Building better teacher evaluations

The Education Trust has released Fair to Everyone: Building the Balanced Teacher Evaluations that Educators and Students Deserve.

Most teachers are currently evaluated through “drive-by evaluations” — brief, annual drop-in observations of classroom practice. Teachers are rarely given criteria or standards used for these observations. And they rarely receive actionable feedback. In fact, no matter how strong (or weak) her instruction may be, or how much (or how little) her students learn, nearly every teacher in America is told she is doing a “satisfactory job” and given no advice about what or how to improve. 

Teacher evaluation systems should include multiple visits by well-trained observers using clear performance standards and measures of teacher impact on student learning, such as multiple years’ worth of value-added data, the report concludes.


Low-income kids are ‘priced out’ of college

Only five of the nation’s 1,186 four-year colleges and universities give low-income students a reasonable chance to earn a bachelor’s degree at an affordable cost, concludes a new Education Trust report, Priced Out: How the Wrong Financial-Aid Policies Hurt Low-Income Students (pdf).  A sixth, Berea College in Kentucky, charges no tuition.

Ed Trust looked at what students pay after receiving financial aid.  The average low-income family must spend 72 percent of annual household income to send one child to a four-year college. Middle-class families contribute 27 percent of household income and wealthy families spend 14 percent.

Ed Trust looked for colleges with a net price (total attendance cost minus total grant aid) of $4,600 or less, a graduation rate of at least 50 percent, and at least 30 percent enrollment by students from low-income families. Not a single public flagship university made the list. The only private non-profit was Berea, a liberal arts school with no net price. It’s free.

With a focus on the Appalachian region, Berea largely enrolls students of modest means, and manages to support their studies through a sizeable endowment, required work-study, and a “plain living” budget. The college can point to academic success as well, having boosted its six-year graduation rate from 50 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2009.

The affordable public universities are: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, two City University of New York (CUNY) schools, Queens College and Baruch College, and Fullerton State and Long Beach State in California.

All are based in states which outpace their peers in providing need-based financial aid. What’s more, each of the five universities has a clear commitment to closing gaps of access and success between high-income and low-income students, and between students of color and white students.

Pell Grants for low-income students are under attack in Congress. If the rapidly growing grant program is cut, it will be even harder for low-income students to afford college.

At low-cost colleges — especially community colleges — Pell Grants cover tuition and students’ living expenses. That encourages people to enroll for the grant money, even if they’re not serious about taking classes. “Pell runners” who lose eligibility for aid at one college, enroll at another, hoping nobody checks their record.

Gates’ money is everywhere

Bill Gates is putting his billions into education advocacy, writes the New York Times. That includes “financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, ” creating new advocacy groups and “bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.”

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” Berkeley Education Prof. Bruce Fuller tells the Times.

Researchers are careful about criticizing big-spending foundations, says Rick Hess. “Everybody’s implicated.”

The Gates Foundation funds the Education Equality Project, Education Trust, Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies, the Times notes. (And a whole lot more.)

Harvard, for instance, got $3.5 million to place “strategic data fellows” who could act as “entrepreneurial change agents” in school districts in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The foundation has given to the two national teachers’ unions — as well to groups whose mission seems to be to criticize them.

The Gates Foundation is not Dr. Evil, responds Rick Hess, who says his “implicated” quote referred to all education foundations, not just Gates.  He’s written in the past that few researchers bite the hand that feeds them — or might feed them in the future.

“Academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty–where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.”

The Gates Foundation’s efforts to influence public policy through research and advocacy resembles “the Ford Foundation’s decades-long effort to change educational finance policy through the far less democratic approach of litigation or Ford’s current giant investment in promoting a very particular equity agenda,” Hess writes.

I’ve been writing Community College Spotlight for a year now. I’m paid by the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers’ College of Columbia, which uses grants from, among others, the Gates Foundation. Many of the initiatives to improve community college graduation rates, redesign remediation, offer dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students and improve college readiness are funded, in part or full, by the Gates Foundation. I’m dubious about dual enrollment for struggling students: If  they can’t handle high school classes, how they can handle college classes? Nobody’s told me to cheer for every Gates idea. On the whole, I think the foundation is investing intelligently in the search for solutions to the most critical problems in education.

BTW, a recent comment accused “billionaire education reformers” of trying to push all students to a bachelor’s degree, regardless of their academic preparation or motivation.  This is not true of Gates. The foundation is heavily invested in improving community college programs that lead to a vocational certificate or associate degree.

The Gates Foundation is very, very influential in education because it puts lots of money behind the programs and policies that its people think are going to improve education. They’re not infallible. But what’s the alternative? Give billions to do the same thing only with laptops for the kiddies? That’s not going to happen.

‘Stuck schools’ stay stuck

Most high-performing schools are leaving low-income and minority students behind, concludes Stuck Schools Revisited: Beneath the Averages, a new Education Trust report that analyzes data from Maryland and Indiana.

In Maryland, the achievement gap in reading narrowed from 2005 to 2009, but African-American and Latino students often lag behind.

“In Indiana, gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers have remained both wide and stagnant,” Ed Trust reports. 

Army rejects 23% of high school grads

Today’s Army won’t take all high school graduates: 23 percent of would-be enlistees flunk the academic test, reports Education Trust in “Shut Out of the Military.”

. . . 29 percent of Hispanic Army applicants and 39 percent of African Americans were found ineligible. Furthermore, when minority candidates did gain entry into the armed services, they achieved lower scores on average than their white peers. These ratings exclude them from higher level educational, training, and advancement opportunities provided by the Army.

Qualifying rates varied widely for white applicants with 27 percent of Maryland’s white high school graduates failing the test compared to 10 percent in Indiana.

Questions cover basic skills and knowledge, such as:

“If 2 plus x equals 4, what is the value of x?”

Seventy-five percent of 17- to 24-year-olds don’t qualify to take the test because they did not complete high school, are physically unfit or have a criminal record, the Pentagon reports. Ninety percent of Army enlistees are high school graduates or non-graduates who’ve earned at least 15 college credits; the other 10 percent include GED holders who score 50 or better on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. The Army is exceeding its recruiting goal (slightly), the Pentagon reports.

U.S. is average — except in inequality

The U.S. education system is ahead of the pack in one category — inequality — notes Education Trust in its analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

Compared to other developed countries, the United States has the fifth largest gap between low-income students and their more affluent classmates. In reading, for example, students attending our high-poverty high schools performed 24 percent below those from higher income schools.

. . . Many of the countries at the top of the performance rankings – Canada, Finland, and Korea, for example – rank noticeably at the bottom of the list measuring the size of socioeconomic-status (SES) gaps.

Low-SES students in the U.S. don’t do as well as similar students in other countries, such as New Zealand.

U.S. students who are white and Asian students perform about as well in reading, math, and science as the average student in high-performing countries like Canada and Japan, Education Trust reports. But our Latino students are at the same level as Turkey and Dubai, while black students are on a par with students in Serbia and Bulgaria.

The recent ACT report, which looked at whether students can meet the new Common Core Standards, also found massive achievement gaps. In reading, 47 percent of white eleventh-graders reach the standard, compared with 19 percent of Hispanic and 11 percent of blacks. In algebra, 41 percent of white high school juniors, 21 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks are meet the standard.

Mind the gaps

Gauging the Gaps, a new Education Trust report, warns that looking at achievement gaps is misleading.

For example, one might want to congratulate Oklahoma for having a small black-white gap in eighth-grade mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But a closer look shows that the gap is among the smallest in the country because Oklahoma’s white eighth-graders — the students at the top of this gap — are among the lowest performing white students in the country.

Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts and Texas have done the best at closing gaps and improving achievement, EdTrust reports. Vermont, which has little racial diversity, does well with low-income students.

College success gap

Low-income and minority students lag in college enrollment and graduation at two- and four-year public colleges, concludes Charting a Necessary Path, an Education Trust report.

Two years ago, 24 public higher education systems educating 40 percent of four-year students pledged to halve the achievement gap in college access and completion by 2015. The report provides a baseline for the Access to Success Initiative.

The research found that about 45 percent of low-income and underrepresented minority students entering as freshmen in 1999 had earned bachelor’s degrees six years later at the colleges studied, compared with 57 percent of other students.

. . . The study found that fewer than one-third of all freshmen entering two-year institutions nationwide attained completion — either through a certificate, an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college — within four years. The success rate was lower, 24 percent, for underrepresented minorities and higher, 38 percent, for other students.

Only 7 percent of minority students who entered community colleges earned bachelor’s degrees within 10 years.

Measuring Success, Making Progress, a spiffy new California site, focuses on high school graduation, college readiness and college success. Despite the title, I saw little progress. Most students don’t take the college-prep sequence, don’t do well on the state’s optional college readiness exam and struggle to complete a degree.

The four-year graduation rate was 70.9 percent in 2008 with Asians the highest, whites next and black (58 percent) and Hispanic students (62 percent) far behind. Only 55 percent of seventh graders in five school districts received regular high school diplomas six years later.

Only 16 percent of 11th graders who took the college readiness exam were judged ready for college English; 13 percent were ready for college math. More will be ready after 12th grade, but most have a long way to go and presumably only kids with college aspirations take the exam. In math, the racial/ethnic disparities were huge: Almost one in five Asian/Pacific Islander students scored at a college-ready level, compared to one in 20 white students and about 1 percent of Hispanic and African American students.

Bold ideas for teacher effectiveness

The Education Trust and The New Teacher Project (TNTP) have issued reports calling for states to commit to “bold reforms” to increase teacher effectiveness in applications for federal “Race to the Top” funding.

Fighting for Quality and Equality, Too, by The Education Trust, and How Bold is “Bold”?, by TNTP, “include practical strategies for measuring teacher effectiveness, providing all teachers with the support they need to improve, increasing the number of effective teachers for low-income and minority children, retaining effective teachers, and removing those who are persistently ineffective.”

One standard shall rule them all

Though 46 states and Washington, D.C. are backing the creation of common math and English standards, figuring out what all high school graduates should know is a challenge, reports Politics Daily. Experts are trying to meet an end-of-July deadline.

The goal is for students to be career and college ready, meaning that they could make a C or better in first-year college classes without having to take remedial courses. Expanded groups of experts will set standards for grades K-12 by the end of December.

Federal standards efforts went awry in the past.  This campaign was started by governors.

“What’s really changed is that it’s almost always now teachers who say, ‘When are we going to get over this nonsense that math in Mississippi is different?’ “from math in another state, says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has “pledged up to $350 million to help develop tests that would measure whether students are meeting the new standards.”

ACT and College Board experts are trying to develop fewer, clearer and higher standards than in most states. They’re looking at freshman course syllabi and exit surveys to determine what students need.

“They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college,” says (Chris) Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups overseeing the process along with the National Governors’ Association and a Washington-based group called Achieve. “It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important, including, he says, “whether or not kids should read Shakespeare. Most of the studies say Shakespeare is not critical.”

We’re going to dump Shakespeare? Lynne Munson of Common Core at the eagerness to “throw out possibly the brightest star of our literary heritage and replace it with … well, we don’t yet know.”

Of course, in a few years the loss will hardly be noticed, as someone wise once pointed out: “He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stolen, / Let him not know ‘t, and he’s not robb’d at all.” (Othello, Act III, scene 3)

Massachusetts’ standards are the best we’ve got, Munson argues. If common standards aren’t that rigorous, why bother?

Gadfly’s Mike Petrilli wants a broad liberal arts curriculum that goes beyond “the utilitarian and narrow drive toward college and work readiness,” which has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans.

While the right celebrates anti-intellectualism, “the left remains uncomfortable saying that there is a body of knowledge that all young people need to master in order to be prepared for life in our democracy.”

Before you know it, Shakespeare’s as dead as a royal Dane in the last act of Hamlet. History, being unessential for college or work, is history.