Can teachers hold teachers accountable?

Test-based accountability is “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching,” Marc S. Tucker argues in Fixing Our National Accountability System. And it’s not improving student performance, Tucker tells New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. Instead, we need to do what works in high-performing countries:  Treat teachers as professionals.

That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile.

In  high-performing countries,  tests are used to hold the students accountable, rather than the teachers, says Tucker.

Meanwhile, he writes, “in most of these countries, the primary form of accountability for the school and its staff is high-profile publication of the average scores for the exams for each school, often front-page news.”

When a school falls short, instead of looking to fire teachers, the high-performing countries “use the data to decide which schools will receive visits from teams of expert school inspectors. These inspectors are highly regarded educators.”

Tucker envisions teachers “holding each other accountable for the quality of their work, as professionals everywhere do.” Teachers would help colleagues improve and get rid of those who didn’t cut the mustard.

And the teacher’s unions? I keep looking for flying pigs.

Practice makes … a 12% boost

It takes 10,000 hours of practice to be a success, writes Malcom Gladwell in Outliers.

The 10,000-Hour rule is nonsense, responds Richard Kunert on Brain’s Idea. He cites a new meta-analysis published in Psychological Science.

Overall, practice explains 12 percent of performance, the study concludes. That varies by the task.

. . . if the context in which the task is performed is very stable (e.g., running) 24% of performance is explained by practice. Unstable contexts (e.g., handling an aviation emergency) push this down to 4% .

The value of practice peaks for games at 26 percent and hits 21 percent for music. It accounts for 4 percent of performance in education, the study concludes, and less than 1 percent in the professions.

Best growth measure levels the field

It’s possible to choose a measure of student growth that levels the playing field by “comparing the performance of schools and teachers that are in similar circumstances,” write researchers in Education Next.

Tough teachers are the best


Tough teachers teach more, writes Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.

The book is a paean to Jerry Kupchynsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who taught orchestra at a New Jersey high school for 40 years.  He “called his students ‘idiots’ when they screwed up.” They loved him.

Today’s teachers “are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads,” writes Lipman. “There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

Mr. K’s former students were successful in a variety of fields.

 “He taught us discipline,” explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. “Self-motivation,” added a tech executive who once played the cello. “Resilience,” said a professional cellist. “He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again.”

Lipman believes in eight principles of learning.

1. A little pain is good for you.
2. Drill, baby, drill.
3. Failure is an option.
4. Strict is better than nice.
5. Creativity can be learned.
6. Grit trumps talent.
7. Praise makes you weak . . .
8. While stress makes you strong.

Plenty of today’s teachers are strict, demanding character builders, responds Nancy Flanagan, a veteran music teacher. “Tough teachers get good results . . . when their students are emotionally prepared for intensive criticism,” she writes.

Lipman is a big fan of injecting failure into the classroom. Educators, she says, need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers, and cites a study where college musicians who placed low in auditions suffered no harm to their self-esteem.

Hey, I’ve no problem with voluntary competition–winning and losing on the volleyball court or the debate floor, vying for roles in the school play or college musical ensembles. I have witnessed first-hand, however, the corrosive effects of turning the classroom into a playing field, and every lesson and assignment into a contest. I abandoned the familiar practice of seating my band students in ability-based “chairs,” with these results: more kids in the program, more students accepting the challenge of individual solos and ensembles, higher levels of performance.

Students “who have coped with failure and adversity from the outset” are motivated by “a little honest success,” writes Flanagan. “Not more stress.”

Exams aren’t the enemy

Exams Aren’t the Enemy, writes Talmadge Nardi, a high school English teacher, in The Atlantic.

We must continue to be passionate and skillful teachers of critical thinking, writing and reading. And we must also continue to test our students. I am convinced that the combination of the two is what leads my students to success.

Nardi teaches at the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR), a Boston charter school where three-quarters of students are black or Hispanic and a majority come from low-income families. The school ranks very high on the 10th-grade English MCAS, Massachusetts’ standardized exam.

I do virtually no explicit test preparation with my students. What I do instead is teach intensive reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to prepare them for my 11th and 12th-grade college-style seminars and beyond.

Since the MCAS is a handwritten test, she requires handwritten essays so students practice writing clearly and getting by without spellcheck. She also teaches them how to handle multiple-choice questions and how to much to write on essay questions. She reviews the plots and characters of books read in class so students will be prepared to write about a book for the long essay. But it doesn’t take much time and can be useful long after they’ve taken the MCAS, Nardi writes.

Part of college and career readiness is getting ready for exams. The MCAS, for example, is both a skill and an endurance test, and it prepares students to take tests of basic content knowledge–the kind of tests most professionals have to slog through to get to where they are. My students will have to take many such tests to gain access to professional fields like medicine, law, teaching and accounting.

Testing is Good for Teachers and Children, argues Matt Barnum on Dropout Nation. As a teacher, half of his evaluation was based on student performance on as many as five standardized assessments a year. “We knew where we stood in terms of performance, and so did our students,” he writes.

Testing helps students achieve mastery by making it possible to learn from mistakes, adds the editor. It also helps teachers and schools diagnose and address learning issues.


Judge teachers on performance, not ‘bar exam’

Teacher Bar Exams Would Be a Huge Mistake, argue Jason Richwine and Lindsey M. Burke in The Atlantic. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) called for a rigorous exam for would-be teachers — like those for fledgling lawyers or doctors — in Raising the Bar.

Barriers to entry will discourage smart people from entering teaching as a first or second career, they write.

 High-ability college students must sacrifice time spent studying math and science in order to take required education courses and bone up on the latest trends in pedagogy.

Furthermore, test scores don’t predict teacher effectiveness. Neither does level of education, licensure or experience beyond the first few years of teaching.

Even raw intellectual ability as measured by IQ tests has only a small positive effect on how much knowledge teachers are able to impart to their students.

Clearly teachers need to be intelligent and knowledgeable, but effective teaching requires a rare blend of patience, empathy, articulation, and motivation — qualities that cannot be easily measured on a bar exam or other standardized test.

. . . a bar exam is not any more likely to put effective teachers in the classroom than existing certification tests are. This is especially true if the bar exam covers faddish pedagogical theories that often lack a scholarly foundation.

Richwine and Burke suggest the opposite approach: Let any plausible candidate try teaching, but be much, much pickier about who stays in the classroom.  “Teachers who show strong performance — as measured by student tests and principal evaluations — should quickly move up the pay scale,” they write. Poor performers should be let go.

Economists Douglas O. Staiger and Jonah Rockoff simulated this system, they write. “In their view, only the top 20 percent or so who performed best during their tryout period should be kept on.”

I wonder who gets the try-out teachers?

CREDO: Indiana charter students do well

Students at Indiana charter schools outperformed similar students at traditional public schools in math and reading, concludes a new report from Stanford’s CREDO. Indianapolis charter students did especially well, reports Ed Week.

The study tracked 15,297 charter school students at 64 schools from grades 3-8. On average, students in charter schools ended the year having made the equivalent of 1.5 more months of learning gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school counterparts did. Students in charter schools in Indianapolis ended the year ahead of their traditional public school counterparts by two months in reading and three months in math.

Charter students and the control group were matched by  demographic and performance data (gender, race/ethnicity, special education status, English language proficiency, free-or-reduced lunch participation, grade level, and prior test scores on state achievement tests).

In Indiana, 58 percent of charter students are black, compared to 11 percent of the state’s students. Eleven percent of charter students are in special education compared to 15 percent in traditional public schools.

In a wrap-up on education research in 2012, Matthew Di Carlo notes that CREDO’s research on charter gains in Indiana and New Jersey show most of the progress comes in big cities, Indianapolis and Newark. By contrast, rural charter students tend to underperform similar students.

One contentious variation on this question is whether charter schools “cream” higher-performing students, and/or “push out” lower-performing students, in order to boost their results. Yet another Mathematica supplement to their 2010 report examining around 20 KIPP middle schools was released, addressing criticisms that KIPP admits students with comparatively high achievement levels, and that the students who leave are lower-performing than those who stay. This report found little evidence to support either claim (also take a look at our post on attrition and charters).

An another analysis, presented in a conference paper, “found that low-performing students in a large anonymous district did not exit charters at a discernibly higher rate than their counterparts in regular public schools,” DiCarlo adds.

On the flip side of the entry/exit equation, this working paper found that students who won charter school lotteries (but had not yet attended the charter) saw immediate “benefits” in the form of reduced truancy rates, an interesting demonstration of the importance of student motivation.

Di Carlo has more on the research this year on charter management organizations, merit pay and teacher evaluations using value-added and growth measures.

Miami-Dade wins Broad Prize

Miami-Dade’s school district has won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, after five years as a finalist, reports Ed Week.

More black and Hispanic students are scoring “advanced” on state tests and graduating, the foundation said. In addition, more students are taking the SATs and earning higher scores.

(Superintendent Alberto) Carvahlo drew attention to improvements in some of the district’s lowest-performing schools, which he attributed partly to the Data/COM (short for Data assessment, technical assistance, coordination of management, according to Carvalho) process. During Data/COM, school officials analyze a school’s challenges and debate solutions, Carvahlo said.

. . . The district’s budget has also improved dramatically under Carvalho’s tenure, which was noted by the jury. “This may seem strange, but we actually embraced the economic recession as an opportunity to leverage and accomplish change,” he said. The district found additional government and foundation funding and made sure all spending was directed at improving student achievement, Carvalho said.

Runner-ups were Palm Beach County (Florida), Houston and Corono-Norco (California).

Boston Superintendent Carol R. Johnson was honored as the best urban superintendent by the Council of Great City Schools.

Union’s charter school faces closure

To prove a union contract is no barrier to school success, the United Federation of Teachers opened its own UFT Charter School in Brooklyn in 2005, notes Gotham Schools. After seven years of turmoil, the union-run K-9 school may be closed for low performance.

Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average.

On the school’s most recent progress report, released last week, the Department of Education gave it a D and ranked it even lower than one of its co-located neighbors, J.H.S. 166, which the city tried to close last year and now has shortlisted again for possible closure.

Two years ago, the school received a three-year extension on its charter instead of five years because of performance concerns.

Test scores have plummeted since then, the school has cycled through multiple principals, and enrollment is down to just 70 percent of capacity.

The UFT Charter School performs worse than other schools in the district, despite enrolling fewer special education students and far fewer English Learners, reports Gotham Schools.

The UFT picked “teacher leaders” to run the elementary and middle schools. Turnover has been high.

“We are continuing to see progress and innovation at many teacher-led schools,” American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten told Gotham Schools in an e-mail. She praised Green Dot New York Charter School in the Bronx, a union partner with a “thin contract” that gives teachers some, but not all, their usual rights.

The risk of testing

In our zeal for accountability, we’re Assessing Ourselves To Death, writes Matthew Di Carlo in a characteristically thoughtful post on Shanker Blog.

To start with, “educational outcomes, such as graduation and test scores, are signals of or proxies for the traits that lead to success in life, not the cause of that success,” he writes. Pumping up graduation rates won’t improve students’ prospects — or the economy — unless they’ve actually learned the academic and non-cognitive skills employers associate with a high school diploma.

Our relentless focus on test scores has risks, Di Carlo writes. Test-based accountability “has a useful role to play, both for measuring performance and for incentivizing improvement (and, of course, the use of testing data for research purposes is critical),” but “we need to stop putting more and more faith in instruments that are not really designed to bear that burden.”

If we mold policy such that livelihoods depend on increasing scores, and we select and deselect people and institutions based on their ability to do so, then, over time, scores will most likely go up.

The question is what that will mean. A portion of this increase will reflect a concurrent improvement in useful skills and knowledge. But part of it will not (e.g., various forms of score inflation). To the degree the latter is the case, not only will it not help the students, but we will have more and more trouble knowing where we stand. Researchers will be less able to evaluate policies. We’ll end up celebrating and making decisions based on success that isn’t really success, and that’s worse than outright failure.

We need to balance “the power of measurement and incentives against the risks,” Di Carlo concludes.