Kohn: Failure’s not all that educational

Do kids really learn from failure?  Alfie Kohn, writing on The Answer Sheet, has his doubts.

Kohn, who’s argued that self-discipline is overrated, is reacting to belief that “what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power.” Children experience plenty of frustration and failure, he writes, and there’s no reason to think it leads to learning.

In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure.  (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)  In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure.  Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities.  What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion.

“Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning,” Kohn concedes. But quitters may be rejecting challenges that “aren’t particularly engaging or relevant.”

Or it may be that schools have focused students on grades, test scores and being the best rather than learning, Kohn writes.

If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task.  Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion.  “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.

We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  said Jerome Bruner, Kohn quotes.

That’s a marvelous way to think about reframing unsuccessful experiences:  My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow.

But schools aren’t structured that way, Kohn writes. Students see grades and test sores as rewards and punishments because that’s what they are.

How can schools teach students to learn from failure?

Chicago teachers go on strike

Chicago teachers are on strike,reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago Public Schools administrators are staffing some elementary schools to offer half-day child care; some churches and community centers also are open to children.

The city’s charter schools are open as usual. About one third have room for more students.

Key disputed issues in the talks were teacher cost of living raises, additional pay for experience, job security in the face of annual school closures and staff shakeups, and a new teacher evaluation process that ties teacher ratings in part to student test score growth.

. . . CTU officials contend that CPS’ offer of raises over the next four years does not fairly compensate them for the 4 percent raise they lost this past school year and the longer and “harder” school year they will face this school year, with the introduction of a tougher new curriculum.

The union also wants “smaller class sizes, more libraries, air-conditioned schools, and more social workers and counselors to address the increasing needs of students surrounded by violence,” reports the Sun-Times. Chicago has been hit by a wave of homicides this year. Many of the victims are children, teens and young adults.

CPS officials say teachers average $76,000 a year and would earn 16 percent more over four years in the proposed contract. The district could face a $1 billion deficit by the end of the school year.

Pay isn’t the big issue, argues a Reuters analysis. The teachers’ union is fighting education reforms that make it easier to fire teachers and close schools if test scores don’t improve.

In Chicago, last-minute contract talks broke down not over pay, but over the reform agenda, both sides said Sunday. The union would not agree to (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel’s proposal that teacher evaluations be based in large measure on student test scores.

Nor would the union accept his push to give principals more autonomy over hiring, weakening the seniority system that has long protected veteran teachers.

“This is fight for the soul of public education,” said Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Did both sides want a strike? asks Alexander Russo.

“It’s a strike of choice,” says Emanuel.

When we talk about test scores …

Talk about test scores is often imprecise, writes Matthew DiCarlo on Shanker Blog. For example, “schools with high average test scores are not necessarily ‘high-performing,’ while schools with lower scores are not necessarily ‘low-performing’,” he writes.

As we all know, tests don’t measure the performance of schools. They measure (however imperfectly) the performance of students.

Instead, to the degree that school (and teacher) effectiveness can be assessed using testing data, doing so requires growth measures, as these gauge (albeit imprecisely) whether students are making progress, independent of where they started out and other confounding factors.

This should be obvious, but doesn’t seem to be.

Study: Great teachers have lifelong impact

Students with an excellent elementary or middle-school teacher don’t just earn higher reading and math scores, concludes a new study that tracked one million students in an urban district over 20 years. A single year with a high value-added teacher leads to higher college attendance, higher adult earnings and even lower teenage-pregnancy rates, according to the authors, economists Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Columbia Professor Jonah Rockoff.

All else equal, a student with one excellent teacher for one year between fourth and eighth grade would gain $4,600 in lifetime income, compared to a student of similar demographics who has an average teacher. The student with the excellent teacher would also be 0.5 percent more likely to attend college.

It may be difficult to hire more excellent (top five percent) teachers, but it’s not necessary.

. . . the difference in long-term outcome between students who have average teachers and those with poor-performing ones is as significant as the difference between those who have excellent teachers and those with average ones, the study found.

It adds up: Replacing a low-value-added (bottom five percent) teacher with an average teacher would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $266,000, the economists estimate.

“If you leave a low value-added teacher in your school for 10 years, rather than replacing him with an average teacher, you are hypothetically talking about $2.5 million in lost income,” said Professor Friedman, one of the coauthors.

. . . “The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,” Professor Friedman said.

When a high value-added teacher transferred to a new school, student performance went up in the grade or subject area taught by that teacher, matching predicted gains. Scores dropped in the school the high-value teacher had left. Conversely, scores went up significantly when a low-value teacher left and dropped in her new school.

High performing teachers may more than justify much higher pay,” Slate observes.

“Great teachers create great value – perhaps several times their annual salaries,” write the authors. Now a working paper, the study will be submitted to a journal.

Race to the muddle

Hundreds of New York principals are protesting plans to use test scores to evaluate principals and teachers, reports the New York Times. To qualify for Race to the Top funds, the state put together a new evaluation system.

Their complaints are many: the evaluation system was put together in slapdash fashion, with no pilot program; there are test scores to evaluate only fourth-through-eighth-grade English and math teachers; and New York tests are so unreliable that they had to be rescaled radically last year, with proficiency rates in math and English dropping 25 percentage points overnight.

Delaware, one of the first states to get Race to the Top funds, also has rushed through “ludicrous initiatives,” writes Hube at The Colossus of Rhodey.

Administrators, who’ve evaluated countless teachers through the years, are required to attend “training” sessions to … evaluate teachers.

Teachers will support a fair evaluation system, he writes.

. . .  why not take a few master teachers from each subject area and pay them to, say, three times a year visit the classrooms of district teachers for the latter’s evaluations? . . .  not only would these evaluators be experienced teachers, they also know the subject area as well. . . . I bet this idea’d be a heck of a lot cheaper.

Teachers and their unions should rethink their lockstep support of Democrats, Hube writes. “George W. Bush was blasted by these folks for No Child Left Behind, but Obama’s initiative is NCLB on steroids.”

 

The poverty factor

Evaluating teachers based on “value-added” analysis of their students’ progress is unfair to teachers with lots of low-income students, argue teachers’ union leaders in Washington, D.C.

Ward 8, one of the poorest areas of the city, has only 5 percent of the teachers defined as effective under the new evaluation system known as IMPACT, but more than a quarter of the ineffective ones. Ward 3, encompassing some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, has nearly a quarter of the best teachers, but only 8 percent of the worst.

. . .  Are the best, most experienced D.C. teachers concentrated in the wealthiest schools, while the worst are concentrated in the poorest schools? Or does the statistical model ignore the possibility that it’s more difficult to teach a room of impoverished children?

Value-added models compare a student’s previous progress with current progress: If Johnny has gained four months of learning for every year in school — because of poverty, disability, lack of English fluency or some other reason — and gains six months in Teacher X’s class, then the teacher has done well. If Jane has gained nine months a year in past years but only six months in Teacher Y’s class, the teacher gets the blame.

Adding demographic factors is unnecessary, if there’s at least three years of test-score data available, says William Sanders, a former University of Tennessee researcher who developed value-added analysis.

“If you’ve got a poor black kid and a rich white kid that have exactly the same academic achievement levels, do you want the same expectations for both of them the next year?”

However, D.C. uses one year of data, and factors in students’ poverty status.

A few value-added models factor in the concentration of disadvantaged students in a classroom.

Studies have found that students surrounded by more advantaged peers tend to score higher on tests than similarly performing students surrounded by less advantaged peers.

To some experts, this research suggests that a teacher with a large number of low-achieving minority children in a classroom, for example, might have a more difficult job than another teacher with few such students.

Controlling for the demographics of a whole class makes a complex model even more complicated — and may not make much difference. But the idea is being studied.

 

Some A+ schools get C’s in new grading system

Some of Arizona’s 62  A+ schools became C schools under a new rating system. The Arizona Educational Foundation’s system relies on a comprehensive set of criteria, while the state’s new system is based on test scores and progress.

Michigan teachers report pressure to cheat

Nearly 30% of Michigan teachers report pressure to cheat on standardized exams, according to a survey by the Detroit Free Press. In addition, 34% of public school educators said administrators, parents or others pressure teachers to change grades.

At schools that don’t meet federal standards, the tension is higher: About 50% say pressure to change grades is an issue, and 46% say pressure to cheat on the tests is a problem.

Some cave in — about 8% say they changed grades within the last school year, and at least 8% admit to some form of cheating to improve a student’s standardized test score.

Another 17% report cheating by a colleague.

However, the most common cheating method — writing down vocabulary words to teach to next year’s classes — doesn’t seem like cheating to me. Does Michigan give exactly the same tests from year to year? That would be asking for trouble.

Two out of three teachers surveyed oppose using standardized tests to gauge student achievement and 95% oppose using standardized tests to make decisions about teacher salaries.

Michigan will base 25% of a teacher’s evaluation on students’ progress by 2013-14; that will rise to 50% in 2015-16.

In addition, the state education department plans to raise standards on the state exam, making it harder to score as proficient. “ACT scores show only 17% of Michigan students leave high school prepared for college,” notes the Free Press.

 

Tough course titles, weak test scores

More high school students are taking advanced classes, but test scores haven’t improved. What’s going on? Course title inflation, answers the New York Times.

Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology.

Thirteen percent of high school graduates completed a rigorous curriculum in 2009, up from 5 percent in 1990, a federal study of transcripts reported in April. But the testing trend lines are flat.

“There may be a ‘watering down’ of courses,” said Arnold A. Goldstein, a director at the National Center for Education Statistics.

Schools inflate course titles to help students satisfy tougher high school graduation requirements, researchers say. It looks good to have more students in high-level or Advanced Placement classes.

About 15 percent of eighth-grade math courses — with titles from remedial through “enriched” to Algebra I — use textbooks that cover less advanced material, a Michigan State study found.

In 2008, Dr. (William) Schmidt surveyed 30 high schools in Ohio and Michigan, finding 270 distinctly labeled math courses. In science, one district offered Basic Biology, BioScience, General Biology A and B — 10 biology courses in all.

“The titles didn’t reveal much at all about how advanced the course was,” he said.

As Advanced Placement enrollment has soared, so have failure rates. Arkansas sextupled the number of students taking AP exams; only 30 percent earn a passing grade of 3, 4 or 5. Some argue that students benefit from the challenge, even if they don’t do well enough to earn college credit.

Competition improves public schools

Threatened with losing students to private schools, Florida public schools improved, concludes a Northwestern study by David Figlio and Cassandra Hart.

Starting in 2002, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) has provided funding to help low-income parents pay for private school.  Corporations donate money to fund the scholarships in exchange for a tax credit.

The scholarship is quite generous; it covers approximately 90 percent of tuition and fees at a typical religious elementary school in Florida and two-thirds of tuition and fees at a typical religious high school. As a result, the program greatly increased the accessibility of private schools to low-income families. In the first year, some 15,585 scholarships were awarded, increasing the number of low-income students attending private schools by more than 50 percent. For the 2009–10 school year, the FTC program awarded scholarships to 28,927 students.

Public schools located near private schools increased reading and math scores more than public schools that had little competition.

For every 1.1 miles closer to the nearest private school, public school math and reading performance increases by 1.5 percent of a standard deviation in the first year following the announcement of the scholarship program. Likewise, having 12 additional private schools nearby boosts public school test scores by almost 3 percent of a standard deviation. The presence of two additional types of private schools nearby raises test scores by about 2 percent of a standard deviation. Finally, an increase of one standard deviation in the concentration of private schools nearby is associated with an increase of about 1 percent of a standard deviation in test scores.

Test scores rose more for elementary and middle schools than for high schools, perhaps because the scholarship made K-8 private schools affordable but didn’t cover as much of the tuition at private high schools.