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288 posts categorized "Education"

November 11, 2013

New Episode of Schooled - "Confessions of a Bad Teacher"

Check it out at Slate. I discuss the challenges and opportunities of teaching in high-poverty urban high schools with two teachers. John Owens lasted less than a year after leaving publishing to teach in the South Bronx. Alex Caputo-Pearl, a member of Teach for America's inaugural class, has been working for two decades in Los Angeles public schools, and was dismissed from Crenshaw High School after he led a controversial curriculum reform effort there.


November 04, 2013

Don't Miss My New Slate Podcast, "Schooled!"

This past spring, I got together with David Plotz, the editor of Slate, to discuss ideas for education coverage on the site. We wanted to come up with a project that would be relevant to parents, wonks, and everybody else who cares about kids and improving schools. 

The result is "Schooled," which launches today. The first episode features Amanda Ripley and myself, discussing whether American schools are anti-intellectual, what Teach for America and Finland have in common (hint: it involves the number 5), and who performs better on international tests -- the average Canadian kid or the average kid in Beverly Hills, California?

On future episodes we cover research on giftedness, class size, whether affluent kids learn less (or more) in mixed-income schools, and what to look for when you visit schools in which you're considering enrolling your child.

I'm proud to say five of the six episodes include either a current or former public school teacher. And that my producer was the very excellent Sally Herships.


September 10, 2013

TFA Teachers Perform Well in a New Study -- But Teacher Experience Still Matters

Before I dive in to Mathematica's new, positive research on Teach for America, a major caveat: Past studies of TFA suggest its recruits are more effective at teaching math than other subjects, and this study looks only at math. Across the board, it is easier for schools and teachers to raise math test scores than literacy scores. That's because most kids encounter math only at school, while in reading and writing, middle-class kids get a huge boost from vocabularly and book-rich home environments.

Here we go.

The study design: Mathematica compared the performance of 136 TFA math teachers and 153 Teaching Fellows math teachers in 11 unnamed school districts to the performance of "matched" math teachers from other training programs, working within the same school buildings and with similar low-income student populations. Student outcomes were measured using end-of-schoolyear standardized tests. TFAers and Fellows were not compared to one another, in part because they tend to work at different schools.

The big takeaway: TFA math teachers outperformed non-TFA math teachers in their schools by .06 standard deviations in middle school and .13 standard deviations in high school. The talking point will be that this is the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of learning per schoolyear. But it's important to realize this represents a relatively modest improvement in student achievement. For the average child in this study, who scored in just the 27th percentile in math compared to her peers across the country, having a TFA teacher will help her move up to the 30th percentile--still a long way off from grade-level math proficiency.

Teaching Fellows teachers, who tend to be career-changers, not recent grads, performed similarly to their non-Fellows peers. They were slightly less effective than traditionally-certified teachers, but more effective than teachers who came from non-elite alternative certification routes.

Teacher experience still matters: The bias against first-year teachers is borne out in the data. The students of second-year teachers outperformed the students of first-year teachers by .08 standard deviations--a larger gap than the average one (.07) between the students of TFA and non-TFA teachers. And even though TFA recruits did well in this study, that doesn't mean teachers reach their pinnacle after two years on the job. To the contrary, the researchers found that for teachers with at least five years of experience, each additional year of work was associated with a statistically significant increase of .005 standard deviations in student achievement. Interestingly, during years 2, 3, and 4 of teaching, there is no observable improvement. So this study shows a big leap in effectiveness from year 1 to 2, a flat line for a few years, and then slow and steady improvement year-to-year after year 5.

College selectivity is not a magic cure-all: Are TFA teachers successful because they hail from elite colleges? Maybe not, this study suggests. Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

It doesn't matter much what teachers majored in: One of the big critiques of traditional teacher education is that not enough teachers have college degrees in the subjects they teach. But in this study, traditional teachers were actually more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. That coursework didn't necessarily help them become better teachers.

And teachers' own test scores are not all that predictive: TFAers and Fellows demonstrated better standardized test scores in math--they scored an average of 17-22 points higher than their counterparts--perhaps because they were much more likley to have attended academically selective colleges, which require good test scores for admission. The relationship between teachers' own test scores and student achievement remains murky, however. The researchers conclude that at the high school level, higher teacher test scores are associated with slightly better student outcomes, but that there is no relationship between teacher and student test scores at the middle school level.

Coursework is distracting: When a teacher is taking night courses--as all first-year TFA teachers do, to meet state certification requirements--student achievement declines. 

So, why are TFA teachers successful? If it isn't college selectivity or their higher test scores in math, what's the theory of change? After observing TFA's summer training institute this July, I'd guess that there are two major factors. First, TFA teachers are incredibly mission-driven and optimistic. They actively choose to teach in low-income schools and they are selected because they believe closing the achievement gap is not only important, but possible. This inspires them to work hard. (Of course, many non-TFA teachers have these characteristics, as well, and also tend to be great at their jobs.) Second, TFA's training emphasizes data tracking of student outcomes and the importance, specifically, of raising standardized test scores. That could lead to the students of TFA teachers getting more test-prep and hearing more messages about why performing well on tests is important.

Update: The researchers tell Dylan Matthews that although they used the results of high-stakes state exams to measure student outcomes in the middle-school grades, at the high school level, the tests they used were completely new to the teachers, so they couldn't have prepared students for them. I'd still make the point that the students of TFA teachers may be more likely to take testing seriously, for the reasons I outline above.

Don't forget race and class: Of TFA's 2012 class of recruits, 62 percent are white. But the TFA sample in this study was a whopping 89 percent white, while the demographics of the non-TFA comparison teachers were starkly different: only 30 percent white. The student population, meanwhile, was 80 percent low-income children of color. As I research my book, sources across the country are telling me, anecdotally, that urban districts are losing teachers of color, especially African American teachers. Given what we know about the importance of race-similar role-models for minority students, and how this, too, can affect achievement and school culture, it's important to gather more information on how well districts and teacher training programs are doing at putting teachers of color in front of students of color. 

September 06, 2013

Achievement Gaps Shrunk Faster in the 70s and 80s than Over the Past Decade

Yesterday I noticed Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post and Matt Yglesias of Slate tweeting that there is proof education reform is working. They cited this set of charts of NAEP score improvements since 1996, posted by Mac LeBuhn, a policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform. 

I hate to be a downer, but attributing this good news to recent reform pushes, like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and new teacher accountability schemes is extremely iffy, just as Stephen Sawchuck of Ed Week pointed out. Here's why: It just so happens that we have NAEP scores since 1971, and in the area of 8th grade math, which LeBuhn highlighted, the increase in raw scores and reduction of the achievement gap is actually a longterm trend. Take a look:

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In fact, achievement gaps shrunk much faster during the 1970s and 1980s than they have over the past decade, essentially because of skyrocketing performance from black children while white children remained relatively stagnant. Was this because of education reforms predominant back them, like school desegregation? Or because of demographic changes, since a more diverse group of students with more challenging backgrounds take the exam today? There are endless hypotheses, but no proof that any one kind of reform, or even reform itself, has led to these changes.

August 13, 2013

Are American Schools Anti-Intellectual?

Over at The Daily Beast, I review Amanda Ripley's new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, which reports on why schools in Poland, Finland, and South Korea are out-performing American schools:

For all our national hand-wringing about standardized testing and teacher tenure, many of us immersed in the American education debate can’t escape the nagging suspicion that something else—something cultural, something nearly intangible—is holding back our school system. In 1962, historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed it “anti-intellectualism in American life.”

“A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference,” he wrote, “underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else—the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children.”

It would be comforting to think that since Hofstadter’s time a string of national reform initiatives—A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core—has addressed these issues. And though there has been some progress on the margins, journalist Amanda Ripley is here with a riveting new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, to show us exactly why, compared with many of their peers in Europe and Asia, American students are still performing below the mark.

Read the whole piece.

July 08, 2013

Why We Love to Hate the Bad Teacher

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Head on over to TIME to read my latest piece, an essay about this controversial new novel featuring a female pedophile teacher.

July 02, 2013

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider -- as in the New Fatherhood ideal -- single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

June 19, 2013

In New York's Mayoral Race, Who Will the Teachers' Union Endorse?

Update 2, 5:50 pm: The UFT has endorsed Bill Thompson.

Update 1, 5 p.m: The UFT executive board has recommended Bill Thompson for mayor. Now the 3,400 Delegate Assembly will vote.

This evening, the United Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teachers' union, will endorse a candidate for mayor of New York City. Most close observers believe the pick will be either Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio. Thompson is the former city controllor and former head of the now defunct Board of Education, which was abolished when Mike Bloomberg gained mayoral control of the city's schools. In 2009, Thompson shocked New York politicos when he came within just a few points of defeating Mayor Mike Bloomberg in his bid for a third term. Yesterday, Thompson was endorsed by the principals' union, and he had already won the support of Randi Weingarten, the president of the national American Federation of Teachers, to which the city UFT belongs. Bill de Blasio is the current city public advocate and a former member of a Brooklyn community school district board -- another body abolished by mayoral control. He is running generally to the left of the rest of the field, and has already received a major union endorsement from SEIU 1199. (The candidate with a modest lead in the polls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, has been booed at UFT events, and is seen as overly aligned with union foe Bloomberg.)

On education, Thompson and de Blasio have staked out many similar positions. Both are in favor of continuing mayoral control, but with checks and balances from a more independent Panel for Education Policy. Both are skeptical of standardized testing and are in favor of "moratoriums" on school closings and charter school co-locations within public school buildings. Both have said they would end the Bloombergian practice of appointing school chancellors who built their reputations in fields other than education. Both say they might continue the experiment in weighing student test scores in teachers' evaluations, but in reality, this is not a city-level issue; New York State's new teacher evaluation law, crafted in response to President Obama's Race to the Top competition, requires that student data be included. Thompson's campaign chairwoman is Merryl Tisch, a state education official who strongly supports Race to the Top. 

The candidates' divergences on education policy are ideologically idiosyncratic. De Blasio says generously endowed charter school networks, like Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, should pay rent if they use space in public school buildings, a position in line with a failed lawsuit filed in 2011 by a group of parent activists who often ally with the teachers' union. Thompson opposes rent for charter schools. But de Blasio also supports ending seniority-based teacher layoffs. Here, he is agreeing with the education reform movement embodied by Mayor Bloomberg and often opposed by the union. Thompson's position on seniority remains unclear. 

To my mind, the major education policy difference between Thompson and de Blasio is that de Blasio supports raising taxes on city residents who earn more than $500,000 annually -- from 3.86 to 4.3 percent -- which could theoretically provide a way to fund the many education extras he is proposing, such as universal pre-K, community and health services within public school buildings, and more arts education. Thompson, on the other hand, has said, "Let me be blunt, so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m not raising taxes."

You'd think this would swing the UFT endorsement toward de Blasio, but that may not be the case. For one thing, only Albany has the power to raise taxes, and there is scant evidence that Republicans and moderates there would be willing to take the lead of a progressive Democratic mayor on this issue. Last week I interviewed Peter Goodman, a veteran UFT teacher, organizer, and staffer, who remains active in the union's retiree chapter. Within the UFT, there is a concern that should de Blasio win the Democratic nomination, it could strike so much fear in the city's tax-averse corporate elite that "they would pump money" toward the campaign of Joe Lhota, the leading Republican, Goodman said. Union leaders are also cogniszant of the coalition-building that could come from allying with a strong, black Democratic mayor. "Having an African American candidate is a good idea," said Goodman, who was a strike leader in 1967 and 1968, when the city schools convulsed with conflict between union teachers and black and Latino activists and civil rights groups, who supported more parent control over schools. 

"If you look at Tweed," Goodman said, the headquarters of the Department of Education, "and who works there, they are very white. And I think things like that, you have to be very sensitive to. To ignore it is at your own peril, and I think this [Bloomberg administration] leadership has done that. To me, that’s one of the great failings. This is an enormously multi-ethnic city and demographics are destiny."

Civil rights organizations are split in their approach to teachers' unions. The NAACP, for example, has joined the UFT in suing New York City to stop school closures and charter school expansions in low-income neighborhoods. From Washington, however, national civil rights-oriented advocacy groups, like Education Trust and the Children's Defense Fund, have been more supportive of charter schools and the push for teacher accountability. 

New York's mayoral election will have big implications for school reform nationwide. Have parent activist opponents of standardized testing and charter schools -- who generally support "millionaire's taxes" to fund community schools -- organized themselves into a force strong enough to sway a major union endorsement toward a left candidate like Bill de Blasio? Or will pragmatism prevail? The shape of the race will be clearer after tonight's UFT endorsement. 

For more: Read Philissa Cramer on the union's endorsement process.

June 10, 2013

When Buzzwords Collide: "High Expectations" and "Differentiation"

In response to today's Times piece on in-classroom ability grouping, I blogged over at Slate about the potential tensions between "high expectations" and "differentiation," two of the education world's favorite buzzwords. The comments section is rollicking, with many Slate parents supporting pull-out gifted and talented instruction. Among teachers participating in the discussion, there seems to be some disagreement about whether the optimal classroom groupings are static or flexible. One teacher supports stable groups that include one child great at math, another strong in reading, another who is an avid artist, etc. Another says classroom groups should never be static; continuous assessment means students can move into an advanced group on a given subject when they grasp a new concept, providing a sense of accomplishment. 

Check it out.

June 07, 2013

The Woman Upstairs and the Pedagogy of Love

Screen Shot 2013-06-07 at 11.36.40 AMLike, I think, a lot of women readers, I have lately been discomfited by Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is pushing 40, single, and childless. She has several close friends, throws fun birthday parties, and makes “serious” art in her spare bedroom. She is also a devoted caretaker of her elderly relatives, and quite good, even excellent, at her elementary school teaching job. Nevertheless, Nora’s placid life is disturbed, from the inside out, when she becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, an artistic, intellectual couple and their precocious young son, who is in Nora’s third-grade class. The Shahids represent for Nora all she has missed out on: marriage, motherhood, and a career in the arts. She stews in a jealous rage toward these people, even as she attempts to attach herself to them; to vicariously experience a life so much richer and more satisfying, the book tells us, than her own.

What’s so bad about Nora? It’s not, as some reviewers have implied, that she is unlikeable in a way female characters ought not to be. The problem is that Nora is a stereotype. Messud has written her as a minimally-updated (Nora has a job, after all, and a sex life) version of a nineteenth century Old Maid: a caricature made nearly revolting by her alone-ness; a sort of leech on the breast of (re)productive womanhood. This is perhaps most deeply, disturbingly felt in a scene in which Nora, with only a moment’s hesitation, crawls into bed to cuddle with 8-year old Reza Shahid, acting “so like his mother,” almost leeringly enjoying the affection of another woman’s “beautiful” child.

Perhaps these characterizations bothered me all the more because Nora is a public school teacher. The founding thinkers of the American Common Schools movement, Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher, explicitly conceived of teaching as a job for spinsters. Teaching could ease the stigma of being unwed. It allowed single women to “homemake” inside the classroom, caring for children, just as the Calvinist God supposedly predestined all women to do. Historians call this the “pedagogy of love”—the idea that it is more important for female teachers to act as surrogate mothers to their students than it is for them to actually impart academic knowledge. Of course, many great teachers are warm and caring. But the sexist assumptions behind the pedagogy of love are so problematic—they have been such a barrier to rigorous public education, and to the professionalization of teaching—that it is disturbing to see these ideas reproduced so unquestioningly in the novel. Beneath her carefully cultivated professionalism, Mrs. Eldrige, it turns out, is really just a frustrated, barren woman.

And Messud traffics in another outdated 19th century conception of the female teacher: that she is good at her job because she is, herself, childlike. We know from Nora’s first-person narration that she considers herself stuck in the “dutiful daughter” stage of life; she is consumed by her own housewife mother’s disappointments and expectations, and more interested in deciphering her parents’ marriage than in taking the risk of being in a long-term relationship herself. In a weird inversion of reality, Nora had left a high-paid, jet-setting consulting job—money and prestige hadn’t mattered to her—to study art and then become a teacher. (In real life, of course, people do Teach for America and then go work for Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, rarely the other way around.) When a mother of one of Nora’s students “says that I get kids, part of me puffs up like a peacock, but another part thinks she is calling me crazy. Or that, at the very least, she’s separating me from the tribe of the fully adult. And this, in turn, will explain…why I don’t have children of my own.” Nora confirms the thesis. “I’m like the children,” she admits. “My motivations and my reasons aren’t always clear.”  

Irrational, unpredictable -- even obsessed and crazy, under a surface of stable independence. That is Messud’s vision of the single, childless woman. It made me sad and scared and angry. Sad for Nora. Scared to ever become like her. And angry on behalf of all the single women leading impressive and rewarding lives, who have to confront these stereotypes day in and day out, and who might expect something richer, and more unexpected, from one of our leading novelists.