Tag Archives: education

Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.

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Filed under Education, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Everything You Need to Know About Inequality

Jared Bernstein and I just published a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation on inequality in the United States (available for download here). This presentation is first and foremost intended as a resource. Part 1 of the presentation documents the increase in inequality over the past 35 years; the trend is evident from every major data set and income definition. Inequality deniers have fortunately become a rapidly-dwindling breed, but should you encounter one, Part 1 should help set the record straight.

Part 2 discusses why inequality matters. As we summarize on our slides, inequality “reduces opportunities, undermines the democratic process, distributes growth unevenly, and may even have negative macroeconomic effects.” We provide the mechanisms behind these reasons and evidence documenting them as well. The slide notes contain a more in-depth look at these issues, as they do throughout the presentation, for anyone interested.

Fortunately, increasing inequality is not inevitable; it is “a problem that better policies can directly address.” Part 3 of our presentation explores some of these policies, measures that can begin to address inequality’s causes and counter its effects. While our slides in this section are in no way exhaustive, they’re a good starting point for the type of comprehensive social justice agenda I’ve mentioned previously.

I believe the section on equality of opportunity (or lack thereof) in Part 2 is particularly relevant for education stakeholders, as it highlights the importance of this comprehensive agenda (as opposed to a narrower, education-only policy focus). Consider the following chart, the extended version of our featured graph from slide 26:

Source: Pew Economic Mobility Project

Source: Pew Economic Mobility Project

This chart uses data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project to compare adult economic outcomes for two different types of students: students who grow up in the bottom income quintile but manage to graduate college (“poor college grads”) and students who grow up in the top income quintile but don’t make it through college (“wealthy non-graduates”). Wealthy non-graduates (49%) are almost twice as likely as poor college graduates (27%) to end up in one of the top two income quintiles as adults.

As we discuss in our presentation, inequality presents a variety of education-specific obstacles for low-income students, and addressing these obstacles (and thus facilitating college completion) is an important part of our agenda. At the same time, the less favorable distribution for low-income college graduates shown above provides a critical reminder of the importance of a comprehensive social justice agenda. If we truly want to provide low-income students with opportunities equivalent to those of their higher-income peers, we need strategies that address the needs of low-income families, strategies that address some of the direct effects of growing up disadvantaged. That means we must get the economy back to full employment. It means we need a strengthened safety net, higher labor standards, and a reversal of the decline in unionization. It also means we need better-regulated markets and improved fiscal policy. A push for quality education can’t have its intended effect unless it’s part of this larger agenda.

Jared and I hope that this presentation, by documenting inequality’s rise and consequences, provides a compelling basis for these claims. While the historically high level of inequality represents a serious threat to fundamental American values – opportunity, democracy, and broadly shared prosperity – we believe we can combat this problem if we acknowledge it and work together on solutions.

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Filed under Education, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Informed Student Advocates Pursue Reforms that, Unlike Vergara v. California, Actually Address Inequity

Judge Rolf Treu just ruled in favor of Students Matter in Vergara v. California, deeming teacher permanent status (commonly called “tenure”), due process protections for teachers with permanent status, and seniority-based layoffs unconstitutional.  Treu’s opinion unfortunately reflects a misunderstanding of education research and teacher employment law’s effects.  His decision also erodes labor protections without increasing the likelihood of an excellent education for students in low-income communities.

Reformer excitement about the ruling demonstrates how successfully the plaintiffs have conflated teacher employment law with the existence of ineffective teachers.  Informed advocates for low-income students and communities, on the other hand, are deeply disappointed because both ethical considerations and a thorough analysis of the case indicate the error in Treu’s findings.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) plans to appeal the decision and higher courts will hopefully see through the plaintiffs’ weak case.  No matter the appeal’s outcome, Treu’s opinion raises two issues considerably more significant for low-income students than teacher dismissal and layoff procedures:

1) Teacher evaluation and support practices: Treu wrote that 18+ months of employment is not “nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure,” arguing that administrator fear of permanent status deprives “teachers of an adequate opportunity to establish their competence.”  He wants “to have the tenure decision made after” California teachers finish BTSA, an induction program teachers must complete to clear their credentials, and he suggests a timeline of three to five years.

Treu is correct that some ineffective teachers are currently retained and some good teachers are currently dismissed under California’s system, but he’s wrong about the primary reason why.  Instead, inadequate approaches to teacher evaluation and a lack of quality teacher support have long hindered the development and retention of excellent teachers.  Nearly two years is far longer than a supervisor should need to evaluate teacher performance and potential for growth if evaluation systems provide frequent opportunities for meaningful feedback and support about specific teacher practices.

Unions and many reform organizations actually agree about the goals of teacher evaluation.  The New Teacher Project (TNTP), for example, believes that “the core purpose of evaluation must be maximizing teacher growth and effectiveness, not just documenting poor performance as a prelude to dismissal.”  Similarly, CTA believes that “the purpose of an effective teacher development and evaluation system is to inform, instruct and improve teaching and learning; to provide educators with meaningful feedback on areas of strength and where improvement is needed; and to ensure fair and evidence-based employment decisions.”  Though reformer support for the use of standardized test score results as a percentage of teacher evaluations may decrease teaching quality and detract from student learning, TNTP and CTA also agree about many areas in which evaluation practices need improvement: the training administrators receive on how to give meaningful feedback, the quality of professional growth plans and professional development opportunities, and the frequency and length of classroom observations.

Extending new teachers’ probationary periods indefinitely will not address the underlying causes of the problem Treu identifies.  In fact, the argument that two years isn’t “nearly enough time” implicitly grants license for administrative incompetence and practices that inadequately address new teachers’ professional needs.  Education stakeholders committed to developing and identifying great new teachers should instead pour their time, money, and energy into aligning evaluation and support systems with their goals.  San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) and the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA), for example, have invested in administrator training, evaluative consulting teachers with content-area teaching expertise, evaluation documents that more accurately define effective teaching and require narrative feedback, a Teacher Quality Panel consisting of both teacher and administrator members, and non-evaluative instructional coaching support.

2) School funding: Treu’s ruling erroneously considers Vergara v. California part of a historical record of education-related court cases including Brown v. Board of Education, Serrano v. Priest, and Butt v. California.  These three cases, unlike Vergara, dealt with undebatable and direct inequities in access to educational opportunity for low-income and minority students: segregated schools (Brown), inequitable access to school funding (Serrano), and inequitable access to a full school year (Butt).  Treu fails to note that, despite the Serrano case and the advent of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), major inequities in education funding persist in California today.

In 2012-2013, for example, SJUSD received approximately $9,000 per pupil in revenue.  During the same year, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) received about 60% more money per pupil, approximately $14,500.  While California guarantees a certain amount of annual funding called a “revenue limit” to every school district in the state, some districts, like PAUSD, bring in property tax revenues that exceed the revenue limit.  These “basic aid” districts keep their excess property tax revenue and often pass parcel taxes that further increase the funding discrepancy between lower-income districts and their higher-income basic aid counterparts.

More funding is not a panacea for low-income schools – how districts spend their money determines its return – but research is clear that funding matters a great deal.  Politicians who cut education-related spending for poor communities often cite a 33-year-old study by Eric Hanushek to oppose equitable school funding, yet even Hanushek himself cautiously supports it.  Asked in a 2006 interview if “it’s a good idea to give very high-poverty districts more funding per pupil than an average district,” Hanushek responded: “I think so. I think you have to provide extra resources and help for kids who start at a lower point because of their backgrounds.”  It’s impossible to support educational equity and justify the funding discrepancy between SJUSD and PAUSD.

One of the most important provisions of the LCFF – the supplemental funding it provides to districts that serve high numbers of English language learners, students from low-income families, and students from foster homes – moves California in the right direction.  However, basic aid districts that have long been able to afford better resources for students will continue to exist.  Based on the case history Treu cites, one could construct a very strong case that the existence of basic aid districts violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution.  Advocates for low-income students could also make an indirect equal protection case about Proposition 13’s effect on school funding disparities.  Unlike Vergara v. California, these cases could continue the tradition of Brown, Serrano, and Butt by remedying a clear instance of educational inequity.

Treu’s ruling also invites an analysis of the definition of appropriate due process.  The judge asserts that “[t]here is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought,” but he claims that current protections for teachers with permanent status constitute “uber due process.”  Treu proposes replacing teacher dismissal law with the rights guaranteed by the decision in Skelly v. State Personnel Board; because of Skelly, permanent employees facing dismissal must receive “notice of the proposed action, the reasons therefor, a copy of the charges and materials upon which the action is based, and the right to respond, either orally or in writing, to the authority initially imposing discipline.”

In essence, Skelly rights ensure that employers treat permanent employees with some semblance of courtesy and respect.  While Treu asserts that due process considerations are “entirely legitimate,” however, he forgets to mention that probationary teachers do not have Skelly rights; in California, probationary teachers can be non-reelected (fired) without cause.  Treu’s argument is completely contradictory given current law – he simultaneously contends that he believes in the concept of due process and that districts should be able to deprive people of it for three to five years.

Labor organizations support Skelly’s basic protections for all employees because of the extensive history of inappropriate employer practices and a belief in treating people fairly.  Due process protections should also include a requirement that administrators adequately support permanent teachers before attempting to dismiss them.  A support-first mindset is not only the most ethical approach, but it’s also important because, as Jack Schneider explains, “you don’t put…effective teacher[s] in every classroom by holding…sword[s] over their heads.  You do it by putting tools in their hands.”  Advocates for workers rights support streamlined dismissal processes for employees who are unwilling or unable to improve; the defendants in Vergara just know that society and schools benefit when employers are required to treat their employees like human beings.

Judge Treu accurately identifies a few key issues in his decision: administrators may struggle to identify quality teaching in fewer than two years, layoffs may deprive schools and students of stellar teachers, and teacher employment law may fail to grant teachers an appropriate amount of due process.  Unfortunately, Vergara v. California neither improves teacher evaluation and support practices nor rectifies the funding inequities that lead to layoffs and resource cutbacks in districts that serve low-income students.  The decision also ignores the complete lack of due process afforded to probationary teachers and fails to deliver a thoughtful recommendation about how to empower teachers to grow professionally.  Informed, honest student advocates who care more about “providing each child…with a basically equal opportunity to receive a quality education” than about destroying organized labor should therefore hope that an appeals court will reverse Treu’s decision.  In the meantime, they should begin work on reforms more likely to improve opportunities for low-income students.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on June 13.

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Filed under Education, Labor

The Problem with Outcome-Oriented Evaluations

Imagine I observe two poker players playing two tournaments each. During their first tournaments, Player A makes $1200 and Player B loses $800. During her second tournament, Player A pockets another $1000. Player B, on the other hand, loses $1100 more during her second tournament. Would it be a good decision for me to sit down at a table and model my play after Player A?

For many people the answer to this question – no – is counterintuitive. I watched Player A and Player B play two tournaments each and their results were very different – haven’t I seen enough to conclude that Player A is the better poker player? Yet poker involves a considerable amount of luck and there are numerous possible short- and longer-term outcomes for skilled and unskilled players. As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise, I could monitor each player’s winnings during a year of their full-time play and still not know whether either of them was any good at poker. It would be fully plausible for a “very good limit hold ‘em player” to “have lost $35,000” during that time. Instead of focusing on the desired outcome of their play – making money – I should mimic the player who uses strategies that will, over time, increase the likelihood of future winnings. As Silver writes,

When we play poker, we control our decision-making process but not how the cards come down. If you correctly detect an opponent’s bluff, but he gets a lucky card and wins the hand anyway, you should be pleased rather than angry, because you played the hand as well as you could. The irony is that by being less focused on your results, you may achieve better ones.

As Silver recommends for poker and Teach For America recommends to corps members, we should always focus on our “locus of control.” For example, I have frequently criticized Barack Obama for his approach to the Affordable Care Act. While I am unhappy that the health care bill did not include a public option, I couldn’t blame Obama if he had actually tried to pass such a bill and failed because of an obstinate Congress. My critique lies instead with the President’s deceptive work against a more progressive bill – while politicians don’t always control policy outcomes, they do control their actions. As another example, college applicants should not judge their success on whether or not colleges accept them. They should evaluate themselves on what they control – the work they put into high school and their applications. Likewise, great football coaches recognize that they should judge their teams not on their won-loss records, but on each player’s successful execution of assigned responsibilities. Smart decisions and strong performance do not always beget good results; the more factors in-between our actions and the desired outcome, the less predictive power the outcome can give us.

Most education reformers and policymakers, unfortunately, still fail to recognize this basic tenet of probabilistic reasoning, a fact underscored in recent conversations between Jack Schneider (a current professor and one of the best high school teachers I’ve ever had) and Michelle Rhee. We implement teacher and school accountability metrics that focus heavily on student outcomes without realizing that this approach is invalid. As the American Statistical Association’s (ASA’s) recent statement on value-added modeling (VAM) clearly states, “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in [student] test scores” and “[e]ffects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.” Paul Bruno astutely notes that the ASA’s statement is an indictment of the way VAM is used, not the idea of VAM itself, yet little correlation currently exists between VAM results and effective teaching. As I’ve mentioned before, research on both student and teacher incentives suggests that rewards and consequences based on outcomes don’t work. When we use student outcome data to assign credit or blame to educators, we may close good schools, demoralize and dismiss good teachers, and ultimately undermine the likelihood of achieving the student outcomes we want.

Better policy would focus on school and teacher inputs. For example, we should agree on a set of clear and specific best teaching practices (with the caveat that they’d have to be sufficiently flexible to allow for different teaching styles) on which to base teacher evaluations. Similarly, college counselors should provide college applicants with guidance about the components of good applications. Football coaches should likewise focus on their players’ decision-making and execution of blocking, tackling, route-running, and other techniques.

Input Output Graphic

When we evaluate schools on student outcomes, we reward (and punish) them for factors they don’t directly control.  A more intelligent and fair approach would evaluate the actions schools take in pursuit of better student outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.

Outcomes are incredibly important to monitor and consider when selecting effective inputs, of course. Mathematicians use outcomes in a process called Bayesian analysis to constantly update our assessments of whether or not our strategies are working. If we observe little correlation between successful implementation of our identified best teaching practices and student growth for five consecutive years, for instance, we may want to revisit our definition of best practices. A college counselor whose top students are consistently rejected from Ivy League schools should begin to reconsider the advice he gives his students on their applications. Relatedly, if a football team suffers through losing season after losing season despite players’ successful completion of their assigned responsibilities, the team should probably overhaul its strategy.

The current use of student outcome data to make high-stakes decisions in education, however, flies in the face of these principles. Until we shift our measures of school and teacher performance from student outputs to school and teacher inputs, we will unfortunately continue to make bad policy decisions that simultaneously alienate educators and undermine the very outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Update: A version of this piece appeared in Valerie Strauss’s column in The Washington Post on Sunday, May 25.

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Filed under Education, Philosophy

Teachers Unions: What We Do and How Students Benefit

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognized the Northwestern University football team’s right to unionize in February and the players just held a unionization vote. Quarterback Kain Colter began the program’s union movement primarily to address player safety, but supporters of the team’s efforts believe unionization will improve college athletes’ experiences across the board. Northwestern management, however, opposes granting a collective voice to their underlings; the university tried to convince players not to unionize and has appealed the NLRB’s ruling. The NCAA, meanwhile, has begun a fear-mongering campaign to obfuscate the plethora of issues with the way it conducts business, issues that a union can help the players address.

If that story sounds familiar, it’s because the NCAA’s behavior in this case resembles that of wealthy interests in most other industries. Misinformation about union purpose and impact abounds in education especially; prominent education reformers have successfully hoodwinked large swaths of the intelligent public into believing that teachers unions undermine student interests. I am often taken aback by the inaccurate, negative comments about teachers unions I still hear from otherwise well-meaning members of charter school networks, education advocacy groups, and Teach For America (TFA).

I am encouraged, however, by the initial efforts taken by TFA and Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) staff in the Bay Area to debunk member misconceptions about teachers unions. A few weeks ago, LEE invited me to speak to a group of current corps members, alumni, and LEE and TFA staff at an event called “Unions Matter.” During the event, I described the difference between social justice unionism and industrial unionism and laid out five important roles that unions play:

1) The traditional union role – Most people are familiar with this category of union activity; it covers salary, benefits, working conditions, and grievances. Anti-labor interests often denigrate teachers unions that focus on this “industrial” role, arguing that it has little to do with student interests, but they’re wrong for three primary reasons. First, there’s an extremely high correlation between good working conditions for teachers and good learning conditions for students. Unions that advocate for adequate classroom resources, a sustainable work day, and functioning air conditioning systems do so as much for their students as for their members. Second, the families of many students in low-income communities benefit significantly from the strength of the organized labor movement. The ability of unions to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits is essential for the well-being of low-wage workers who are frequently exploited by their employers. Third, people mimic what we do more than what we say. If we want teachers to inspire their students to take collective action and advocate for themselves, district leadership needs to model that approach with teachers.

2) Collective voice – Unions provide a forum for educators to band together, prioritize action items, and communicate with management about those items. For example, the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) has helped teachers identify professional development and resource needs during the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, and San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) has worked hard to respond to teachers’ collectively expressed requests. When district leadership unintentionally overlooks the impact initiatives have on students’ classroom experience, union members can use their collective voice and collaborate with administration to quickly resolve problems. Unions also foster a sense of community among members, connecting teachers across the district and thus building school and district culture.

3) Community and family outreach – SJTA helps coordinate teachers during Read Across America, sponsors little league baseball teams, works with parents from community service organizations like Sacred Heart, partners with Vision to Learn to bring eye doctors and prescription eye glasses to students who might not otherwise have them, and awards scholarships to aspiring teachers in our high schools. Unions can, should, and often do engage parents and advocate for students and public education at community events.

4) Political advocacy – School boards, other elected officials, and ballot initiatives matter significantly for students, and unions work hard to elect candidates and pass propositions that will positively impact kids’ lives. Without the efforts of the California Teachers Association and local California teachers associations in 2012, Proposition 30 would likely have failed, an outcome that would have resulted in a significantly shorter school year, increased class sizes, layoffs, a reduction in extracurricular programs, and/or a reduction in elective offerings in most California schools. SJTA also helped put two excellent SJUSD school board members in office in 2012. In addition to education-specific issues, teachers unions can advocate for a broader set of social justice policies that make a difference in our students’ lives; that purpose explains why SJTA joined the South Bay Labor Council in supporting San Jose’s minimum wage increase in 2012 and why we consider endorsements for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the San Jose City Council.

5) Education reform – Though typical uses of the phrase “ed reform” conjure anti-labor images, teachers unions can and often do drive smart, ethical modifications to education policy that improve opportunities for teacher satisfaction and student learning. SJTA and SJUSD recently co-developed a new teacher evaluation system (see Article 16000 of our contract) that, though not yet fully implemented, uses multiple measures of effectiveness to help teachers of all skill levels grow professionally, requires multiple evaluators for both formal and informal observations, and grants joint control of the process to teachers and administrators. We are hoping California will grant our request to either shorten or lengthen permanent status timelines when doing so is in the joint interests of students, teachers, and the school. Our contract also allows for new teacher leadership pathways (although we currently lack the funding necessary to implement our Model Teacher and Master Teacher Leader positions). We co-developed several other teacher-empowering, student-centered policy decisions with our school district and other unions can and often try to do so as well.

The current and former teachers I talked to at the LEE event were, as most teachers I encounter from both TFA and other programs are, thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate about improving the lives of low-income kids. They astutely noted that they don’t see all of these roles pursued by their unions all the time and wondered how SJTA became so proactive. Their question is a great one, and while I haven’t been involved in SJTA long enough to see the process unfold firsthand, I believe I can lend some insight.

Throughout history, labor-management relationships have typically involved some combination of management withholding information, misappropriating money, imposing unreasonable working conditions, and lying to the media about the effects of negotiations and employee objectives (the NCAA is currently engaged in all of this behavior in its attempt to prevent the Northwestern football team’s attempt to unionize). It’s important to note that, anytime one perceives intransigence from a teachers union, that intransigence is typically in response to irresponsible and/or unethical behavior from the school district. The district and union have a joint obligation to behave responsibly, but unions are the less powerful entity in the union-district relationship and the onus is therefore more on districts to create the conditions – transparency, openness to union ideas, respect for union membership, and a willingness to work together – under which a union can adopt the social justice approach described above. SJTA can function as we do in large part because SJUSD has demonstrated its commitment to honest, collaborative negotiations and messaging. Most seemingly obstinate union positions, on the other hand, arise in response to corrupt and/or incompetent management decision-making processes.

That said, unions must also work proactively to define themselves as social justice organizations. I believe establishing a positive mission statement (SJTA’s is to “empower teachers to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education”) can go a long way. We should try to develop contract structures, like salary formulas (see Appendix A of our contract), that enable us to spend a smaller percentage of collective bargaining time on salary and benefits. We must also consider innovative ideas that have a compelling rationale and research base behind them.

It’s important to remember that members of teachers unions work directly with students every day – we are students’ most credible advocates. We care deeply about educational equity and the learning that takes place in our classrooms. Education reformers who are likewise passionate about helping students succeed will therefore stop bashing unions and start working with us to develop the intelligent, ethical policies that can benefit students most.

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Student Advocates Oppose Both Bad Teaching and Bad Lawsuit

Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in Valerie Strauss’s column in The Washington Post.

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Bad-Teacher-2011-bad-teacher-23846153-1800-1027

Vergara v. California, a lawsuit challenging three components of teacher employment law in California’s Ed Code that began on January 27, has garnered considerable media attention.  The plaintiffs’ legal team contends that due process rights for teachers, a cumbersome teacher dismissal process, and seniority-based layoffs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  They argue that, as a result of teacher employment policies, poor and minority students learn from a disproportionately large number of “grossly ineffective” teachers.  These ineffective teachers ostensibly cause education’s observed “opportunity gap” between low-income, predominantly minority students and their higher-income, mostly-white peers.

Despite the plaintiffs’ claims, this lawsuit unfortunately does not address the needs of low-income students.  First, the anti-union and anti-social welfare backgrounds of the people behind Vergara v. California both suggest the lawsuit is primarily intended to dismantle labor laws.  Second, ethics and empirical research suggest a focus on teacher evaluation and support has more potential to improve instruction and benefit students than a focus on dismissal.  Third, while the challenged statutes should be improved, they offer important protections for both students and teachers, protections that more responsible reforms can preserve.

Most arguments against teacher employment laws either make faulty assumptions or severely mischaracterize the laws’ impact.  Yet Vergara proponents have been especially successful at conflating teacher employment law with the existence of horrible teachers when the existence of horrible teachers has no relevance to this case.

California Ed Code provides the following procedure for the immediate suspension and quick dismissal of any teacher exhibiting egregious behavior:

44939.  Upon the filing of written charges…charging a permanent employee of the district with immoral conduct, conviction of a felony or of any crime involving moral turpitude, with incompetency due to mental disability, [or] with willful refusal to perform regular assignments without reasonable cause…the governing board may…immediately suspend the employee from his duties and give notice to him of his suspension, and that 30 days after service of the notice, he will be dismissed, unless he demands a hearing.    If the permanent employee is suspended…he may within 10 days after service upon him of notice of such suspension file with the governing board a verified denial, in writing, of the charges. In such event the permanent employee who demands a hearing within the 30-day period shall continue to be paid his regular salary during the period of suspension and until the entry of the decision of the Commission on Professional Competence, if and during such time as he furnishes to the school district a suitable bond, or other security acceptable to the governing board, as a guarantee that the employee will repay to the school district the amount of salary so paid to him during the period of suspension in case the decision of the Commission on Professional Competence is that he shall be dismissed. If it is determined that the employee may not be dismissed, the school board shall reimburse the employee for the cost of the bond.

Beatriz Vergara, one of the students after whom Vergara v. California is named, testified that one of her 7th grade teachers made racist remarks about Latino students and that another 7th grade teacher routinely called female students “stick figure” and “whore.”  Such verbal abuse is deplorable, should constitute unprofessional and “immoral conduct,” and falls within Section 44939 of Ed Code.  Vergara also testified that her 6th grade math teacher slept during class, behavior that is also completely unacceptable, should constitute “willful refusal to perform regular assignments,” and also falls within Section 44939 of Ed Code.  Her testimony, while upsetting, has no relationship with the challenged statutes in this case; competent, knowledgeable administrators could and should have suspended these teachers immediately and then, if the charges were legitimate, had the teachers dismissed.  Neither permanent status nor dismissal law (nor any teachers union) condones verbal abuse, physical abuse, sleeping on the job, or any other form of gross negligence or misconduct.

Teachers who don’t commit misconduct can still be ineffective teachers.  For the plaintiffs to have an Equal Protection case, however, the challenged statutes would need to directly cause more ineffective teaching at low-income schools than high-income schools.

Yet very little evidence, if any, suggests that teacher quality at low-income schools is worse than teacher quality at high-income schools.  Most studies of teacher effectiveness rely on a statistical approach known as value added modeling, an approach that attempts to quantify a teacher’s contribution to student test scores.  Value-added models have serious limitations and are unstable, meaning they have a high margin of error.  For example, a recent study compared teacher value-added scores on two different tests taken by the exact same students and found that only about one-third of the teachers in a given quintile of performance on one value-added measure scored in the same quintile on the other test.  Even if value-added modeling could perfectly indicate teacher effectiveness, the plaintiffs’ own expert witnesses have acknowledged in their research that “the quality of teaching…does not differ substantially across schools.”  Anecdotally, I’ve observed a similar distribution of teacher quality in the low-income schools at which I currently work and the expensive private school I attended for middle and high school.

Even if evidence suggested that teacher quality in low-income schools is worse on average than teacher quality in high-income schools (it doesn’t), permanent status, dismissal, and seniority-based layoff procedures apply equally in schools that serve high-income populations.  While layoffs are probably less likely to occur in California’s basic aid (richer) districts, one could make a much stronger Equal Protection case about the reductions in staffing, resource cutbacks, and furlough days poorer districts experience as a result of budget cuts than one could build about the order in which teachers are laid off.  Permanent status and dismissal laws affect rich and poor communities in exactly the same way.  That it would even be possible for the statutes challenged in Vergara v. California to cause a difference in teacher quality between low- and high-income schools is questionable.

Since proponents of Vergara can’t legitimately tie the challenged statutes to student harm, they resort to equating defense of due process with support of incompetence.  For example, a recent opinion piece in the LA Times notes that a majority of teachers believe at least one colleague with permanent status “should be dismissed for poor performance.”  This fact is irrelevant to the effect of permanent status; ask any group of professionals in a large workplace whether someone at the workplace should be dismissed for poor performance and a high percentage will respond in the affirmative.  Articles like this one argue that permanent status causes poor performance despite a complete lack of evidence in support of this claim.

Teachers who work with poor and minority students every day are often their most credible advocates.  Teachers unions believe deeply that poor and minority students deserve access to an excellent education and abhor teacher misconduct and negligence as much as anyone else.  They also believe students benefit when teachers are treated with respect.  The defendants in Vergara v. California therefore oppose both ineffective teaching and deceptive lawsuits that erroneously link it to due process protections.

Correction (2/24/14): The opinion piece referenced in this post was written by an outside writer and published in the Times, but was originally referred to incorrectly as an editorial.

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Students Matter. Teachers Do, Too.

Imagine reading the following statement on a website:

We think it’s simple: reward…passionate, [successful students] and hold those accountable who are failing… [S]triking down the following laws…will create an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrators and community leaders to design a system that’s good for teachers and students…

  • [Law 1: As long as they have attended school for at least eighteen months, this law gives students accused of wrongdoing the opportunity to hear what they did wrong and try to correct their behavior before being expelled. It] forces [teachers and] administrators to…grant [due process rights to students facing an expulsion]…before [teachers and] administrators are able to assess whether a [student] will be [successful] long-term.

  • [Law 2: Though this law allows districts to quickly expel students who commit serious offenses, it requires districts and schools to prove that other expulsions are warranted]. The process for [expelling] a single [unsuccessful student] involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation…and still, rarely ever works. In the past…year…in the entire state of California, only [8,562 students] have been [expelled], and the vast majority of those [expulsions] were for egregious conduct.

  • [Law 3: This law dictates the order in which schools facing economic pressure should expel students.  The] law forces [teachers] to [expel successful students] and keep [unsuccessful students] instead, just because they [are older].

The arguments for striking down these laws would disgust most of us.  Shouldn’t we assume all students want to learn and avoid expelling them if at all possible?  Law 1 doesn’t go far enough – students should have due process rights preventing unwarranted expulsion from the first time they set foot in a school, as it is our duty to provide them with a public education.  Likewise, it is perfectly reasonable for the student expulsion process in Law 2 to require well-documented proof of the reason for expulsion.  Expulsion should always be a last resort, and the burden of proof for an expulsion should fall not on the student, but on the teacher and school.  Finally, while Law 3 is ridiculous, the premise of the complaint with Law 3 misses the point entirely: isn’t the real problem with the law the idea that we would expel students for economic reasons?  Shouldn’t we only ever expel students if they create an unsafe learning environment for other students on campus?

Most of us would conclude not only that the people who wrote the arguments above had no compassion, but that they also did not believe in educational equity.  If they believed in educational equity, they would focus on supporting unsuccessful students instead of expelling them.  If they believed in educational equity, they would ask how the adults in charge could help unsuccessful students improve their performance.  If they believed in educational equity, they would divert their energy away from expelling a small minority of students and towards creating systems that address the needs of most children.  There is a small element of truth to what they say – the expulsion process described in Law 2 seems unnecessarily cumbersome, and in the terrible situation in which factors out of our control would force us to expel certain students, using age as our expulsion criterion seems like a stupid approach.  But the overarching paradigm of this critique runs counter both to our values and a logical analysis of the stated goal (“design a system that’s good for teachers and students”).

Though recent movements have increased the documentation required of a school wishing to expel a student for a nonviolent offense, the process described in Law 2 is exaggerated.  Law 3 doesn’t actually exist, and we fortunately have a better law than Law 1 (all students facing expulsion have due process rights no matter how long they’ve been in school).  An examination of these arguments is still instructive, however, because the opinions they reflect aren’t entirely hypothetical – they’re just marshaled against teachers rather than students.  Much of the text above comes directly from the website of Students Matter, the organization behind Vergara v. California.  Here’s the original:

We think it’s simple: reward and retain passionate, motivating, effective teachers and hold those accountable who are failing our children. By striking down the following laws, Vergara v. California will create an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrators and community leaders to design a system that’s good for teachers and students. Because when it comes to educating our kids, there should only be winners.

  • Permanent Employment Statute: The permanent employment law forces administrators to either grant or deny permanent employment to teachers after only 18 months—before new teachers even complete their beginner teacher programs and before administrators are able to assess whether a teacher will be effective long-term.

  • Dismissal Statutes: The process for dismissing a single ineffective teacher involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and still, rarely ever works. In the past 10 years in the entire state of California, only 91 teachers have been dismissed, and the vast majority of those dismissals were for egregious conduct. Only 19 dismissals were based, in whole or in part, on unsatisfactory performance.

  • “Last-In, First-Out” Layoff Statute: The LIFO law reduces teachers to faceless seniority numbers. The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority.

I discussed the plethora of problems with this lawsuit in my last post, not the least of which are the inaccurate characterizations of the laws above and the plaintiffs’ clear anti-labor agenda.  Equally troubling to me, however, is the discrepancy between our vision for the classroom and the Students Matter vision for the world in which the classroom resides. Teachers and students are different – we should be more patient with kids than with adults – but they aren’t different enough to warrant such a drastic discrepancy in how we treat them.  An intense focus on teacher employment law is as unethical and unlikely to improve overall student outcomes as an intense focus on removing poorly behaved students from their classrooms.

We expect teachers to concentrate on classroom structures that support their students.  We recognize that student test scores do not necessarily reflect intelligence or effort, that poor performance on academic assessments may reflect a lack of investment in tests, a poorly designed assessment, pure chance, inadequate instruction, and/or life circumstances outside of a student’s control.  When a student is clearly underperforming or negatively impacts other students with disruptive behaviors, we assume the best about the student.  We assume the student wants to learn and behave appropriately, but that the student may lack the skills necessary to do so.  We do everything in our power to keep that student in our classroom, continuously trying new approaches to help the student improve his or her behavior and academic performance.  We still implement systems to deal with the situation when students, despite all the support they have received, continue to disrupt their peers’ learning.  When we take disciplinary action against these students, however, we stipulate that the teacher and school prove that alternative, supportive measures failed to achieve the desired results and that the disciplinary action is warranted.  We then redouble our efforts to design better student support structures that can help us avoid future expulsions.

We should adopt a similar paradigm when we consider education reform.  We should expect policies, districts, and administrators to concentrate on supporting teachers.  We should recognize that student test score data does not necessarily reflect quality of teaching or effort, that low value-added scores may reflect reasonable concerns about “teaching to the test;” assessments that may not measure what they’re supposed to and that have questionable longitudinal validity; pure chance; inadequate teacher training, evaluation, and support; and/or external factors outside of a teacher’s control.  When a teacher is clearly struggling to meet student needs, we should assume the best about the teacher.  We should assume the teacher wants to teach effectively, but that the teacher may lack the skills necessary to do so.  Especially because teacher turnover is bad for students, we should do everything in our power to help the teacher improve and keep the teacher at our school.  We must still implement systems to deal with the situation when teachers, despite all the support they have received, remain ineffective.  When we take disciplinary action against these teachers, however, we should stipulate that the district and school administration prove that alternative, supportive measures failed to achieve the desired results and that the disciplinary action is warranted.  We should then redouble our efforts to design better teacher support structures that can help us avoid future dismissals.

Students Matter and supporters of their frivolous lawsuit betrayed their true agenda, which has nothing to do with educational equity, when they took the opposite approach in Vergara v. California – they ignore support and focus their efforts primarily on dismissal.  We wouldn’t accept that approach from teachers and we shouldn’t accept it from the ed reform movement.

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Vergara v. California: The Agendas, the Facts, and Recommendations for California Law

Ted Boutros believes corporations that destroy lives with reckless policies should suffer minimal financial penalties in court.  Boutros’s partner, Marcellus McRae, proudly defends white-collar criminals.  Eli Broad pretended to support Proposition 30, a ballot initiative designed to prevent massive cuts to public education, while secretly funding the No on 30 movement.  All three of these individuals and the rest of their well-funded legal team, however, hope their deployment of nine California students as the listed plaintiffs in Vergara v. California will convince a judge that they care about the plight of low-income children.  Their narrative self-serving and convenient, they argue that the massive income inequality they actively exacerbate has nothing to do with the achievement gap, that it is instead “grossly ineffective teachers” who ruin poor kids’ lives.

The original complaint in Vergara, filed on May 14, 2012, contains a number of factual errors.  As one example, the plaintiffs contend that “schools that serve predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged populations…have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers” when their own expert for the trial, Raj Chetty, has acknowledged since that “the quality of teaching…does not differ substantially across schools.”  In addition, the research summaries and numbers the complaint presents are rife with the type of statistical misinterpretation and manipulation I’ve discussed previously.  Unfortunately, far too many people who care about low-income students have fallen for the plaintiffs’ inaccurate narrative and support their efforts in Vergara.

The case challenges three aspects of teacher employment law in California’s Ed Code: permanent status (commonly referred to as tenure), the teacher dismissal process, and seniority-based layoffs (commonly referred to as LIFO, which stands for “last in, first out”).  Elements of all these laws need improvement, but education “reformers” have frequently misled the public about their purpose and propose changes unlikely to improve teacher quality.  An analysis of each policy, the rationale behind it, and a more sensible revision proposal reveal that the agenda in this case is more about dismantling employee workplace protections than it is about improving the lives of low-income students.

Permanent Status (Tenure)

Current Law: Teachers begin their employment with a school district with probationary status.  The school district must decide, by March 15 of a teacher’s second school year, whether or not to grant the employee permanent status.  Before that point the district may non-reelect (fire) a probationary teacher without having to provide a specific reason.  “Permanent status” is actually a misnomer because teachers with permanent status aren’t permanently guaranteed a job; teachers who have been granted permanent status are only afforded due process rights when an administrator deems them unfit to teach.  Teachers with permanent status may be dismissed (fired) if they are unwilling or unable to address an administrator’s stated concerns.

Current Law’s Rationale: Tenure was originally established at the university level to ensure academic freedom – granting academics tenure enabled them to pursue research without fear of political retribution from major donors.  California’s permanent status statute was likewise adopted to safeguard teachers from arbitrary firings.  California Teachers Association (CTA) members, over the course of the organization’s history, have fallen victim to dismissals based on nepotism, political patronage, political bias, racism, sexism, personal vendettas, a desire to replace higher-salaried teachers with lower-salaried replacements, and other capricious reasons unrelated to a teacher’s ability to effectively educate students.  Teachers with permanent status can advocate for the interests of their students and teach potentially controversial topics like evolution without fear of retribution from school or district administration or parents.  Since principal turnover is also fairly common, permanent status can prevent a short-term administrator from drastically overhauling a staff, an important protection for students given the negative impact teacher turnover has on student outcomes.

How to Improve the Law: As the plaintiffs’ note, probationary teachers can sometimes secure permanent status after “a cursory performance evaluation, or sometimes none at all.”  That statement, however, is an indictment not of permanent status, but of both teacher evaluation practices and administrator incompetence.  Instead of ending permanent status, California should adopt the type of comprehensive teacher evaluation system, supported by teachers unions, that provides meaningful feedback to teachers, helps support ineffective teachers in addressing growth areas, and trains administrators on how to give productive feedback.  The legislature should then consider changing the timelines for permanent status.  When a district remains on the fence about a probationary teacher after two years, the district should be allowed to extend the probationary period an extra year.  And if a probationary teacher has a well-documented, amazing first year, that teacher should have the opportunity to earn permanent status early.

The Dismissal Process

Current Law: If a school district deems a teacher ineffective, the district must provide the employee with “written notice of the unsatisfactory performance [and 90 days] to correct his or her faults.”  Should the employee’s performance remain unsatisfactory following these 90 days, the school district must give the employee notice of its intent to dismiss the employee.  The employee may then request a hearing with the school board and, if desired afterwards, a subsequent hearing before a Commission on Professional Competence.  The Commission’s decision may be appealed to higher courts.

Current Law’s Rationale: The requirement that school districts provide employees with the opportunity to improve performance before potential hearings extends the 14th Amendment’s due process requirements.  But when someone is accused of doing something wrong, especially someone who has received at least two years of satisfactory evaluations from the same employer, that person should have the opportunity to hear the accusation, address it, and have a neutral party evaluate the accusation’s legitimacy.

How to Improve the Law: Incompetent and/or poorly-intentioned professionals exist in every profession and teaching is no exception.  All self-respecting teachers and unions believe colleagues who sleep during class or otherwise ignore students should be dismissed.  The plaintiffs surprisingly acknowledge, though, that these situations are anomalous: “the majority of teachers in California are providing students with a quality education” and even “grossly ineffective teachers [are often] well-intentioned.”  Not only is it unethical to fire well-intentioned people without giving them the opportunity to improve, teacher turnover, as mentioned above, is bad for students.  The focus of reform efforts, therefore, should be on teacher support initiatives like instructional coaching first and dismissal processes second.

That said, the dismissal process takes far too long and involves a plethora of potential appeals that can prove costly for both unions and districts.  To streamline dismissal of a teacher unable or unwilling to improve after provided with ample support, the evidence of both the teacher’s unsatisfactory performance and the support provided to help the teacher improve could be presented directly to a state oversight panel, similar to the current Commission on Professional Competence, consisting of three teachers and three administrators.  For the dismissal to move forward, a majority of both the teacher and administrator members of the panel would need to approve it.  The panel’s decision would not be subject to appeal.  Such a system would preserve due process, maintain the employer’s responsibility to help support struggling veteran employees, and reduce the timeline and cost of dismissing truly ineffective teachers.

Seniority-Based Layoffs (LIFO)

Current Law: When a district faces budget cuts and decides to reduce the number of teachers as a result, it is bound by the following section of Ed Code:

[The] services of no permanent employee may be terminated…while any…other employee with less seniority…is retained…[However,] a school district may deviate from terminating a certificated employee in order of seniority [if the] district demonstrates a specific need for personnel to teach a specific course or course of study…or to provide services [for which a] certificated employee has special training and experience…which others with more seniority do not possess.

Current Law’s Rationale: Though the exception for cases in which the district “demonstrates a specific need” is notable, the main benefits to seniority-based layoffs are the predictability and stability they provide for both employees and students.  While teacher experience correlates to some degree with effectiveness, this policy is the least sensible of those challenged in Vergara v. California.

How to Improve the Law: Most new teacher evaluation systems currently rely on unreliable and invalid student test score data and are thus inaccurate indicators of teacher effectiveness.  While seniority also fails to capture teacher effectiveness accurately, we should not replace one faulty system with another.  Instead, legislators should develop budget mechanisms that prevent teacher layoffs.  At the same time, legislators should implement the type of comprehensive, thorough teacher evaluation system discussed above and apply it when layoffs are inevitable.

The beginning of the first sentence regarding the dismissal statute in the plaintiffs’ original complaint reveals the true motive behind their opposition to these policies: “Unlike employees of private companies, public employees in California must be afforded certain due process rights.”  Since the large corporations represented by Boutros’s and McRae’s firm frequently underpay workers and illegally fire employees, these corporations view due process and other worker protections anywhere as a threat to exorbitant corporate profits everywhere.  They hope their ostensible compassion for students (some of whom were likely recruited by cold-calling TFA corps members; a 2010 TFA alum and friend of mine was called to see if he could recommend any students for the lawsuit) will provide cover for their overt attempt to undermine organized labor.

Opening arguments in the 20-day Vergara v. California trial began in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, January 27.  The plaintiffs have asked the court to act in the best interests of low-income students; Judge Rolf Treu should do so by rejecting the plaintiffs’ deceptive arguments and ruling in favor of the state of California.  Legislators should then work with teachers unions to enact evidence-based reforms that empower teachers to continue to hone their craft and improve their students’ lives.

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Approaching Education Data the Nate Silver Way

My girlfriend’s very hospitable and generous family gave me some great gifts for the holidays when I stayed with them in upstate New York.  As I rocked my new Teach For America T-shirt in the Rochester airport on Christmas Eve, my cursory overview of Nate Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise, inspired me to write this post.

While most people probably know Silver for his election predictions and designation in 2009 as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People, Silver has been my baseball stat guru for considerably longer than he’s been doing political analysis.  In one of my favorite books of all time, Baseball Between the Numbers, Silver penned a brilliant examination of clutch hitting that I still quote at least four or five times a year.  I have generally found Silver’s arguments compelling not just because of his statistical brilliance, but also because of his high standards for data collection and analysis, evident in the following passage from the introduction of his book:

The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves.  We speak for them.  We imbue them with meaning…[W]e may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from their objective reality…Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves.

In few fields are Silver’s words as relevant as education.  While the phrase “data-driven” has become ubiquitous in discussions of school reform and high-quality instruction, most people discussing education have very little understanding of what the statistics actually say.  As I’ve written before, many studies that reformers reference to push their policy agendas are methodologically unsound, and many more have findings very different than the summaries that make it into the news.

It’s hard to know how many reformers just don’t understand statistics, how many fall victim to confirmation bias, and how many intentionally mislead people.  But no matter the reason for their errors, those of us who care about student outcomes have a responsibility to identify statistical misinterpretation and manipulation and correct it.  Policy changes based on bad data and shoddy analyses won’t help (and will quite possibly harm) low-income students.

Fortunately, I believe one simple practice can help us identify truth in education research: read the full text of education research articles.

Yes, reading the full text of academic research papers can be time consuming and mind-numbingly dull at times, but reading articles’ full text is vitally important if you want to understand research findings.  Sound bites on education studies rarely provide accurate information.  In a Facebook comment following my most recent post about TFA, a former classmate of mine referenced a 2011 study by Raj Chetty to argue that we can’t blame the achievement gap on poverty.  “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,” claims one of the co-authors of the study in a New York Times article.  Sounds impressive.  Look under the hood, however, and we find that, even assuming the study’s methodology is foolproof (it isn’t), the actual evidence can at best show an average difference of $182 in the annual salaries of 28-year-olds.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s also a poor statistical basis for linking student results on standardized test scores to teacher evaluation systems.  Otherwise useful results can give readers the wrong impression when they gloss over or omit this fact, a point underscored by a recent article describing an analysis of IMPACT (the D.C. Public Schools teacher evaluation system).  The full text of the study provides strong evidence that the success of D.C.’s system thus far has been achieved despite a lack of variation in standardized test score results among teachers in different effectiveness categories.  Instead, the successes of the D.C. evaluation system are driven by programs teachers unions frequently support, programs like robust and meaningful classroom observations that more accurately measure teacher effectiveness.

Policymakers have misled the public with PISA data as well.  In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Michelle Rhee made the oft-repeated claim that U.S. schools are failing because American students, in aggregate, score lower on international tests than their peers in other countries.  Yet, as Hayes pointed out, it is abundantly clear from a more thorough analysis that poverty explains the PISA results much better than school quality, not least because poor US students have been doing better on international tests than poor students elsewhere for several years.

I would, in general, recommend skepticism when reading articles on education, but I’d recommend skepticism in particular when someone offers a statistic suggesting that school-related changes can solve the achievement gap.  Education research’s only clear conclusion right now is that poverty explains the majority of student outcomes.  The full text of Chetty’s most recent study defending value-added models acknowledges that “differences in teacher quality are not the primary reason that high SES students currently do much better than their low SES peers” and that “differences in [kinder through eighth grade] teacher quality account for only…7% of the test score differences” between low- and high-income schools.  In fact, that more recent study performs a hypothetical experiment in which the lowest-performing low-income students receive the “best” teachers and the highest-performing affluent students receive the “worst” teachers from kinder through eighth grade and concludes that the affluent students would still outperform the poor students on average (albeit by a much smaller margin).  Hayes made the same point to Rhee that I made in my last post: because student achievement is influenced significantly more by poverty than by schools, discussions about how to meet our students’ needs must address income inequality in addition to evidence-based school reforms.  We can’t be advocates for poor students and exclude policies that address poverty from our recommendations.

When deciding which school-based recommendations to make, we must remember that writers and policymakers all too often misunderstand education research.  Many reformers selectively highlight decontextualized research that supports their already-formed opinions.  Our students, on the other hand, depend on us to combat misleading claims by doing our due diligence, unveiling erroneous interpretations, and ensuring that sound data and accurate statistical analyses drive decision-making. They rely on us to adopt Nate Silver’s approach to baseball statistics: continuously ask questions, keep an open mind about potential answers, and conduct thorough statistical analyses to better understand reality.  They rely on us to distinguish statistical significance from real-world relevance.  As Silver writes about data in the information age more generally, education research “will produce progress – eventually.  How quickly it does, and whether we regress in the meantime, depends on us.”

Update: Gary Rubinstein and Bruce Baker (thanks for the heads up, Demian Godon) have similar orientations to education research – while we don’t always agree, I appreciate their approach to statistical analysis.

Update 2 (6/8/14): Matthew Di Carlo is an excellent read for anyone interested in thoughtful analysis of educational issues.

Update 3 (7/8/14): The Raj Chetty study linked above seems to have been modified – the pieces I quoted have disappeared.  Not sure when that happened, or why, but I’d love to hear an explanation from the authors and see a link to the original.

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Working Together for Educational Equity: What’s Missing from the TFA Debate

Teach For America (TFA) articles are all the rage right now.  Over the past month and a half, the four articles linked below have received particular attention:

“I Quit Teach for[sic] America” by Olivia Blanchard (The Atlantic, September 23)

“Remember the ‘I Quit Teach for[sic] America’ essay?  Here’s the counterpoint. ‘I stayed.’” by Maureen Downey and Tre Tennyson (The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, October 3)

“Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for[sic] America” by Catherine Michna (Slate, October 9)

“I Almost Quit Teach for[sic] America” by Eleanor Barkhorn (The Atlantic, October 14)

Though I generally hesitate to suggest that truth lies somewhere towards the middle of two extremes, the majority of both pro- and anti- TFA articles in this case contain inaccurate claims and arguments that unnecessarily pit people with the same goals against each other.  This post is my attempt to debunk the inaccuracies presented in these articles and identify the true benefits and drawbacks of TFA.  I also hope to identify how TFA and opponents of TFA can find common ground in their work for educational equity.

Before I make those arguments, a little bit about my educational background: I attended a traditional public school in a working class, mostly white neighborhood in southern New Jersey from first grade through sixth grade.  From seventh grade to twelfth grade, my parents sent me to Moorestown Friends School (MFS), a high-performing private Quaker school twenty-five minutes from my house.  I moved across the country to attend Stanford University for college and joined TFA right afterwards. San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) paid TFA a few thousand dollars to hire me to teach at San Jose Community Day School (SJCDS), a school for students expelled from other schools for drug, weapon, violent, or other behavioral offenses.  I taught at SJCDS for three years, the second year of which I served as my school’s Site Representative for the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA), the union that represents around 1,700 professional educators in SJUSD.  In my third year at SJCDS, I was appointed to the SJTA Executive Board.  I still serve as the SJTA Outreach Director in my new role as an instructional coach in SJUSD and also run professional development sessions for first and second year TFA corps members in San Jose.  I feel connected to both SJTA and TFA, though I tend to hear more compelling arguments from my colleagues at SJTA than I hear from the TFA staff members I know.  I hope you find this context valuable as I address the claims either directly made or implied in the above articles by answering the questions below:

Are TFA teachers prepared for their teaching assignments?

The short answer to this question is no.  As both Blanchard’s and Barkhorn’s articles note, TFA’s summer Institute, besides being short and often unrelated to a teacher’s upcoming teaching assignment, focuses far too much on theory and vision and far too little on tangible skills.  However, criticisms of TFA along these lines are, as another alum puts it, “a moot point” – nobody does a particularly good job preparing first-year teachers for assignments in low-income neighborhoods.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, nearly all the evidence suggests that there is very little, if any, difference, on average, between the standardized test results of students who have had TFA teachers and students who have had teachers with different backgrounds.  One of my friends, fellow 2010 TFA alum Connor O’Steen, summarized the problem with the “lack of preparation” critique in response to that post on Facebook:

…[W]hat does it mean when (at least) two years and 40-50,000 dollars of ed school has you performing ever so slightly worse on average than someone who’s done a six week crash course over a summer? Certainly you’d expect ed school–this long and formal educational experience which usually culminates in a Master’s degree–to add more value, more human capital? I think a lot of the criticism of TFA comes from stakeholders in the traditional ed pipeline who are made genuinely uncomfortable by the fact that all the training and apprenticeships seem to put people solely on par with beginning TFA corps members. Granted, there are more ways to measure achievement than standardized tests, but I don’t think many people would see percentile scores this low and think there’s *not* a problem here.

While I know several teachers (both within and outside of TFA) who believe their training contributed value to their teaching, I know many more, from a variety of preparation programs, who believe their training was practically useless.  Studies suggest corps members and other teachers have similar attitudes about their preparation and there’s no escaping the fact that there’s no well-established statistical correlation between time spent in a teacher preparation program and teacher effectiveness.  I proposed three possible explanations for this fact in my response to Connor’s post:

1. TFA and traditional teacher education systems are similarly ineffective at preparing teachers for placements in low-income schools.
2. TFA is less effective than traditional teacher education systems at training teachers but recruits better “talent” on average than those programs. One of the more interesting findings from the Mathematica study was the lack of correlation between a teacher’s undergraduate background and student achievement. But Dana Goldstein has an alternate theory (http://www.danagoldstein.net/…) that work ethic, a strong orientation to a mission, and intense focus on data and testing all explain the results.
3. TFA is more effective than traditional teacher education systems at training teachers but traditional teacher education systems recruit better “talent” than TFA. There are few people who make this argument.

Whichever of the above three options is most accurate, it’s hard to indict TFA for putting poorly prepared teachers in schools unless you indict every single teacher preparation program for the same fault.  I actually believe both traditional teacher preparation programs and TFA’s program (which is very similar in content to traditional programs) could improve significantly, but my point is that this critique is not valid when used to compare TFA to other programs (the only exception to this rule may be special education.  As one member of the SJTA Board pointed out to me, TFA teachers typically lack the legal knowledge necessary to succeed as special educators.  While two of the best special education teachers I know in SJUSD are TFA alums who have remained in the classroom well after their TFA commitment expired, I think that argument is valid).

Does the relatively short two-year commitment negatively impact students?

Most studies suggest that common sense is correct and teacher turnover is bad for students.  Though TFA placement regions have high turnover rates for first and second year teachers in general, attrition rates for TFA corps members are in the same ballpark during those two years and are significantly greater in subsequent years.  I personally believe TFA should not recommend corps members for positions for which there are other qualified candidates more likely to remain in education long-term.  In SJUSD, for example, TFA has placed a number of corps members at schools that are relatively low-poverty and easy-to-staff, which seems antithetical to the TFA mission.

At the same time, and contrary to Michna’s claims, extremely hard-to-staff positions with high turnover rates exist.  Also in SJUSD, which I believe to be one of the best large urban school districts in the country, we still have several open positions and are nearly three months into the school year.  TFA focuses primarily on these hard-to-staff positions and explicitly tries to select people unlikely to quit on commitments (they obviously failed in the case of Blanchard, but I think they’re pretty justified in excoriating her for her decision; TFA asks applicants outright in the final interview if they would quit under any circumstances and I find it hard to believe she answered this question honestly).  TFA in many places effectively addresses teacher shortages.

Do TFA teachers, on average, help level the playing field for children in low-income communities (do TFA teachers close the achievement gap)?

The short answer to this question is also no; as I mentioned above and discussed in an earlier post, TFA teachers seem to guide students to roughly equivalent standardized test results as all other teachers.  Those results are overwhelmingly poor compared to the results for affluent students.

Tennyson states in his article that, in his first year, “100 percent of [his] students passed the ELA exam and 90 percent were proficient or above in reading.  Down the hall, Donna Jenkins, the third corps member at [his] school, led [her] fifth graders to a 95 percent pass rate in math and 97 percent in science.”  These numbers sound great, but there are several possible explanations for them.  While it’s certainly possible that Tennyson and Jenkins were two of the best teachers in America during their first years of teaching and were able to single-handedly change the academic trajectories of their students in one year, I think it’s more likely that these statistics are misleading.  Perhaps their students weren’t all that disadvantaged before fifth grade.  Perhaps some out-of-school factors were contributing to the success of these students.  Perhaps these teacher-designed assessments don’t tell the whole story of student performance.  I’d bet a fair amount of money that Tennyson was at least a pretty good teacher based on what he wrote, but I’d bet even more money that the results he lists have a lot less to do with excellent teaching than he makes it sound.  We’d have to see his tests and get significantly more context and data about his students and classroom to know for sure, but while I’m sure he genuinely believes he can teach kids out of poverty, nearly all the externally verified data we have suggests that’s highly unlikely (again, check out my previous post here for a summary of research findings).  Even if Tennyson and Jenkins did work miracles with their students, they’d be incredibly unique within TFA.  There’s no reason to believe their success would be replicable on a large scale because, if it were, TFA would be teaching their best practices to all new teachers and getting results better than what they’re getting.

Again, none of that is to say TFA teachers (and other teachers, for that matter) can’t make a difference and change students’ lives – they definitely can and I know a number of people who were very good teachers as corps members – but many TFA teachers, like many charter networks, have a tendency to overstate their impact.  In the case of individual teachers, I’m inclined to believe the misleading information they present is unintentional, though I am less predisposed to think that misinformation coming from organizational leadership is so innocuous.

How do TFA’s leadership development, political work and alignment, and brand affect low-income students?

TFA’s mission includes developing leaders who work “to ensure that all children can receive an excellent education” outside of the classroom.  Critics sometimes forget this purpose.  The hope is that even people who join TFA solely to build their resumes will see the obstacles low-income children face during their two-year stints in the corps and will then advocate for those children long after they have left the teaching profession for their careers in law, medicine, or business.  I believe this goal is admirable.  At the same time, however, TFA’s brand often develops leaders and political outcomes that actively harm students in poverty.

Blanchard formulates a pretty accurate summary of the problem.  Pervading TFA is

…the unspoken logic that current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence. Although TFA seminars and presentations never explicitly accuse educators of either, the implication is strong within the program’s very structure: recruit high-achieving college students, train them over the summer, and send them into America’s lowest-performing schools to make things right. The subtext is clear: Only you can fix what others have screwed up.

Her analysis gels with my TFA experience – most people within TFA are hesitant to explicitly blame the achievement gap on bad teachers and schools, but most also perpetuate a negative narrative about public education at least implicitly.  When Blanchard asked a TFA spokesperson about TFA’s views on traditionally trained teachers, she received the response that “[i]f anything, teachers are victims of more structural problems: inequitable funding; inadequate systems of training and supporting teachers; the absence of strong school and district leadership.”  Notice that this response still implies that teachers aren’t doing a very good job; it just blames the problem on inequitable school funding, poor training, and bad leadership instead of laying the proximate culpability at teachers’ feet.  I really like nearly everyone I know on TFA staff, but I have never gotten a single one of them to admit the well-established fact that in-school factors explain, at most, 33% of student achievement.

This mindset – that teachers and schools have nearly total control over student outcomes – has two really problematic implications.  The first implication is that schools that serve low-performing students are bad schools, that some combination of the teachers and leadership at those schools are doing a terrible job that someone else could do significantly better and mass firings and closings are warranted.  The second implication is that we can focus our political energy away from solving poverty directly; if education can fix poverty, as Teach For America suggests, poor children can succeed without a drastic overhaul of society.  School-based reforms are all we need.  The reality, though, is that education cannot solve society’s problems.  Education can make a difference, but the main reasons low-income students perform poorly compared to their affluent peers have nothing to do with school and everything to do with the gamut of obstacles they face from birth.  When you break down school performance in the US by free and reduced-price lunch rate before comparing it to school performance internationally, “low-performing” US schools with high numbers of poor students have higher test scores than schools in countries with similar concentrations of disadvantage.

The best critique of Teach For America, in my opinion, is based on political affiliations and impact.  The organization produces a large number of influential alumni who support the expansion of charter schools, changes to teacher employment law, and making student standardized test scores increasingly more important in teacher and school evaluations.  There is, unfortunately, very little evidence that these reforms help poor students.

Yet a lot of politicians who couldn’t care less about poor kids rally around TFA’s “unspoken logic.”  Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is a prime example.  Christie uses the cover of an education “reform” agenda – he promotes closing schools, opening more charters, eliminating tenure, and introducing “merit pay” based on student test score data – to hide the fact that tax cuts for the rich are a higher priority for him than poor students eating breakfast or lunch (see this link for a more extensive list of Christie’s cuts to education).  TFA obviously doesn’t support cutting school breakfast money, but the concept that educator and school-related changes are most important for poor students enables people like Christie to further disadvantage low-income kids, bust unions, enrich the wealthy even further, and receive credit for supposedly student-oriented ideas at the same time.

How can TFA, teachers unions, and other proponents of opportunities for low-income children work together for educational equity?

In the end, most people within Teach For America and most other people working in education have very similar goals; to use the words of the San Jose Teachers Association, most of us want to “educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.”  As I recently discussed with my older sister, the biggest shame about the TFA debate is that, while people who care about kids are arguing with each other about teacher and school quality, people like Christie are exacerbating poverty and directly destroying the lives of low-income students.

So what should TFA and people like Michna and Blanchard do differently to better support their stated missions?

First, and most importantly, TFA should acknowledge that the achievement gap is caused by poverty, not by bad teachers and schools.  School-related changes alone can address only some of poverty’s symptoms.   TFA should thus publicly advocate for policies that address poverty, policies like single-payer health care, increased taxes on the wealthy, wraparound services for low-income kids, and more environmentally and socially responsible food standards.  This advocacy will lose TFA money – I highly doubt Arthur Rock and many of Teach For America’s “National Corporate Partners, Sponsors, Supporters, and Investors” will continue to support the organization if TFA begins to promote reducing income inequality – but if TFA is really “students first,” TFA will worry about that funding later and start working now for the change most likely to actually benefit poor students.  Quality teaching matters, but what matters more is the overall environment in which the student grows up and lives.

Second, everyone in education should promote further research on the link between various reform ideas and student outcomes.  Until other reform ideas are supported by strong evidence, however, we should focus on the school-related change everyone agrees about: teacher support.  Though more study and experimentation is needed, research suggests that teachers can benefit greatly from ongoing professional development in the form of one-on-one coaching.  TFA already has a structure for coaching corps members and, when it comes to TFA teachers, believes in development instead of dismissal.  Many traditional school districts, like SJUSD, have coaching models as well for the same purpose.  I believe directing energy and policy focus towards making these systems more effective and aligned with this purpose should be the primary goal of education reform.  Focusing on evidence-based support first and other evidence-based reforms second is both the ethical way to treat the teaching workforce and a way to encourage the development of strong teachers interested in remaining in the profession.

At the same time, educators must consider additional reforms pending future research.  While student test scores, for example, are not yet a valid or reliable indicator of effectiveness, we should continue to study them.  Teachers unions can get behind that idea; unions only oppose linking test scores to teacher evaluations because doing so currently provides an inaccurate picture of a teacher’s effectiveness.  Unions believe in robust evaluation systems that more accurately assess teachers’ contributions.  If empowered by a change in the education narrative and given adequate support, I also believe the vast majority of teachers would buy into respectful, evidence-based discussions about revised layoff procedures and expedited dismissal processes for the small fraction of teachers not doing their jobs.  Those discussions present a problem now mainly because reformers like Michelle Rhee continue to promote unproven reforms and focus on teacher blame and dismissal rather than substantive, constructive criticism and support.

In general, critics of TFA should stop harping on illegitimate complaints about TFA teachers’ lack of preparedness.  A lot of TFA teachers turn out to be very good teachers, even in their first years, and targeting well-intentioned, hardworking, and talented individuals for the problems of the larger organization is counterproductive.  Teachers should also remember that we do make a difference – though we can’t close the achievement gap, we can markedly improve our students’ lives.  And TFA should stop sending the sometimes explicit and frequently implicit message to its corps members and the general public that educational changes alone can fix poverty, since they can’t.

All educational stakeholders should be able to agree that we must continuously improve our schools and practices to better serve our students.  But to truly put our low-income kids first, TFA and other stakeholders must simultaneously band together with teachers unions and advocate for social justice policies that address economic inequality.

Note: Thanks to Jack Schneider, this post was updated to include the most recent data on teacher attitudes about their preparation programs.

Update 2 (2/21/14): The second-to-last paragraph of this piece originally referred to critics of TFA as “the anti-reform crowd.”  This reference has been changed because of a thoughtful comment by Serge Vartanov.

Update 3 (3/2/14): The text above originally included a parenthetical aside that referenced a flawed study on teacher preparation programs.  Thank you to Demian Godon for prompting me to reexamine it.

Update 4 (9/26/15): In reading back through this post, I realized that the text originally said the following:

“When you break down school performance in the US by poverty rate before comparing it to school performance internationally, ‘low-performing’ US schools with high poverty rates do better than schools in every other country with similar rates.”

The link, however, does not break down US schools by the official poverty rate, but by the percent of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch.  I have updated the text to more accurately reflect this fact, though it’s worth noting that the official poverty rate in the US is very low and that the percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches is probably a better proxy for disadvantage.

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