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...

  • No offence to the great Michelle Pfeiffer or Morgan Freeman, but it seems like the last thing the world needs is another account of a crusading educator helping gang members turn their lives around. (The scenario isn’t improbable, exactly, just overexposed; things might seem fresher if studios ever made movies about social workers ministering to white collar crooks or county clerks counseling unwed mothers.) But there’s a great story this week about John King, tied to the announcement of his appointment as acting secretary of education, that may restore your faith in the subgenre. While serving the department in a lesser role this August, he met with a group of former convicts at Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles organization that provides resources to ex-offenders. King was probably the ideal man for the setting. Orphaned by the age of twelve and later expelled from high school, he could have very easily fallen into delinquency himself; plus, he had to face down throngs of screaming Common Core opponents in his former job as the New York State education commissioner, so he’s definitely not daunted by tough rooms. But if King can share space with hardened felons and irate
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Editor's note: This post was originally published in a slightly different form by the Seventy Four; click to see Antonucci’s deeper analysis of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

In its 2015–16 term, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a case that weighs the respective rights of teachers’ unions and the individuals who choose not to join them. If the court’s decision goes as expected, it will inflict a significant financial blow on teachers’ unions, even while improving the financial lot of many teachers themselves.

In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the court will examine the legality of “agency fees”—payments that public sector unions in twenty-one states are allowed to charge workers who decline to join their ranks. The unions call them “fair-share fees,” arguing that every teacher in a bargaining unit benefits from collective bargaining, so every teacher should chip in to cover the costs.

Public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs beg to differ. They maintain that the compulsory fees violate their First Amendment rights to free speech and free association. Supreme Court watchers on the Left and Right agree that the court is likely to decide for the plaintiffs on these grounds.

No one...

“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 ...

Dan Weisberg

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the TNTP Blog.

Yesterday on Flypaper, our friend Andy Smarick shared some reflections on “The Mirage,” our recent report on teacher improvement. Our finding that the enormous investment school systems make in teacher improvement isn’t actually helping most teachers improve tends to send people into something resembling the five stages of grief. We experienced it ourselves. Andy readily admits that he’s still stuck on denial, and from there he raises a big question that we’ve heard in other critiques of the report: Can we really trust the measures of teacher performance we used to reach our conclusions about professional development?

Andy knows the ins and outs of teacher evaluation as well as anyone, so we respect his healthy skepticism on this front. Before I address his specific concerns, though, it’s worth pointing out that our findings about professional development aren’t as dire as he and others have made them out to be. In our research, we found thousands of teachers who improved from year to year. Clearly, some kinds of professional development are helping individual teachers. The problem is that at the systemic level, these teachers are the exception...

Nearly ten years ago, Congress established the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF). A total $1.8 billion has been disbursed since then by the U.S. Department of Education to districts to accomplish four tasks: overhaul their teacher evaluation systems, create merit pay bonuses based on them, give educators opportunities to take on additional responsibility for more money, and offer professional development to support teachers in their efforts to hit these higher marks.

Under the TIF program, bonuses are supposed to be “substantial, differentiated, challenging to earn, and based solely on educators’ effectiveness.” Since this evaluation shows that 60 percent of teachers received a bonus in a subgroup of districts studied, it’s fair to wonder just how challenging to earn they really were. Moreover, understanding of the program still seems sub-optimal. In the second year of implementation, more teachers understood their eligibility for bonuses and how they were being evaluated than in the first year. “Yet more than one-third [38 percent] of teachers still did not understand they were eligible for a bonus,” the report notes. “And teachers continued to underestimate the potential size of the bonuses, believing that the largest bonuses were only about two-fifths the size of the actual maximum bonuses...

TNTP’s new report, “The Mirage,” is essential reading for anyone interested in educator effectiveness. It’s smartly researched and delivers an uppercut of a conclusion: Today's professional development doesn’t work.

There’s just one small problem. I’m not sure I believe it.

To trust its findings would mean admitting that we’ve wasted hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mean we’ve misled millions of educators and families about improving the profession. It would mean a load-bearing wall of the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-waiver talent architecture is made of sand. All of this would be hard to swallow, but I suppose it’s possible.

But to accept and act on these findings would mean putting our full faith in today’s approach to evaluating educator effectiveness. It would mean believing generations of schools, school systems, PD providers, institutions of higher education, and parents were wrong when it comes to assessing and improving teacher performance. For me, this is a bridge too far.

The study encompassed four large school operators and surveyed thousands of educators. It used multiple measures to assess teacher effectiveness and tried to find variables that influenced whether a teacher improved (things like “growth mindset,” school culture, and access to different types of...

  • If Pennsylvania Avenue’s barricaded sidewalks didn’t make it obvious, the whooshing pantaloons of the Swiss Guard certainly will—Pope Francis is officially touring the capital! And while his three-day visit will be punctuated by extensive coverage of the Church’s role in American life and politics, Kavitha Cardoza’s piece on the fate of urban Catholic education is our recommended read (or listen) for anyone intrigued by the issue of school choice. Initially established as alternatives for the children of European immigrant families (who objected to compulsory Protestant indoctrination in nineteenth-century classrooms), Catholic schools grew to serve five million students by their 1960s peak. Since then, tuition increases and fraying religious communities in inner cities have sliced that number by more than half, but optimistic signs exist. As one of Cardoza’s sources remarks, last year’s drop in national Catholic school enrollment was the lowest since 2000, and the decline has substantially slowed over the past few years. That’s a dramatic turnaround from 2008, the year that the pope last visited and Fordham issued its gloomy dispatch on Catholic education, amid freefalling enrollment and tumult in the Church. For families seeking the combination of educational rigor and moral direction that
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The possible existence of a gender bias in the classroom is not a new controversy. Research has shown that, consciously or not, some teachers treat students differently according to gender; they may give boys more (or different types of) attention, encourage boys more in certain subjects and girls in others, and otherwise interact with each gender differently.

Economists Victor Lavy and Edith Sand bring us an important continuation of that work with a National Bureau of Economic Research paper that explores whether students are exposed to gender bias during elementary school. It then examines whether that exposure has an impact on students’ later academic achievement.

Their study follows approximately three thousand elementary school students and eighty teachers from twenty-five different elementary schools in Israel. They first ask: Is there gender bias? In other words, do teachers believe one gender is academically stronger than the other when there’s actually no difference (or even if the preferred gender is actually doing worse)? The answer to this question is yes. By comparing a teacher’s assessment of a student’s performance in a variety of subjects to the student’s scores on external exams in the same subject, the researchers find that girls outscore boys on...

  • With the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling against the constitutionality of charter schools and a sudden teachers’ strike breaking out in Seattle, education observers across the country would be justified in wondering whether anyone will actually be starting school this month in the Evergreen State. The court’s decision, which hurls the future of nine freshly opened schools into immediate uncertainty, has been greeted with more drama thus far (no surprise, since its legal rationale has been deemed quixotic, and its consequences will certainly be disruptive to the 1,200 students who may now have to seek schooling elsewhere). But dumping labor unrest atop this catastrophe will make matters inconceivably worse. Leaders in all three branches of the state’s government simply must come together to resolve this double crisis.
  • We’ve all got portmanteaus that we despise. For the Gadfly’s money, “telephone” worked perfectly well without being combined with “marketing.” But the New York Times has introduced a new mashup that may be as promising to students as it is painful to the ear: “teacherpreneur.” Using online tools like Youtube and TeachersPayTeachers.com, skilled instructors have been able to develop markets for their unique lesson plans and materials—and make
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