Young, gifted and neglected

Very smart kids don’t have enough opportunities to soar, argues Checker Finn in a New York Times op-ed. Low achievers are the priority.

First, we’re weak at identifying “gifted and talented” children early, particularly if they’re poor or members of minority groups or don’t have savvy, pushy parents.

Second, at the primary and middle-school levels, we don’t have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand.

. .  .Third, many high schools have just a smattering of honors or Advanced Placement classes, sometimes populated by kids who are bright but not truly prepared to succeed in them.

With Jessica A. Hockett, Finn wrote Exam Schools, a look at public high schools for very bright, very motivated students. Only 1 percent of students attends an exam school, they found. Almost all turn away many qualified applicants.

Why do we provide high-quality learning opportunities only to high-IQ students, asks Sara Mead. She agrees with Finn that our schools don’t maximize the potential of talented low-income and minority students. She believes in “differentiating in schooling to meet the needs of students with differing aptitudes and interests. ”

But the grim reality is that in practice the gifted and talented label–and special programs for youngsters who wear it–often has less to do with meeting specific and unique needs of especially bright youngsters than with rationing access to a limited supply of quality educational options. That’s why parents in places like New York City (where “gifted” children may gain access to specialized placements as early as in kindergarten) are spending exorbitant effort and money to get their kids identified as gifted.

Implicit in many of Finn’s arguments seems to be the assumption that we can’t possibly provide academically demanding, safe, high-quality schools staffed by excellent teachers for all of our kids, so we’d best focus on those who are likely to amount to something some day.

It’s excellent students — not excellent teachers — that make exam schools so good. It should be possible to create good schools for motivated, not-gifted students.  But can it be done for everyone?

Irreplaceable — and underappreciated

Principals don’t try to retain excellent teachers, concludes The Irreplaceables. TNTP analyzed teacher retention in four urban school districts: The top 20 percent of teachers, based on value-added scores, were nearly as likely to leave as the bottom 20 percent.

. . . their principals and district officials treated them basically the same. Two-thirds of the districts’ best teachers weren’t even encouraged to return another year.

Three-quarters of low-performing teachers told TNTP that they plan to stay at the current school; half said they intend to teach for another decade.  The average brand-new teacher would be more effective than these low performers, the report concludes.

Even without merit pay, districts could do much more to retain the best teachers, the report adds.

If principals simply gave their best teachers regular feedback, identified leadership opportunities for them, publicly recognized their accomplishments, and employed other, basic HR tactics, they could significantly reduce the attrition rate.

“The nation’s 50 largest districts lose approximately 10,000 Irreplaceables each year, according to TNTP. Yet the culture of teaching insists that all teachers are the same.

New York City’s master teacher program paid Lori Wheal more “in exchange for spending extra time mentoring my peers, writing curricula and running professional development.” She felt her work was respected. When her middle school lost the funding, she quit teaching, she writes in the New York Post.

. . .  the city needs to hold principals accountable for fixing school cultures that drive top teachers away. This means improving working conditions and creating environments of mutual respect and trust. (And give principals credit on their own performance reviews for retaining great teachers.)

But it also means refusing to turn a blind eye to poor teaching. Struggling teachers deserve support and a reasonable chance to improve. But if they can’t, they shouldn’t stay in the classroom.

Wheal will pursue a career in education policy.

How to pay (some) teachers more

By redesigning teachers’ roles to “extend the reach of excellent teachers,” we can pay excellent teachers up to 130 percent more without increasing class sizes and within current budgets, concludes the Opportunity Culture initiative.

“In 2007-08, states spent $14.8 billion on pay bumps for teachers with master’s degrees, which—time and again—have proven to be entirely unrelated to instructional effectiveness,” concludes The Sheepskin Effect.


More ‘reach’ for excellent teachers

One in four U.S. classrooms has an “excellent teacher,” asserts Public Impact. “Bold efforts to recruit more top teachers and remove the least effective teachers” won’t be enough to put an excellent teacher in every classroom. So let’s expand the reach of highly effective teachers by redesigning teaching roles and using technology. The education policy group plans to identify five sites to pilot expand-the-reach models.

OpportunityCulture describes possible models:

(The) teacher can work in person, teaching face to face in a school and/or leading other teachers. Or, when not enough excellent teachers are available in person, excellent teachers can work remotely, with on-site monitors’ help. Remote, excellent teachers can reach students via webcam, online whiteboard, email, and other methods that let the teacher communicate personally—live, but not in person—and at times convenient for all.

Willing, excellent teachers can have larger classes (within reason!), or they can specialize in the most crucial subjects and most difficult teaching roles, while other team members take on the rest. Or they can swap technology—online digital instruction—for some of their teaching time, enough time that the teacher can teach more students. Or they can lead other teachers, and co-teach with them, with authority to: select, assign roles, develop, and evaluate the team.

If we pursue reach extension, retaining high-performing teachers, recruiting talented new teachers and dismissing the least effective, “87 percent of classes could be taught by gap-closing, bar-raising teachers—in a mere half-decade,” Public Impact believes.

That seems very ambitious. Or perhaps I mean unrealistic.


Khan video — plus a great teacher

Khan Academy’s online video tutorials are being hyped to the skies, writes Rick Hess.

Khan Academy isn’t over-hyped, argue Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel on Ed Next. It’s mis-hyped. Salman Khan’s “short, engaging tutorials in math, science and other subjects” could be transformative with the addition of a key ingredient: excellent, live teachers.

The Hassels suggest letting students spend part of their school time viewing high-quality videos or smart software, which would replace “teachers’ rote lectures and one-size-fits-few whole group learning.” The best teachers would have time to work closely with more students.

Picture this: let’s say one class out of four in a school’s 4th grade has an excellent math teacher, and she spends half her instructional time on whole-group instruction and half on more dynamic/personalized learning. If Khan takes over the former whole-group time, two 4th grade classes could have that teacher just for personalized/dynamic learning. The effect is a 100% increase in the number of kids who get a top-tier in-person teacher — without reducing personalized instruction time with kids. She’d need a learning lab monitor for Khan time at school and time-saving digital tools to monitor kids’ progress (a la Wireless Generation or others; Khan’s experimenting with this, too).  The change would be at least budget-neutral, and the great teacher could earn more within budget, since lab monitors are not paid as much.

Technology won’t replace good teachers, the Hassels writes. It can extend their reach.

Some propose “flipping” homework with instruction: Students would view the videos at home and work on solving problems in class. Thirty-nine percent of high school students do no homework, the Hassels write. They won’t watch instructional videos either.

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.