Gates Foundation learns humility — maybe

Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the world’s largest foundation, talk to reporters in New York on Feb. 22. Photo: Seth Wenig/Associated Press

After years of “setting America’s public school agenda,” the Gates Foundation is learning humility, concludes a Los Angeles Times editorial.

The foundation funded the creation of small high schools, until its researchers found that size isn’t a critical factor in student achievement.

It funded bonuses for high-performing teachers, coupled with a new evaluation system, but an experiment in Hillsborough County, Fla. proved costly and ineffective.

“Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards,” Desmond-Hellmann wrote. “We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators — particularly teachers — but also parents and communities, so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

“This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”

I’m not sure this is quite the mea culpa the Times thinks it is. Gates certainly isn’t abandoning the Common Core. The foundation will focus on providing high-quality Core-aligned learning materials and helping teachers choose from what’s available.

“If the knock on the hidebound education system is that it doesn’t change fast enough isn’t the knock on Gates that they change too fast?” responds Eduwonk. “Their small schools investments were not the disaster everyone thinks they were but they pivoted before the evaluations came in. . . . They soft peddled the results of their own evaluations of measures of teacher effectiveness. And while the rollout of Common Core has certainly been a political disaster and the assessment scene is something of a garbage fire, the standards themselves are pretty embedded.”

Teachers: We have no say in policy

Teachers’ voices are ignored at the district, state and national level, say public school teachers interviewed for Center on Education Policy survey. At the school level,  53 percent of teachers said their opinions are considered most of the time.

A majority of teachers believe they spend too much time preparing students for state and district tests and 81 percent said students spend too much time taking required tests.  Most math and English teachers said they’re using data from tests to improve their teaching.

While most teachers received a performance evaluation in 2014-15, only about half found the feedback they received helpful.

Charter school King

John King, Jr. won bipartisan approval as President Obama’s new U.S. Education Secretary this week. That shows “the mainstreaming of school choice and charter schools,” writes Lisa Snell in Reason.

U.S. Education Secretary John King, Jr.

U.S. Education Secretary John King, Jr.

A former school principal, John King helped found Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston and was managing director at Uncommon Schools charter school network, writes Snell. His schools have closed achievement gaps and raised college-going rates for low-income black and Latino students.

Yet, King’s charter school history wasn’t controversial in the hearings. His biggest obstacle was his support for Common Core as New York state education commissioner and his introduction of using student achievement in teacher evaluations.

Why principals inflate teacher ratings

New teacher evaluations are a lot like the old evaluations, concludes a new study that includes interviews with 100 urban principals. Very few teachers receive poor job ratings, notes Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

In 19 states with new teacher evaluation systems, the median proportion of teachers deemed below proficient is up from less than 1 percent to less than 3 percent, researchers found.

At the start of the year, urban principals estimated that 28 percent of their teachers were performing below the proficient level, but planned to assign low ratings to 24 percent. At year’s end, fewer than 7 percent of teachers received “below proficient” ratings.

Some principals felt uncomfortable delivering bad news to teachers. Others told the researchers that they didn’t have adequate time to deal with all the documentation and support that comes along with giving a teacher a poor rating.

Principals also said they didn’t want to discourage teachers with potential to improve or didn’t think they could hire a better replacement teacher. Some said it was easier “to urge a teacher to find a job elsewhere than to go through the process of assigning and justifying a low rating.”

Focus on effective teaching, not effective teachers, writes Timothy Shanahan. It’s not about people. It’s about what people do.

For example, effective teaching employs instructional time more wisely.  It is teaching that gets started right away—no 30-minute circle times, no large portions of class time devoted to getting a head start on the homework—and such teaching keeps kids productively engaged throughout the day. Observational studies have long showed that effective teaching avoids long wait times by the kids; avoids disruptions; encourages more interaction per instructional minute; follows a sound curriculum intelligently; gets a lot more reading into a lesson; explains things better; notices when kids aren’t getting it and does something about it.

“I can’t teach you to be an effective teacher,” he writes. “But I can teach you to do the kinds of things effective teachers do.”

Untimed tests: ‘not such a crazy idea’

Untimed tests — aren’t such a crazy idea, opines Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News. In response to the opt-out movement — 20 percent of students skipped New York’s state exams — this spring’s test takers will be allowed as much time as they want.

Dropping time limits won’t invalidate the results, writes Pondiscio. Research shows extra time helps students with learning disabilities, but has no significant effect for students without disabilities.

Most state math and reading tests are “power” tests rather than “speed” tests, according to University of Pennsylvania psychometrician Andrew Porter. Power tests “are designed so that nearly all students will be able to complete all items within the allotted time.”

“Education officials seem to think that allowing unlimited time will give parents one less reason to complain about test pressure,” writes Pondiscio. He doubts it will work. “The real source of test pressure is not the clock, it’s adults pressuring kids to perform.”

Any leveling or reduction in the number of parents refusing to let kids sit for state tests this year will likely be a function of New York’s moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. School administrators and teachers are less likely to transfer their anxieties to students, wittingly or unwittingly.

The moratorium ends in 2020.

I’ve worked under deadline for most of my life. I do the best I can in the time and space I’ve got. Then I stop. I find unlimited time very stressful.

From No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds 

The newest proposed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — this one’s likely to become law by year’s end — has been released. Ed Week’s Politics K-12 has the details on what’s, unfortunately, named the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). Did we learn nothing about overpromising from No Child Left Behind?

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

States and districts will have to use locally-developed, evidence-based interventions, though, in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate.

Deciding on teacher qualifications will return to state and local control.

“ESSA doesn’t come close to getting it all right, but it’s a vast improvement on NCLB and the status quo,” concludes Rick Hess. “ESSA retains the big thing that NCLB got right for students (e.g. transparency) while stripping away ham-fisted dictates that created problems for students and schools.”

Dallas isn’t a Wobegon for teachers

Dallas is not Lake Wobegon, reports the National Council on Teacher Quality. The district’s new evaluation system did not declare that nearly all teachers are satisfactory.

Among the system’s seven possible teacher effectiveness ratings, about a third of the district’s 11,000 teachers were assigned to one of the three lowest. Around 40 percent received a middle-of-the-road rating. Only 22 percent received one of the highest three ratings.

Turnover was typical for an urban district and the lowest-rated teachers were the most likely to quit. “Only a small percentage of higher performing teachers chose to leave.”

Most districts use four or five ratings categories. Using seven allowed “for more fine-grained distinctions among teachers,” observes NCTQ.

The district also field-tested a rubric that measures a teacher’s performance across nearly 20 different performance indicators.

School leaders conduct at least 10 spot observations –10 to 15 minute drop-ins — per year to provide teachers with instructional feedback.

An “Exemplary” teacher now earns a minimum of $74,000, compared to $56,000 for a teacher rated “Proficient 1.”

Clinton claims ‘no evidence’ for value-added

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by both major teachers' unions. Photo: AP

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by both major teachers’ unions. Photo: AP

Hillary Clinton is “saying everything teachers unions want to hear,” writes Lauren Camera on U.S. News.

“I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes,” she told New Hampshire teachers. “There’s no evidence. There’s no evidence.”

Is she right on the “no evidence claim? asks Stephen Sawchuk on Teacher Beat.

There have been a number of empirical studies showing that value-added measures, which are based on test scores, do pick up on differences in teacher performance.

Whether value-added measures should be used to evaluate or pay teachers is another question, Sawchuk writes. In addition to “technical challenges,” there is a risk of encouraging test prep and ignoring all the non-tested things that make up a good education.

Research on whether performance pay improves learning is mixed.

One recent study of a federal initiative showed a small effect in reading, but that stands in notable contrast to other studies that have found virtually no effects.

He concludes that Clinton “glossed over” what studies say about teacher effectiveness. 

Teacher evaluation sticker shock in Florida

With hundreds of mentors and “peer evaluators,” big raises for teachers and consultants’ fees, teacher evaluation has become a budget buster in Hillsborough County, Florida, reports Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times.

The Gates Foundation offered $100 million to fund Empowering Effective Teachers if the district paid the other half. Although other foundations also contributed, the district’s share has ballooned to $124 million.

Frank Hannaway teaches music at MacFarlane Elementary in Hillsborough County, Florida. Credit: Willie J. Allen, Jr., Tampa Bay Times

Frank Hannaway teaches music at MacFarlane Elementary in Hillsborough County, Florida. Credit: Willie J. Allen, Jr., Tampa Bay Times

“With $200 million in private and public money to play with, it was as if the district dined out nightly, ordered lobster and never kept track of the mounting tab,” writes Sokol.

Teachers got raises for performance — and for seniority. Most of the big raises went to veteran teachers in suburban schools, while high-poverty schools continued to get the least experienced, lowest-paid teachers.

Test scores rose, but the district continues to lag on graduation rates.

Hillsborough may cut back on peer evaluators, instead asking high-performing teachers to provide “non-evaluative” feedback to colleagues.

Valerie Strauss is leading the chorus of sneers, writing, “Another Bill Gates-funded education reform project, starting with mountains of cash and sky-high promises, is crashing to Earth.”

Graph for press release.PNG

Forty-three states require that student achievement and growth be included in teacher evaluations, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality report. In 35 states, it’s a significant factor.

Only Alabama, New Hampshire and Texas have teacher effectiveness policies that exist only in waiver promises made to the U.S. Department of Education.

Endless testing? High stakes? Not really

U.S. schools don’t test as much as people think and the stakes “aren’t really that high,” argues Kevin Huffman, a New America fellow, in a Washington Post commentary.

“In an apparent about-face from his administration’s education policy over the past seven years,” President Obama said last week he wants to “fix” over-testing, writes Huffman. The administration wants to limit testing to 2 percent of classroom time.

Testing averages 1.6 percent of class time, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. In Tennessee, where Huffman was education commissioner, state-mandated tests took seven to 10 hours per student per year, less than 1 percent of class time.

“Where students spend too much time taking tests, local schools and districts — not federal or state policies — tend to be the culprits,” he adds.

Due to federal pressure, more states now evaluate teachers based partially on their students’ test scores. All use “multiple measures” and “nearly all teachers perform at or above expectations.”

When schools are evaluated, “significant interventions” are targeted at the bottom 5 percent of campuses, he writes.

“Many schools spend too much time on mind-numbing test prep, sitting kids at their desks and going over endless multiple-choice questions,” Huffman concedes. There’s little evidence it improves scores.