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September 28, 2016

How do we measure the immeasurable— and should we?

We address what we assess. I’ve never cared so much about how far I walked until I bought a Fitbit and saw that my friends apparently walk 15 miles a day.  The same is true of schools.

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we began assessing our students’ math, reading, and science abilities, and test scores improved.  While some of that growth may have been due to teachers teaching to the test or students adapting to standardized assessments, we should still acknowledge that having stronger data about achievement gaps has helped us build the argument for greater equity in education.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) adds a new, non-academic factor to school accountability in response to the over-emphasis on tested subjects that many schools experienced under NCLB.  States have to determine what their accountability plan will include, and policy wonks are chiming in with research and cautionary tales.  It seems that we can all agree that the non-academic factor should be equitable (not favoring particular student groups), mutable (able to be changed), measurable (we have to be able to put some sort of ranking or number on it), and important to student growth and learning (or else, who cares?).  So far, I haven’t heard any consensus come out of the field on what this could look like.

SEL

The reality is that states may even want to consider testing out several different variables to see what the data tells them.  The non-academic variable could be minimally weighted until states are sure that their data is reliable, both ensuring that schools aren’t penalized for faulty data and that schools don’t try to game the new system.  States may also choose to use multiple indicators to ensure that pressure isn’t exerted on one lone factor.  States also have to keep in mind that children develop at different ages.  While chronic absenteeism is a problem for students of all ages, first-graders may differ in their abilities to self-regulate their emotions, based on gender and age.

A group of CORE districts in California have been testing a “dashboard” of metrics for several years, and are offering their strategy to the entire state, as documented by Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute.  Forty percent of a school’s rating is based on social and emotional learning indicators, including measures of social-emotional skills; suspension/expulsion rates; chronic absenteeism; culture/climate surveys from students, staff, and parents; and English learner re-designation rates.  The other 60% is based on academic performance and growth.

The reality is that our students need more than just math and reading.  They need to learn how to interact with others who are different from themselves.  They need to be able to creatively problem solve.  They need to think critically about the world around them.  Good teachers have been teaching their students these skills for decades; now we just have to make sure that all students have these enriching opportunities.

Filed under: Accountability,CPE,ESSA — Tags: — Chandi Wagner @ 8:00 am





September 23, 2016

When given options, do we always choose the best one?

School choice is all over the news. John Oliver recently lambasted charter school programs. Donald Trump promised $20 billion to increase parents’ choice options.  The NAACP has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. But how does school choice play out for ordinary families?

In essence, parents have two routes to exercise their consumer rights in education: choosing where they live and where they send their child to school. The fundamental premise behind “school choice” as an education reform are that options not only allow parents to select the school that best meets the needs of their child but it also breeds competition, thereby forcing schools to improve. We’ll leave the competition argument for another time and just focus on how parents make their decisions.

These days, it’s not unusual to find real estate websites boasting better school statistics than state education agencies, because they want to enhance the idea that parents can move to a “good” school district. Many of my friends have asked me where they should move with their toddler so that they can send their child to a high-quality school. Note: this option is typically more available for families with the means to move easily and afford a home in the districts perceived as “good.”

However, research from UCLA has shown that even middle- and high-income parents tend to choose schools based on the opinions of others in their network more than actual investigation of school characteristics. Of the parents who moved in order to be in a particular school district, less than a quarter actually visited the new school, and the majority did not look up test data for the district they were leaving. Such practices exacerbate racial and class-based segregation, as high-minority and lower-income schools are perceived as “bad” and low-minority, low-poverty schools are seen as “good.”

Policy makers and advocacy groups tend to focus more on the second avenue for choice, as they have little influence over parents’ housing choices. Magnet schools, in-district transfers, private schools, charter schools, and private school voucher programs are all choices individual school districts and communities provide to families. Basic economics tell us that in order to have healthy competition, consumers must have access to as many options as possible, as well as the necessary information to help them in making their decision.

The first reality we must face is that schools are a geographic commodity.  Most parents don’t want to send their child on a two-hour bus ride every morning to get to the school across town, so they are limited to schools that are in close proximity.  Second, it is extremely difficult to judge schools objectively. We have ample test data available, thanks to No Child Left Behind, but even if parents know how to access and understand test scores, they are highly correlated with poverty and race, so it does little to explain student growth or school climate.

Evidence from two cities with high levels of school choice show that parental choice and school behaviors tend to increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.In Washington, DC, parent preferences on a web-based application found that parents prioritized demographic preferences and geography over academic achievement. The authors also cautioned that open-choice programs could actually decrease pressure on schools for academic achievement, given parental preferences for particular demographic characteristics.

Choiceblog

Studies from Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin of the post-Katrina system in New Orleans found that schools often found ways to recruit high-achieving students and push out students who were harder to serve, leaving these students with little, if any, choice.  Top-performing schools enrolled disproportionately large numbers of white, non-poor, and non-disabled students.

Sure, families want choice. Who doesn’t like choice? But we also have to make sure that we give families the tools to make good choices that benefit all students.

For more on school choice, check out this visual breakdown we created of what this popular reform strategy looks like by the numbers.

Filed under: CPE — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 7:00 am





September 22, 2016

Do we need to declare a crisis to fix the teacher pipeline?

Is the U.S. suffering from a teacher shortage? Or (more presciently) is a teacher shortage looming? Whether backward or forward-looking, the media and a litany of researchers (ourselves included) have pondered, studied and reported on this and related questions with increasing frequency.

The non-profit, non-partisan Learning Policy Institute (LPI) is the latest think-tank to examine the issue from a national lens, in a series of reports that appear to be a fairly comprehensive analysis of the situation. I won’t pretend to have combed through all of them, but my quick take is that they reach much the same conclusion as we did: there’s no easy solution because it’s a complicated and nuanced matter— as one would expect in a country of 50 states and more than 14,000 school districts.

Hence, the holes in the teacher pipeline are myriad and vary widely depending on state education policies, demographics, housing conditions, the overall job market and, of course, school funding. There are common themes, however: rural and high-poverty districts; science, math and special education; and high schools all struggle more than their counterparts to recruit and retain teachers.

Have we reached “crisis” level yet? Who knows and really, who cares? Certainly not the states and communities who are already struggling to find and keep qualified teachers— and are employing numerous and, often times, highly creative methods to address this.  These methods often place teachers in classrooms before they are truly ready and qualified to teach.

Both LPI’s report and our own provide policies and programs that have been successful at attracting and retaining qualified teachers. And again, we reach the same conclusion: a multi-faceted approach that involves all the key players in the education landscape is the only way to ensure every school has access to qualified professionals who will be able to deliver the diverse and challenging curriculum that students need to succeed in the 21st century.

Sounds simple, but if coordination and communication were that easy then we wouldn’t be reading another report about a current/impending/distant crisis in education would we?






September 13, 2016

What Works Clearinghouse

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released its updated website today, and it is pretty spectacular: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc

IES sponsors and conducts research that provides evidence for education policies and practices.  Their new website makes it easier for policy makers to find evidence-based policies, which is especially helpful given the new flexibility that states and districts have under ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).

You can now look up research for programs that have been tested for improving educational outcomes in various subjects (Math, Literacy, & Science), for student populations (English Learners, Students with Disabilities), and various age groups.  You can also cross-filter to find programs related to multiple groups (Math achievement for Students with Disabilities in High School, for example).  The evidence also shows how many studies were conducted, how many students were involved in the study, and the size of the effect.

My only critique would be the lack of evidence for some types of programs, but that’s a content-based issue, not related to the website’s format.  So, if you want a program that improves Teacher Excellence, you’ll only find one that has shown positive effects, which may or may not be applicable to your district.  But, the upside to this is that researchers and policy makers can more readily see where the gaps in evidence lie and start working to fill them in.






September 7, 2016

Do we get what we pay for?

The U.S. spends more to educate its students than most of the other 35 countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), yet by some measures we don’t seem to get much benefit from our expenditures.  Is this a fair accusation?

Bruce Baker and Mark Weber, on behalf of the Albert Shanker Institute, posit that it’s not.  When you take into account America’s high per-capita GDP, high child-poverty rate, and expenses that school systems in other OECD member countries don’t have to cover in the same way (employee health care, pensions, and disability, not to mention school sports), maybe we’re not doing so poorly, after all.

If you define school efficiency as being the best production (we’ll examine this using the results from PISA, which are international assessments administered by OECD) then based on the amount of money spent, we aren’t too far below the average (For per-pupil spending of about $12,000, we should have slightly higher PISA scores, if we had average efficiency.)

Efficiency1

When you take per-capita GDP into account, we’re pretty close to where we should be on spending levels (if you draw a best-fit line through the dots, we would be close to that line).

Efficiency2

When you take our high child-poverty rate into account, our PISA scores look pretty stellar (given how far above the line we are).  Obviously, this excuse is still frustrating, as we also need to address why we have so many children in relative poverty.

Efficiency3

What we can learn from this, however, is that some states do better than others.  States with high rates of child poverty also tend to have lower per-pupil spending, giving them less capacity to help the students who most need it.  We should look at what Massachusetts and New Jersey are doing with their dollars in comparison to Hawaii or West Virginia to determine education policies (though, of course, these states all have very different contexts).

Efficiency4

The other insight in this report is that the U.S. spends relatively less on teacher salaries than other countries.  So, if we were to address inefficiencies in our system, it would need to be on administration, buildings, and transportation.  Small schools, especially rural schools, are more expensive to run than schools in more densely populated areas due to increased per-pupil administrative and transportation costs.  Schools still need a principal and a custodian, whether there are 50 students or 500 students.  Charter schools and districts also tend to be less efficient, as they are typically smaller, incurring greater costs for administration.

Efficiency5

So, are we getting enough bang for our buck?  Maybe.

Filed under: CPE,International Comparisons — Tags: , , , , — Chandi Wagner @ 2:30 am





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