Teachers

Spend any time at all writing education commentary and you’ll inevitably find yourself coming back to certain ideas and themes. Here’s one that I can’t stop probing and poking at like a sore tooth: Why do we insist on making teaching too hard for ordinary people to do well? It seems obvious that we’ll never make a serious dent in raising outcomes for kids at scale until or unless we make the job doable by mere mortals—because that’s who fills our classrooms. So go nuts: Beat the bushes for 3.7 million saints and superheroes. Raise standards. Invest billions in professional development (with nearly nothing to show for it). Or just give teachers better tools, focus their efforts, and ask them to be really good at fewer things.

The latest data point to illustrate this idea—that maybe we should make teaching an achievable job for average people—comes from C. Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin, a pair of researchers at Northwestern University. Their intriguing new study suggests that teacher efficacy can be enhanced—affordably, easily, and at scale—by giving teachers “off-the-shelf’ lessons designed to develop students’ deep understanding of math concepts.

The pair randomly assigned teachers in three Virginia school districts to one of three...

With her nonstop knack for making waves, getting noticed, and possibly even advancing the interests of her members, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten is now on the warpath against hedge fund managers. “Why,” she asks, “would you put your money with someone who wants to destroy you?” So her union is discouraging teacher pension funds—which invest many billions—from doing business with hedge funds led by people who do things she disapproves of. Those include supporting charter schools and pushing lawmakers to reform public sector pensions and expand the tax deductibility of donations to private schools.

As with the squalid crusade on some college campuses and churches to make endowment managers stop investing in firms that do business with Israel, one must ask whether the political ends being pursued justify investment portfolio changes that may diminish future returns. One hedge fund chieftain likened the Weingarten campaign to “hiring a dentist because of their political beliefs. You may see eye to eye on politics, but you may not have great, straight teeth.”

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, one of the AFT’s largest locals remains at war with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, waging a strike on April Fool’s Day. Farther west, the United...

Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed helped popularize the notion that non-cognitive skills like resilience, perseverance, and conscientiousness could be as important to student success as performance on math and reading exams. Tough viewed character strengths as a tool that low-income and minority children can use to overcome enormous adversity.

His sequel, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, expands on these ideas by asking: “Now that we know this, what do we do?” The book’s central tenet is that educators must compensate for the shortcomings in a student’s home environment in order to foster his character strengths. Tough argues that character can’t be taught in the same way as math: “There’s no evidence that any particular curriculum or textbook or app can effectively teach kids grit or self-control.” Rather, such qualities are presented as psychological attributes that are products of a child’s home, daycare, and school.

Tough draws on new research from the fields of neuroscience, education, early childhood development, and psychology to highlight the effects of “toxic stress” caused by unstable home and family settings. These problems manifest in school through cycles of anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior.

The book’s strength is its effective and succinct depiction of what...

  • 2016 is providing ample opportunities for the charter sector to take stock. The twenty-fifth anniversary of chartering’s inception has produced a bevy of retrospectives on the movement’s history, and this fall’s presidential election will pen a new chapter in the twisting narrative of school choice, power, and politics. In the meantime, the progress continues apace. On Monday, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation awarded its prestigious annual prize (and a cool $250,000) to IDEA Public Schools, a burgeoning CMO out of Texas. The network, which specializes in educating disadvantaged kids close to the Mexican border, pledged to split the loot with fellow finalists YES Prep and Success Academy. As much as we love charter excellence, solidarity between schools makes it even better.
  • NPR correspondent Anya Kamenetz’s exposé on Rocketship last week was something of a recognizable type. It resembled pretty closely last year’s in-depth New York Times article on Success Academy: a long and detailed piece examining the methods of a phenomenally successful charter network. Unfortunately, some also found it unwieldy, tendentious, and anecdotal. Washington Monthly’s Alexander Russo has deemed it a “takedown” that attempts to recast Rocketship’s high test scores and disciplined environment as somehow suspect. (There’s also the weird decision to refer to the nonprofit
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Teachers don’t agree on much. Ask about curriculum, pedagogy, school culture, or discipline and you’re likely to encounter deeply held and conflicting opinions. But if there’s one belief that unites nearly all of the nation’s three million teachers, it’s this: Professional development sucks.

Indeed, before diving into this report from New America, I posted a note on Facebook asking my educator friends to play a game of word association. The phrase “professional development” quickly generated dozens of responses, including “Pay hike scheme,” “Waste of time,” “Nightmare suckfest run by non-teachers,” “Paid to drink the district Kool-Aid,” and simply “Kill me now.” One response summarized K–12’s relationship with professional development perfectly: “Generally crap. Could be awesome.”

So we agree that it’s generally crap, yet we lavish time and money on it hoping that it will be awesome. Our faith is largely misplaced: Despite an estimated $18 billion spent on PD per year, little evidence exists linking any of it to consistently effective improvement in teacher practices or student outcomes. Enter Melissa Tooley and Kaylan Connally, the authors of this report, who note that it makes no sense to bemoan the execrable state of PD until or unless there is agreement on what...

Last year’s biennial budget (HB 64) required Ohio to define what it means to be a “consistently high-performing teacher” by July 1, a date that is fast approaching. This particular provision aimed to make life easier for such teachers by excusing them from the requirement to complete additional coursework (and shell out extra money) each time they renew their licenses. It also exempts them from additional professional development requirements prescribed by their districts or schools. Who could oppose freeing some of our best teachers from a couple of burdensome mandates?

More people than you might think, starting with the group tasked with defining “consistently high-performing”: the Ohio Educator Standards Board. The board recently “voted unanimously to oppose the law” according to Gongwer News—never mind the fact that the law passed last year and contesting it now is futile. Chairwoman Sandra Orth said that defining a high-performing teacher was disrespectful and unproductive. Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) President Melissa Cropper also weighed in, calling it “another slap in the face to our profession.” Meanwhile, state board of education member A.J. Wagner characterized this provision as a “law that was made to be broken” and urged fellow members to follow...

A new study by WestEd researchers looks at the validity of ratings from the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching, a very popular classroom observation instrument often used in teacher evaluation systems.

The study is small in scope, examining the framework’s use in just one district (Nevada’s Washoe County, which we profiled a few years ago for its work in implementing the Common Core.) Its purpose was to determine whether the ratings differentiate among teachers, measure distinct areas of teaching practice, and link to teacher effectiveness.

The data cover 713 Washoe elementary, middle, and high school teachers (both tenured and non-tenured) who were observed on all twenty-two components of the Danielson instrument in the 2012–13 school year. The instrument covers four domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. Each domain has five or six components that roll up into a single four-point rating for the domain (from ineffective to highly effective).

Key findings: Ratings showed at least 90 percent of teachers were rated effective or highly effective on nearly every one of the twenty-two components, with “effective” the most common rating. So principals tend to use the ratings to discriminate between effective and highly effective teachers but...

Lisa Hansel

If there were just one thing I could say to fans of open educational resources (OER) and personalized learning, it would be this: “Atomized units of knowledge don’t build anything.” That quote comes from an education reformer who used to teach in a high-powered classical school. She and her colleagues delivered the type of rigorous, well-rounded, and carefully sequenced education that has produced thoughtful leaders and scholars for thousands of years; schooling of that sort is often dismissed as too hard for most kids or too twentieth-century for today.

Sadly, in dismissing the classical or liberal arts approach, we’ve also unintentionally thwarted our most sacred goal: that all students become strong readers. As the last several decades of literacy research clearly demonstrate, reading comprehension requires a very broad base of academic knowledge and a massive vocabulary. In short, to be a good reader, you have to know all of the terms and ideas that writers will use without providing definitions or explanations (e.g., Supreme Court, solar system, David and Goliath, etc.). This base of knowledge, which literate adults are assumed to have and children therefore need to accumulate, is enormous. We must be highly efficient in order to give them all...

A new study by Dan Goldhaber and colleagues examines whether a teacher candidate exam (“edTPA”) predicts both the likelihood of employment in the teacher workforce and of teacher effectiveness via value-added measures.

edTPA is a performance-based assessment developed by Linda Darling Hammond and other researchers at Stanford. It is administered to would-be teachers during their student teaching experience. Like the National Boards, it’s a portfolio-based assessment that includes between three and five videotaped lessons from candidates, as well as lesson plans, student work samples, evidence of student learning, and reflective commentaries written by candidates. The test assesses three areas (planning, instruction, and assessment); it includes fifteen scoring rubrics, for a maximum summative score of seventy-five; and it comprises assessments for twenty-seven different teaching fields, such as early childhood, secondary science, and special education. At present, edTPA is used in six hundred teacher education programs in forty states, and passing it is a licensure requirement in seven of them (states determine the passing score). Candidates pay $300 for the exam and can re-submit any failed tasks.

The study’s dataset comprises roughly 2,300 teacher candidates in Washington State teacher education programs who took the edTPA in the 2013–14 school year. (Results, for...

Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, is the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. He’ll face off (with running mate William Weld) in November against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Here are some of his views on education:

  1. School choice: “I think I was more outspoken than any governor in the country regarding school choice—believing that the only way to really reform education was to bring competition to public education. So for six straight years as governor of New Mexico, I proposed a full-blown voucher system that would’ve brought about that competition.” August 2012.
  2. Federal role in education: “I think that the number-one thing that the federal government could do when it comes to the delivery of education would be to abolish itself from the education business….It’s also important to point out that the federal Department of Education was established in 1979. And there is nothing to suggest that, since 1979, that the federal Department of Education has been value-added regarding anything. So just get the federal government out of education.” August 2012.
  3. Common Core: “[Gary Johnson] opposes Common Core and any other attempts to impose national standards and requirements on local schools.” June 2016 (from his campaign website).
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