The ESEA reauthorization edition

ESEA reauthorization, the teachers’ union SCOTUS case, whether character matters, and the effectiveness of first-grade math instruction.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Paul L. Morgan, George Farkas, and Steve Maczuga, "Which Instructional Practices Most Help First-Grade Students With and Without Mathematics Difficulties?," Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis vol. 37 no. 2 (June 2015).

Michelle:                     Hello this is your host Michelle Lerner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at Now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Carli Lloyd of education reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:                        Goal!!!

Michelle:                     You have to say that three times I believe?

Robert:                        I think so.

Michelle:                     So that was one.

Robert:                        You're lucky you got that. What a game, right?

Michelle:                     What a game.

Robert:                        I was in a sports bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which I didn't even realize this at the time, six of the women are UNC grads so the place was packed and it was loud. It was so much fun. My daughter, who was an indifferent teenager, said, "I've never felt more American."

Michelle:                     Awesome. I loved it. I was at home with my husband watching the game and I was like, "This is awesome." I was also following Twitter because I'm slightly addicted and there was some good commentary. I enjoyed it was fun, it made me remember the days back in 1999, 1998, I forget ...

Robert:                        '99.

Michelle:                     '99. Mia Hamm. I was a little girl then.

Robert:                        Back when you were in middle school?

Michelle:                     Yeah, back when this was like ... Changing my world and here we are back. I love it, super inspiring, great to see women represent the U.S. and win.

Robert:                        You're speaking of the 99ers, there was a great piece I just saw this morning ... Sorry, we're supposed to talk about education, not sports.

Michelle:                     Wait, is that we do?

Robert:                        Something like that.

Michelle:                     Something like that.

Robert:                        It was ... I'm drawing a blank on her name, Julie Foudy I think, from the '99 team, started an email chain among all the '99 players, the 1999 players about in real time while they were watching the game, it's on ESPN. Read it, it's fabulous.

Michelle:                     That's awesome. I will definitely check that out. In the mean time, let's get to part in the Gadfly, welcoming our newest Gadfly reader, Clara Allen.

Clara:                          The upcoming Supreme Court case about mandatory union dues threatens to weaken teacher unions. Are they doomed if the court strikes down these fees?

Michelle:                     No. To take it a step back, what is this? The Supreme Court, which has been oh so active in the handing down rulings recently ...

Robert:                        And oh so not conservative by the way.

Michelle:                     True.

Robert:                        Just saying.

Michelle:                     They're going to take up this case that looks at agency fees and whether they are unconstitutional in regards to teachers' 1st Amendment rights. Teachers have the right to not join unions in several states. In non-right-to-work states, agency fees can be deducted from paychecks of teachers not in a union for non-political activity but rather for representative activity, so these includes collective bargaining agreements.

Robert:                        Right but the case turns on how you interpret non-political activities.

Michelle:                     Exactly.

Robert:                        Perhaps there's no such thing if you're a union.

Michelle:                     That's what many people believe. Back in 2012, slightly before my time here at Fordham, we did a study of looking at the power of teachers' unions in all fifty states. We did look at agency fees, they were a part of the measure of scope of bargaining, so not in the political activity measure. We found that a lot of states ... That there was the ability to collect agency fees is correlated with union strength but there are key exceptions.

Robert:                        Sure.

Michelle:                     Alabama being number one there, North Dakota, Nevada, Nebraska and Iowa. Is this constitutional? I have no idea, I'm not aware. But if it does get striked down, is the end of unions' power? No, there are workarounds here.

Robert:                        Right.

Michelle:                     But I do think this goes along with a trend that unions and not just teachers unions, that we are seeing smaller and smaller numbers, a lot of people have been reporting on this, so I don't know which way the Supreme Court is going to rule. What do you think?

Robert:                        I think the conventional wisdom is that they were looking for an excuse to take this case on, so the assumption is that they'll strike it down but what I do not know about the Supreme Court and its processes would fill volumes. Where's Brandon right where we need him?

Michelle:                     I think he's downstairs working on the Gadfly.

Robert:                        I'm sure he'll have something to say about this, so stay tuned.

Michelle:                     Stay tuned. All right, question number two ...

Clara:                          The Senate this week started a lengthy debate about ESEA. What should we expect?

Robert:                        A bill! Expect a bill!

Michelle:                     We have a bill. The question is do we have a law?

Robert:                        Touché. Thank you. OK. You've just shown me up and I'm supposed to be a civics guy. Good one.

Michelle:                     The Senate's debating this, exciting, that's not the real news here. The real news is that the House Rules Committee is looking at this. That suggests that they have the votes for this to go to the floor in the House and pass the House. You wouldn't bring something, well they already brought it to the floor once, but it was yanked. You wouldn't send something to the floor unless you are confident you have the votes.

Robert:                        Our long national nightmare is over.

Michelle:                     No because you still have to get it past the House, which if they bring it to the Rules, I think they probably have the votes, has to pass the Senate, has to be conferenced, which means if it's going to get through conference it has to move to the left so that they can keep Senate Democrats. Then it has to be signed into law.

                                    There's a huge long hurdle here and you still have the political factors. Civil rights groups aren't happy with the accountability, tea partiers want to get rid of the high-stakes testing here, Andy Smarick had a really great piece.

Robert:                        I was just going to ask you if you read that.

Michelle:                     I did. Really great piece in National Review, giving a historical look of why we did what we did in No Child Left Behind and his point is the following: Yes, there was probably too many strings attached on the accountability in No Child Left Behind ...

Robert:                        Yep. Too much federal overreach.

Michelle:                     We cannot do the pendulum swings that are so sloppy and everywhere in that reform. We have got to have a middle-of-the-road. We cannot go back to the days where we are simply writing checks and we don't know what happened to them and we don't know how students are doing. We have to keep with accountability. Let's move slightly, let's not go back to the Wild, Wild West.

Robert:                        You don't go from race-to-the-top to race-to-the-trough.

Michelle:                     Yeah. Exactly. It's a great piece, I recommend you read it, and it's nice to see someone take a measured view on something. How rare in education reform and in policy.

Robert:                        Are you saying it's rare for Andy Smarik to take a measured ...

Michelle:                     You said that.

Robert:                        She doesn't mean it.

Michelle:                     I mean anyone in this debate. It's all one side or the other and I think ... If we go back to the union discussion, there's too often unions are the problem, unions are the big thing, no, no, no, unions are saving teaching. Like most issues, there are good and bad to everything. There are drawbacks, there are good policies, you just have to be measured and not make sure you swing to the other side.

Robert:                        There you go again being all reasonable and stuff.

Michelle:                     I try occasionally.

Robert:                        All right.

Michelle:                     Occasionally.

Robert:                        What's next?

Michelle:                     All right. Clara?

Clara:                          A recent Brookings Institution book asks whether character matters. Does it?

Robert:                        Yeah of course it does. First I'm embarrassed to admit that I missed this book, it came out in May and it was just brought to my attention just this week, so my apologies to Richard Reeves, I'm devouring it, it's fascinating.

                                    Of course character matters. Everybody knows this. The problem is as a practical matter, what do you do about this in schools? A couple of the essays in this book that are particularly strong. James Hackman has the first one, and he lays out the debate and says, "Of course character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills. We know that. What else do we know? We know that character is shaped early, not unlike literacy in that regard ..."

                                    The question and I don't want to be unkind but I'm not sure the book ever quite wrestles fully with this issue is if we know that that non-cognitive skills can be shaped and they matter what's the appropriate agenda for public policy? That's a very tricky question to answer. One of the strongest ones if you care about education, there's a gentleman named Dominick Randolph who is the head of the Riverdale School in the Bronx, New York, near where I live, who points out that this is a heavy lift for schools and those are my words, not his, but one, character skills are very difficult to define ... We don't have an SAT so to speak, for character. There's not enough evidence to support how you shape it, in other words, what would the intervention look like ...

                                    Then he makes the leap and he loses me honestly about this where he says that we need to truly come up with intervention standards if you like about character. I read this and I immediately thought, "OK. Good luck with that, Dr. Randolph."

Michelle:                     Take a look at Common Core and see if you want to go down that ... A triangle is a three-sided shape. That is not complicated.

Robert:                        Let's agree on that ...

Michelle:                     How we talk about morals and character in school? Oh gosh.

Robert:                        Can you imagine Common Core character standards. At that point I'm going to become a barley farmer before I take that on. Having said that, I don't want to be dismissive, obviously this matters a lot, at the risk of taking an obvious approach here, if you really want to get serious about this, I think all roads lead to choice. You really can't impose a character education regime or curriculum in a non-choice environment. That's my take, that's not the book's, but as I read it, I kept thinking that over and over again. This is really an argument for choice.

Michelle:                     Right. I don't think we can get everyone to agree that x characteristics are good to see in kids, that we need to cultivate and therefore all schools are going to do that.

Robert:                        You could but they'd be so benign ...

Michelle:                     Exactly.

Robert:                        As to be meaningless. Take turns, share. Nobody's going to disagree with that.

Michelle:                     Exactly.

Robert:                        Once you start to get into these so-called performance characteristics, like grit and perseverance, the closer you get to these very personal character traits, the more parents and I think not incorrectly so are going to say, "Wait a minute. That's my job."

Michelle:                     Not to go down Fordham's historical road of studies but we're going to do it now twice on this podcast ... In 2013 we put out a market research survey of parents on what parents want and it was on two aspects. What should schools do and it turned out all parents really wanted the same things. Good, high standards, which is good for the Common Core and then we did student characteristics on the other side of the questions and a lot of the parents agreed on things but we did see these niches of some folks wanted a strong civics education, some people were strivers and they really wanted their kids to go to these top-notch colleges, we had test-score hawks, parents who really cared about how their school and their students performed on assessments, we had multiculturalists, parents who really wanted diversity in their school. I think we can build a really strong character in systems of choice, but even then, it's really difficult to teach.

Robert:                        Absolutely ...

Michelle:                     Because what do we know that works?

Robert:                        I'm not an expert on this. My gut tells me it's easier to create the conditions that valorize the character traits that you want than to teach or impart them directly.

Michelle:                     To me this goes in the bucket of, "You don't join education for an easy job." If you want a, "Oh, we've got the solution, we're just going to do it, go home at 5:00 at night," you're in the wrong profession. I think these issues go to the core of it is really difficult, it is really political and it is really near and dear to people's hearts that we do this and how we do it and that we do it correctly and no one has the answers.

Robert:                        Can't add to that. I agree with you completely.

Michelle:                     All right, thank you. Clara, that's all the time we have for part in the Gadfly. Up next is everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute.

Michelle:                     Welcome to the show, Amber

Amber:                        Thank you, Michelle.

Michelle:                     So did you watch the best soccer game in all of history?

Amber:                        I did and I'm not even a soccer person but how exciting was that.

Michelle:                     Yeah. I think you have to watch the soccer game.

Amber:                        Yes. You're un-American if you do not watch the World Cup ...

Michelle:                     Even if for some reason you weren't, once you hear that they scored four goals in the first fifteen minutes ...

Amber:                        Yes, I was watching with my mother and some other family members and my mom kept saying, "I'm so happy they wear ponytails. I just want them to look feminine," So many of them have ponytails.

Michelle:                     Wow. I think she might be the only one who said that.

Amber:                        They do have ponytails.

Michelle:                     Though I have to say I wasn't a fan of the neon green socks. It's not tied to our colors.

Amber:                        It's a little much.

Michelle:                     All right, but it was a good game, nice to see our ladies on top again ...

Amber:                        Yes.

Michelle:                     What do you have for us today?

Amber:                        I have a new study out by Penn State researchers and they examined which type of instructional strategies are most effective with first grade math students. These are kids both with and without mathematical difficulties, which they call MD, I'll tell you how they measure that in a second. They analyze survey responses from roughly 3,600 teachers and data from over 13,000 kindergarten children in the class of 1998-99 in a database known as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study or ECLS. Most folks are familiar with ECLS. They controlled for students' prior math and reading achievement, family, income and a host of other things. MD by the way, you're wonky about this, was defined as falling in the bottom 15% of the score distribution on the ECLS Kindergarten math test.

                                    Key findings, in first grade classrooms with higher percentages of students with MD or math difficulty, teachers were more likely to use practices not associated with greater math achievement by the students. I wish Robert was here because he'd find this interesting. These non-effective practices included using manipulatives, calculators, movement and music to learn math. They were also non-effective with kids without math difficulties. Some of these progressive teacher strategies that teachers were taught including me, not so effective with these little kids that have math issues, yet more frequent use of teacher directed instructional processes was consistently associated with gains in math achievement of first graders with these difficulties. More specifically, the most effective instructional practice teachers can use with these struggling youngsters is, what do you think?

Michelle:                     I don't know.

Amber:                        It is drill and kill as we call it.

Michelle:                     Checker would be so thrilled.

Amber:                        It is routine practice and drill. Just going over and over and over ... Lots of chalkboard instruction, traditional textbook instruction and worksheets that go over the math skills and the concepts again were also effective with these kids. For students without math difficulties, same thing. The teacher directed instruction was really effective for them, was also associated with the gains, but for the kids that didn't struggle with math, some of the student-centered instructional activities was also pretty effective for them and they defined that as things like working on a problem that has several solutions, peer tutoring, doing real life math problems which you hear about a lot ... Those things actually work with the kids who don't struggle. The kids who don't struggle, they can do both the teacher-directed and the student-centered and excel in both ways.

Michelle:                     That makes sense.

Amber:                        Researchers concluded at the end, this is troubling because the kids that need this type of instruction the most aren't getting it.

Michelle:                     Yeah, that is troubling. I have to say, as you were talking, I remember back to the day when I got a cassette that was a math multiplying table rap, so I could learn my multiplication table.

Amber:                        Wow. Did it help you?

Michelle:                     It might've helped me. I was good at math, I have to say, so I didn't have any struggles, but math is boring so I can understand that teachers want to make it interesting but the problem with math is it's built on itself. If you don't get a concept, you're just done. You're not going to get Algebra I, you're not going to get Algebra II, you're not going to get Calculus ...

Amber:                        You are making me thing of Mr. Van Orden, my Algebra II teacher, and every day, I hated the class, but every day he got up there for forty-five straight minutes and worked math problems for us on the board, just worked them, one after another after another ... Then at the very end we'd come up and maybe work one and he would walk us through it. That's all we did the whole entire time was work math problems on the board every day for us and I learned so much ... Same thing, it's not your favorite teacher that's the one who teaches you the most often.

Michelle:                     Yeah.

Amber:                        It's the one that you just dread going into their classroom, but honestly I did great in that class, just because he showed us, teacher-directed instruction, every single day.

Michelle:                     It's just required for this subject, I'm thinking I took an economics class last semester for a graduate school so here I am, hopefully never taking math again and here I am back in micro and I'm taking derivatives and re-remembering calculus from very long ago. The professor pointed out that you first learn these skills when you're taking the slope of a line back in fifth grade. Everything builds upon ourselves.

                                    I do think we could do more to make connections to the real world. I remember being in Algebra I and Geometry and Calculus and all these classes ... What does this even mean and if someone had stopped and said, "This is how it is actually used in economics or in building bridges and all of these things and a lot with our computer technology now," I think you could get more people interested but in the end, you got to know how to do it.

Amber:                        Yes.

Michelle:                     If you don't know how to take a slope of a line, you're just done.

Amber:                        Just to say, maybe music, it can't hurt.

Michelle:                     I still remember the cassette tape.

Amber:                        We get into all this learning style stuff where the kids move their body in the direction of the math problem, I don't know ... Teachers think of this crazy stuff with kinesthetic learning, anyway ... Bottom line is, in this study, it didn't work for the kids who just need some instruction.

Michelle:                     You know, I'm not surprised by that unfortunately. All right, thanks so much, Amber.

Amber:                        You're welcome.

Michelle:                     That's all the time we have for this week's Gadfly Show. Till next week.

Robert:                        I'm Robert Pondiscio

Michelle:                     And I'm Michelle Lerner for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.