The Force Awakens edition

ESSA implementation, TFA students who become TFA teachers, Justice Scalia’s ill-spoken comments on race, and the effect of teacher layoffs on teacher quality and student achievement.

Amber's Research Minute

Matthew A. Kraft, "Teacher Layoffs, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement: Evidence from a Discretionary Layoff Policy," Education Finance and Policy (November 2015). 


Mike:                    Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at Now, please join me welcoming my co-host, the Jedi Knight of education reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert :                Is he Bobby Knight's younger brother, coach of Indiana?

Mike :                   Come on, don't be a buzzkill here, Robert. We're all going to have fun watching that Star Wars movie. Hey, anybody know ... Have they rated it yet? Is it PG or PG-13? It has been unrated for so long. Of course, this is important for those of us that have kids and mistakenly promise that we would take them before thinking about the fact that this movie might be rated PG-13.

Robert :                Star Wars, is that with the one little guy who's like call home?

Mike :                   Robert, it's not funny. It's just not funny. It's not funny. Maybe this is an age thing.

Robert :                Phone home, it was phone home.

Mike :                   Robert, maybe this was not a big part of your childhood since you grew up during BC.

Robert :                Dude, Star Wars came out when I was in middle school, so I was like at the sweet spot of that stuff.

Mike :                   Why all the cynicism?

Robert :                It's not cynical. I never understood how it became a thing.

Mike :                   It's a great story. It's a great legend. It's right in there with all those other great legends.

Robert :                Such as?

Mike :                   I don't know. Name them. I like The Hobbit. I don't know. The bible, The Odyssey.

Robert :                I just don't think I did those kind of drugs in high school, Mike.

Mike :                   Well, fine. If you don't want to have fun with the Star Wars thing, that's fine. That is your choice. You know what? We believe-

Robert :                I don't have fun, and I don't like people who do.

Mike :                   We believe in school choice here and we believe in movie choice as well. It's almost the end of the year, but we are going strong. Lots to talk about in education reform, especially a certain law that the president signed last week. Let's start with that. Clara, let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Clara:           Last week, President Obama signed ESSA into law. Mike, can we get a preview of what's to come in 2016?

Mike :                   Well, first of all, there's going to be a big debate on whether we say E-S-S-A or if we start saying ESSA.

Robert :                Good point.

Mike :                   Robert, what do you think?

Robert :                still trying to get used to not saying E-S-E-A.

Mike :                   No Child Left Behind, that is definitely in-

Robert :                It's been left behind.

Mike :                   It has been left behind. It's in the rear-view mirror.

Robert :                How are you saying it? ESSA or E-S-S-A?

Mike :                   I haven't really decide yet. In my head, I think I still say E-S-S-A but ESSA. I guess we're going to say ESSA. Yeah, ESSA.

Robert :                E-S-S-A. In 1975-

Mike :                   I like it. Bless me. Here's the scoop. It's going to be a hurry up and wait time in 2016 is my preview. The states are chomping at the bit here to finally take advantage of the newfound flexibility that they've got in this law. On most counts, I'm afraid they are going to have to wait for the federal regulations to come out.

Robert :                Oh, lord.

Mike :                   This is an interesting timing. You've got John King who, for some unknown reason, the administration is not nominating to be the next education secretary but merely the secretary-designate.

Robert :                They don't have to. Why have a fight you don't need?

Mike :                   Because, I don't know, laws, constitution-

Robert :                Because of constitution, yeah, yeah. Details, details, Mike. It's so old fashioned.

Mike :                   Because we're in a rare moment of bipartisanship and they might want to continue that. Anyway, he's going to be in charge of coming up with the regulations for this law although the law itself tries to say at every turn, "Mr. Secretary, hands off, buddy. Hands off." Still, we got to wait for that.

Robert :                It's an easy regulation to write.

Mike :                   They should be. They should just basically restate the law in most cases but then the states can start getting to work. Those regs aren't going to come out probably until the fall when we are very close to a presidential campaign and a new administration. This is going to be interesting timing. It's going to be, I would say, a 24-month process, well, at least 18 months until we see what the states come up with. Hey, you've had some ideas in this, Robert. One of the big issues in the new law is that states get to come up with some indicators of school quality that do not have to do with test scores.

Robert :                That is true. Now, you're making me just now think, well, to what degree would they just say, "Hey, we've invested so much time in what we're doing. Let's just keep doing it."

Mike :                   Well, they have to come up with something that's not test scores. That is now required by law. You have a suggestion on what they might do which is what?

Robert :                Well, I'd love to. This is heresy I know if you're a good reformer to say, "Let's start measuring inputs." As you know, I'm very concerned with curriculum narrowing and I want to see us get back to a day when kids got a nice rich curriculum, not just reading and math, but science, and history, and art, and music. Is it the worst idea ever to suggest that schools should have some kind of minimum guidelines for the amount of time kids spend learning those subjects, not just reading and math? Is it a heresy?

Mike :                   Not the worst idea ever.

Robert :                I'm just kidding. The worst idea I've heard in the last 30 seconds.

Mike :                   Look, I might think that might be appropriate. Here's the goal here is that we want a balanced look at school quality. We want to encourage schools to do good things. If that includes teaching a well-rounded curriculum because that's important in its own right and, by the way, that's the best way to teach kids how to read.

Robert :                By the way.

Mike :                   By the way. We say we care about reading a whole lot, then, look, I'm open to it. You know what else I'd like to do for high schools?

Robert :                Tell me.

Mike :                   The percentage of a school's graduates who vote in the next election.

Robert :                Really?

Mike :                   Yeah. Citizenship, baby.

Robert :                Well, no. Look, I'm all for civics and citizenship, obviously. A lot of states now are putting in that kind of bare minimum graduation requirement which I frankly have advocated for a while now that you should be able to pass the citizenship-

Mike :                   That could be another way to go.

Robert :                I'm not sure that meets my test for a great school accountability. For me, it's baby steps. Hey, wouldn't it be nice if we could prove that we can do one simple thing before we got more into it?

Mike :                   Sandy Kress on Twitter was making fun of my idea saying that, "Great. We're going to have schools paying kids just to show up to vote." I'm like, "You know what? I'm not sure that's such a bad thing." Once you established that habit, maybe they'll keep at it.

Robert :                One, I'm not sure that's how I narrowly want to define civic engagement. Look, I'm all for schools encouraging civic engagement. Two, do we really want to have a nation where people are sort of coerced into voting? Shouldn't it be a voluntary thing?

Mike :                   Well, there are other nations that certainly coerced people into voting. There is a healthy debate that, and it can go both ways. In this case, I think the point is, again, to send strong signals to schools about what school quality means and that their civic duty should be a-

Robert :                Well, look, to be earnest about it for one second, I do think this is a nice opportunity if you are a state to think outside the box, to get back to some sort of these broader purposes of schooling and maybe institute some accountability measures that incentivize those things.

Mike :                   Topic number two, Clara.

Clara:                     A second generation of TFA teachers who were once TFA students are finding their way back to the classroom. Why are they doing it?

Robert :                Why are they doing it, Mike?

Mike :                   Well, this is pretty cool, Robert. I mean, look-

Robert :                It is cool, isn't it?

Mike :                   There's some stories out there about ... I forget which city this one was from. A woman who had grown up in one of these high poverty schools and was taught by a TFA teacher, and now she's in a school herself trying to help the next generation do as well as she did. She made it through college and now is giving back. Look, first of all, it indicates how long TFA has been active.

Robert :                Absolutely right.

Mike :                   We minimize sometimes TFA saying, "It's only a mandate. There's not that many teachers." Look, it's at what? 10,000 teachers a year. That starts to add up to some pretty impressive scale.

Robert :                I was wondering about this. I have no idea what the data would be, but I bet it's larger than we think. That if you figured out, not just the percentage of the teaching core who is or has been TFA, but the number of students who even once in their academic careers had a TFA teacher, I bet it's a larger number than we think. It doesn't necessarily surprise me. In fact, this is the outcome that you want, the so-called second generation TFA teachers are coming back.

                                Look, the education world is made up of people who are good at school. We want more of these to be low income kids of color, the types of students that TFA was designed to improve outcomes for. I've said this, a lot of times in this podcast and elsewhere eventually, the charter movement, the ed reform movement has to start to look a lot more like the people it serves. This is one way to accomplish that, so this is a great thing.

Mike :                   Great. Topic number three.

Clara:                     Supreme Court Justice Scalia came under fire for comments he made about Black students and elite colleges. How was his rhetoric problematic?

Mike :                   All right. Well-

Robert :                Wasn't it problematic?

Mike :                   Well, when you look at this, the quote people are using certainly sounds bad, right?

Robert :                Yeah.

Mike :                   It sounds like he is implying that all African American students should go to "slow track colleges." Of course, that is not the case. I think what he was trying to say in the context of the conversation they were having was that African American students or any other students who do not meet the qualifications of a particular campus and have only get in because they lower those qualifications for that group of kids, that those students, those less qualified students would do better on other campuses. I think there's pretty good research that says that's probably the case. You want to match the level of preparation that a student has with the level of rigor of a college campus.

                                What many people are pointing out though is that we, in many cases, have the opposite problem. That too many African American kids and low income kids are under matched. That they could do great at Harvard but for a variety of reasons, they go to their local community college instead.

Robert :                Right. It's complicated. I have to say it's all ... I've read the transcript quickly. I should have spend more time with it. It was not entirely clear to me that he was voicing his own comments as much as quoting a brief that was filed as well. He was asking about a brief. It's very difficult when you read the transcript to parse out what his words and what was-

Mike :                   Is it because of our last names that we're defending Scalia?

Robert :                Yeah, I think so.

Mike :                   Look, we're pretty proud of him. Italian American on the court.

Robert :                Speaking as a White male, cisgendered, privileged Italian American, yes.

Mike :                   Exactly. You got to love that. Now, of course, we should point out that it's not just one Italian American on the court. No, no. We have two. We are well-represented.

Robert :                It's not our turn yet, is it?

Mike :                   No, I guess not.

Robert :                It's not our turn.

Mike :                   Here's another point though, Robert, that we really need to make. The higher ed affirmative action debates are always so frustrating in my opinion because-

Robert :                And charged.

Mike :                   And charged. The reason they're so frustrating is, of course, the reason that we have this difficult dilemma in higher education is because our K-12 system,

Robert :                Thank you. You guessed what I was going to say.

Mike :                   ... has not solved the problem. We have these achievement gaps. Further more, the K-12 system is not doing close to everything it could to identify minority kids and low income kids as early as possible who show a lot of academic potential and do everything they can to nurture the talent of those kids. In fact, we have a system where if you're affluent and you live out in the suburbs, and you are academically gifted, you are likely to be identified as academically gifted, be given special programs and services, get to go to track classes all the way from middle school into high school and take lots of AP classes.

                                In the cities where the liberals are in charge, they have, by and large, decided that gifted and talented programs are evil and tracking is bad, and so they've gotten rid,

Robert :                Good enough is good enough.

Mike :                   ... of all that stuff out of this "concern of equity." They've gotten rid of all that stuff. What happens? You're White and rich, you still get it. You're poor and minority, you don't get it. As a result, those talented, academically gifted minority kids, poor kids often sit in classes that are heterogeneous where they've got classmates who are way, way behind them. Now probably are disruptive because the liberals now want to get rid of school discipline on top of it. It's like we're doing everything we can to keep low income and minority kids from having a chance to get on the fast track to the Ivy Leagues.

Robert :                Because equity.

Mike :                   This is the problem and we debate affirmative action. Look, to all the members of the court, if we would just provide some opportunities for these low income and African American kids stating in elementary school all the way through high school, it would not be as hard of a problem.

Robert :                What you said.

Mike :                   Boom. I'm a little bit fired up.

Robert :                I could tell. I could tell. Look, I think you're right.

Mike :                   Next time I'm going to write an amicus brief about this. I've never done that.

Robert :                Really?

Mike :                   I've never written an amicus brief. Do you think you have to have any particular legal training to do that, or can you just bust it out as not bad and send it in?

Robert :                I honestly do not know the answer to that.

Mike :                   All right. We're going to look into that. All right. That is all the time we've got for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute.

                                For Amber this week, we've got Dara Zeehandelaar. Dara, welcome back to the show.

Dara:                     Hi, thank you.

Mike :                   Earlier Robert was being Mr. Party Pooper on Star Wars. How excited are you?

Dara:                     Super excited. I'm getting a little nervous that I don't actually have tickets yet due to travel plans and the fact that we can't see it at the Air and Space Museum which was our original plan,

Mike :                   That'd be cool.

Dara:                     ... until January. We'll see it there in January.

Robert :                Who are you, people?

Mike :                   Come on, Robert. Come on, Amber. I mean, Dara here was a physicist of some sort.

Robert :                All right. All right.

Dara:                     Something like that.

Mike :                   Astronomer?

Dara:                     Good enough.

Mike :                   Astrology? No, that's different.

Robert :                Spotlight. Go see Spotlight. That's a great one.

Dara:                     I also agree.

Mike :                   Dara, do we know ... Is it PG or PG-13? Have they decided?

Dara:                     I don't know.

Mike :                   This is an important question for some of us parents out there.

Dara:                     I wouldn't let it stop you.

Mike :                   Really? With a five year old?

Dara:                     It's Star Wars.

Mike :                   I haven't let them ... They've not seen the second trilogy because they're all PG-13 and extremely violent.

Robert :                My five year old was terrified by Elf so what do I know? I'm not kidding. She really was.

Mike :                   Dara is filling for Amber. You can't let us down. People love Amber's Research Minute. Make it your own, Dara.

Dara:                     They do. I will do my best. Big shoes to fill. Today's fascinating study comes from Matthew Kraft at Brown University, and it's published in the current issue of Education Finance and Policy. It's on discretionary layoff policies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

                                You probably already know this but just a quick review. When districts need to reduce the number of employees, there are some very non-discretionary ways of doing that. Of course, there's seniority, last in, first out. There's also very strict inverse objective evaluation criteria. You've the worst evaluations, you're the first to be fired. Again, not discretionary. Reasons not to do either LIFO we know about, but using only value add might result in teachers focusing solely on test scores or in losing teachers that fill other needs at a school, things like that.

                                Charlotte-Mecklenburg, they use a discretionary policy. Candidates for layoffs are ID-ed using whether the position is necessary or not but also enrollment, job qualifications like your license, length of service aka seniority and job performance as determined by principal evaluations. Now, student test scores are not officially part of the process, but the author had access to those as well which I'll go into a second.

                                Between 2008 and 2010, because of the recession, the district laid off over a thousand teachers. With that, the author asked two questions. First, under the discretionary policy which teachers actually got laid off? Second, what was the impact of that policy on student achievement? We all know Charlotte has great data. I won't say more about that.

                                First, was it actually discretionary layoffs? Who was laid off? The obvious candidates: probationary teachers, teachers with insufficient license, teachers hired after the start of the school year, returning, retired teachers, teachers with a temporary license or no license but also, yes, teachers with poor evaluation. The district laid of the lowest performing teachers across all levels of seniority.

Mike :                   Good for them.

Dara:                     Good for them.

Mike :                   That's good.

Dara:                     Lower performing tenured teachers were more likely to be laid off than higher performing non-tenured teachers.

Mike :                   Amen.

Dara:                     It's not all about probationary status. Clear evidence that there was actually discretion being used.

Mike :                   And used well.

Dara:                     And used well. Well, what is the impact of that you might ask?

Mike :                   I might ask. In fact, Dara, what's the impact of that?

Dara:                     Recall that the effectiveness was measured by principal evaluation and not value add. You might wonder did it actually work or not? The impact on student achievement is suggestive. Some highlights, laying off a more effective teacher as measured by either principals or value add lowered student achievement. Exactly what we would expect. Laying off a more effective teacher did lower student achievement. Particular, achievement of students who lost an effective math teacher went down significantly compared to students who lost an ineffective one. No similar finding for reading, however.

Mike :                   You're saying even with this discretion, there were still effective teachers that were let go for one reason or another?

Dara:                     Right. That is true. Interestingly, the achievement of students who lost a senior teacher as opposed to an early career teacher is not statistically significant which, again, is in line with previous research i.e we want to lay off the least effective teachers.

                                Taken together, results confirm that from an achievement perspective, LIFO is not the way to lay off teachers. Measures of effectiveness, not seniority, predict how layoffs will affect achievement but, here's the but which I think, Mike, you might appreciate, while value add scores would have helped identify effective teachers, principal evaluations did a really good job of informing the layoffs. Mike, I think you would agree that including non-rigid measures is important rather than treating one inflexible layoff policy for another.

Mike :                   I like it. I like it very much. It's interesting. There has been some research. At least the conventional wisdom is principals don't know how to evaluate teachers.

Robert :                You think that's the conventional wisdom?

Mike :                   Well, there's some conventional wisdom out there. I think-

Robert :                Not with the principals I know.

Mike :                   Well, of course. Some of the reform crowd says, "Well, we have to come up with these teacher evaluation systems and force them down the throats of the states with a federal mandate," excuse me, "Because principals are hopelessly bad at evaluating teachers." Well, it turns out, especially on either end of the performance spectrum, really good teachers are really bad teachers. Principals are quite good at it.

Robert :                That doesn't surprise me at all.

Mike :                   Kindergartners are good at it. It doesn't take them much. This is pretty obvious.

Dara:                     I think what this study is showing, at least for this district, is principals are identifying additional characteristics that are valuable to students that aren't necessarily captured in a value add.

Mike :                   Look, here's the great thing though is that Charlotte faced a difficult situation as did many, many school districts. Because they used human judgment and did it well, students benefited. It was able to do that in part because North Carolina is a very weak teacher union state. One of the few states where I believed collective bargaining is actually illegal.

Dara:                     That's correct.

Mike :                   In a lot of other places, especially in politically blue places around the country, districts did not have that choice. They would have just done LIFO and almost surely that means that kids lost out. Which is, look, it's another reason to keep fighting for these kinds of flexibilities for principals. I wish that was the fight that we had been fighting the last several years instead of this crazy fight over teacher evaluations.

Robert :                I agree. I spend a lot of time in schools as you know, and it is just not that hard to walk into a classroom and within minutes know whether you're in a classroom of a good teacher who's good, better, best or bad, worse or, oh, my god.

Mike :                   Yet is really hard in many places to actually be able to do anything about that or to use that information. We have to make tough decisions like this.

Dara:                     I think what is particularly interesting is that some places might be worried that we could give schools and principals this discretion, but they're not going to use it. That they're still going to resort to seniority. At least in Charlotte, after laying off kind of the low hanging fruit as it were, that principals really were using job performances as the layoff criteria.

Mike :                   By the way, not partisan or things like that which is the other charge people always say, "Well, you're just going ... Make sure to fire your sister-in-law."

Robert :                Right. I'm curious-

Mike :                   Of course, they probably did not have data on the family relations.

Dara:                     No, they did not. It's a large district.

Robert :                Was there any differentiation in the study between or among the principals in terms of their seniority, their achievements. In other words, can we look at principals and say, "Good ones make good decisions. Bad ones make bad decisions?" Was that level of granularity not part of the study?

Dara:                     It wasn't a question that the researchers asked, but it could certainly be possible given the robustness of the data that's coming out.

Mike :                   Yeah, that would be a great question about ... Where certain principals particularly good at making the right call? Cool. Well, Dara, you did quite well.

Dara:                     Thank you.

Mike :                   We will have you back on this.

Robert :                After Star Wars.

Mike :                   After Star Wars, absolutely. All right. Until next week.

Robert :                I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Mike :                   And I'm Mike Petrilli. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.