Monday, January 24, 2011

"To really learn take a test." The Times pushes its testing agenda again.

The New York Times, as part of its ever increasing drum beat for testing, printed an article on its front page called: "To really learn, quit studying and take a test." The article reports a paper published in the journal Science that says that students retained more information after being tested than they retained from studying. In the Times' logic this means, "yea tests!"

They asked various authorities in Cognitive Science to comment and somehow managed to get people (Marcia Linn and Howard Gardner) who I know are anti-testing, to sound as if they were astounded by this study.

Let me make it simple for the Times: Learning is not actually about the retention of information. Of course, in school it is, but that is because school was designed to create mindless factory workers not thinkers. Real learning involves trying things and failing, and learning from one's failures. Real learning involves having a goal and figuring out how to achieve it, and learning from the experience. Real learning is about the modification of behavior and the modification of ideas.

School is about the retention of knowledge. But school is broken. Most students are miserable and could not possibly pass the tests they passed a few years after school is finished.

The New York Times has an agenda. It constantly promotes testing. I have a question for the Times' editors. Did you learn to run a newspaper in school? Or did it takes years of practice? Or does one just take a multiple choice test to become an editor at the Times?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Teachers can't take it any more

I get a lot of letters from people who hear me speak. Here is an excerpt from one that I received recently which I especially liked:

I listened with rapt attention to your talk. I was frustrated that it was difficult to listen and process everything you were saying at the same time. I didn’t want to miss a word so I was relieved when I checked out your website which helps immensely in filling in the blanks.
I am a former classroom teacher. One of my most major gripes is that we are not allowed to teach individually relevant curriculum (even to students who have Individual Education Plans) therefore we CREATE a host of behavior problems because students know that most of what they are learning is CRAP.
I also agree that the system is not going to kill itself. I lobby on behalf of changing public education at the local, state and federal levels and ran for public office for the first time this past fall. I didn’t win, but didn’t do too bad for a first timer with a lot of common sense reform oriented ideas. The current political climate is not much in favor of this. J
There was a time not so long ago when teachers didn't like my talks. But the last two U.S. Presidents have made sure taht taht is no longer the case.

Sailing A Ship With Half A Crew

Andy Rotherham pens a smart column in this week's TIME Magazine ('States' Rights and States' Wrongs On School Reform'). In it, he deals with the oft-ignored issue of the capacity of state departments of education to implement education reforms or engage in strategic policymaking.
Today's state departments of education are good at compliance, but with few exceptions, they are not good at strategy or leading systemic change. That's why competition is so fierce for talented individuals who are willing to work in state education agencies....
Rotherham loses me a bit with his proposed solution, glossing over the fiscal difficulties that would prevent a strengthening of state departments of education.

So what to do?

States need better bureaucrats. In some places, this means hiring new people. In others, it means making sure the right people aren't focusing on the wrong activities.

Hey, I'm all for trying to work smarter. But the problem is that the likelihood of state departments of education hiring any new people, strengthening their talent pool and increasing their capacity to do this work over the next several years is practically nil. Between state hiring freezes, furlough days, incentivized retirements, and frozen or reduced salaries, there is little incentive for talented individuals to take such jobs except perhaps at the highest levels. But then those folks are trying to sail a ship with half a crew.

If the federal government is clear-headed about devolving more authority to the states and committed to actually seeing reforms work and outcomes improve, then it needs to pay attention to states' implementation capacity. Perhaps there is a need to fund more positions within state departments with federal dollars given states' unwillingness to staff their agencies and politicians' willingness to target state workforces for additional cuts. So many state departments of education have been eviscerated that, despite the many talented folks at the helm and in the ranks of senior management, there simply aren't enough capable hands on decks to do the work and to do it well.

A similar concern has to do with policy reform itself. As I've written in the past, too many advocates and reformers seem to consider passing a law or reforming a policy as an end in itself. Increasingly, however, there is much more talk and attention to the importance of implementation and, in some quarters, collaboration and stakeholder buy-in as well. (Others, of course, would be happy to run certain stakeholders over with a truck. I recall someone influential saying "Collaboration is overrated." Hmmm.) The work does not end with a law's passage, but state departments of education play a critical role in communicating it, implementing it, evaluating it, and making sure it can succeed in a variety of school and district settings. That is not easy work. Sure, there is a role for outside consultants, but I would argue that there needs to be someone on the ground shepherding the work day in and day out. In too many state departments of education, the people with the talent, capacity and know-how have walked out the exit door, and there may be no one immediately available to replace them. That's a concern that cannot be swept under the rug. And it doesn't seem to be a concern that is being raised amidst the numerous proposals in states across the country to shrink the state workforce and make state service a much less attractive career.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

Gail Collins' (New York Times) political obituary of -- now lame duck -- U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is well worth reading. She nails it with this line: "If you’re continually admiring yourself as you walk away from your group, eventually people are going to feel an irresistible desire to trip you."

Yep. I've always thought of 'sanctimonious' as the word I would choose if the name 'Joe Lieberman' came up in a word association game. Not one of my favorites, that's for sure.

Given his role in watering down health care reform and opposing a public option, I wouldn't be surprised if a cushy job in the insurance industry is in Lieberman's future. To his credit, he did actually vote for the final health care bill, however.

You can view Lieberman's version of his record on education policy here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The New York Times is Schizophrenic on Education

Sunday there was an amazing case of the New York Times not even reading their own newspaper and drawing the obvious conclusions about education. Kristof was writing his usual nonsense of how the Chinese education system is better than ours and why. (They score higher than the US does on tests and we should all worry, is now the mantra of New York Times apparently.)

But, in a different section there was an article about Amy Chua, the so-called “tiger mother” who wrote a book about how Chinese parents get their kids to do well at tests. As she is an American, a Yale graduate, and she mothers like her parents did, which means she forced her kids to do well in school. Americans are officially horrified by this book, while at the same time extolling the Chinese for doing so well on tests. Do we want nice parenting or parents who are into test prep? The Times is on both sides of this one.

In yet another section of Sunday's Times there is an Op-Ed piece on how Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, which uses a very bad word (one which wasn’t so bad in 1880) should now be taught in college as opposed to teaching it in high school and deleting the bad word. The idea that it should be taught at all is never discussed. Why shouldn’t it be taught at all? Because of the bad word? No, because novels shouldn’t be taught. What is the reason for teaching novels? Are we trying to create a culture of literary critics? I love Mark Twain but hated him in high school. I hated any book I was forced to read. Why do we force kids to read books that don’t interest them?

Maybe it is because they will be on the tests? How about if only Chinese students were to read them since they like tests so much?

Thoughts on Tucson

This isn't an education story, per se. But it's too important to ignore.

The education angle to the recent tragedy in Tucson, Arizona is the fact that the apparent shooter recently attended a local community college. While I think it is unfair to hold Pima Community College responsible for Jared Loughner, this New York Times article and Sunday's Washington Post editorial does raise some smart questions about what could have been done differently, most notably having sought an involuntary mental evaluation of the suspect. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20.

Currently, too much of the public conversation about Tucson is about culpability and about the role of political discourse in fueling the violence. Those are possibly irrelevant or overly simplistic conversations. It is unclear if political discourse had much bearing on Loughner's decision to do what he did. Sunday's New York Times story suggests that his twisted belief that "women should not be allowed to hold positions of power or authority" may have been a crucial factor. Clearly, the accused shooter is responsible (although our justice system will make the official determination of guilt). Is anyone else? His parents? Institutions like his former community college? What about the state of Arizona for having gun laws on the books that allowed Loughner to legally purchase his weapon and ammunition? Fundamentally, taken to it logical end, the finger points directly at the collective 'us'. We have elected leaders who have shaped our current gun laws.

And that's the tougher conversation that no one in power seems to want to have: Our current laws on access to firearms are senseless and extreme when compared to other nations. Semiautomatic weapons (such as the one used by Loughner in this tragedy) and extended magazines have no legitimate place in civil society. Why could someone like Loughner legally purchase a Glock semiautomatic handgun and an extended magazine? Why should anyone be able to for that matter?

Nicholas Kristof recent op-ed in the New York Times (Why Not Regulate Guns As Seriously As Toys?) raised some pointed questions in this regard.
Jared Loughner was considered too mentally unstable to attend community college. He was rejected by the Army. Yet buy a Glock handgun and a 33-round magazine? No problem.
A few suggestions he offered:
[B]an oversize magazines, such as the 33-bullet magazine allegedly used in Tucson. If the shooter had had to reload after firing 10 bullets, he might have been tackled earlier.
We can also learn from Australia, which in 1996 banned assault weapons... [T]he Journal of Public Health Policy notes that after the ban, the firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.
Where are our political leaders on gun control? No where to be found. They're all still playing duck 'n' cover with the National Rifle Association. Even, in Arizona, they say this incident doesn't change anything. Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Of course. [UPDATE: Some lawmakers even want to make the state's gun laws even more lax. Apparently, it isn't enough that Arizona is already one of only three U.S. states that allows residents to carry concealed weapons without training or even a background check.]

Frank Rich hits several nails on their heads in Sunday's New York Times. I'll let his words speak for themselves:
Of the many truths in President Obama’s powerful Tucson speech, none was more indisputable than his statement that no one can know what is in a killer’s mind. So why have we spent so much time debating exactly that?

The answer is classic American denial. It was easier to endlessly parse Jared Lee Loughner’s lunatic library — did he favor “The Communist Manifesto” or Ayn Rand? — than confront the larger and harsher snapshot of our current landscape that emerged after his massacre....

Let’s also face another tragedy: The only two civic reforms that might have actually stopped him — tighter gun control and an effective mental health safety net — won’t materialize even now.

No editorial — or bloodbath — will move Congress to enact serious gun control (which Giffords herself never advocated and Obama has rarely pushed since 2008). Enhanced mental health coverage is also a nonstarter when the highest G.O.P. priority is to repeal the federal expansion of health care. In Arizona, cutbacks are already so severe that terminally ill patients are being denied life-saving organ transplants.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and their families. Here's hoping that some good can come as a result of this tragedy, but I'm not overly optimistic.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Little Information Could Go A Long Way


In a new report, Filling in the Blanks: How Information Can Affect Choice in Higher Education, Andrew Kelly and Mark Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute examine the role that information can play in the college choice process. One thousand parents in five states were asked which of two similar colleges they would recommend to their high school-age child. Half of the parents were given information about the colleges’ six-year graduation rates, while half were not. The researchers found that parents who were provided information about graduation rates were fifteen percentage points more likely to recommend the college with the higher graduation rate to their child, with larger differentials for parents who reported having less information about colleges and who had lower levels of education.

The intervention shows the importance of providing salient information to the parents of high school students. However, because parents in the study were making a theoretical decision instead of an actual decision that would affect their child, they had less of an incentive to think as carefully about their choice. This might result in effects that are larger than in real life, especially where parents have evenmore information about the two colleges being compared. A logical next step would be to repeat this experiment with high school students to see if the results significantly differ. Encouraging or requiring colleges to publicize their graduation rates may lead parents and students to choose colleges at which the student is more likely to graduate, as they take this information into account. In any case, even a small effect of additional information can make this low-cost intervention sound public policy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Proposed education reforms that do not imagine that current and beginning teachers can become more effective while on the job should be considered null and void. This postulation, if accepted, would direct Michelle Rhee's new StudentsFirst agenda to the nearest paper shredder.

To be blunt, it is just plain naive and short-sighted to think that we can maximize teacher effectiveness purely by firing more teachers and marginally changing the cadre of incoming teacher candidates. Is supporting and strengthening the teaching practice of our veteran educators not worthy of our focus and investment?

StudentsFirst's "Elevate Teaching" policy objectives are limited to evaluating teachers and principals, reforming teacher certification laws, reforming teacher compensation, "exiting" teachers, and eliminating teacher tenure. Specifically, the objectives are:
  • State law must require evaluation that is based substantially on student achievement. Evaluation tools should measure at least half of a teacher's performance based on student achievement, using a value-added growth model. The other aspects of a teacher's evaluations should derive from measures that align with student results, including high-quality observations and student evaluations of teacher practice.
  • To avoid all teachers being ranked as effective without meaningful assessment, evaluations must anchor effectiveness around a year's worth of growth.
  • State law must require principal evaluation that is based on student achievement and effective management of teachers. Districts should evaluate at least half of a school administrator's performance based on student achievement, and the remaining portion should mostly relate to their ability to attract, retain, manage, and develop excellent teachers.
  • State law should give districts the autonomy to develop teacher evaluation systems apart from the collective bargaining process. Evaluations should be a matter of district policy.
  • States must reduce legal barriers to entry in the teaching profession, including complicated credentialing or certification schemes that rely upon factors that do not clearly correlate with teacher effectiveness.
  • State law should not be structured to penalize districts financially for recruiting teachers from alternate certification programs.
  • States should adopt a clear process by which alternative certification programs are authorized, continually evaluated, and decommissioned if not producing high-quality educators.
  • State law must facilitate digital learning by allowing certification for online instruction and modifying or eliminating mandatory "seat time" laws.
  • State law must require pay structures based primarily on effectiveness. Teacher contracts must allow for individual performance-based pay.
  • State law and district policy should not mandate higher salaries for master's degrees or additional education credits.
  • State law should require staffing decisions (transfers, reductions, placements) be based on teacher effectiveness.
  • State laws must prohibit forced placements and allow district control in staffing. Districts should ensure that teacher contracts require mutual consent placements. Districts should have the flexibility to offer defined grace periods, severance, or other options for teachers who have effective ratings, but do not find a mutually agreeable placement. Teachers rated ineffective should be exited from the system.
  • State law should not grant, implicitly or directly, tenure or permanent contracts for PK–12 education professionals.
There is evidence (from sources such as IES and AIR) that shows that high-quality approaches to new teacher induction and professional development pay dividends in terms of student outcomes. Why would a "student first" agenda utterly ignore initiatives that work in favor of some that have a paltry or non-existent research base?

To keep it brief, please read some of my most relevant past posts arguing why a focus on teacher support and development makes sense and why it should be at the centerpiece of every education reform agenda.
With regard to the StudentsFirst plan, to use a Twitter construct, #edreformfail.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Busy As a Bee

You may have noticed the recent near radio silence from Sara on our blog. No, she isn't on a secret mission and hasn't left academia to join the NSA. She, however, has been busy as a bee this past year, starting with giving birth to our daughter, being named a W.T. Grant Scholar, and engaging in important academic research.

My pride in her commitment to, excellence in and passion for issues of educational and social inequality is coupled with a recognition of her unwillingness to see academic research relegated to dusty and sometimes impenetrable academic journals. Sara has been aggressive and public with her research and committed to engaging in and communicating her work in a policy relevant manner. That fits a critical need in public policy conversations.

That's why I was quite pleased to see Sara's name mentioned among the ranks of the most prominent academics in the nation in the "EduScholar" rankings issued by the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess. And Sara isn't even yet a senior scholar nor is she an economist (who are overrepresented). Hess says:
The academy today does a passable job of recognizing good disciplinary scholarship but a pretty mediocre job of recognizing scholars with the full range of skills that enables them to really contribute to the policy debate. Today, there are substantial professional rewards for scholars who do hyper-sophisticated, narrowly conceived research, but little institutional recognition, acknowledgment, or support for scholars who carry their efforts into the public discourse. One result is that the public square is filled by impassioned advocates, while silence reigns among those who may be more versed on the research or more likely to recognize complexities and hard truths.

I think these kinds of metrics are relevant because I believe it's the scholars who do these kinds of things "who can cross boundaries, foster crucial collaborations, and bring research into the world of policy in smart and useful ways."
Jay Greene -- seeking to give credit to more junior scholars who have had a great impact on contemporary public policy conversations and to move beyond rankings based on a single year (2010) of performance -- perfected the Hess rubric, causing Sara's ranking to increase by about 30 points to #39.
Hotshot researchers like Roland Fryer, Jacob Vigdor, Susanna Loeb, Matthew Springer, Brian Jacob, Jonah Rockoff, and Sara Goldrick-Rab are having a large impact on current education policy discussions even though their careers have not been long enough to accumulate a longer list of books and articles. The original ranking shortchanged these scholars in measuring their current “public presence.”
I agree. As I mentioned in this recent post, advocates who too often simply echo one another's opinions are too influential in policy debates. There is an important void to be filled by the likes of academic researchers as well as classroom teachers.

Congrats, Sara! Keep up the great work!

Friday, January 7, 2011

A New Year

We hope all our readers enjoyed relaxing holidays and have returned refreshed for the new year. While our family and professional lives continue to make it difficult to blog with great frequency, we hope you'll continue to read our infrequent commentary and join in the discussion during 2011.

A few thoughts to start the new year...

(1) Outcomes First? If outcomes are what really matter in education, it is interesting that so many advocates, commentators and policy organizations seem to count adoption of favored policy reforms as ends in themselves. We are all guilty of this to some degree. It is only when there is a research base to suggest that specific reforms and programs work that there is a strong argument to be made. Examples might include targeted class size reduction in grades k-3, high-quality early childhood education, and comprehensive, multi-year induction support for new teachers. But, at a macro level, certain arguments fall apart when there is no evidence to back them up, such as teachers' unions being a wart on the ass of progress. Take Massachusetts, for example, a strong union state. It leads the nation in TIMMS scores in spite of the fact that the Massachusetts Teachers Association looms large in state politics.

(2) Teachers, Teachers: One of the best developments of 2010 was an increased focus on teachers and on teacher effectiveness in particular. This focus was not always for the better, as in the case of the Los Angeles Times' decision to publish value-added scores for individual teachers or the misleading, union-bashing documentary Waiting For Superman. But an overall focus on the outcomes of teaching is the right policy conversation to be having. However, that conversation must lead to solutions that create comprehensive structures and systems to maximize benefits for all involved -- students, teachers, parents, etc. Regular feedback about teaching is critical for educators, not just summative data or annual evaluations that don't provide actionable feedback. A key goal around improving teacher effectiveness should be the development of schools and districts as communities of practice that make teaching more of a collective endeavor and support all educators to strengthen their individual practices and skills.

(3) ESEA: I am increasingly of the mind that something -- but not much of anything -- will happen with regard to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2011. If successful, reauthorization will primarily serve as a token of bipartisanship that both parties can carry into the 2012 elections to say "we can work together to get things done." If accomplished, it may be one of the few significant bipartisan accomplishments of this Congress. Look for substantive tweaks to the No Child Left Behind Act rather than a wholesale overhaul of it. More flexibility around AYP. Attention to the needs of rural districts. More local control. Perhaps a stronger focus on teacher performance pay, charter schools and school choice options -- some elements of the Obama Blueprint combined with priority issues for Republicans like John Kline and Lamar Alexander. And level funding, at best.

(4) Exclusivity: One of my wishes for the New Year is that the DC echo chamber would become less and less influential in conversations about education policy. I am constantly amazed at how regularly the usual suspects parrot, squawk about and retweet the comments and ideas of the other usual suspects, especially those with whom they have personal or proprietary relationships. And how the same usual suspects are quoted saying the same usual things by the mainstream and educational media. This dynamic plays out, too, in conversations within multiple exclusive fiefdoms within education that generally have little to no intersection with fiefdoms with competing worldviews or different policy priorities. As someone who once worked in DC and who now works for a non-DC-based national non-profit organization that has relationships with all sides of the education community, I am especially cognizant of this dynamic in which voices outside of the Beltway 'influentials' are not heard.

One alternative stream recently profiled by Rick Hess and Jay Greene are academics doing policy-relevant research and cutting a high profile in policy conversations. We need more of that type of intellect in play -- and not just from economists. Another is the rise of state-based reform groups like Stand for Children, the PIE Network, Delaware's Rodel Foundation and Oregon's Chalkboard Project. Finally, the voice of actual teachers is too often missing from policy conversations. Fortunately, there are numerous efforts afoot to remedy this. Two, in particular, worth checking out are Teach PLUS and the VIVA Project. My organization, the New Teacher Center, in conjunction with the College Board, recently profiled real-life teachers in a publication about the importance of teacher mentoring.

One way or another, 2011 undoubtedly will be an interesting year for education.