On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli, Alyssa Schwenk, and Brandon Wright discuss Education Next’s tenth annual survey. During the research minute, Dara Zeehandelaar examines the challenges of building a diverse teaching workforce.
Apologies for again interrupting your summer peace, but my respected friend Marc Tucker—in his open letter to you taking issue with my earlier missive—sorely misinterpreted or misstated one of my central points. I must at least try to set the record straight (I’ll also take the liberty of demurring from Marc’s well-intended advice in a couple of other areas).
First, to correct the record: Marc has me “urg[ing] you [and Chan Zuckerberg] to provide scholarships, supplemental learning opportunities, and great summer programs for poor kids from low-income communities.”
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Marc’s a smart guy who is deeply informed about many things and often right about them. But he should have read my piece more closely, Common Core-style. Here’s what I wrote:
If a philanthropist wants simply to “do good” in the education space, none of this matters. It’s a no-brainer to underwrite a building, a professorship, a scholarship, a summer program, a lecture series, a roomful of laptops, a field trip, or a gala recognition dinner. You can get thanked, praised, photographed, tweeted about, or liked on Facebook…. All those sorts of things are easy and generally without controversy, much less rancor.
But it wasn’t—and isn’t—“simply doing good” that I proposed. I actually deprecated that approach to philanthropy in favor of much more ambitious end-runs around the entrenched K–12 system: all sorts of great charter schools, policy changes (e.g., for special education), unconventional human capital development programs, better information for kids regarding their progress (or lack thereof) in school, personalized learning via sophisticated technology, and much more.
Nothing wrong with scholarships and summer programs, no, but I’m pretty sure my original letter was clear that that was not my recommendation. I do want to see the system change, as does Marc, and I don’t think serious philanthropists should just “do good” and “get thanked, praised, photographed, [and] tweeted about.”
Where Marc and I truly differ, however, isn’t about that. It’s about whether philanthropists can most powerfully effect “system change” by challenging the system frontally or by circumnavigating it with actions that will inevitably compel it to change—actions such as those I just mentioned.
Marc has spent a lot of time studying effective education systems in other countries, and he knows a lot about them, but that doesn’t make what they do transferrable to the U.S. context. It’s incredibly difficult to graft foreign models upon a calcified public education enterprise that doesn’t yet manifest them and whose entrenched interests are opposed to their imposition. Certainly such practices cannot be imposed via the relatively puny instrument of private philanthropy.
Marc cites Massachusetts—which deserves praise for how it changed its own public education system via the policy route—as a place where an outside entrepreneur “led the charge.” But Massachusetts was also one of those rare places where system leadership aligned with the political stars and allowed magic to happen. I cited several such examples—local ones—in my first letter to you and explained how infrequent and exceptional they are.
There are indeed isolated places where “the system” is ready to change and philanthropy can lend a hand. But there aren’t many, and it would be a waste of Chan Zuckerberg’s immense potential to expend much money and effort seeking—or trying to create—more of them. Philanthropy just doesn’t have that much leverage; its total education spending is a drop in the K–12 budget. To have any effect, it must carefully pick its targets and stay focused on them.
What philanthropy can do is induce change in the system by creating competitors to it, opportunities for it, and policy shifts that foster significant change over time. At the risk of getting into trouble with other readers, let me note the huge (and mostly positive) impact of the Common Core initiative that was undertaken outside government with philanthropic dollars.
But once government got entangled, the whole thing became controversial and politicized. Had it stayed entirely free from Uncle Sam’s embrace, the Common Core State Standards would be doing even more good, and we’d be closer to an education system where kids’ and schools’ results could be compared from place to place.
Which makes me restate the central point in my earlier letter: Philanthropy works best when it preserves its independence to do things that government cannot or will not do—and when it refrains from sticking its finger into the government tar baby except in the most exceptional circumstances.
You and Chan Zuckerberg can do great good in the education space. But in order to effect the kind of long-term change in the K–12 system that you and Jim Shelton (as well as Marc Tucker and I) yearn to see, you should spurn Marc’s counsel to tackle it through the front door. You’ll be so much more effective slipping through the side door and building better structures in the neighbor’s yard.
With high hopes and best regards, I am sincerely yours,
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this letter originally appeared onEducation Next.
Capped by recent reports that Superintendent Dallas Dance wants to drop the "gifted and talented" label altogether, Baltimore County Public Schools' recent undoing of its elementary gifted education program is a classic example of moving American K–12 schooling in the wrong direction—and doing so in the name of equity.
Last year, BCPS jettisoned its decades-long practice of funneling high-achieving second graders into separate, accelerated math and reading classes. Many stayed on that path through high school, but it was deemed unfair because it smacks of "tracking" and gifted classrooms didn't contain enough minority youngsters.
Instead, high achievers will now remain in classes with their lower-achieving peers in grades 3–5, increasing the burden on teachers, who must "differentiate" instruction for all levels in classes with as many as twenty-five pupils.
Teachers try to cope by placing students in groups within their classrooms, differentiating by achievement or ability, and then doing their best to instruct each group in the skills and knowledge prescribed for that grade. Six times each year, they can rearrange groups based on children's progress (or struggle) in each subject.
The impetus for this change was the view that too many kids—particularly minority children—were relegated to low-level coursework with no hope of accelerating if they weren’t deemed "gifted" in second grade. That's an important problem to tackle, and one that plagues virtually every district in the land. But Baltimore County's solution—the pseudo-silver bullet known as "differentiated instruction"—is a bad one.
Yes, differentiation is a splendid notion, redolent of diversity, flexibility, and opportunity. But it doesn't work at scale in heterogeneous classrooms like those found in many of BCPS' 107 elementary schools. It's akin to presenting a physician with two-dozen patients who manifest different symptoms, differing degrees of illness, and, upon examination, different maladies. No one doctor can do a great job with all of them, especially when strapped for time and resources. Instead, we see triage, focusing on those whom the doctor can readily help and giving less attention to the mildly ill.
Teachers, however, are expected to be all things to (almost) all children. Many struggle heroically to do this, and some are reasonably good at it. But most American teachers with whom we've spoken admit that they don't do it well. Out of necessity, some—triage-style—pitch most of their instruction to kids below the "proficiency bar" and do less for those already over that bar and capable of surging ahead.
This is particularly true for teachers in schools with lots of poor and minority learners—the very kids that BCPS' new "gifted-but-don't-call-it-that" strategy is meant to serve. Under today's accountability regimes, these teachers are often the least experienced and the most pressured to elevate their low achievers high enough to pass state tests. And their schools' face so many other challenges—attendance, discipline, nutrition, etc.—that attending to the educational needs of high achievers is apt to fall by the wayside.
So it's no surprise that the BCPS policy change has already deemed fewer black and low-income sixth graders gifted than in previous years.
As education consultant James R. Delisle recently wrote, "Differentiation is a cheap way for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential." Far better is to create effective, realistic alternatives like acceleration, mastery-based learning, and ability-grouped instruction. These alternatives give teachers a fighting chance to succeed and give more students the opportunity to move forward as fast as they can.
Yet that's what Baltimore County has abolished with a directional shift that both adds to the burdens of overtaxed teachers and deprives the community's ablest students of the learning opportunities they deserve.
Understand that the real losers aren't middle-class smart kids with pushy, prosperous parents to help them navigate. They'll mostly find their education managed and supplemented in various ways. The real victims are gifted, disadvantaged students—mostly poor, minority, immigrant, or from chaotic family backgrounds—who depend most heavily on the public education system to do right by them. That's what Baltimore County isn't doing. And now, seemingly, it wants to deny that such kids even exist.
Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared in the print and online editions of the Baltimore Sun.
The Fordham Institute’s recent study, Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, took a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. Using focus groups and a survey of teachers, Ann Duffett, David Griffith, and I gleaned valuable insights that ranged from good to bad to ugly. As we approach the forthcoming school year and 150,000 teachers prepare to teach math to students from kindergarten through eighth grade, it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve learned.
Let’s start with the good. With few exceptions, educators are very knowledgeable about what content is considered “grade-level” for the grades they teach, and they are prioritizing content that the standards designate as “critical areas.” Teachers are also paying closer attention to applications, student use of language in the math classroom, and increased use of the number line. Across CCSS states, rigor, consistency, and cohesion in K–8 mathematics has increased—a very good (and necessary) thing!
Teachers are also spending more time collaborating, especially with their grade-level colleagues. Working together leads to better curriculum design (e.g., how much time to spend on a particular topic), better instruction, and more consistency across teachers in the same school and/or district.
Educators are also focusing more extensively on strategies for teaching procedures. This helps increase procedural fluency by giving students a repertoire of strategies and demonstrating when to use them to efficiently and accurately solve problems.
But these new strategies have also had some regrettable collateral consequences. Yes, teachers are teaching more of them. There’s more pressure to do so, however, and little guidance on which problem-solving strategies to prioritize, how many might be appropriate for a particular topic, and (most importantly) why students benefit from knowing more than one approach.
This has created a second problem: Parents are less able to help their children with homework. Without a strong justification from a teacher for why their children are using non-standard algorithms, and without resources to understand the approach themselves, parents are not going to support change. Educators are often key implementers of reforms; in the case of Common Core math, we’ve neglected to bring parents and our communities along with us—at great cost.
The stress in middle schools is also beginning to show. These grades may have had the most dramatic increase in rigor across K–12 mathematics standards, and their teachers are still inheriting students who had to transition sometime in elementary school (potentially generating learning gaps). So it’s no surprise that many middle school teachers see their students with heightened anxiety levels and think too many students will fall short of the standards’ high expectations.
Finally, the production of Common Core-aligned curricular materials has lagged. We found that teachers are using a wide variety of different resources—and in many schools, different materials are being used in different grades. So while teachers are trying to focus on grade-level content, the textbooks they are relying on vary greatly. Some are even patching together items from various sources themselves, creating amalgamated materials that may not meet the standards’ intended rigor.
To be sure, change is often messy. And there are some significant bright spots in states’ implementation of Common Core’s math standards. Yet the optimal balance between conceptual understanding, fluency of procedures, and the application of mathematics still eludes too many teachers.
Our report points to some important next steps we can take. First, we ought to provide more guidance on which strategies teachers must prioritize for specific content areas. For example, which “place value” strategies might be the best ones to explicitly develop with students, and how can educators do that effectively? And how might these unfamiliar strategies (along with justifications for why they are needed) be shared with parents?
Second, as teachers continue to pull teaching strategies and materials from multiple sources, more guidance is needed to influence teachers’ choices. For instance, evaluation tools can help teachers determine whether their activities and lessons actually incorporate appropriate mathematical practices, address the optimal balance of concepts and procedures, or focus on procedural fluency in its entirety. Another insufficiently tapped resource is middle school teachers, whose experiences can help us understand necessary and effective changes in elementary-grade practices.
Finally, six years in, let’s celebrate the good that has been accomplished, such as our country’s historic levels of coherence and rigor. Stories of this progress ought to be shared with all audiences—not just educators. Our efforts are leaving students better prepared for mathematics than ever before.
Celebrating implementation’s good effects, as well as fixing the bad and ugly ones, are key steps in not only ending the math wars, but also in developing mathematically proficient, globally competitive, and college- and career-ready students. In other words, better implementation is vital to ensuring that the Common Core accomplishes its intended purpose.
According to this report from the Center for American Progress, high school seniors are more likely to read young adult staples like The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent than Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet. As surprises go, this is roughly the equivalent of learning that Americans choose beer and chicken wings over quinoa and kale smoothies. The trouble is that this lightweight fare (the inevitable result of student self-selection) leaves students ill-prepared for the rigors of college reading.
There is “a stark gap between the complexity of texts that high school students are reading and of those that they will confront in college and their careers,” notes Melissa Lazarin, the report’s author and a CAP senior policy advisor. “Students reading at the average level of high school texts…may be comfortable with as little as 5 percent of university-level texts and with only one-quarter of the texts that they would encounter in the military or the workplace.” Common Core was supposed to help close these gaps, so what’s happening? The new standards are giving students “regular practice with complex and grade-level appropriate texts, using more informational texts, and practicing more evidence-based writing,” she observes. They are also “influencing the way teachers approach instruction.” But despite these encouraging signs, Common Core implementation is still a long way from fulfilling the standards’ promise.
The report recommends that state and district leaders 1) push ahead with the Common Core standards and aligned assessments; 2) strengthen training supports for prospective and current teachers, including teachers of other subjects; and 3) ensure that teachers have access to and use high-quality curricular materials and tools aligned to the Common Core. There’s nothing wrong with any of those recommendations, particularly the third one. That said, Lazarin seems not to have considered another, more sobering possibility: that Common Core simply exposes the limits of some number of teachers expected to teach to the higher standards, for which no amount of “professional development” can compensate.
The CAP report is hit-or-miss when discussing teaching practices that Common Core either encourages or has failed to dislodge, such as assigning texts to students based on their “instructional reading level” instead of their grade level (I’ve written about the “literacy myth” of leveled reading here). “Research on early implementation of the standards indicates that teachers are still warming to the idea of using grade-level texts. This is especially true of elementary teachers and teachers of high-poverty students and ELLs,” she notes. The report stumbles in its insistence that “reading informational and literary texts requires distinct comprehension skills for each.” It’s hard not to read that as tacitly encouraging teachers to focus on the kind of content-agnostic “skills and strategies” approach to reading comprehension that has set reading achievement back for decades—particularly among the most vulnerable students.
Similarly, the report could be a little stronger in discussing the need to build background knowledge across the curriculum. “Teachers of math, science, history, and other technical subjects are expected to play a significant role in building content knowledge through reading of informational texts,” the authors note. That’s kinda, sorta true. Non-ELA teachers have always contributed to literacy, since a broad, well-rounded education is a main driver of broad reading ability. Thus, it’s not quite accurate to say that “supporting students’ literacy development is mostly a new role for non-ELA teachers.” Every teacher in every subject who contributes to a well-rounded education is a de facto literacy teacher. While reading complex and grade-appropriate texts across the curriculum is to be encouraged, I’d worry if the takeaway for schools is to make teachers of every subject—science, social studies, the arts, etc.—into reading teachers first.
Knowledge is literacy. This is a lesson that we learned the hard way in the NCLB years by narrowing curriculum to reading, math, and not much else—and which Common Core, for all its faults, is supposed to correct.
A new analysis from the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Brookings Institution examines the demographic gap between the current teaching workforce and students; its causes; ways to close it; and whether it will grow or shrink in the future. To do this, researchers pulled together data from a wide variety of sources, including the Census and National Center for Education Statistics, and used both descriptive analyses and projections.
Research clearly shows that regular interactions between students and adults of their own and different races is beneficial for academic achievement and behavior. Thus, the authors take as given that having a diverse workforce, in which teacher demographics mirror those of the student population, is a common goal for schools. (At the same time, the authors acknowledge that diversity does not supersede teacher quality as a driver of positive outcomes.)
The authors find that the pool of available minority teachers does not match the diversity of students now, and they predict that the mismatch will grow in the future. Minority students make up half of the public school student population, while minority teachers constitute only 18 percent of the workforce. The gap is particularly large for Hispanic students—at present, 26 percent of U.S. students are Hispanic, but only 8 percent of teachers are. By 2060, those figures are projected to grow: 35 percent of students will be Hispanic, compared to only13 percent of teachers.
They identify four causes of the mismatch, which they call “leaks,” in the teacher pipeline. First, smaller proportions of the black and Hispanic populations earn a college degree, which is necessary to become a teacher. (The proportion of minorities who enter college mirrors the U.S. population, but minorities disproportionately do not complete it.) Second, a higher proportion of white college students major in education (7 percent, compared to 4 percent of black and 4 percent of Hispanic college students), and a higher proportion of white education majors actually express a desire to teach (95 percent, compared to 76 percent of black and 90 percent of Hispanic degree holders). Alternative certification programs might prioritize recruiting minority candidates, but participants in these programs account for a relatively small portion of the teaching pool. Third, white education majors who want to enter the teaching workforce are actually hired at greater rates than minority education majors. And fourth, white teachers have slightly higher retention rates than minority teachers.
The researchers then project a hypothetical situation in which college completion, education majors, teachers who are actually hired, and teacher retention occur at the same rates across races and ethnicities. The authors use this hypothetical to determine which of the four leaks in the teacher pipeline, if it were plugged, would have the greatest impact on the student-teacher demographic mismatch. The two leaks that occur later in the pipeline—hiring and retention—would be tempting targets, since districts can directly control and mitigate them. Unfortunately, equalizing hiring and retention rates across races and ethnicities doesn’t meaningfully affect the mismatch in the authors’ projections. So while districts might create initiatives to promote the hiring and retention of minority teachers, such as actively recruiting them and later providing them with leadership opportunities, these efforts alone will not close the demographic gap.
Increasing the proportion of minority college students majoring in education would narrow the gap more than equalizing hiring and retention rates, especially for Hispanic teachers and students. But doing so is challenging because of multiple competing forces. Other industries are also trying to build diverse workforces, and teaching is not particularly lucrative or appealing. Equalizing college graduation rates would also reduce the mismatch to a greater degree than any of the other strategies, especially for Hispanic teachers and students. (Happily, a recent Fordham analysis found that the “college completion agenda” has the potential to raise the number of Hispanic students who persist through post-secondary education.)
According to the authors’ models, the best approach is a combined one. Otherwise, they recommend that policies target the beginning of the teacher pipeline by increasing college completion and improving working conditions so that more minorities are interested in becoming teachers.
A new policy paper from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) explores how state education agencies (SEAs) can take advantage of their unique position to foster improved district-charter collaboration.
The authors lament, as did we in a recent report, that district and charter leaders are too often tearing chunks out of one another rather than finding ways to work together. Whether the endgame should be an all-charter system, as in New Orleans, or some kind of side-by-side system, as in Washington, D.C., most cities will have to find a working balance between the two sectors.
The paper makes a series of policy recommendations for how SEAs could facilitate this balance and act on the increased authority granted to them by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They could, for example, use their unique position to tie financial and accountability incentives to collaboration efforts, provide cover for school districts in places where local politics are toxic, and remove state legal impediments to district-charter collaboration. ESSA also gives states the more flexibility to allot funding, design accountability systems, and adopt other constructive policies (like unified enrollment or facilities sharing) that promote district-charter collaboration.
The authors then point to examples like Florida’s grant program, which leverages state funds to promote partnership between high-performing districts and charter schools; Oregon’s use of federal funds from the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) to improve the education of disadvantaged students in both sectors; and Louisiana’s adjusted special education-funding formula that better supports students with severe disabilities, regardless of whether they attend a charter or district school.
The paper makes it clear that SEAs could be important (if limited) facilitators of this collaboration and effectively identifies what steps they might take. Yet it also underplays a number of elements that make détente possible, such as strong local leadership in both sectors, the importance of sharing responsibility for things like school performance and special education, and the influence of other stakeholders like foundations, advocacy organizations, unions, parents, and business leaders.
Ultimately, as we found out ourselves, district-charter collaboration remains acutely fragile. But there are also signs that effective cooperation might have significant, positive effect on student learning. Thus, states should pull some of the levers outlined in this paper and embrace their vital role in making sure their district and charter sectors get along.
On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli, Alyssa Schwenk, and Brandon Wright discuss Education Next’s tenth annual survey. During the research minute, Dara Zeehandelaar examines the challenges of building a diverse teaching workforce.