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February 9, 2017

Alternative facts and America’s so-called failing public schools

Hello, Joe and Mika. My name is Patte and I am a compulsive Morning Joe watcher. I enjoy the background chatter, banter and congenial badgering while I’m getting ready for work. And often a segment makes me stop and pay attention.

Which happened during Wednesday’s show. The topic was the to-the-wire confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  But the substance had more to do with our so-called failing public schools. Political strategist and frequent Morning Joe table talker Steve Schmidt kicked it off by calling our public education system “fundamentally broken” and a “total profound failure.” As evidence, he pointed to Los Angeles where, he claimed, “50 percent of Black and Latino students don’t make it to a diploma.” Joe, you piled on, saying that “public education is broken” and “everyone knows that’s the case.”  The generally affable Willie Geist weighed in: “We can’t keep dumping millions into a broken system.”

Admittedly, I’m a little sensitive. After all, being for public education is embedded in our name, the Center for Public Education. But fundamental to our mission is also being data-driven. And the ubiquitous assertion that public schools are failing sets our collective teeth on edge.

Two things:

  • By many measures, public schools are performing better than they ever have.
  • Public schools still need – and want — to do better.

Since Steve Schmidt brought it up, let’s talk about high school graduation. The rate of high school students graduating is at historically high levels. In 2014, public schools posted their highest ever graduation rate — 82 percent — largely driven by gains for Black and Latino students. To be sure, gaps are still present, but they have narrowed significantly.

So what about Los Angeles? The overall grad rate for LA Unified Schools was 72 percent in 2015, up from 62 percent five years earlier. The rates for Black and Latino students were, respectively, 67 and 71 percent, lagging their peers nationally, but clearly better than the 50 percent Schmidt reported.

Other measures may be surprising. Our younger public school students are rocking it in math. According to results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, today’s fourth-graders score 27 points higher on the NAEP scale than their peers did in 1990. Eighth-graders have higher scores by 19 points. To put it in layman’s terms, that’s about two years more of math learning. Although reading gains aren’t quite as dramatic as math, reading scores have likewise improved over the last two decades. And here’s a shocker: in math and reading, fourth-graders perform significantly above the international average.

I could go on. College-going rates are up. High schoolers are taking higher level math and science. More of our youngest students are enrolled in high-quality pre-k programs.

This is not to say we are where we need to be. High school students aren’t improving as fast as our elementary and middle-schoolers. Despite the progress made with low-income and minority students, schools have yet to close the achievement gap. And an 82 percent grad rate is not 100 percent. Clearly, we have a lot more work to do. But the perpetuation of the notion that our public schools are failing masks the real gains public schools have made. Worse, it sends a discouraging message to the hard-working educators who are making children’s lives better every day.

Joe, Mika – I love what you do every morning. But on this topic, you are flirting with joining the culture of alternative fact. It’s not too late to pull back and we can help. We even have charts. Have Steve Rattner give us a call.

Your fan,

Patte Barth

January 17, 2017

How schools hire teachers

Much attention has been paid recently to teacher shortages.  However, less attention has been paid to how schools hire teachers, which has a direct impact on the shortage issue (which varies by subject and region).  Ineffective teachers are more likely to leave, as are those who don’t “fit” well with the culture or demographic of the school.  This, of course, makes sense – people don’t typically want to stay in jobs they’re horrible at, especially ones that are high-stress and low-pay.  There are lots of other reasons teachers leave, but principals don’t typically have a lot of influence over employees needing more time for family, a job closer to home, or higher salaries.  Teachers’ satisfaction with their work environment and school leadership is paramount to their retention, as well, but today we’ll just focus on who gets hired.  Previous research has shown that principals and other hiring managers tend to hire teachers based on their relational skills – motivation, honesty, enthusiasm, and caring – over their track record for student achievement.

As a personal anecdote, I was hired as a teacher by three different schools in two Texas districts. I never had to provide a sample lesson plan, teach a sample lesson, provide prior test scores, or provide prior evaluations. It’s possible that they checked my references, but I’m not sure. I was certified for the grades and subject areas I was hired to teach, which are often hard to staff, and was willing to teach in high-poverty schools, so maybe the lack of data-collection was due to teacher demand being higher than the supply of qualified teachers.

Image result for teacher hiring

A recent study shows that my experience is not unique.  The researchers performed interviews with principals and school administrators in six large public districts and two smaller charter districts to determine how data was used.  About 70 percent of the principals reported using teachers’ previous observation or test score data when determining whether or not to hire teachers who might transfer into their campus from elsewhere in the district.  This seems to point toward a trend in which principals increasingly use data; previous studies showed that only 40 percent of principals used student achievement data in hiring decisions.  As more states and districts develop teacher evaluation systems, we may see this trend continue upward.  Performance-based assessments are even less commonly used.  The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that only 13 percent of surveyed school districts required teachers to teach a sample lesson with students.

You may be asking why 100 percent of principals aren’t using data, and I’d have to answer that there are multiple reasons.  First, in most teacher evaluation systems in which a teacher is observed by a school administrator, over 90 percent of teachers are typically found to be effective or highly effective.  The lack of distinctions and the subjectivity of these evaluations render them virtually meaningless in the hiring process.  While principals may look negatively on someone falling below this threshold, they may also balance this data with personal recommendations or personal experience with the subjectivity of the evaluation system.  They may also have limited options for qualified candidates to hire.

Even value-added models, often used as components of teacher evaluations systems, are not fully reliable.  Teacher scores may change from one year to the next, or from one test to another.  If principals are aware of the shortcomings of the testing system, they may be hesitant to rely on it for hiring. Many subjects are not tested on an annual basis, making it difficult to use related data for hiring teachers who don’t teach math and language arts.

Finally, teacher observations are often biased against teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools, as well as against men.  Given that high-poverty, high-minority schools are also the most difficult to staff, it makes sense that principals might take prior evaluation scores for teachers who have taught at other high-needs schools with a grain of salt.

While data on teacher effectiveness may be flawed, it doesn’t mean that we should throw it out entirely.  If a teacher consistently has low scores or has bounced between schools due to ineffective ratings, principals would be wise to heed this information.  We can use data to weed out some bad apples; we can’t necessarily depend on it to be 100 percent accurate or predict success.

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?

August 22, 2016

The “Soft” Side of Teacher Supply

Our last blog post talked about the “hard” side of teacher supply – the money.  However, we also alluded to non-monetary factors that are even more important in recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers: respect, job satisfaction, and autonomy.  Very little research has focused on why individuals choose to become teachers, but we do have a plethora of information from teachers about why they choose to stay or leave the profession, which we can use to make assumptions about recruiting new teachers, as well.

A recent Center on Education Policy (CEP) survey highlights teachers’ views on why they entered the profession (mostly altruistic) and their greatest challenges (mostly policy-related).  Teachers, like most professionals, want to feel successful in their jobs (Moore Johnson & Birkeland, 2003), which is supported by evidence that teachers with higher value-added test scores are less likely to request transfers between schools (Boyd, et al., 2011).  35% of teachers who leave the profession cite dissatisfaction with their job as at least one of the reasons for leaving (Ingersoll & May, 2011).

How do we tap into teachers’ altruistic motives to create policies that may keep more high-quality teachers in the field?  Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Help novice teachers be more successful. The National Center for Education Statistics found that beginning teachers were more likely to stay if they had a mentor, with 86% of teachers with mentors staying in teaching for five years, as compared with 71% without mentors.
  2. Give teachers time to collaborate and be creative by reducing the number of hours they are instructing students. Forty-nine percent of teachers in CEP’s survey reported that their day-to-day teaching would improve with additional planning time and 34% reported that additional collaboration time would help them in teaching. U.S. teachers spend significantly more time in the direct instruction of students than their peers in other countries:


    Source: http://www.oecd.org/edu/EAG2014-Indicator%20D4%20(eng).pdf


  1. Build effective systems around student discipline. Each student has unique behavioral needs, which must be addressed through individualized strategies. Students should not be allowed to disrupt their peers’ learning, nor should they be suspended for minor infractions.  Schools and principals need to support teachers and by providing behavioral supports, both positive and punitive.  Teachers in CEP’s survey reported “managing student behavior” as their greatest school-level challenge.
  2. Include teachers in decision-making. CEP’s teacher survey clearly showed that teachers do not feel that their opinions were taken into account by policy makers. Teachers are on the ground every day with students, and thus know more than any other level of decision maker how policies translate into practice.  Involving teachers in policy making may have better outcomes for students, as well as improved perceptions of teacher professionalism.

Teacher Decisions

August 15, 2016

The Supply and Demand of Teacher Pay

We know that teachers are the most important school-level factor that contributes to student achievement.  And we’ve all heard that teacher pay is low.  But how low is it, exactly?  And does that really affect the supply of people entering the teaching profession?

First and foremost, teachers don’t teach for the money.  A recent Center on Education Policy survey found that only 1% of teachers listed “earning potential” as a significant factor for entering the teaching field, compared with 68% of teachers who said they taught to “make a difference in students’ lives.”  However, the number of high school graduates who are interested in a career in education has dropped since 2010 to only 5%, according to ACT, despite an anticipated increase in demand for new teachers.

If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into teaching, though, improved salaries might help.  Teacher salaries lag 23% below those of all college graduates, and 17% below those of similar individuals, when comparing weekly salaries (some of this difference is explained by the gender gap – over 80% of teachers are female).  Even when accounting for additional compensation, such as pensions and insurance, teacher salaries are 11% less than their peers.  This is significantly different from the 1970s, at which point teachers actually earned more than the average of their peers.

Wage Gap

Other countries with successful education systems treat their teachers as professionals.  A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures found that these countries recruit teachers from the best and brightest students, often provide free university-level training, and give teachers the autonomy to make decisions that lead to their students’ success.  Teachers have career ladders in which they can mentor novice teachers and take leadership roles.  Teachers in these systems often earn similar salaries as accountants and engineers.

Even if we don’t like to admit it, higher-earning professions are often more respected and revered.  While the cause and effect in this scenario may be muddled, we assume that doctors deserve the pay they receive because they are smart and well-educated.  Could we also assume that smart people enter the medical profession because they know they will be well-compensated and challenged in their professional life?  Sure, they also want to help people be healthy, but I haven’t heard that argument come up in discussing doctors’ wages.

Teaching is not all about the money, but Economics 101 should have taught us that the world often boils down to supply and demand.  If we want to increase the supply of high-quality teachers, we also have to increase their pay and respect.  We need a system in which our teachers are well-trained, competent professionals for which they are fairly compensated so that our students are provided with the educations they deserve.

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