What Minnesota Can Learn From Indiana’s Teacher Evaluations

They’ve measured twice, and it turns out there’s not much cutting to do.

Indiana recently released results from its new teacher evaluation system, which has been updated like many other states’ to incorporate calculations based on test scores as part of the evaluation. The results: Only 2% of teachers and administrators were identified as needing improvement, with less than a quarter of those labeled as outright ineffective. This resembles other states’ results. For example, 98% of teachers in Michigan’s new system were rated effective or better, as were 98% in Tennessee and 97% in Florida.

For those who believe that educational inequity is the result of an epidemic of bad teaching, these results raise eyebrows. For everyone, they raise questions. How many of this year’s teachers who “need improvement” or are “ineffective” will be rated as effective or better next year? How about the year after that? What is the appropriate response to teachers labeled “ineffective”? What is the “right” percentage of “ineffective” teachers?

Teacher evaluation is still growing as both a process and a policy tool. Various critics have questioned the validity and usefulness of in-person observations. Critics have also challenged the accuracy, reliability, and usefulness of evaluation techniques that rely on calculations based on student test scores. And none of that helps figure out what should happen when the evaluation system stamps a teacher “ineffective.”

As Minnesota looks ahead to statewide implementation of its new evaluation system in 2014-15, we can learn from other states’ experiences. We shouldn’t expect a large share of our teachers to be labeled “ineffective.” We shouldn’t bet on firing teachers as a major path to improvement and equity. And we should give more thought to how we focus on support and improvement for teachers at all points on the evaluation scale rather than hoping that the hunt for bad teachers will fix much of our equity problem.

We could interpret the results from Indiana and other states as a sign that most teachers really are effective at their jobs. Some will no doubt argue that we just aren’t being tough enough in our evaluations. Others will argue that we still don’t have the tools we need to reliably assess quality on a large scale. Whatever your interpretation, our focus for the next few years should be on supporting and developing teachers as professionals, not betting on the new system unmasking thousands of terrible teachers.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teachers  Teacher Assessment 

The Dean on the Screen

There’s not much poetry in our education discussions, but one pair of rhymes has endured. “The sage on the stage” and “the guide on the side” describe teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, respectively. The two have been engaged in a boxing match over the direction of pedagogy for decades.

For most schools during most of U.S. history, the teacher-centered sage has been the champion, so much so that I’d bet when most people hear the word “teacher,” they first picture an adult in front of a chalkboard or whiteboard at the front of a classroom.

The student-centered guide has mostly been the plucky challenger, though recently it’s gained more attention. While teacher-centered instruction is still the dominant mode of education—further reinforced every time a school or district adopts a heavily scripted curriculum that precludes most student-centered approaches—some people are growing increasingly interested in how technology can help more teachers move to the guide role.

We have to be intentional about how we incorporate technology into education, at least if we want it to help students. Those hoping for “The Dean on the Screen” to automatically transform stage-sages into side-guides are in for disappointment, especially after recent years have penned in so many teachers with narrow curriculum and teacher-centered approaches mandated from above. Effectively incorporating new technology with new teaching requires the change in instructional approach to precede, or at least accompany, the new tech.

A move to a more student-centered approach is good, and technology will be useful. However, effective student-centered teaching doesn’t require the latest in modern technology. In fact, pinning our instructional hopes on new tech is basically a guarantee they won’t be realized, at least in the short term. Basically every given piece of shiny new technology is subject to the Gartner hype cycle, where we imagine the grand new possibilities, then find that the technology alone doesn’t get us there, and then (maybe) climb out of the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Here’s the bottom line: If you want student-centered schools, make student-centered schools. To the extent technology is helpful, use it. To the extent it’s overhyped, avoid it. But focus on the teaching, not the tech.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum 

Voucher Advocate Is Bored with Common Core Debate, Thinks We Should Have More Vouchers

Education Week recently ran a commentary piece from the board chair of Democrats for Education Reform, who expresses impatience with the debate about the Common Core and argues instead for vouchers. I am less than impressed.

Reading through the commentary, we can see the usual checklist of market reform rhetoric. Reference to the civil rights movement? Check. The false dichotomy of reformers vs. “the status quo”? Check. Overblown claims that “choice is the answer”? Check.

The author cites an anecdote from Milwaukee, home to the country’s longest-running voucher experiment. The results of that experiment after more than 20 years aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement for vouchers. Milwaukee’s voucher students do slightly better than students from under-resourced backgrounds in the Milwaukee Public Schools district, but worse than the district as a whole. Since voucher students can now come from families with incomes up to roughly $67,000 for a family of four, that’s a wash. And, of course, half the families that enter the voucher program leave after two years.

The author also conflates vouchers with “school choice,” ignoring the other forms of choice such as charter schools, open enrollment programs, and magnet schools. All of these exist in Milwaukee, too, and have for over fifteen years. The result of all this choice and competition between schools? A marketplace with lots of mediocre options and only a couple of standouts in each system. It’s a stark reminder that choice alone is not “the answer” for educational quality, contrary to the author’s claims.

Meanwhile, the Common Core -- debate over which has so exhausted the author -- has only existed for a few years, and only the last year has seen much controversy. Of course, if we were much more aggressive about promoting private schools and vouchers, the Common Core debate would grow increasingly irrelevant, since those private schools wouldn’t be held to the Common Core standards. (This is similar to how vouchers enable the publicly funded teaching of creationism.)

The author calls for proposals for other options. How about we stop betting on a market approach to schooling, invest in building and activating schools’ capacity, promote full-service community schools, get explicit about making schools anti-racist, rethink the present accountability system that (intentionally or not) promotes narrowed curricula and scripted, teacher-centered instruction, and promote more student-driven and project-based learning? Just as a starting point.

I understand that the slow pace of change in schools is frustrating. I’m frustrated, too. But to pivot from impatience or boredom with the Common Core debate to questionable voucher systems isn’t helpful. We can do better.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Education Funding 

We Don’t Always Know When We’re Biased

Most of the bias in our society operates without people being aware of their own bias.

Over at the Shanker Institute’s blog, research associate Esther Quintero has rounded up some key points about implicit bias, which operates below the conscious level, using the same system as other mental shortcuts that help us function in day-to-day life.

This bias gets into everyone. As Quintero writes, “Stereotypes operate implicitly...regardless of our own race/gender, and even when our personal beliefs are completely to the contrary.” That doesn’t make its effects any less harmful, but it hopefully makes it easier to accept that having implicit bias doesn’t put you in the same camp as Bull Connor; it just means you’re a human being living in a society that continues to be marked by its past and present racism.

The ramifications of this are broad. Quintero offers three classic studies looking at the effect of implicit bias on hiring and academic tenure decisions, as well as on letters of recommendation. It’s also fair to hypothesize that implicit bias may contribute to the racial disparities we see in school discipline responses and special education identification. Especially when formal policies are ambiguous, like when “defiance” is a suspendable offense, implicit bias subverts decision making.

There is some good news about weakening implicit bias. The more familiar we are with an individual, the weaker our implicit bias becomes, at least with regard to that individual.

For teachers, this means that building strong individual relationships with their students can help undercut any implicit bias that might affect their judgment and behavior. Additionally, teachers can help students disrupt their own implicit biases by, for example, intentionally structuring group work to help students build those individual associations and break down stereotypes.

At the policy level, this is another argument for smaller class sizes. The more students a teacher is trying to serve, the longer it will take and the harder it will be for them to build strong individual relationships with each student. Additionally, this offers additional reasons to pursue integrated schools. Finally, policymakers should support professional development that helps teachers build awareness of and counteract their implicit biases without shaming them as bad people.

By default, schools in a society with deeply embedded institutional racism and sexism (and other forms of oppression) will replicate and perpetuate those problems. However, we can use the available research on implicit bias and teachers’ capacity for building relationships with their students as tools of anti-racism. We need to do so intentionally, with the recognition that the default state is harmful implicit bias.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Racial Inequalities  Revenue Sources 

If Congress Wants Different Ed Policy, It Should Replace NCLB

Sometimes a criticism of policy is a reasonable argument. Other times it’s a diversion.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weathered criticism for conservatives in Congress. They were unhappy about the role the federal government played in promoting the Common Core. Duncan flinched away from the attacks, describing himself as “just a big proponent of high standards,” with the shared nature of the Common Core State Standards a less important concern. He also offered the questionable claim that no federal grants required the Common Core.

So here’s the thing: Yes, Common Core adoption was helpful in the Race to the Top grant contest and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver process. Yes, there are reasonable criticisms to make of the Common Core’s design, implementation, and testing requirements that don’t require indulging conservative paranoia about national standards as the grasping hand of Big Brother. None of this, though, makes Congressional conservatives’ attacks on Duncan anything other than a sideshow.

Yelling at Arne Duncan about the Common Core is one of the least productive things Congress can be doing on education right now. If they really want to decrease the power of the Department of Education, they should pass a new education bill replacing NCLB. The law is overdue for replacement, and its failures are well-documented. Working on a new law that maintains NCLB’s attention to equity concerns while addressing its larger failings would be a worth use of representatives’ time.

It would also require conservatives to compromise on various points, so there’s no chance of it happening. Still, for legislators to chew out the Secretary of Education for trying to advance education policy when the legislature is apparently incapable of producing an alternative smacks of hypocrisy.

There are reasonable debates to be had about the Common Core, and any serious replacement for NCLB will actually require compromises that the right seems unwilling to make on any issue. With that said, let’s not confuse conservative complaints about the Common Core for actual education policy.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform  NCLB 

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Put the “Comprehensive” Back in Sex Education

For some late teens and young adults, engaging in the “hookup culture” is part of growing up. Instead of turning a blind eye and hoping our kids aren't part of it, we should get serious about educating people about the issues that come with the behavior, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual  assaults, rape and harassment.

Many of our college campuses have been and continue to do just that, helping students lead healthier, happier and safer lives, including Macalester. There are numerous talks and campaigns that are embracing the fact that college students are having sex, and are trying to encourage safer sex practices rather than shying away from the fact. However, what are high schools doing to ensure that these students come into college equipped to deal with the stresses like college, where casual sex is a prevalent practice?

Young people (ages 15-24) are particularly affected, accounting for half (50 percent) of all new STIs, although they represent just 25 percent of the sexually experienced population,” according to a 2013 CDC report. Abstinence only education isn’t realistic at all. To ensure that these kids don’t end up pregnant or contracting STDs, comprehensive, age appropriate sex education is important. The world these kids live in is a lot more complicated and dangerous than people want to believe.

According to the American Public Health Association, “Experts in the fields of adolescent development, health, and education recommend that sexuality education programs as part of a comprehensive health education program assist young people in developing a positive view of their sexuality, provide them with information necessary to protect their sexual health, and help them acquire skills to make informed decisions, both now and in the future.”

Morally and ideologically justifying why or why not the “Hookup culture” exists, isn’t going to help anyone. In the end, everyone should have youth's best interests at heart. These students are going to enter the world, unprepared to deal with the variety of issues related to sex, including pertinent issues such as rape, sexual assault, and harassment. Thus, comprehensive sex education should aim to address these issues.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Public Health 

With Anti-Bullying Legislation Passed, What’s Next?

Now that Minnesota has updated its anti-bullying law, districts across the state are taking stock of what the new version means for them. For the legislation to have its intended effects -- protecting children from bullying on any grounds -- it must be implemented with fidelity. Going forward, leaders of each will need to balance several priorities.

Know What the Law Says

A lot of misinformation about the law has proliferated. A particularly prevalent concern is the false notion that it only protects LGBT students from bullying. In actuality, the law protects all students from bullying. The focus on anti-LGBT bullying stems from concerns about district policies, like the now-defunct “neutrality policy” in Anoka-Hennepin, that tie educators’ hands when addressing matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. Those types of local policies won’t be OK under the new law, but neither will bullying directed against other student groups.

Additionally, this law still allows for local control, provided districts meet the basic expectations established by the state. Districts still have the power to shape their own policies, but if they don’t meet the new guidelines, they’ll adopt a default policy crafted by the Minnesota Department of Education. Many districts have put a lot of work into creating effective anti-bullying policies, and those can either be preserved or lightly amended as necessary.

Respect the Power and Diversity of the Community

Community voices have a key role in shaping district policies. As I documented a few months ago in my “Local Lessons” report, the community discussion in Anoka-Hennepin was intense. The district was forced to reevaluate its policy following several student suicides and a lawsuit, but there was still significant resistance from some parts of the community. In similarly conflicted communities, local leaders must ensure that districts not only adopt appropriate policies, but that those policies are enforced.

Safety, Justice, and Education Are More Important Than Punishment

Speaking of enforcement, an important facet of the new law is its emphasis on incorporating more positive mechanisms for preventing and addressing bullying. Strict punishment isn’t the goal. Instead, student safety needs to be maintained, and would-be or former bullies need to learn not to engage in such harmful behaviors. This can include the use of a restorative justice framework or other approaches, and it is a great reason for schools to reevaluate how they handle discipline.

There’s still much to be done to address the bullying problem in many districts. This law is a good first step, but it’s just one step. We need to hold our local leaders accountable for guaranteeing that all students have a safe and humane experience of school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Education Administration 

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Students in the Driver’s Seat

As the hunt for effective school models continues, I see signs of a growing challenge to the orderly, regimented “no excuses” model associated with schools like the KIPP charter chain. That challenge comes, not from a wholly new model, but from renewed interest in an older one. While the student-driven model may not be the newest kid in the block, and it might not be best for all students, it’s probably better for more students than it serves right now.

I touched on the student-driven model in my discussion of project-based learning during the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs conference, and alternative programs are far more likely to feature deeply student-centered approaches than more conventional or “no excuses” classrooms. You can read a different perspective from a different state at Education Week’s “Learning Deeply” blog, which has a post describing Massabesic Middle School, a student-driven district school in Maine.

Common features of student-driven approaches include deep student awareness of learning objectives, but students are not forced to study the same topics at the same times. Instead, each student takes ownership for demonstrating their learning satisfactorily. The role of teachers is to help students adjust to this more self-directed approach, to provide learning support and guidance, and to ensure students are in fact making appropriate progress towards their goals. Many student-driven schools are getting better and better at incorporating technology to support this learning model, but it’s notable that the learning model comes first, with the technology as a tool, not a savior. Uniform classroom behavior and instruction is deemphasized, group work is made easier, and students get lots of experience setting goals, making plans to achieve them, and following through. All of these are useful attributes for students preparing for life in modern society.

As I said, this approach is not new, but it does seem radical when contrasted with the highly controlled, teacher-directed environments at the “no excuses” schools or the scripted curriculum and instruction that characterizes too many district schools afraid of bad test scores.

We will continue to see our school landscape diversify, both in and outside of districts. Some students may well do best in the “no excuses” environment, but we need more teachers and schools prepared to operate with the student-driven model.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum 

Even With New Teacher Evaluations, Brace for Uncertainty

The experts have weighed in, and they urge caution in designing and interpreting the results of new teacher evaluation systems.

At Education Week, a group of psychometric experts have presented a piece that lays out several conditions that need to be met before a teacher evaluation system’s labels can be considered meaningful. These conditions include, among others:

Many of these are quite challenging. Observations of teachers, relying as they do on human beings, will require significant, ongoing effort if they are to “appropriately assess teacher performance” and be “sufficiently reliable.”

Cold hard data seems a safer bet for those looking for that reliability, but as Matthew DiCarlo at the Shanker Institute has observed, “Value-added estimates are imprecisely estimated, and so there’s a limit as to how much they can ‘match up’ with each other, whether between tests or years. In fact, even if value-added was a perfectly ‘accurate’ measure of teacher effectiveness, there would still be a great deal of instability due to nothing more than this error (which is itself mostly a result of the countless factors that might affect student testing performance).”

The Education Week authors lead off with an example of a teacher inappropriately labeled “the worst teacher in New York City in 2012” due to an overly regimented application of the evaluation algorithm. They call for states to take advantage of additional time granted by the federal Department of Education when rolling out statewide teacher evaluation systems using newer techniques such as “value-added” models.

Minnesota’s legislature recently decided not to delay our system, which goes live across the state next school year (with some districts implementing their own systems provided they meet certain criteria). Still, we would do well to remain cautious and open to revision when relying on the new system to label teachers. It’s also worth remembering that our expectations for the new system’s effect on students should be realistic, in both scope and timeline.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teacher Assessment 

What Happens When the U.S. Does Well on International Tests?

We’re used to seeing the U.S. show up somewhere around the middle of the pack or slightly below on international assessments, but what happens when we come in above average? That’s a question that needs confronting now that the 2012 results for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) problem-solving test have been released.

The U.S.A.’s mediocre performance on the PISA math and reading tests is routinely used to justify anxiety about the country’s education system. When the assessment focuses more on real-world style problem-solving questions, however, it turns out that the U.S. comes in statistically significantly higher than the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Statistically, we share company with Germany, Norway, France, and the UK, among others.

At the top of the charts are names familiar from other PISA tests: Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and a collection of Chinese jurisdictions (which should be evaluated with a grain of salt). Also outscoring the U.S. are Canada, Australia, and Finland.

Of course, the amount of real information that can be gleaned from these tests is relatively small. For the same reason that we shouldn’t get too anxious about U.S. performance on the math and reading tests, we shouldn’t get too excited about our performance on the problem-solving test. Still, those who point to disappointing U.S. scores on PISA’s math and reading tests as a rationale for their preferred policies should be asked if their preferences change at all in light of these findings.

Other interesting findings:

There’s no question that we have real equity problems in our country, and that many of them manifest in our school system. Taking the time to recognize that we’re not in a total performance crisis is also important (even on international tests that don’t say much about our long-term economic competitiveness or students’ future quality of life), if only as a preventive measure against making bad decisions out of panic.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Student Assessment 

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