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July 27, 2016

Elementary Teacher Specialization

We have all bemoaned the high rate of teacher turnover in the U.S. and wondered how to increase teacher quality.  Most proposed solutions are costly, though: increased pay, smaller classes, merit-based pay, housing for teachers in urban areas.  The National Center on Education and the Economy released a report last week that examines the training, hiring, and work practices of elementary school teachers in four high-performing nations, with implications for how the U.S. could improve its elementary teacher workforce.  The easiest to implement? Specialization.

Elementary classrooms typically are “self-contained,” meaning that one teacher has the same class of students all day and teaches Reading, Writing, Math, Science, and Social Studies.  However, some schools have a “departmentalized” structure, which looks more like middle school or high school.  Typically, 2-4 teachers will work as a team with the same group of students who rotate through the classes.  This allows teachers to focus their lesson planning on only one or two subjects.

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Departmentalized teaching provides multiple benefits:

  1. Reduced workload for teachers, which improves job satisfaction.
  2. Teachers have a deeper knowledge of the subject that they teach, which results in increased confidence and student performance.
  3. Students have the opportunity to know multiple adults and improve their organizational skills.
  4. Teachers collaborate more due to sharing students.

Even if elementary schools are concerned about changing their schedules, they can still ask teachers to specialize in a particular subject, making them the expert on their grade level team.  Doing so would still provide for deeper teacher knowledge and increased collaboration.

As a former teacher who started in a self-contained classroom and then was in a departmentalized structure for two years, I can attest to the shorter work hours, improved student achievement, and stronger collaborations provided by only teaching one or two subjects.  In fact, one of the reasons I left the elementary classroom was because my principal decided to return to self-contained classrooms.  Research tells me I’m not alone.






July 21, 2016

Meet CPE’s new research analyst— Chandi Wagner

HeadshotAs the newest member of the CPE team, I am excited to keep you up to date on the most recent research and education news available.  Hundreds of academics, foundations, and think tanks publish relevant information for school policy makers, and we’re here to dig through it for you.

After working in youth development non-profits (Camp Fire USA and Girl Scouts), I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador.  I taught 3rd, 5th, & 7th grades in the Austin, TX area, working with low-income and bilingual students.  I have the utmost respect for teachers, as they are in the trenches with kids every day.  It is the hardest job I will ever do.

My research experience has focused on education technology, class size, teacher retention, and teacher evaluation.  I was fortunate to study under outstanding professors at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin before joining CPE.  My goal is to provide reliable, unbiased information to help policy makers make the wisest decisions for their schools.

It’s a pleasure to meet you.

-Chandi Wagner                                                                                                                                                               






July 11, 2016

STEM has become the Beyoncè of the curriculum

STEM is steadily earning a place as the dazzling star in the high school curriculum and for good reason. The benefit of high-level science and math courses to later success in college, jobs, and even to healthy living is well-established (see, for example, here and here). But while the importance of STEM is unquestioned, we do risk allowing it to outshine other disciplines that may lack the same predictive value, but in their own unique ways contribute as much to preparing students for productive and fulfilling adulthood.

QueenBeyHow does Beyoncè fit into this? Right now, the Queen Bey touch predicts success like nothing else in popular culture. She drops a surprise album. Billboard gold. An hour-long music video? Three months later, critics still gush about it. She has the president on speed dial. Sure, we will sometimes weep with Adele, get uptown funky, or tell someone to shut up and dance with us. But the spotlight will inevitably draw our eyes back to Beyoncè.

STEM seems to have that same power in education policy discussions, often leaving the humanities and the arts as afterthoughts. This is not to suggest that course-taking in these other subjects are declining. Actually, high school seniors are earning more credits in all subjects. But we also don’t talk about English, history and the arts as much as we do STEM when we call for improving the curriculum.

Why do STEM courses get all the attention? I can think of a couple of reasons. The first is one, we at CPE, probably encourage, albeit not intentionally. Fact is, the evidence in support of high-level science and math is much stronger than it is for courses in other subjects. We therefore point more often to STEM subjects when writing about what works. Everything else gets short shrift by default.

A second possible reason is that the needs of the workforce often drive the conversation about the content of education we provide students. Technical jobs are leading the pack among fastest growing occupations, so we want to make sure our young people are prepared for them.

But the thing is, the research doesn’t necessarily say that STEM courses have more benefits than the humanities. What we do know is that it is easier for analysts to draw a line between science and math curriculum to college and career outcomes, particularly when the analysis is based on course titles. We can infer that a course named Algebra II, for example, is higher level than one called Business Math. But we typically don’t have a similar proxy to distinguish one English 4 course from another.

However, we can look to postsecondary education for some fairly strong hints about the importance of a well-rounded curriculum – one that emphasizes the humanities and arts as much as STEM. After all, exposure to a range of subject matter is an essential ingredient in the development of literacy skills, critical thinking and the ability to solve problems.  Entering college freshmen who lack these abilities are at a serious disadvantage. Barely one-third of freshmen who require remedial reading courses can expect to eventually earn a two- or four-year degree compared to 45 percent of students requiring remedial math and 56 percent who do not take any remedial courses at all.

Those who make it through continue to be served well by a broad-based general education along with their major. A session at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival specifically addressed business majors’ need for the liberal arts. One of the panelists cited a 2014 study from the Collegiate Learning Assessment – a national college assessment of critical thinking and writing – that found “business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences and engineering” as seniors, even after controlling for students’ abilities’ levels when entering college. Rachel Reiser in the business school at Boston University went on to say that the skills businesses want include attributes developed through the liberal arts — “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making.”

The evidence for the humanities and arts may not be as compelling as it is for STEM in high school, but I think it’s enough to make the case for giving them a prominent place in the curriculum. And let’s not forget that college and career readiness is just one part of public schools’ mission. We also want graduates to be prepared to be good citizens and enjoy satisfying lives. Beyoncè will still command our attention. But let’s leave room for some others, too, who we can love just as much.






June 17, 2016

Some advice for students as they contemplate the future

graduation-jubilationAs we approach the end of the school year, education news coverage has turned reflective, with many articles expounding on what worked and what didn’t before predictably throwing in a dash of what could be.

One of the more unique voices I read within this familiar set-up, was a high school student from Seattle, Ronnie Estoque. A junior at Cleveland High School, Estoque is an aspiring journalist (I think he’s got a bright future), who drew me in with the headline “Why I’m unsure project-based learning prepares students for college.”

In 2010, Estoque explains, Cleveland restructured its curriculum and instruction to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and project-based learning or PBL.

Group work and projects are the backbone of PBL and while his high school adopted this form of learning and instruction to prepare students for the workplace, Estoque worried, that it was not preparing students well enough for college.

He interviewed two Cleveland alum, who as current freshmen at the University of Washington relayed how the college experience seemed to be more about independent learning and class work.

While some have proclaimed PBL as the end-all-be-all, as a way to engage students, apply deeper learning, instill soft skills like collaboration and connect abstract subject matter to real life problems, it has its flaws, namely, that some students will coast leaving all the hard work to others.

“The one thing I hated was that they (teachers) didn’t enforce student accountability during projects,” Linda Chen, a Cleveland High grad told Estoque. “Most of the time it was me just doing all the work and someone else taking the credit.”

That wasn’t standard practice in all classrooms, however, and Estoque gave a shout out to one teacher who allowed his students to “fire” classmates who weren’t pulling their weight. But Estoque worried not enough teachers held students accountable and that this may ultimately set the less industrious ones up for failure when they got to college.

There’s a lot to unpack in Estoque’s thought-provoking piece.

To begin with, he’s right: educators should have high standards for all students. And when utilizing a learning model like PBL, schools should build in ways to ensure that all students are performing at their best and if they’re not, there is a way to get them back on track and ultimately accept responsibility for their own learning and growth.

Because that is really the outcome we desire. It’s not necessarily college-readiness because college is a pit stop on the way to a career, not a destination unto itself. And it’s not solely about career-readiness because a job, while a big part of someone’s life, is not the totality of it.

What high schools should be preparing students for is to be life-long learners, that is, to grasp every opportunity no matter how mundane and tedious, as a lesson to be absorbed and applied.

You see, I’ve got a lesson I’d like to share with Estoque and his classmates: you will never get away from people who will try to do the bare minimum. Your challenge is to learn from these experiences, so that you get the maximum out of these interactions. When you adopt that kind of mentality, you will be a success regardless of where you land and what life throws your way.

Class dismissed.

Filed under: Career Readiness,college,CPE,High school — Tags: , — NDillon @ 10:22 am





June 8, 2016

High-level academics+CTE = Success in college and work

This entry also appeared on CPE Director Patte Barth’s Huffington Post page

Colonial School District straddles the boundary where suburban Wilmington gives way to Delaware’s rural eastern shore. Its one high school, William Penn, serves a racially diverse population, about 40 percent of whom come from low-income families. Penn is a model for getting kids ready for life after graduation. Ninth-graders who enter its doors are asked to choose among 19 “degree programs” — essentially, career tracks ranging from construction to engineering — that will be their focus for the next four years. But there’s one choice they don’t have to make: Whether their “degree” will prepare them for college or the workforce. At William Penn, all graduates will be ready for both.

During a recent visit there, I spoke with a senior in the school’s culinary arts program who exemplifies the Penn way. In addition to his studies in the busy kitchen, which doubles as a student-run catering business, he has six AP courses under his belt along with his industry certification. Elsewhere in the building I saw physics being taught in a wood shop, while in another more traditional classroom, 11th-graders explored issues of race and equality in Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian story “Harrison Bergeron.”

Our studies at the Center for Public Education show that William Penn High School’s approach can be a winning formula for all students. For the last two years, our senior policy analyst, Jim Hull, has been examining longitudinal data on the high school graduating class of 2004 in order to identify factors related to later economic and social outcomes for individuals who do not go to college. The findings have been published in a series of reports we call “The Path Least Taken“ which reflects our initial discovery that non-college goers represent a small proportion of high school graduates. At age 26, only about one in ten had never enrolled in a college.

Like many other studies, we found that going to college is generally better than not going at all. Enrollment in a two- or four-year institution increases the chances that individuals will be employed full-time, earn higher wages, as well as vote and volunteer in their communities. As an overall group, non-college goers faced the dimmest prospects. But not all of them.

By drilling into the data, Hull found that some non-college goers fared well in comparison. These individuals in high school had taken high-level math and science, earned a C+ grade point average, and completed an “occupational concentration” of at least three courses in a specific labor market area. Throw in a professional license or certificate and these 26-year-olds performed better economically than the overall group of their peers who had enrolled in college. We labeled this combination of attributes “high credentials.”

Chart3“High credentials” also boosted prospects for high school grads who went to college, but didn’t earn a degree.

Compared to their peers who also left college early but lacked high-level courses and focused career training in high school, those with high credentials saw much better chances for higher wages and good jobs.

The implications of these findings for education policy couldn’t be clearer. Schools need to assure that all high school students have the benefit of high-level academics and get the support they may need to succeed in these courses. Students also need access to modernized career and technical education (CTE), including programs that lead to professional certification.

Earlier this month, we released the third and final installment of the series in which we were able to identify and compare the outcomes of non-college goers against those who had some college and those who actually earned a degree. Again, the overall group of non-college goers was outperformed in virtually every category. However, the “high-credentialed” non-college goers had better outcomes than those with some college but no degree, as well as two-year degree holders. Moreover, they were competitive with four-year college completers on several indicators, including hourly wages and full-time employment.

Keep in mind, this is not your father’s vocational ed. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) put it well during a mid-May Congressional hearing on the Perkins Vocational and Technical Act, which is currently due for reauthorization. Sen. Kaine acknowledged that the history of voc ed was too often an inferior alternate for students who weren’t considered “college material.” In his testimony he stated: “[T]here is a history of tracking students into vocational education, and we must ensure that federal CTE investments replace tracking with choice. Students and their families should have the opportunities to choose high quality CTE pathways that will prepare students for postsecondary education AND the workforce, not postsecondary education or the workforce.”

The William Penn senior I met could just as easily be headed to a college campus as to a restaurant kitchen after receiving his diploma. He told us that, in fact, he has enlisted in the military where he plans to use his culinary skills. College, he said, is still in his long-range plan. Fortunately, his high school made sure he has the knowledge and skills to keep all his options open. All of our youth deserve the same.






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