Young teachers demand a voice

More than half of teachers now have fewer than 10 years of experience. Led by this new generation, the “teacher voice movement” is Taking Back Teaching, writes Richard Lee Colvin, former director of Education Sector, in Education Next.

Several new groups work to amplify the voices of top classroom teachers as they weigh in on controversial policy issues, as with the evaluations in Los Angeles. The Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellows, the New Millennium Initiative, and the Viva Project, a digital platform for crowdsourcing teachers’ ideas, all fall into this category.

The aim of another set of programs is to keep successful teachers in the profession by giving them opportunities to assume leadership roles, as with Teach Plus and its T3 project. A fellowship program launched in 2008 by Leading Educators, which began in New Orleans and is now expanding to Kansas City and Detroit, for example, provides a select group of teachers with training in education issues, management, leadership, and problem solving.

A third front in the so-called “teacher voice” movement pushes local unions to become more democratic. . . . NewTLA in Los Angeles, operates as a caucus within the union there.

Regardless of the approach, all of the groups unabashedly acknowledge that some teachers are more effective than others and that even the best teachers want to keep improving their practice. Rather than seeing themselves as adversaries to either unions or school districts, teachers who get involved in these groups tend to think of themselves as problem solvers. As a result, many district, state, and national education policymakers view them as more authentic classroom voices than union activists.

Teachers’ unions often see the advocacy groups as a threat, Colvin writes. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called Educatiors 4 Excellence, which influenced New York’s policy on appeals of low performance ratings,  “a wedge against the union.”

E4E members (were called) “anti-union scum” and “union-busting plants” in online forums. One comment on a GothamSchools blog post complained that “in the past all young teachers paid their dues, and didn’t complain about being low man on the totem pole” in the union. (Co-founder Sydney) Morris said E4E is not anti-union. “We’re trying to strengthen the union in the long run by having it become more representative of its members,” Morris said.

Critics say the new groups represent the foundations that provide their funding, not grassroots teachers.

Funders include the Ford Foundation, the Joyce, Stuart, Arnold and Hewlett foundations and Mayor Mike’s Bloomberg Philanthropies, writes Colvin. “The largest source of funding is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which currently has $13.5 million invested in nine teacher-advocacy groups, including $975,000 over two years going to E4E. But the foundation has also given $4 million to the AFT and $500,000 to the NEA to fund similar projects.”

Gates: Mix measures to evaluate teachers

Combining growth in students’ test scores, student feedback and classroom observations produces accurate information on teacher effectiveness, according to Gates Foundation research.

A composite measure on teacher effectiveness drawing on all three of those measures, and tested through a random-assignment experiment, predicted fairly accurately how much high-performing teachers would successfully boost their students’ standardized-test scores, concludes the series of new papers, part of the massive Measures of Effective Teaching study launched three years ago.

No more than half of a teacher’s evaluation should be on growth in student achievement, researchers concluded.  In addition, teachers’ classroom performance should be observed by more than one person.

Of course, the controversy on how to evaluate teachers — and what to do with the information — is not over.

The ever-increasing federal role in education makes no sense, writes Marc Tucker, who complains that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is forcing states to evaluate teachers based on student performance in order to get No Child Left Behind waivers.  Most researchers don’t think value-added measures of teacher performance are reliable, writes Tucker.

The study is a “political document and not a research document,” Jay Greene tells the Wall Street Journal.  Classroom observations aren’t a strong predictor of student performance says Greene, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. “But the Gates Foundation knows that teachers and others are resistant to a system that is based too heavily on student test scores, so they combined them with other measures to find something that was more agreeable to them,” he said.

College credit for MOOCs?

If students could earn transferable credits for MOOCs (massive open online courses), the cost of higher education will go way down. The American Council on Education and Coursera, a MOOC provider, are looking for ways to translate MOOC learning into college credits, reports the New York Times.

 The council’s credit evaluation process will begin early next year, using faculty teams to begin to assess how much students who successfully complete Coursera MOOCs have learned. Students who want to take the free classes for credit would have to pay a fee to take an identity-verified, proctored exam. If the faculty team deems the course worthy of academic credit, students who do well could pay for a transcript to submit to the college of their choice. Colleges are not required to accept those credits, but similar transcripts are already accepted by 2,000 United States colleges and universities for training courses offered by the military or by employers.

Coursera, founded last year by two Stanford computer professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, has 33 university partners and nearly two million students, who currently can earn certificates of completion, but not academic credit, for their work.

The Gates Foundation is funding research on using MOOCs in remedial math and writing classes.

A free remedial math MOOC is being developed by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  The six-week course will be open to high school students and adult learners who hope to avoid the remedial track and start in college-level math classes.

In a “Fast Track” pilot this summer, 38 low-scoring students took the online course. After six weeks, all but one qualified for college-level math and science courses.

When students grade teachers

When students evaluate their teachers, they’re remarkably good at identifying who’s effective and who’s not, writes Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic. Students evaluations have proved to be “more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance—­including classroom observations and student test-score growth,”  researchers have found, Ripley writes.

Some 250,000 students participated in a Gates Foundation study of student evaluations, using a survey developed by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson.

The responses did indeed help predict which classes would have the most test-score improvement at the end of the year. In math, for example, the teachers rated most highly by students delivered the equivalent of about six more months of learning than teachers with the lowest ratings. (By comparison, teachers who get a master’s degree—one of the few ways to earn a pay raise in most schools —delivered about one more month of learning per year than teachers without one.)

Students were better than trained adult observers in evaluating teacher effectiveness, probably because students spend a lot more time with each teacher. And there are more of them.

Five items were linked strongly with student learning:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

Teachers were surprised that caring about students was less important than controlling the classroom and challenging students, Ripley writes.

At McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C., the same students “gave different teachers wildly different reviews” on Control and Challenge.

For Control, which reflects how busy and well-behaved students are in a given classroom, teachers’ scores ranged from 16 to 90 percent favorable; for Challenge, the range stretched from 18 to 88 percent. Some teachers were clearly respected for their ability to explain complex material or keep students on task, while others seemed to be boring their students to death.

Memphis now counts student survey results as 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the annual review; 35 percent is linked students’ test scores and 40 percent to classroom observations.

The use of student surveys is spreading to Georgia and Chicago — and possibly Pittsburgh — Ripley writes.

Colleges should outsource remedial ed

Colleges aren’t good at remedial education, writes Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. Few remedial students go on to earn a degree. Colleges should outsource remediation and concentrate on college-level instruction.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were developed for motivated, independent learners. Now the Gates Foundation is funding proposals to create MOOCs for remedial students.

‘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.