Standards, Testing & Accountability

Writing in his always-entertaining blog a few weeks ago, Whitney Tilson gave a nice nod to Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed addressing the sorry state of American teacher preparation. Amid effusive praise of the piece, Whitney writes, “I think morphemes and phonemes matter too but maybe not as much as Willingham does.”  
 
This gently stated but dismissive view of the importance of reading instruction troubles me because I think it captures a viewpoint widely shared by many education reformers.
 
I don’t think it’s because there are many education reformers who reject the science here (unlike many in teacher preparation). Researchers long ago identified the reading methods that would reduce the current deplorable rate of reading failure from 30 percent to somewhere well south of 10 percent, if only schools would take that step. Teacher preparation programs that fail to impress upon elementary teacher candidates the integral connection between spoken sounds and written words are essentially committing malpractice.
  
Instead, I think the issue for some education reformers is that other reforms seem much more important. I can’t figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2 + 2...

The Seventy Four had a simple goal: to make the 2016 presidential election season one in which candidates could pause in their frenzy of backstabbing and baby kissing to talk about education. In a first-of-its-kind education forum, the site (with the help of sponsor and cohost the American Federation for Children) invited presidential candidates to discuss their vision for public schools. Republicans spoke in August, and Democrats were supposed to take their turn later this month.

But as Politico recently reported, the Democrats declined their invitations. It’s a missed opportunity. Worse, nobody seems to know why the candidates backed out.

Campbell Brown, the Seventy Four’s co-founder and would-be forum moderator, says it’s due to pressure from teachers’ unions (both the AFT and NEA have publically endorsed Hillary Clinton). “What happened here is very clear: The teachers’ unions have gotten to these candidates,” Brown told Politico. “All we asked is that these candidates explain their vision for public education in this country, and how we address the inequality that leaves so many poor children behind.” Representatives from the unions, unsurprisingly, won’t verify her claim. More troubling, the candidates won’t comment on their refusal to join in the debate. They’re remaining...

“The problem in American education is not dumb teachers. The problem is dumb teacher training,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham recently wrote in the New York Times. Indeed, if there’s any part of the education pipeline that’s ripe for retooling, it’s the way we prepare teachers. Complaints are legion, long-standing, and not unique to policy wonks. Teachers themselves routinely bemoan how poorly prepared their training left them for the realities of classroom life. Fewer than half of new teachers described their training as “very good” in a 2012 survey by the American Federation of Teachers, while one in three new teachers reported feeling unprepared on his first day.

Thus, it can only be viewed as a great good thing that two dozen deans of education schools have come together under the banner of “Deans for Impact” and committed themselves to a common set of principles, including data-driven improvement, common outcome measures, empirical validation of teacher preparation methods, and accountability for student learning. They’re also persuading other teacher preparation programs to do the same.

At a Tuesday event at the National Press Club, the group unveiled a ...

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserves the many plaudits he received on Friday from President Obama and his friends in the reform community—and even from his sometime-foes in the teachers’ unions. As everyone remarked, he’s a good and decent man, a fighter for disadvantaged kids who’s passionate about his work and loyal to his team. That was certainly my personal experience with him; he was more gracious toward me than I probably deserved, considering the many swipes I’ve taken at his policy decisions over the years.

So please bear with me one more time: Even at this moment of celebration, congratulation, and reflection regarding Arne’s time at the helm, the Obama administration can’t seem to help itself. It almost seems determined to poison the well with Congress and play to the stereotype of a government unwilling to abide by constitutional limits.

I’m referring, of course, to the decision to appoint John King (another smart, committed reformer and all-around great guy) as “acting” education secretary for an entire year rather than putting him through the Senate confirmation process.

It’s certainly true that the confirmation process has slowed to an agonizing pace over the past few decades. And the Bush 43 administration also opted...

As Ohio lawmakers return to Columbus, a debate is brewing about how to measure the effectiveness of e-schools. At issue is the fact that a large fraction of their students are mobile—for example, our 2012 student mobility report found that less than half of online students stay for more than a couple years.  Some e-schools assert that it’s unfair to hold them accountable for raising the achievement of children who spend such a brief time under their supervision.

Are they right? How should we think about accountability for e-schools, or other schools with a highly mobile population? (Our mobility study revealed that urban schools also experience high rates of mobility.) Should state policymakers make accommodations for schools with a more transient student body? Or should they stand firm on accountability, regardless of the challenges of serving a mobile population?

To be sure, these are tough issues, but policymakers can look towards a few guiding principles.

First, all kids count. Every student deserves an excellent education, regardless of whether she’s brand-new to a school or has been enrolled for several years. Think of it this way: when a fourth grade student moves from one school to another, shouldn’t the...

While plenty of folks seem to think that getting rid of Common Core would be good for schools, the standards remain largely intact in most states across the nation, including here in Ohio. Before supporters start congratulating each other on victory, however, they would be wise to recognize that the real battle for Common Core has just begun. As my colleague Robert Pondiscio points out, “far too little attention has been paid to the heavy lift being asked of America’s teachers—and the conditions under which they are being asked to change familiar, well-established teaching methods.”

This heavy lifting includes selecting curricula to teach the standards (because the standards aren't a curriculum—districts choose their own). The lift gets Atlas-like when one considers the poor alignment of the curricula from which districts and teachers can choose. Since last summer, researchers have called out textbook publishers’ misleading claims of alignment with words like “sham,” “buyer beware,” “disgrace,” and “snake oil.” Slapping “shiny new stickers on the same books they’ve been selling for years” has probably lined some pockets, but it’s also left teachers high and dry—and still hefting the weight of ensuring that students master...

Hannah Putman

When trying to improve educational outcomes, it is hard not to feel the need for urgency. We want to figure out what works now and implement changes immediately—because if we wait, kids who are in schools now will miss out. Unfortunately, this pressure to act quickly may be fundamentally at odds with the ability to measure what really works, since meaningful changes in the trajectory of student achievement are not always apparent until years later. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University provides a compelling example of exactly this conundrum.
 
Schanzenbach’s thesis is that too often, education research only assesses an intervention’s immediate or intermediate outcomes without capturing its long-term benefits. This may be particularly relevant, she asserts, when judging the impact of early childhood investments.
 
Schanzenbach offers the example of two studies (both of which she co-authored) on the famous 1990s Project STAR class size experiment in Tennessee. That well-known experiment assigned students randomly to either regularly sized classes or smaller ones. Researchers behind both papers (the first from Dynarski, Hyman, and Schanzenbach and the second from Chetty, Friedman, Hilger, Saez, Schanzenbach, and Yagan) found that the smaller kindergarten classes yielded an immediate bump in student test scores for that year; but both papers report...

Since 2003, Florida has required that schools retain third graders who fail to demonstrate proficiency on the state reading test. A new study by Martin West and colleagues examines the impact of this policy by rigorously comparing the results from students who are just above or below the cutoff for retention. The first cohort to be affected by the new policy entered the third grade in 2002, and West et al. track it through high school graduation. They also track five additional cohorts, the last of which entered third grade in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, they find that the policy increased the number of third graders retained. It started with 4,800 kids in the year prior to the policy introduction (2002) and jumped to nearly twenty-two thousand the next year. The numbers retained have fallen steadily over time, however, as more students have cleared the hurdle. The study’s key finding is that third-grade retention substantially improves students’ reading and math achievement in the short run. Specifically, reading achievement improves for retained students by 23 percent of a standard deviation after one year—and by as much as 47 percent of a standard deviation after two years—when compared to students of the same age....

  • In the entire tortured lexicon of bureaucratese, no two words can inspire more dread in the hearts of academic administrators than “Dear Colleague” (well, maybe “NAEP scores,” but that’s a separate issue). President Obama’s Office of Civil Rights has issued a fusillade of “Dear Colleague” letters to educators at every level of schooling over the past few years, relying on the magic of governmental coercion to solve such diverse ills as campus rape, inequitably applied discipline, and the existence of languages besides English. In both the Wall Street Journal and Education Next, R. Shep Melnick has picked apart the legal rationale behind yet another pernicious edict, first disseminated late last year; this one pushes schools to shrink the nationwide racial achievement gap by providing their students with equal access to “resources” (read: funding, and everything else). The policy breezes past two Supreme Court rulings that explicitly reject its legal foundations, forcing schools to meticulously chronicle the “intensity” of their extracurricular activities and the condition of their carpeting if they wish to avoid a federal investigation. Educational disparities among ethnic groups are seriously concerning, but policymakers should consider whether the best way to counter them is
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Remember all those pitched battles and screaming matches over Common Core? The furious charges of federal overreach? The demands to "repeal every word" of it? As children return to school across the country this week, Common Core remains largely intact in more than forty states. At the same time, new evidence suggests that the much tougher Common Core challenges—the ones emanating from inside classrooms—have only just begun.

Results from the initial round of Common Core-aligned tests (administered last spring) have been trickling out for the past few weeks in more than a dozen states. The results have been sobering, but not unexpected. Recall that the No Child Left Behind years were an era of rampant grade inflation. States whose students performed poorly on the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) routinely rated the vast majority of their students on or above grade level, simply because states were allowed to set their own bar for success and thus had a perverse incentive to declare ever-greater numbers of kids proficient. The result was a comforting illusion of student competence that was shattered when "proficient" kids got to college and needed remediation,...

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