‘Extreme Makeover’ for teachers

“In deference to a world enthralled by shows like ‘Extreme Makeover’ and ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians,’ the public school district in Washington has hired a reality television company to produce videos intended to improve the skills of its teachers,” reports the New York Times.

The 80 videos, 5 to 15 minutes in length, are peppered with quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty soundtrack. In short interviews and classroom snippets, the district’s highest-performing teachers demonstrate how they teach a range of lessons, from adding decimal numbers to guiding students of differing ability levels through a close reading of the Marshall Plan.

. . . “Teachers were saying to us, ‘Just be very clear about what good teaching looks like,’ ” said Kaya Henderson, Washington’s schools chancellor.

Charter school networks, school districts, universities, companies and nonprofits are developing online video libraries showing model teaching, reports the Times. Some are focused on lessons aligned with Common Core standards.

Teaching Channel, a nonprofit, has a collection of more than 500 professionally produced videos of teachers recommended by school districts and other teacher organizations. The University of Michigan is indexing about 16,000 videos of fourth- through ninth-grade English and math teachers in six urban districts shot by researchers financed by the Gates Foundation.

Betterlesson.com, a popular sharing site for lesson plans, is working to develop a video component. And hundreds of amateur clips have been uploaded to YouTube by individual teachers.

D.C. evaluators and principals will recommend specific videos to teachers and set up discussions.

Columbia economist Jonah E. Rockoff predicts watching teaching videos will help mid-range teachers improve but won’t do much for low performers. Teachers, what do you think? Will the videos prove to be useful to most, some or few teachers?

Reverse transfers need help to graduate

Reverse transfers — students who go from four-year to two-year schools — need help to graduate.

Texas community colleges will continue a campaign to increase graduation rates, despite losing Gates Foundation funding.

Gates funds game-based learning

Kids’ enthusiasm for video games could be harnessed by the classroom of the future, Bill Gates told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Gates Foundation is investing $20 million in teacher tools, including learning games.

Students are grouped according to skill set. One cluster huddles around a computer terminal, playing an educational game or working on a simulator. Another works with a human teacher getting direct instruction, while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar.

Gates envisions games as “an adjunct to a serious curriculum.” His foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington to develop learning games, said Vicki Phillips, education director for the Gates Foundation.

 The idea is that in coming years, there could be a digital mall full of low-cost or free online games teachers could download to use with the entire class or individual students.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make more robust the array of things teachers have access to at their fingertips that are aligned to standards, that are high quality, that engage kids though technology and let [teachers] be the orchestra leader,” Phillips said.

“Motivation is such a huge part in what ends up differentiating student outcomes,” Gates said. And games are motivating.

Do our schools support innovation?, asks Aran Levasseur, a middle school teacher turned technology coordinator, on Mind/Shift.

Technology widens the spectrum of how individuals and teams can access, construct and communicate knowledge. Education, for the most part, isn’t creating learners along these lines. Meanwhile, computers are challenging the legitimacy of expert-driven knowledge, i.e., of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the authority. All computing devices — from laptops to tablets to smartphones — are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach.

. . . Great teachers are needed now more than ever. But what it means to be a teacher and student is changing . . .

In the comments, Barry Garelick argues the “content of the future” will look a lot like the content of the past, at least in math. “The 21st century will require mastery of the same math skills needed in the 20th century,” he writes.

The Serious Play Conference next month in Seattle will look at measuring the effectiveness of educational games.

$1.1 million to test ‘galvanic’ bracelets

The Gates Foundation is spending $1.1 million to test “galvanic skin response” bracelets that measure students’ engagement in lessons, writes Valerie Strauss on Answer Sheet. Clemson and the National Center on Time and Learning will research the idea’s feasibility.

Strauss sees it as a “nutty” waste of money that could be spent on books, teachers and librarians.

Is it foolish? Let’s say research shows that students learn more in the X state than when their bracelets record Z’s. Teachers could analyze the high-X and high-Z portions of their lessons to figure out how to reach students more effectively. Of course, the idea could be a dud. Maybe too many students X up or Z out for reasons that have nothing to do with learning. But we don’t know that yet.

Teacher observation: Imperfect, but a step forward

Evaluating teachers by watching them teach is “tricky, labor-intensive, potentially costly and subjective — but perhaps the best way to help them improve,” according to a Gates Foundation study (pdf) reported in the Los Angeles Times.

The findings highlight the importance of teacher observations, but also pinpoint why they frequently don’t work. The old way — observing a teacher once a year, or once every five years in some cases — is insufficient. And the observers, typically the school principal, frequently don’t know what to look for anyway.

But that doesn’t mean teacher observations should be tossed aside. The best way to evaluate teachers, while also helping them improve, is to use several measures — including data-based methods that rely on students’ standardized test scores, along with an updated teacher observation system, the report found.

Earlier research has looked at student surveys and value-added measures to judge teachers’ effect on students’ performance.

Using these methods to evaluate teachers is “more predictive and powerful in combination than anything we have used as a proxy in the past,” said Vicki Phillips, who directs the Gates project.

Traditionally, 98 percent of teachers are rated effective.

Researchers looked at “measures of success beyond test scores,” adds the Hechinger Report.

That is, can we know for sure that a teacher who receives a top grade on one of the more rigorous and frequent classroom observations is also going to have a classroom of students who get top grades on achievement tests at the end of the year and on other important measures, like interest and happiness in school? . . .  And are the evaluation measures, whether they are qualitative observations or quantitative test scores, accurate in labeling teachers great, ordinary, or bad?

Teachers’ observation scores correlated with their students’ results on a variety of achievement tests, the Gates study concluded.

National standards: Good idea or good riddance?

Good riddance to new national standards, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who’s a centrist voice in the education debate. Common Core Standards, adopted by more than 40 states and pushed by the Education Department, “won’t help and won’t work,” Mathews argues.

Such specific standards stifle creativity and conflict with a two-century American preference for local decision-making about schools.

. . . We should focus on better teaching methods and better training of teachers, as well as school structures that help educators work more as teams. Those teachers could then employ whatever methods and standards make sense for their students.

Mathews was persuaded the national standards movement will collapse by reading Jay Greene, who argues that neither the states nor the feds can afford “a ton of money” to change curriculum, testing and teaching to make standards meaningful. Not even the Gates Foundation can afford it, Greene writes.

(Greene) says the digital learning industry, a growing financial and political force, will soon realize that the new standards will frustrate innovation.

“No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top grants are likely to be the high water mark of federal involvement in schools,” Mathews predicts.

States can borrow good standards from other states without creating one set of standards for everyone, he argues. If the tests developed to go with the new standards “probe conceptual understanding in ways state tests fail to do,” then there will be demand to use those exams.

While recruiting, training and supporting good teachers is important, curriculum isn’t chopped liver. I’d like to see states with good standards stick with what they’ve got, at least until the Common Core Standards and tests prove their worth. But plenty of states have nowhere to go but up.

I’m also not persuaded national standards are doomed. Still, it’s odd that nobody will defend the rigor and quality of Common Core math standards for an Education Next forum.  “Common Core advocates seem to have already grown impatient with public give-and-take and eager to declare the issue settled,” writes Rick Hess, who sympathetic but skeptical about the Common Core effort.

 

Gates: Was the $5 billion worth it?

After spending $5 billion on education grants and scholarships, Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley,  “It’s been about a decade of learning.”

The Microsoft co-founder’s foundation is worth $34 billion, more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.

Small schools, an early Gates Foundation initiative, didn’t improve achievement. I was impressed by the foundation’s willingness to admit that.

Small schools improved students’ attendance and behavior, but “didn’t move the needle much” on college attendance, which is a foundation priority, Bill Gates told Riley.  “We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.”

The foundation decided to focus on curriculum — Gates strongly backs a core curriculum — and teacher quality — the foundation is researching what makes good teachers effective.

Many worry that a multi-billionaire has too much power, even if his intentions are noble. (And not everyone thinks they are.) And Gates tells Riley he’s trying to use his money to influence how public money is spent.

 Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

However, the foundation’s approach is scientific, not political, Gates say.

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Gates supports charters — he’s a KIPP fan — but not school vouchers.

. . .  the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. “We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high.”

Gates’ approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does not lend itself to a single ‘best’ approach.” The foundation invokes science “to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support,” Greene charges.

Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort.

Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here.

In a new mini-book, Greene advocates school choice as the way to create incentives for school improvement.  Here’s his interview with Jason Riley.

Community College Spotlight, which I write for the Hechinger Institute, is funded, in part, by Gates money. Gates is funding almost every innovative idea involving community colleges, notably research on how to improve remediation and boost graduation rates. I think it’s money well spent, though the research isn’t likely to find a silver bullet.

From 11th grade to college

Indiana will encourage students to skip senior year and go straight to college, the Hechinger Report notes. Under Gov. Mitch Daniels’ plan, high school students who complete their core requirements by the end of their junior year can go straight to college with a scholarship based on how much money the state would have spent — $6,000 to $8,000 for most — on their 12th-grade education.

Daniels said he came up with the idea after years of asking seniors he met across the state what they were up to and too often being told “not much.”

“I kept bumping into seniors who said, ‘Well, I’m done,’ ” he said. “They’d laugh and tell me they were having a good time. We are spending thousands of dollars on students who are eligible to move on.”

Senior year is a time for “drift and disconnection,” concludes the National Commission on the High School Senior Year.

Solutions over the past decade have trended toward mixing college and high school courses through dual-enrollment programs or early-college high schools, where students can earn an associate degree and a diploma.

But Daniels’ preferred strategy — shortening high school altogether — also is catching on.

In Idaho, 21 districts will give early-graduation scholarships. Kentucky is thinking about it. In the fall, eight states will begin a program that lets students test out of the last two years of high school and go directly to community college. The National Center on Education and the Economy and the Gates Foundation are backing the idea.

One of my best friends in high school left after 11th grade for college. She was impatient to get on with it. (She dropped out after a year to organize the proletariat for the revolution.)

My daughter’s half-sister skipped high school entirely. Now 18, she will earn a bachelor’s in classics, summa cum laude, on Saturday from the University of Santa Clara and go on to Berkeley for her PhD. It was a challenge to buy her a graduation card. Nothing seemed to fit quite right.

Update: Ed Next looks at high school students who attend college part-time.

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.

10 big issues for ESEA

Fordham’s ESEA Briefing Book looks at the 10 issues that must be resolved to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind).

It’s party time for Jay Greene, who has a drinking game linked to frequent mentions of  “tight-loose” regulation.

Fordham frames a debate between people who want the feds to mandate something, such as standards and cut scores, and those who want federal money without mandates, Greene writes.

Fordham takes the middle ground of saying that the feds should mandate standards, cut scores, etc… or allow states to prove to a panel of experts that their alternative approach is at least as good.

The alternative is worthless, Greene argues. “The burden of proving the merit of your alternative choices would effectively compel you to comply with the mandate.” And “more committees of so-called experts” is not what we need in education.

Fordham’s false middle isn’t the only sensible alternative, Greene argues.

I support a limited role of the federal government in education to facilitate the education of students who are significantly more expensive to educate, such as disabled students, English language learners, and students from very disadvantaged backgrounds. Only the federal government can ensure this type of “redistributive” policy in education because if localities attempted to serve more expensive students they would attract those expensive students while driving away their tax base.

Fordham is big on “college and career readiness,” Greene adds. So is the Gates Foundation.

No one knows what college and career ready means. It has no clear, technical, objective definition. It is yet another political slogan substituting for an idea with actual substance, sort of like “reform realism” or “tight-loose.”

And yet this empty slogan is the entire purpose of the nationalization project on which Fordham-Gates-AFT-U.S. Dept of Ed are embarked. Only in the D.C. bubble of power-hungry analysts who provide no actual analysis could we launch a radical transformation of our education system with little more than a series of empty slogans. It’s enough to make you drink.

Kevin Kosar is blogging on Federal Education Policy History.  Check out the graph on the use of “failing school” over time.