The mathlete edition

U.S. mathletes, career-focused charter schools, Minecraft, and the teacher quality gap. 

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Dan Goldhaber, Lesley Lavery, and Roddy Theorbald, "Uneven playing field? Assessing the teacher quality gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students," Educational Researcher (June 2015).


Mike:              Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at And now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the American Ninja Warrior of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa:           You know Mike, I think the first time I hosted you called me, what's-her-name, the woman who did really really well on ...

Mike:              Casey something-or-other.

Alyssa:           Casey. It's glad to have some thematic continuity.

Mike:              Well, because it is summertime, which means that American Ninja Warrior is back and that means in the Petrilli household we are all about that show. Do you watch it? It is so much fun.

Alyssa:           I have seen some clips on YouTube. It seems insane. It seems like I would probably make it, maybe through half of the first obstacle.

Mike:              Yeah, this goes on my good shows for kids list. It's wholesome entertainment. They tell these uplifting stories, and then the kids are also excited to go to the playground and pretend to play on American Ninja Warrior.

Alyssa:           Have you guys ever set up a Petrilli Ninja Warrior course in the backyard?

Mike:              Oh, yeah. Well, it's best to go to a playground and do it where there's monkey bars and stuff like that. Absolutely. We were also at a resort recently in Georgia that had this thing called Aqua Island, which was like American Ninja Warrior, on these big blow up things in the middle of a lake which was awesome.

Alyssa:           Now that sounds like fun.

Mike:              It was amazing. Okay. Speaking of amazing, so many amazing things to talk about this week. Let's get started, Ellen. Let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Alyssa:           Last week, US mathletes took first place at the International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time since 1994. Does this mark the end of America's international education lag?

Mike:              First of all Alyssa, I've gotta ask, were you a mathlete in high school? Did you participate in any of these academic contests?

Alyssa:           Not in high school but I was on my sixth grade math bee team. We did make it to state. It was interesting. That followed me through high school too, I'm going to say.

Mike:              The state championship, that was the Iowa State Championship.

Alyssa:           Yes. We did not place in the top ten which was a source of pain and humiliation for our teacher.

Mike:              Okay. This is good news. Right? We should be excited about these guys. We read up on this a little bit. I'll show you a sample problem that these guys had to solve.

Alyssa:           So hard.

Mike:              I have no idea. Is it Calculus? What is it? I don't even know what it is.

Alyssa:           I think it's Algebra. They apparently can't use Calculus. I was reading a lot of the rules. I pulled a question. I couldn't read it out loud to you because I don't know how to interpret it.

Mike:              Can I admit it's like when I read these research studies like NBER studies and I get to the formulas and I'm just like, "All right. Skipping that part."

Alyssa:           You can tell me. I wouldn't tell Amber.

Mike:              All right. I won't tell Amber. Nobody tell Amber. What does this mean, Alyssa? Does this mean that the woes of our high achieving students in America, our gifted kids, are over? That we now can consider that our high achievers in the US are doing just fine, thank you very much? Is that how you would take it?

Alyssa:           Absolutely not. This means that we had six kids do really really really really well on one international math competition. While that's great, the US is also scoring in the top three or five for the last 21 years that we haven't exactly won the competition. We've been scoring lower in PISA and international rankings overall in that time frame.

Mike:              That's right. It's like the athletic Olympics. Right?

Alyssa:           Mm-hmm.

Mike:              We do well in those Olympics partly because we're a big country. That's certainly helps. Partly because we have a handful of incredibly gifted athletes that do well competing on the international stage. That does not mean that we are the fittest nation on earth.

Alyssa:           Right. Michael Phelps, he's not only a gifted athlete but he a ton of opportunities that he could take advantage of. He had these great training programs and access to those. The analogy [stands 00:03:49]. Not every kid has those things in this country and not every kid is Michael Phelps.

Mike:              Right. We still have a long way to go in terms of raising achievement including at the top of the spectrum. It also means that America is still fat. That's what we're saying.

Alyssa:           Yes. America is still fat is the key takeaway here.

Mike:              Yeah. We're not talking P-H-A-T fat.

Alyssa:           No, but we're not that either.

Mike:              Okay. Topic number two.

Alyssa:           This week's op-ed by Robert Schwartz makes the case for career focus charter schools. Do you agree with this approach?

Mike:              Yeah. This op-ed in the Education Gadfly this week by Bob Schwartz who is leading the Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard and really inspired my thinking on this quite a bit and got me to really understand the importance of career and technical education. He comes out and very clearly says, "This is why of course not all charter schools, but the charter sector as a whole should embrace career and technical education." There are very few CTE focused charter schools, but charters are well positioned to do this. Right? Alyssa, talk a little bit about the particular model that he is so excited about.

Alyssa:           He talks a lot about the early college/high school and then as the National Academy Foundation as potential models that charters can adopt. Both of these have done a really great job of connecting community colleges and industry in an area to the schools to really align what the kids are learning to the skills that they need to know to be successful and to earn a solid salary as adults. That's really what we're looking for. We're looking for ways that we can turn high school kids into high performing, high earning individuals who are solid participants in the middle class. That's something that we're lacking in a lot of schools necessarily. We are only about one-fourth of kids earn a four-year degree by the age of 25. This is a way that we can get more kids into strong and good paying jobs I think.

Mike:              Yeah. You notice, again, and we're talking about career education. The proposal he's making is early college. Instead of early college meaning early four-year college degrees, which is what of the early college programs are doing. A big focus on getting kids into and onto four-year college campuses and thinking about those routes, is to focus on technical colleges, community colleges and technical fields. There are a few examples of people doing that, but to do more of that so career academies plus early college high schools plus the charter piece makes everything easier. It makes it easier to hire teachers who may not have certifications but have the content expertise, they have the job expertise. Easier to bring these partnerships together. Easier to think about partnering up with community colleges. Yet, for some reason, we just haven't seen much of this in the charter sector yet, and here's hoping that changes.

Alyssa:           Yep.

Mike:              Okay. Topic number three.

Alyssa:           A recent NPR story looks at the extremely popular online game Minecraft and asks, "Is this good for kids?" Mike, you're a parent. What do you think?

Mike:              I'm so torn on these things. If people have been reading my blog over the years, you know that I'm torn on this. One the one hand our kids have Waldorf preschools. The Waldorf philosophy is there should be basically zero screen time or extremely limited until they're maybe 10 or 11 or 12.

Alyssa:           That old?

Mike:              Yeah. This is popular. These schools are popular in Silicon Valley even where some of these Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs, they see the value of screens in general but they don't want their kids anywhere near it. They want to protect this idyllic romantic childhood where you're outside running and playing in the fields. Yet, it does seem like some of these video games and apps have some value. Minecraft is very much a creative enterprise. It's engineering or engineering-esque, so maybe it's not so bad.

Alyssa:           Yeah. I mean, for me Minecraft is something that's just come out of nowhere in the last couple weeks. I hadn't heard of it but it's so popular with teens.

Mike:              Where have you been Alyssa? It's not out of the last couple of weeks. Until you saw it on the cover the The New Yorker, you'd never heard of it? Come on!

Alyssa:           Actually, yes. It's completely come out of the blue for me. I don't know. I don't see a lot of young children much these days. Does your oldest son ... He's in elementary school now. Does he play it?

Mike:              He's 7. He's not a fan of Minecraft though. Now after seeing all this stuff I'm like, "Hey, come on. Maybe give it a chance." I think he may get into it later. He's been into Clash of Clans lately which sounds terrible. It's actually not. Not violent. The premise is violent. You go marauding and attacking other clans, but it's actually-

Alyssa:           That's violent.

Mike:              You don't actually do any of the marauding. It's more strategy and it's fun and it's social. Anyway, all of these things, I guess I would take the Buddhist approach here. Everything in moderation. Try to find the middle pathway. Don't prohibit it, but certainly keep on eye on kids doing too much of it. Let the pediatricians of the world worry that kids are going to sit around doing nothing but playing video games instead of getting out there and running around. That's a reasonable concern.

Alyssa:           Yup. I agree.

Mike:              One last point on this though. New finding came out about teenage pregnancy and teenage sex. That it continues to plummet in percentage of teenagers saying that they're having sex is down. Particularly among boys to which I say, "Video games." That's good. If kids are playing video games instead of having sex, I'm all for that.

Alyssa:           Okay. All right then.

Mike:              Now that I've embarrassed Alyssa, that is all the time we've got for ‘Pardon the Gadfly.’ Now it’s time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute. Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:           Thanks, Mike. 

Mike:              Amber, we were just talking about something earlier on the earlier segment. I want to know from a research perspective. We see two trends. Kids are playing a lot more video games these times, especially boys. Teenagers, especially boys, reported having less sex these days. How can we prove that these two things are related?

Amber:           That's a really tough correlation you're trying to draw there.

Mike:              Don't you think it might be related?

Amber:           It seems like it could be, but it's not a research study I'd want to be conducting.

Mike:              The boys are having less sex because they're playing video games instead, and because they girls know they're playing more video games.

Amber:           Are boys and girls supposed to be having sex as Miss Conservative Person here. I mean, hello, these are boys.

Mike:              They're not supposed to be. Right.

Amber:           Right.

Mike:              We're saying this is good. We do not want them ...

Amber:           Want them ...

Mike:              We would prefer for teenagers ... Fewer teenagers to be having sex.

Amber:           Got you.

Mike:              We just have trade-offs. Other people are like, "We don't want them playing video games all the time." I'm saying that's an easy choice. Okay?

Amber:           Yes. It is an easy choice. Although you know this pixel ... Have you seen this pixel movie where the video games come back and attack everybody? Like Pac Man comes to life.

Mike:              No.

Amber:           It's the latest Adam Sandler movie. It's going to be interesting, speaking of video games, but I digress.

Mike:              That will happen eventually. Okay. What do you have for us this week?

Amber:           All right. We got a new study out by Dan Goldhaber. Always liking Dan's studies. Good old Dan. On Even Playing Field is the title. Provides loads of descriptive data that documents the extent and depth of the teacher quality gap between advantage and disadvantaged kids. Dan and his colleagues basically show that disadvantaged kids, once again, get the short end of the stick when it comes to high quality teachers. What's different about this study is that they look at different definitions of teacher quality. Experience, teacher license, exam, value added estimates, so both inputs and output measures.

                        They look at various ways to define student disadvantage, so free and reduced price lunch status, under represented minority or low prior academic performance. They slice it on both sides multiple ways. Okay? They use data from Washington state for grades 3 through 10 for the 2011-2012 school year. They look at 4th grade classrooms in particular just to zero in on that grade, but then they replicate their findings for the other grades. I'm just going to give you a short litany of the findings which all point in the same direction. Okay? The distribution of prior value added estimates for teachers of student on free/reduced priced lunch is routinely lower than the distribution for non-free and reduced lunch 4th graders.

                        Low-income 4th grades are more likely to have a teacher with a low teacher licensure exam score. The distribution of lower quality teachers is most inequitable within the most disadvantaged districts. One of the biggest teacher quality gaps occurs in the distribution of 7th grade teachers with low value added scores. This is just one little specific factoid here. Almost 20% of low-performing 7th grade math students are assigned to a teacher with a low prior year VAM estimate, versus just 7% of the higher performing kids. It goes on and on.

                        In short, the bottom line is disadvantaged kids are less likely to be taught by a high quality teacher in nearly every grade level, no matter how you define high quality, no matter how you define disadvantaged kids. Then, they have a section at the end that talks about: Why is this happening? What are the various theories? We know that for instance principals tend to give the Advance Placement jobs, the favorable assignments, to the teachers who are higher performers. We know this, teacher agreements for instance don't allow senior teachers to be transferred involuntarily, so on and so forth. We can talk about why this happens, but the bottom reason is that it continues to happen.

Mike:              I don't find the AP thing very convincing. At least specifically AP, because that's 12th grade for the most part. Right? That's not mostly what we're talking about here. There may be some places where there are some tracks or ability groups and things like that where that comes into play. This is important because forever we assumed that there was a big teacher quality gap when you looked at inputs. Then, when the value added stuff started coming out, I thought that there were a few studies that started raising some questions instead.

                        Maybe that gap isn't as big as we thought. That if you look at value added, teacher distribution is actually more equitable than we used to think. Now, Dan is saying, "No, no, no. It actually still looks very bad." What I'm always confused about, Amber, is whether there's some circular logic in here at all. In other words, are we sure the value added methodology is doing a good job taking into account the fact that it is harder to teach disadvantaged kids or low-performing kids. In other words, is it that the worry that teachers who teach lower performing kids, it is harder to have a high VAM score with those kids than it is at higher performing.

Amber:           That's the Matt Chingos rationale.

Mike:              That's certainly the case for teacher observations. Right? That it is harder to do well in teacher observations when you've got a bunch of low-performers in your classroom. What is the question with VAM? They're starting from a lower point, so you should be able to bring them up to a higher point, but if they continue to have disadvantage at home, etc, etc, than maybe it is also that one surprise. It's the school level too. Right? There's some stuff that's been debated this week in DC that these schools that are the more advantaged schools, the lower poverty schools, the schools with high proficiency rates also tend to be the ones with higher growth rates. You say, "Really? Can that be true?" Or is that something about the methodology?

Amber:           Right. When I think too what the research around VAM has shown consistently is that it's better identifying the teachers that are at the tail ends. Right? The high-performing and the low-performing. I think if you got a room full of VAM experts in the room and they've done this before, most will agree that that mass distribution in the center is really hard to parse. We have better precision at the tail ends than in the middle which is a problem. Right? That's was Eric and others have been saying, "We stand on more credibility." Talking about the bottom 5% because we can identify those teachers more reliably than the others.

Mike:              All right. So, bottom line is Dan Goldhaber tells us, "Yes, we do indeed have a teacher quality gap." It's something that we need to worry about because it's really bad for disadvantaged kids. Okay, Thank you, Amber. That's all the time we've got for this week. Until next week.

Alyssa:           I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Mike:              I'm Mike Petrilli. The Education Gadfly Show, signing off.