditures of time, money, and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent.

What does work? Closing bad schools and starting new ones from scratch, he writes. Operators of high-performing, high-poverty schools prefer to start fresh so they can create a new culture, a NewSchools Venture Fund study found.

Tom Torkelson, CEO of the high-performing IDEA network agrees: “I don’t do turnarounds because a turnaround usually means operating within a school system that couldn’t stomach the radical steps we’d take to get the school back on track. We fix what’s wrong with schools by changing the practices of the adults, and I believe there are few examples where this is currently possible without meddling from teacher unions, the school board, or the central office.”

Chris Barbic, founder and CEO of the stellar YES Prep network, says that “starting new schools and having control over hiring, length of day, student recruitment, and more gives us a pure opportunity to prove that low-income kids can achieve at the same levels as their more affluent peers. If we fail, we have only ourselves to blame, and that motivates us to bring our A-game every single day.”

When Duncan ran Chicago schools, he closed persistently low-performing schools. But elementary students didn’t benefit, because they were transferred to other low-performing schools, reports the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.  The only students who showed progress were the small number who moved to high-performing schools.

Update: New York City wants to close as many as a dozen failed schools and turn them into charter schools, reports the New York Post. But charter operators worry they won’t have flexibility to run the new schools, said Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York State Charter Schools Association. “It makes no sense to try to turn around a school [while keeping] all the impediments that got it into trouble in the first place,” he said.

D.C.’s Braveheart

Michelle Rhee is via D.C.’s Braveheart, writes June Kronholz in Education Next.

. . . (At a senior staff meeting) Rhee wades in with, “Here’s what I think,” or “What I don’t want,” or “This is crap,” or “I want someone to figure this out,” or “I’m gonna tell you what we’re gonna do; we can talk about how we’re gonna do it.” And that is that. Next order of business, please.

Rhee’s style—as steely as the sound of her peekaboo high heels on a linoleum-tile hallway—has angered much of Washington, D.C., and baffled the rest since she arrived as schools chancellor in June 2007. But it is also helping her gain control of a school system that has defied management for decades: that hasn’t kept records, patched windows, met budgets, delivered books, returned phone calls, followed court orders, checked teachers’ credentials, or, for years on end, opened school on schedule in the fall.

When I asked Rhee to name her most significant achievement in her two years in Washington, her answer suggested that any progress is, so far, only incremental. “We have begun—begun—begun—to establish a culture of accountability,” she said, with a long pause between each “begun.”

There’s some evidence that test scores and graduation rates are rising, writes Kronholz. (NAEP reported higher 2009 math scores for D.C. fourth and eighth graders.) But the system is deeply dysfunctional — and losing more students every year to charter schools.

Rhee has no choice but to play hardball, writes Richard Whitmire in the Washington Post.  She has little time to produce results.

Rhee should be able to work with teachers, writes Robert Pondiscio. If she fails to persuade parents to keep their children in district-run schools, the unionized teachers will be out of work too.

Overconfident, underperforming

Don’t Think Too Highly of Yourself, warns Mark Bauerlein on the Education Next blog.  Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, he writes, “higher confidence does not go with better math scores.”   The Brown Center’s How Well Are American Students Learning? report used TIMSS data to compare eighth-grade students in different countries.

“Countries with more confident students who enjoy the subject matter–and with teachers who strive to make mathematics relevant to students’ daily lives–do not do as well as countries that rank lower on indices of confidence, enjoyment, and relevance.”

. . .  U.S. students rated themselves much more highly than did students in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Chinese Taipei, but they scored well behind that insecure group.  While 93 percent of U.S. eighth-graders failed to achieve an advanced score on the test, only 5 percent of them “disagreed a lot” with the statement that they “do well in math.”

A new report in the September issue of Learning and Individual Difference compares 15-year-olds’ reading skills in 34 countries, Bauerlein writes.  Students who lacked confidence in their skills tended to perform better than their classmates, while the overconfident performed worse.

Overconfidence “can be a sign not of prior superior achievement, but of inferior achievement, a defense mechanism against poor performance and skill level,” Bauerlein writes.

Via 11D, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry make fun of self-esteem on the not-Oprah Show.

And see the self-esteem section of It ain’t necessarily so.

Now blogging . . .

Education Next has a blog.

D.C. vouchers boost reading

“The D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far,” writes Patrick Wolf in Education Next. Wolf was hired to study the program by comparing lottery winners to losers. He found a significant impact on reading for lottery winners who used the scholarship to attend a private school.

. . .  students in the control group would need to remain in school an extra 3.7 months on average to catch up to the level of reading achievement attained by those who used the scholarship opportunity to attend a private school for any period of time. The catch-up time would have been around 5 months for those in the control group as compared to those who were attending a private school in the third year of the evaluation.

Wolf thinks voucher students will do even better as they adjust to more rigorous private schools.

In the control group of lottery losers, nearly half left district-run schools to enroll in charter schools or private schools.

Of course, Congress plans to end the federally funded program. Parents rallied today to ask that Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescind his order rescinding vouchers for 216 new students who won the lottery in the spring.

Money and equity

Should judges order more school spending in the name of educational equity? In Horne vs. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower-court decision ordering Arizona to spend more on educating English Language Learners.  By a 5-4 vote, the court told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to consider “whether Arizona has complied with civil-rights law by improving both English-learner programs and K-12 education overall,” reports the Arizona Republic. Spending more doesn’t necessarily mean educating more effectively, the majority said.

The decision stopped short of dismissing the case but could hand back to Arizona lawmakers the power to determine how much is spent on English instruction and how such students are taught.

The majority decision quoted research by Hoover fellow Eric Hanushek and school finance lawyer Alfred Lindseth, authors of the just-published Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses, which argues that court-ordered funding hasn’t boosted achievement.  The minority opinion quoted the opposing views of Michael Rebell of Teachers’ College Columbia.  

Education Next asks Hanushek and Rebell to discuss: Is there a link between school spending and student achievement? What’s the court’s role?

Hanushek and Lindseth argue for more effective use of education dollars:

Since about 1970, the achievement levels of U.S. students on the reading and math tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained largely flat despite massive financial and other efforts to improve them. The problem is particularly acute for poor and minority students, with the average black and the average Hispanic student lagging three or four grade levels behind the average white student.

The solution we need lies in performance-based funding: a system of integrated education policies and funding mechanisms designed to drive and reward better performance by teachers, administrators, students, and others involved in the education process.

Rebell responds that courts must ensure “meaningful educational opportunities for all children.”

 The evidence strongly indicates that money well spent does make a significant difference in student achievement.

What is most likely to fulfill the promise of improved student outcomes in the future is not any silver bullet remedy, but rather a pragmatic process that allows courts, legislatures, state education departments, and school districts to work collaboratively to focus on children’s needs and to implement meaningful reforms on a sustained basis.

How do we get “money well spent” vs. more money spent the same old way that hasn’t worked well before?

Information please

Support for increasing school funding and teacher pay drops when people find out current levels of funding and pay are much higher than they assume, an Education Next survey finds. People also become less confident that spending more will improve education outcomes.

William G. Howell of the University of Chicago and Martin R. West of Brown University found the average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, while average spending exceeded $10,000.  Respondents estimated teachers earn an average of $33,000; the real average is $47,000.

Less than 1 in 10 respondents knew that charter schools may neither charge tuition nor provide religious instruction.  

Forty-nine percent of conservatives and 36 percent of liberals who were not provided information supported charter schools. But when they were told that charter schools are tuition-free and secular, support dropped among conservatives by 6 percentage points and
increased among liberals by 11 percentage points. Indeed, when provided information, liberals were 4 percent more likely to support charter schools than were conservatives.

 Kind of weird.