Teachers

Over the course of 2014, a series of reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) spotlighted some serious issues with education schools in Ohio. The Buckeye State boasts performance reports that analyze teacher preparation programs, but these reports merely show how little is expected of candidates prior to their acceptance into a teacher preparation program. Furthermore, Ohio doesn’t have minimum standards or clear consequences for poor programs. NCTQ is right that our teacher preparation programs need to get better in two key ways: improving candidate selection and strengthening teacher training. Here’s how.

Candidate selection

Right now, Ohio sets a low bar for admission into ed schools. Countries with the highest scores on PISA[1]—like Singapore and Finland—restrict admissions into teacher preparation programs to only their best students. In fact, in Finland, becoming a teacher is such a competitive process that only about one in every ten applicants will be accepted to study to become a primary school teacher. This is similar to what Teach For America does: In 2014, more than 50,000 people applied to join TFA, and only 5,300 were admitted—an 11 percent acceptance rate.

The intense screening process is designed to select only the candidates who are most likely to succeed. In Finland, for example, teacher candidates are chosen based on exam results, their high school diploma, and their out-of-school activities. They then complete a written exam on assigned pedagogy books, participate in an observed clinical activity...

James R. Delisle took aim at differentiated instruction (DI) in his commentary in the latest issue of Education Week, noting the challenge of making this nice-sounding idea work with the reality of many of today’s classrooms.

As our own Mike Petrilli wrote in 2011: “[T]he enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom” is the greatest challenge facing America’s schools. The implication is that those teachers seeing success with differentiated instruction—however few they may be—simply have less variation in learning levels among their students and, therefore, have less differentiation to do. (Oh, and that they have the right training, full understanding, endless diligence, and loads of time.)

So what’s the answer? Delisle wants to bring back ability grouping to fully replace DI. It is hard to deny  that America’s classrooms have changed greatly over the last few decades, so perhaps it’s time to toss out “one or the other” thinking and go for something new—a hybrid of sorts.

How about curriculum-based mastery instead? A content sequence with multiple check points along the way (yes, that’s testing). Master it, move on. Don’t master it, remediate until you do. In such a case, you can get the advantages of both DI and ability grouping. Students at both the high and low ability levels start at the same point in a new content area. Groups of students with similar achievement move forward together; those needing similar remediation work do so together. All with the...

Debate begins today on H.R. 30, a bill to tweak Obamacare so that large employers need not provide insurance for their staff unless they work forty hours per week, versus thirty hours under current law. The rationale is clear: The thirty-hour rule appears to be encouraging employers to cut workers’ hours, which is driving down income at a time when many part-timers are already struggling to make ends meet.

It got me thinking: How many school districts would be required to provide health insurance to their teachers under the proposed standard? Of course, virtually everywhere, such benefits are already baked into state law and/or local contracts for teachers, so this is just a thought exercise. And yes, most teachers work longer than is contractually required—both on site and at home. But so do professionals in other fields. The current debate made me curious about the mandatory workweek of the nation’s teachers.

To find out, I tapped the National Council on Teacher Quality’s fantastic Teacher Contract Database, which pulls information from collective-bargaining agreements (or their equivalents in non-union states) from more than one hundred districts nationwide. (Most of the data are current as of the 2013–14 school year.)

What did I learn? Most of the districts in the database don’t require a forty-hour workweek, and several don’t even come close. Let’s be honest, some of these workweeks are shockingly short. Sacramento’s barely hits the current Obamacare threshold!

Take a look for yourself at the range from the shortest to longest...

The 2014 version of the State Teacher Policy Yearbook from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) focuses heavily on the “critical issue” of teacher preparation. And in the glare of that spotlight, NCTQ finds that, while the average state grade for teacher preparation policies has improved from a D in 2011 to a C in 2014, there is still far more work to be done to ensure that new teachers are prepared to help students meet the demands of college and career-ready standards. Three states—Florida, Indiana, and Rhode Island—are ahead of the pack and earned grades of B+. Two states (Alaska and Montana) earned dismal F grades. Ohio falls into the middle of the pack with a grade of C, but this “average” grade hides several troubling truths about Ohio’s teacher preparation practices. For example, in Ohio, only fourth- and fifth-grade elementary teachers are required to pass adequately rigorous content tests. In fact, the Buckeye State is one of only four states in the nation that doesn’t require all elementary teachers to pass a content test prior to licensure. Ohio’s middle school teacher preparation policy is better, since teachers must pass an appropriate content test in every core subject they are licensed to teach. The same is true at the high school level, but the tests have significant loopholes for science and social studies teacher candidates. These candidates, who often specialize in certain disciplines (think chemistry vs. biology; American history vs. world history), are permitted to take content tests...

The one where Mike and Robert agree on everything

The importance of vocabulary, ESEA reauthorization efforts, school discipline, and how school environment affects teacher effectiveness.

Amber's Research Minute

Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay, “Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December 2014).

Having worked on educator evaluation reform at a state department of education, I do my best to keep up with developments related to the extremely tough work of state-level implementation. I follow New Jersey’s progress especially closely because I took part in the work there (and I’m certainly biased in its favor).

If you also track such stuff, take a look at the “2013-14 Preliminary Implementation Report on Teacher Evaluation" recently released by the NJDOE

There’s much to like here, including the way the state reports on the history of the program and its focus on district engagement and continuous improvement.

But two things really caught my eye. First, the report has some important data points. For instance:

  • The pilot program included thirty districts and nearly 300 administrators.
  • More than 25,000 educators took part in some kind of state training in 2013–14.
  • The new program may have increased the number of teacher observations around the state by 180,000(!).
  • More than half of districts are using some version of the Danielson observation instrument, and most of the remaining districts are using one of four other tools.

Second, the state is betting on “student growth objectives” (SGOs) and putting significant energy into implementing them well.

The state held forty-four SGO workshops from late 2013 through early 2014, then held another thirty-nine “SGO 2.0” sessions this spring, then added more this summer and fall because of demand. According to a state survey,...

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute teamed up with the London-based Education Foundation to host a conference, “School Leadership: Lessons from England”; to publish a new paper by University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Supovitz and the Center for Policy Research in Education, Building a Lattice for School Leadership: The Top-to-Bottom Rethinking of Leadership Development in England and What It Might Mean for American Education; and to release a short documentary, Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads.

The catalyst for all three was the aggressive reform effort of the English government over the past decade to revamp that country’s approach to school leadership. At the center of the reform is the eminently sensible idea that school leadership needs to be a team endeavor.

No, it’s not a new idea. There’s been plenty of discussion about “distributed leadership” on both sides of the pond for years. But while we’ve mostly jawboned the idea, the Brits got busy doing it.

What they did in particular was clarify and formalize three levels of school leadership, each with distinct roles and responsibilities: headteachers who lead schools (equivalent to the principal’s role in the U.S.), senior leaders or deputy heads who assist the headteacher (similar to the vice principal role in American education, but with additional school-wide responsibilities), and middle leaders responsible for the quality...

Maybe it's because I just saw Interstellar last weekbut after a weekend-long Twitter battle with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and her defenders, I can't help but think that some of them are living in an alternate universe. For those who haven't heard, teachers unions are outraged at this Time Magazine cover story last month by Haley Sweetland Edwards. It wasn't so much the story as the cover that many public union supporters just couldn't get past. The magazine even pulled the story out from behind its paywall so the distraught union tweeters could do more than judge the magazine by the cover, but to no avail. Weeks later, the howls of outrage continue unabated.

I’d mostly ignored the story until this point, but I couldn’t help but respond to Weingarten’s assertion over the weekend that “@TIME’s ‘rotten apples’ cover was a personal attack on educators.” First, it seemed contradictory that the cover could be a “personal” attack on educators generally, but the bigger question was why exactly this was so threatening and outrageous? Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy site did a solid job of covering the blow-by-blow from there, but now that the Twitter armies have moved on to other matters, the question remains: Why does the AFT seem so determined to keep this phony controversy alive? 

Now, it’s important to recognize...

All Hallows Edition

The testing pushback, a college boost for poor kids, adolescent readers, and school-supporting nonprofits.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Rise of School-Supporting Nonprofits," by Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley, Association for Education Finance and Policy (Feburary 2014).

All the world's a stage - October 22, 2014

The benefits of live theater, how and whether to discipline, detrimental reading tests, and relative school costs.

Amber's Research Minute

The Relative Costs of New York City’s New Small Public High Schools of Choice,” by Robert Bifulco and Rebecca Unterman,  MRDC (October 2014).

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