Teachers

  • As traditionalist gift givers are no doubt aware, the tenth anniversary metal is tin. Last week, with a slew of ten-year retrospectives and events commemorating the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, a longtime reform critic traded in her responsible commentator’s hat for one of those nifty ones made from tin foil. Business journalist Andrea Gabor, who has spent years grinding an axe against school choice and high standards, attempted to bury it in the back of the New York Times with a breathless op-ed decrying the “myth” of the post-hurricane New Orleans schools revival. The Seventy Four quickly published a rebuttal of the simple factual inaccuracies in Gabor’s piece, and reform-friendly superintendent John White wrote a paean to the city’s charter district and the educators who work there. But the best response has come from liberal pundit Jonathan Chait, who defended high-achieving charters as “one of the most impressive triumphs of American social policy.” New Orleans still hasn’t completely turned around a school system that was irrevocably broken even before the storm. But after a decade of progress, it’s attracted allies from across the spectrum, and that’s something to celebrate.
  • Franz Kafka is most famous
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In most states, only math and reading teachers in grades 4–8 receive evaluations based on value-added test results. For all other teachers, it’s on to Plan B. To evaluate these teachers, many districts are using alternative measures of student growth, which include vendor assessments (commercial, non-state exams) and student learning objectives (SLOs, or teacher-designed goals for learning). But how are these alternative measures being administered? What are their pros and cons? The research on this issue is terribly thin, but a new study from the Institute of Education Sciences casts an intriguing ray of light. Through in-depth interviews, the researchers elicited information on how eight mid-Atlantic districts (unnamed) are implementing alternative measures.

Here are the study’s four key takeaways: First, educators considered vendor assessments (with results analyzed through a form of value-added modelling) to be a fairer and more rigorous evaluation method than SLOs. Second, both alternative measures yielded greater variation in teacher performance than observational methods alone. Third, implementing SLOs in a consistent and rigorous manner was extremely difficult. In fact, the authors write, “All types of stakeholders expressed concern about the potential for some teachers to ‘game the system’ by setting easily attainable goals.” Fourth,...

Chad Aldeman and Kirsten Schmitz

In the midst of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s controversial 2011 budget bill, many warned that the state’s public employees, including teachers, would retire in droves. The bill, commonly known as Act 10, limited public workers’ ability to collectively bargain on any topics other than base wages, increased their contributions to public pensions, and raised their insurance premiums.* The pension and health care increases immediately cut the take-home pay of public workers, combining with hostility toward Governor Walker to contribute to a wave of public worker retirements. 

But the story didn’t end in 2011. After an initial 80 percent surge, the number of workers retiring fell back in line with long-term trends. Wages and staffing levels also appear roughly in line with historical trends. The initial retirement figures were large, but when put in context relative to the state’s total public sector workforce, the numbers weren’t as remarkable.

Let’s start with the historical data on retirements. Tracking retirement numbers back twenty years, the number of Wisconsin state employees retiring each year has climbed steadily, in line with growing numbers of state employees across the state. The graph below shows what this looks...

  • Detroit Federation of Teachers President Steve Conn made a promise to his members this spring. When it came to fighting pay cuts and stemming the growth of the city’s charter sector, he claimed, “Nobody is going to stand in my way.” As it turned out, nobody had to. To the relief of virtually every responsible grown-up between the Great Lakes and the Rockies, Conn was found guilty of misconduct by the DFT executive board and shown the door last week, the inevitable end to a seven-month reign of futility. Elected in January following a fiery confrontation with more conciliatory union leaders, he pledged to defend union prerogatives even if it meant taking on the mayor, the public schools manager, and the governor of Michigan. Instead, he alienated everyone outside his tiny klatch of supporters and watched the union descend into factionalism. Detroit Public Schools is one of the most financially troubled districts in the country, paying out nearly thousands of dollars every day in annuity interest. For the sake of public education in the city as well as the best interests of its members, DFT needs to be headed by a savvy, sensible president—not the Tony Montana
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Hiring a teacher should be like buying a house. But according to a new report from Bellwether Education Partners, California treats the process like it’s purchasing a widget. And this is the wrong mindset when the state is experiencing a shortage in teachers—especially those trained to educate its diverse population of six million children.

The problem, it turns out, isn’t money. Thanks to a new funding formula, California schools will receive $3,000 more per student in the 2015–16 school year than in 2011–12, a 45 percent increase. Instead, the state lacks viable candidates and high-quality training programs. During the 2013–14 school year, for example, the state needed to hire twenty-one thousand teachers, yet it only awarded credentials to 14,810—a decrease of one-third from five years ago.

So where are all the teachers? Pursuing other professions now that the labor market has finally improved, the report surmises. Moreover, millennials aren’t hustling into teaching programs because they don’t rate the profession as prestigious or ambitious as other options, says Bellwether.

Teacher preparedness is equally problematic. California suffered a similar shortage in the 1990s and started hiring teachers with no experience by using emergency permits. Some worry that the state is headed in...

The New Teacher Project’s recent study indicating that billions of dollars are largely wasted on ineffective professional development has raised a question central to all of our reform efforts: How do we make teachers better?

This new brief from the RAND Corporation, representing the preliminary observations of their ongoing assessment of the Leading Educators Fellowship program, attacks that question from the angle of mentoring and teacher leadership. Leading Educators is a national nonprofit that selects and develops exceptional mid-career teachers, training them to act as guides for their less experienced peers and spearhead improvement efforts in their schools. Its specific aims are to inculcate leadership skills among participants in the two-year fellowship, boost the achievement of students taught by both fellows and their mentees, and increase teacher retention in high-need schools. The organization’s own characterization of the study asserts that the program has now graduated over three hundred fellows. That cohort has mentored approximately 2,500 teachers, affecting by extension some sixty-nine thousand students in New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C.

The report compared program participants (both fellows and mentee teachers) to people who had applied and been rejected, as well as other teachers deemed similar by...

This study examines the effect of market fluctuations on teacher quality. Using reading and math scores of students who took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test between the 2000–2001 and 2008–2009 school years, the authors construct valued-added scores for thirty-three thousand Florida teachers, then test to see if a number of business cycle indicators (such as unemployment and GDP) predict these scores.

Based on these data, they estimate that teachers who enter the profession during a recession are more effective at teaching math and English language arts than non-recession teachers (by 0.10 and 0.05 standard deviations, respectively). They arrive at slightly larger estimates for male and minority teachers and those entering the profession later in life.

According to the authors, increases in the supply of effective teachers, rather than decreases in demand or differences in attrition, account for the superior quality of teachers hired during recessions. Presumably, these increases are driven by a decline in the quality of alternative employment opportunities for these individuals, some or all of which reflects a decline in their expected earnings relative to those of teachers.

Following this line of reasoning, the study bears two implications: First, recessions are a great time for the government or...

It’s that time of year: Parents are perusing the back-to-school section with their perhaps not-so-eager-to-return-to-school children. Teachers, meanwhile, are gearing up for—or are already attending—in-service and professional development sessions that aim to prepare them for the year ahead. While studying class lists, decorating classrooms, and prepping lesson plans for a new year is exciting for teachers (trust me, walking into the teacher store before a new school year is just like coming downstairs on Christmas morning), the black cloud of professional development (PD) looms. And then it remains.

In a new report entitled The Mirage, TNTP (the nonprofit that brought us The Widget Effect) took a deep dive into teacher PD in three large traditional districts and one midsize charter network. The findings were not pleasant. In the traditional districts, an average of approximately $18,000 was spent on development per teacher, per year—totaling anywhere from 5 to 11 percent of the districts’ annual operating budgets. Overall, district teachers spent about 10 percent of their typical school year in PD. Despite all that time, however, ratings showed only three out of every ten teachers substantially improved their performance, based on the districts’ own evaluations. While beginning teachers...

  • The notion of character education is pretty well understood by now. If successfully imparted to disadvantaged children, advocates claim, personal qualities like grit, gratitude, and optimism can steer them to beneficial habits and help them catch up with their more well-to-do classmates. “No-excuses” charter networks like KIPP have energetically publicized their commitment to the philosophy, monitoring students’ progress in the development of such traits. But a piece in the New Republic takes a more dubious stance. The author, whose initial interest in KIPP’s approach cooled after taking part in program founder Dave Levin’s online class, writes that his newfound reservations about character education are threefold: Nobody actually knows how to teach character; it’s being taught in a morality-neutral way; and it narrows the scope of education. Some of the article’s assertions are downright goofy (“While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber.” Dude, what?), but he’s right that there’s still too little evidence of positive character maturation driven by initiatives like KIPP’s. And our obsession with “performance character” should be matched with equal concern for “moral character.” Clearly the subject is ripe for
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As a teacher, I measured professional development on a spectrum from “vaguely aligned” (we played math games!) to “I’d rather be teaching phonics right now” (any session that involved someone reading, verbatim, from a packet I had in hand). The midpoint was “at least it’s free grading time,” which was how I, an early childhood teacher, viewed any session on standardized test reading passages. But while I was frequently frustrated, I thought it was a problem specific to me; somewhere out there, I reasoned, there was PD that could help a teacher improve. And anyway, it was only a couple of days a year—not too significant.

Not exactly, says this new report from TNTP, which dug deep into the efficacy and size of three districts’ (and one charter network’s) investments in teacher professional development; it found the efforts outsized and the payoffs lacking. Researchers looked at three districts and provided low, medium, and high estimates of the annual cost of PD, which were based on which line items one included in the final price tag. On the low end—comprising only teacher time and baseline expenditures to host the PD—districts spent at least $50 million each year. On the high end—when...

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