Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sensible Education Reform

It is a pleasant surprise whenever I find a liberal public institution making a sensible policy proposal. Thus the report of the Hamilton Project, associated with the liberal Brookings Institution, caught my eye. (It was even written up today by Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times -- another surprise.)

“Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job,” written by Robert Gordon, Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger, makes several specific recommendations for K-12 education reform:

Recommendation 1: Reduce the barriers to entry into teaching for those without traditional teacher certification. There is no reason to limit initial entrance into teaching to those who have completed traditional certification programs or who must take such courses in their first years on the job (like my friend Bob G.).

Recommendation 2: Make it harder to promote the least effective teachers to tenured positions. School districts have very good information about a teacher’s effectiveness after two or three years on the job and should base retention decisions on that trial period.

Recommendation 3: Provide bonuses to highly effective teachers willing to teach in schools with a high proportion of low income students. Today, the lowest achieving teachers are clustered in the poorest schools where students are most in need of effective teaching.

While there is a severe shortage of science and math teachers, the potential supply of technical workers (engineers, lab technicians, etc) who might enter teaching is thwarted by the credentialing requirements. Recent evidence demonstrates that teacher certification is a poor predictor of teacher effectiveness. Data from 150,000 students in 9,400 classrooms in the Los Angeles Unified School District (yearly from 2000 through 2003) show that there is no statistical difference in achievement for students assigned to certified and uncertified teachers.

If one examines the course curriculum of teacher’s colleges, this result is not surprising. Heather MacDonald in The Burden of Bad Ideas explains why Johnny’s teacher can’t teach. It’s because Teacher Ed schools worry more about stamping out racism in aspiring teachers than about test results. In fact they worry about “Anything But Knowledge”: self-actualization, social adjustment, following one’s joy, multicultural sensitivity,… “ABK” was born in the anti-intellectual fervor following WWI when progressive educators such as John Dewey decided that schools needed to prepare students for life by providing life knowledge as opposed to traditional knowledge.

They decided that kids needed to learn “critical thinking skills” rather than spelling, the multiplication tables or any facts at all. When teachers dismiss actual knowledge, you have to replace it with something, and the Ed schools favored “constructed knowledge.” I have mine, you have yours, Johnny has his, and it’s all just fine.

They promoted “child-centered schools” where the kid became the decision maker relegating the teacher to the role of advisor (a much easier gig). Teachers were taught disdain for report cards and objective tests in favor of “meta-cognitive thinking.” At all costs teachers must avoid “teaching to the test.” It sounds like discredited folderol, but professors of education, “like aging vestal virgins, still guard the progressive flame.”

Returning to the Hamilton Project report, effectiveness varies substantially among certified teachers and also among uncertified teachers. And those large differences are evident even after adjusting for the obvious socioeconomic and educational factors such as baseline test performance, race/ ethnicity, family income, gender and so on.

While certification status was not helpful in predicting teacher impacts on student performance, teacher ranking during their first two years of teaching does provide a lot of information about their likely impact during their third year and beyond. The average student assigned to a teacher who was in the bottom quartile during his or her first two years lost on average 5 percentile points relative to students with similar baseline scores and demographics. In contrast, the average student assigned to a top-quartile teacher gained 5 percentile points relative to students with similar baseline scores and demographics. Therefore, the average difference between being assigned a top-quartile or a bottom-quartile teacher is 10 percentile points. Furthermore this 10 point delta is cumulative growing to 20 points in two years, etc.

Many measures might be used to assess teacher performance including principal evaluations, parent evaluations, classroom observations, and the number of times a teacher is absent. However, measures of outputs and performance rather than credentials would need to be used.

We hear a lot about the critical need to reduce class sizes. An experiment in Tennessee of classroom size reduction found that schools could improve achievement by half as much—5 percentile points—by shrinking class size in early grades. But class size reduction of the magnitude considered in that experiment is expensive: shrinking average class size from twenty-two to sixteen students per class would require a 38 percent increase in the number of teachers and the amount of classroom space in those early grades.

Progressive doctrine has severely damaged our educational system. It is time to bring teaching into the twenty-first century where competition drives improvement and over-regulation is the enemy of progress.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read. I'm going to forward it to a few teachers and retired teachers I know.

When you mentiioned "Tennessee" I thought of Lamar Alexander. My understanding was that he had been president of the University of Tennessee when elected Governor. During two gubernatorial terms he managed to raise public school test numbers from near to bottom to the middle. Mark Shields called him "a whale of a Governor." Bush, Sr. appointed him Secretary of Education. Twice he announced as candidatefor president but never got anywhere.

What's your take on him, if you have any thoughts on him?


12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
Full speed ahead! A few qualification though: Don't persist in teaching all ability-level students to only to one mediocre test until 95% of them score 75% or better and call that an education. Credentialing is pretty superfluous PAST at least one child or adolescent psychology class (as parents we can forget everyone isn't or hasn't been parents.) In 3 years you can tell the best and the worst teachers - the bulk though who will be in what we might call the "acceptable/affordable" designation, can take 5 years to be (and be seen to be) really effective - worth considering some additional incentives to reduce turnover - including (once the chaff is jettisoned) encouraging later retirement.

That'll teach 'em!

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry - should have explained - In 3 years you can tell the best and the worst teachers - the bulk though who will be in what we might call the "acceptable/affordable" designation, can take 5 years to be (and be seen to be) really effective - this is especially true in 2nd through 7th grade classrooms because the yearly (or otherwise periodic) combinatorial variations of particular students can change the group dynamics of the class so profoundly that an "affordable" teacher's ability to adjust productively across the range is rarely seen in 3 years because the range doesn't get a chance to cycle through. Less, but still true in the other grades because the first two years for the "non-stellar" teachers are pre-splash parts of the dive into the water - very difficult to infer ultimate capability from.

Don't discount the importance of the subtleties of mastering the subtleties of group dynamics - the very best teachers will privately tell you, they are embarrassed what they did not learn to do in this regard until their 2nd decade in teaching. Remember, when we try to mass educate, the difficulty of maximizing learners' chance at learning more in multiple student classrooms transcends any basic formula approach. Watch a mesmerizing teacher at work, - see what they are accomplishing, and then come to grips with how much of their seemingly intuitive approach is more likely reflexively experientially based.


1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with all of this but also education must start at home and with the parents. We are also lacking in that. How many children are told how important it is to read a book instead of watching TV all day much less playing computer games. Take your child to the library instead of the video store.

Our education system is all messed up but we can do some correcting at home.


1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, maybe it’s time to bring it into the early 20th century where it produced the most powerful generation in history. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and citizenship would be a good start. Basic skills at an early age combined with a country you can be proud of would be fine by me.


1:04 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Hi Phil,
Thanks for the feedback.

The problem with a minimalist approach to testing is that it could drive the entire class to the lowest common denominator. My teacher friends tell me, however, that the better students find ways to excel despite the pitiful standardized tests. They go for As in their courses and take AP courses. The problem is when too much teacher time is taken up working with the low performers in a widely mixed class. That's why I favor classes segregated by ability.

I agree about the "acceptable/affordable" group in the middle of the new teacher distribution. The 3 year trial period would allow the schools to weed out the worst 20% and let them go. The rest I'd retain, but never grant tenure. Every year the bottom 10% of the entire teacher population should be put on improvement plans and given two years to meet reasonable targets. Failing that they should be fired. The top end should be rewarded. That is the way that the best of corporate America works.

The best thing the School Boards could do is to recruit retired engineers, scientists, soldiers, mostly men, and get them into the classrooms after only one child or adolescent psychology class and some practice. The Ed Schools and the unions will have a fit, which I see as an extra benefit.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am curious why a poor performing teacher should be jettisoned after a few years of teaching? Shouldn't there be someone to help them become a great teacher, a mentor to guide them so they can learn to be a better teacher? I personally know 2 young adults who have gotten their teaching credentials in the last 2-3 years, are teaching and are young, bright and full of potential. I sincerely hope such talent would not be cast aside like garbage because someone could not mentor them. They went to college to learn how to become a teacher and clearly not to become rich. Should they not be given the same support they might find in the corporate world?

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill you said, "We hear a lot about the critical need to reduce class sizes. An experiment in Tennessee of classroom size reduction found that schools could improve achievement by half as much—5 percentile points—by shrinking class size in early grades."

This is wrong -- the Hamilton Project people (Gordon, Kane, Staiger) play with the numbers. They claim a 10 point gain, when it is just 5 points.
The final conclusion is only justified if, as they point out, the effects accumulate. But one other condition has to be met – THE KIDS WHO ARE AHEAD WOULD HAVE TO BE ASSIGNED TO THOSE BOTTOM-QUARTILE TEACHERS.

Sorry for the all caps, but After all, students did NOT move up or down 10 points, they moved up 5 points; the ten point difference is in comparison to someone who dropped back 5 points. So, if the achievement gap is 34 points, it would take 7 years to close it, but only if effects accumulate, only if those who had 5 point gains had not just had particularly good years, only if these results were repeated year after year.

That the doubling of the results (a 5 point gain is presented as 10 points because it could have been a 5 point loss) is important. The authors claim that research on what they call “classroom size reduction” (I assume it is not the room that becomes smaller) in Tennessee “found that schools could improve achievement by [only] half as much—5 percentile points—by shrinking class size in early grades. (Krueger 1999)”1 This, by the way, is the famous reduction from “twenty-two to sixteen students per class” that is derided as too expensive in many presentations . If only Krueger had thought to get Tennessee officials to also increase the size of some classes so he had see some negative results, then there would be a bigger difference and the teacher quality people would not quote him and constantly make the misleading comparison.

There are a lot of these arguments. From what I have been able to gather, this is based on an extrapolation from studies that show a one year gain and then multiply by three, four or five, an iffy proposition. It is like basing a baseball contract on someone'c career year.
Take a look at Diane Ravitch's 2010 book for a look at some of these issues. You can get an excerpt at Valerie Strauss, “The 'three great teachers in a row' myth,” Washington Post, 25 Feb 2011, (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/teachers/stopping-the-three-great-teach.html) The Hamilton Report does play with numbers and makes assertions that are not backed up by their research.

Thanks, Brian Ford (brianford58a@yahoo.com)

10:05 PM  

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