It’s not just the teachers, stupid

Good instructional materials are as important for student learning as good teachers, yet there’s a “scandalous lack of information” about what schools are using and what’s most effective, concludes a new report from Brookings’ Brown Center,  Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness and the Common Core.

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

Choosing better instructional materials “should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick,” compared to improving teacher quality, write Russ Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos. They urge states, the federal government, nonprofit groups and philanthropists to fund research on effectiveness. That would start by collecting data on what instructional materials schools are using.

 

Math gains show curriculum matters

If bad teachers are the problem, why are kids gaining in math? asks cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. His answer:  Higher standards backed by stronger curricula.

While reading scores have been flat for 20 years, math scores are up significantly. That’s true for fourth graders, who have the same teachers for reading and math.

States that aligned standards, assessments and accountability show the largest math gains, he writes.

Still, high standards are likely necessary but not sufficient to move student achievement. Standards set the goals, but they don’t tell you how to get there. For that, you need a curriculum. It may be that developing a curriculum to meet standards is easier in mathematics than in English; there is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious.

While we need “a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession” and better teacher training, we also need to focus on curriculum design, Willingham writes.

Excellent teachers need excellent conditions

Want excellent teachers? Create excellent classroom situations, writes Ellie Herman, who teaches at a charter high school, in the Los Angeles Times. And forget about “the myth of the extraordinary teacher” who can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

The kid in the back wants me to define “logic.” The girl next to him looks bewildered. The boy in front of me dutifully takes notes even though he has severe auditory processing issues and doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Eight kids forgot their essays, but one has a good excuse because she had another epileptic seizure last night. The shy, quiet girl next to me hasn’t done homework for weeks, ever since she was jumped by a knife-wielding gangbanger as she walked to school. The boy next to her is asleep with his head on the desk because he works nights at a factory to support his family.

. . .  A kid with dyslexia, ADD and anger-management problems walks in late, throws his books on the desk and swears at me when I tell him to take off his hood.

The class, one of five I teach each day, has 31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes. I need to reach all 31 of them, including the brainiac who’s so bored she’s reading “Lolita” under her desk.

I just can’t do it.

With less state funding, California public schools have boosted class sizes. That means teachers have less time to get to know their students, Herman writes. With more than 150 students in her classes, she can spend only five or 10 minutes on each essay, writing a few sentences of feedback.

I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.

Herman teaches at a Green Dot school, Animo Pat Brown Charter High School. Students — nearly all Hispanic and low-income — score well above average on state tests.

I suspect Herman would find it easy to teach large classes of students at approximately the same academic level who do homework, show up every day, understand English and aren’t disabled. But that’s not reality.

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.

Student teaching done wrong — and right

Student teachers don’t work with excellent classroom instructors in many cases, concludes a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which analyzed and rated 134 colleges and universities. Almost 75 percent of education programs don’t require the student teacher’s mentor to be an effective classroom instructor.

Programs are “begging” for student-teacher placements and can’t afford to be choosy, the report finds. In part, that’s because programs admit too many students, says NCTQ President Kate Walsh.

 “Right now, far too many institutions accept anyone and everyone, including many who have no intention of ever teaching.  Some students enter the program because it has the reputation for being the easiest program on campus to complete, while others discover that teaching is not for them, yet they have to student teach in order to graduate.  The teaching profession needs much higher standards.”

Schools of education, often considered “cash cows” for their universities, turn out more than twice as many graduates as schools hire, NCTQ estimates. The surplus is greatest for would-be elementary teachers. The report suggests requiring a fallback major so students who leave the teaching track can graduate on schedule.

In addition, working with a student teacher should be a more attractive proposition for exemplary classroom teachers, the report suggests, calling for “monetary incentives, prestige for being selected and assurance that the student teacher is qualified for the experience.”

NCTQ did find 10 model programs: Key Ingredients for Strong Student Teaching offers suggestions.

NCTQ’s analysis is controversial, writes Inside Higher Ed.  Most schools of education aren’t happy about the methodology NCTQ developed for U.S. News & World Report‘s upcoming teacher-education program rankings.

Teacher quality trumps class size

Would you prefer your child to be in small class taught by a mediocre teacher or a slightly larger class taught by an excellent teacher? Small class size is overrated, writes Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, in City Journal.

. . . since the mid-1950s, the U.S. student population has increased by 60 percent, while the number of public education workers, including teachers, administrators, and other non-certificated staff, has exploded by 300 percent.

. . . What’s more, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one.

Tennessee’s STAR experiment found lasting benefits, especially for black students, for classes of 14 to 17 students in kindergarten through third grade. Most of the gains appear to have occurred in kindergarten and first grade. 

Other studies have found no achievement gains in smaller classes, Sand writes.

In 1998, economist Eric Hanushek analyzed 277 class-size studies: 15 percent found achievement improved, 72 percent found no effect and 13 percent found reducing class size reduced achievement.

When California paid schools to cut K-3 classes to 20 students, suburban districts were able to hire good teachers to teach the additional classes. Inner-city schools made do with anyone they could find.  As a result, a RAND analysis found class-size reduction had no benefit for urban students.

If districts fired the lowest-performing 5 percent of teachers without hiring replacements, class sizes would rise only slightly, Sand writes. The savings could be used for “increased salaries, books, computers, or whatever the individual school district chooses.”

NCEE: U.S. reforms don’t match Korea, etc.

U.S. education policy should emulate the world’s top performers — Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Ontario, Canada — concludes a report (pdf) by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the United States is to figure out how the countries with top student performance are doing it, build on their achievements and then, by building on our unique strengths, figure out how to do it even better,” Marc Tucker, NCEE’s CEO, said in a statement.

While none of the top performers test students annually, they require students to pass a national, comprehensive, standardized “gateway test” at the end of middle school and again at the end of 10th grade. “Because the exams are very high quality, they cannot be ‘test prepped;’ the only way to succeed on them is to actually master the material,” NCEE says.

Other recommendations include the reallocation of money — spending more on paying quality teachers and less on state-of-the-art school facilities, new textbooks, and administrators. The report also recommends that states take more of a responsibility for funding schools, moving away from the majority local-funded system the country uses now.

After praising the new Common Core Standards in math and English, the report calls for adding more subjects to create a national curriculum, notes the San Jose Mercury News.

In the five exemplary countries, national curricula also cover science, social sciences, arts, music and often religion, morals or philosophy.

Improving teacher quality is critical, the report finds, suggesting moving credential programs to high-status universities and raising entrance requirements.

In Finland, for example, only one in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher-training programs, which take five or more years to complete. By contrast, in 2008, U.S. high school graduates intending to major in education scored in the bottom third on their SAT college-entrance exams. “We cannot afford to continue bottom fishing for prospective teachers while the best-performing countries are cream skimming,” the report said.

Small classes are a waste of money, the study says. “Of all the strategies available to improve student performance, decreasing class size is among the most expensive and least effective.”

Ed Week has more on the report and the debate it’s set off.

I like the idea of gateway exams — but what’s the plan if lots of students fail? Most top-performing countries use those exams to decide who should go to a college-prep high school and who should go to a career-prep school.  That would be a humongous change for the U.S.

Recruiting teachers only from the top of the class would reduce the number of black and Hispanic teachers. Are we OK with that?

NCEE doesn’t like change on the fringes, such as charter schools. It calls for aligning the education system. A national curriculum in all subjects backed by national gateway exams would do that. The top performers tend to have a college-entrance exam too. We could stop sending high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade math. Are we ready to make all public schools march to the beat of the same drummer? I can see the attraction, but it makes me nervous.

The teacher trifecta

Shanker Blog’s Matthew Di Carlo takes on the trifecta of teacher-focused ed reform talking points:

The trifecta implies that improving teacher quality will get us a long way toward solving our education problems.  That’s a “fantasy,” writes Di Carlo. While teachers are a “very significant” in-school factor in students’ academic success, “non-school factors matter much more.”

Even if we’re wildly successful in improving teacher quality – and that’s far from certain – this will not, by itself, get us anywhere near where we need to be.

It will be years before we figure out how to measure teacher quality accurately, he writes. And there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to affect it. “There is virtually no evidence, at least not yet, that we can use policy to spur major shifts in the ‘quality distribution’ of teachers.”

Given the enormity of trying to bring meaningful change to a high-attrition workforce comprised of millions of individual teachers working in thousands of districts, the realistic, best-case outcome would be to see minor, incremental progress over time. In other words, if we play all of our teacher policy cards correctly – better evaluations, etc. – with a little luck and over a period of years, if not decades, we will be able to generate modest overall improvements in teacher “quality.” Test scores should also show slow, incremental improvements over this period – gains that we would hope will be shared widely by most students, regardless of race, income, or other characteristics.

But even under this scenario, we would look around and still be nowhere near to achieving equal educational opportunity for all children.

Without tackling the effects of poverty, there’s no hope of equalizing educational opportunity for low-income urban children, he argues.  In addition to jobs, health care and housing programs, this entails “high-quality early childhood intervention systems – not just pre-K, but from birth to age 3,” plus “ensuring the proper content is being taught, providing intensive assistance for struggling students and attending to kids’ medical, psychological, and social needs as soon as they arise.”

Without a strong leader, schools fail

All the talk is about teachers, but school leadership makes a huge difference, notes the Hechinger Report.

Of everything we’ve learned about the art and science of reforming a failing school in the past decade, school leadership is second only to teacher quality in terms of importance – and the more dire a school’s predicament, the greater the need for strong leadership. Because of this, the emphasis is now less on the lone dynamic teacher and more on the whole school environment.

“Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader,” said Kenneth Leithwood, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies leadership.

There are many training programs for school leaders, but “few do a first-rate job of preparing principals and superintendents for today’s challenges.”

It’s the students, stupid

We’re obsessing about teacher quality and ignoring what really matters, writes Will Fitzhugh on School Information System. It’s the students, stupid. If they do the work, they’ll  learn. If they wait for teachers to pour knowledge (or skills) in their heads, they won’t.

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can’t see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be — namely the students.

Of course, it’s hard to fire lazy, unproductive students, Fitzhugh concedes.