Much attention has been paid to why teachers quit. Statistics and studies get thrown around, and there are countless theories to explain the attrition rate. While recent reports indicate that the trend might not be as bad as we’ve thought, teacher attrition isn’t just about whole-population numbers—it’s about retaining the most effective teachers within those numbers. Indeed, a 2012 study from TNTP (formerly known as the New Teacher Project) notes that our failure to improve teacher retention is largely a matter of failing to retain the right teachers. A separate study suggests that retaining the best teachers is all about reducing barriers that make teachers feel powerless and isolated. The 2014 National Teacher of the Year recently pointed out that, among myriad other causes, lacking influence in their own schools and districts (let alone in state policy) is often at the root of teacher attrition.

Keeping high-performers in the classroom has long been a trouble spot for schools. “If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow, and still allow them to stay in the classroom,” says Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to Secretary of...

If you’re an aficionado of the Education Gadfly, there’s a fair chance you’ve read or heard me discussing my new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher.  It’s written wholly for educators and fueled by interviews and discussions with hundreds of teacher-leaders. In it, I observe that even terrific teachers routinely say they feel stymied, offer insights on how teachers can create the schools and systems where they can do their best work, and explain where practitioners tend to stumble on this count.

But what about policymakers and reformers? What does The Cage-Busting Teacher mean for them? How can they create the conditions whereby cage-busting teachers can thrive? Let me offer four suggestions.

First, policymakers and reformers need to keep in mind that they’re not the ones who educate kids. Heck, they’re only occasionally in classrooms—and they’re not the ones held accountable for how students are faring. From the teacher’s perspective, they—we—are backseat drivers. Everybody gets frustrated by backseat drivers, even when they have good advice to offer. Passengers can carefully study the GPS or old-fashioned roadmap while the driver focuses on the road. They can see signs that the driver missed, maybe even the truck out front making an unexpectedly fast stop.  But backseat drivers...

After the expectations-busting success of Cage-Busting Leadership two years ago, it’s no surprise that Rick Hess, head of the American Enterprise Institute’s education policy shop, is back with a sequel. The Cage-Busting Teacher has an arguably tougher goal than its predecessor, as there are millions more teachers than district leaders, and thousands more bars in teachers’ cages. Hess’s advice provides a road map for ambitious teachers. But his acknowledgement of critical, systemic issues highlights the fact that teachers can’t—and shouldn’t—have to go at it alone.

The book uses real-life anecdotes, peppered with references to everything from Say Anything to Aaron Sorkin, to illustrate cage busting and urge educators to take an active role in reforming the system to work for them. It’s an eminently readable work with deeply practical advice. Chapters focus on “managing up” with overworked administrators; identifying problems and selling solutions; becoming a savvy networker with district, union, and political leadership; and explaining common trip wires, like budgets and the policy cycle, in plainspoken English. High-placed leaders from TFA to the AFT weigh in on how teachers can develop greater agency and autonomy within the profession. As a former teacher who struggled with finding both during my two...

Gadfly book club edition

Hess’s The Cage-Busting Teacher, Toppo’s The Game Believes in You, Putnam’s Our Kids, and a leaky teacher pipeline.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: "The Condition of Future Educators 2014" ACT, Inc. (April 2015) 

A February study from the Center for Education Data and Research aims to determine if National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) are more effective than their non-certified counterparts. Established in 1987, National Board Certification is a voluntary professional credential designed for experienced teachers in twenty-five content areas. Certification is awarded through a rigorous portfolio assessment process consisting of four components: content knowledge; differentiation in instruction; teaching practice and classroom environment; and effective and reflective practices. These components are analyzed via teacher “artifacts,” including videos of classroom lessons, student work, and reflective essays. Across the U.S., more than 100,000 teachers (or roughly 3 percent of the teacher workforce) is National Board Certified.

This study examines data out of Washington State, which boasts the fourth-highest number of NBCTs in the country. Washington provides financial incentives for teachers earning board certification, including bonuses of up to a $5,000 for teachers working in high-need schools. The study finds that NBCTs produce additional student learning gains on state exams that correspond to about 1–2 additional weeks at the elementary level and in middle school reading. In middle school math, the results indicate a whopping five weeks of additional learning, compared to non-NBCTs with similar...

In education reform, we like to say that demography isn’t destiny—that, with the right supports, poor children can achieve at high levels despite the many challenges they face. But today, I’d like to discuss demography more literally—namely, the nation’s birth rate. Because it is destined to lead to significant teacher layoffs in the near future.

Much like the Great Depression did, the onset of the Great Recession led to a sharp decline in the U.S. birth rate. This graph illustrates the trend clearly:

More babies were born in the United States in 2007 than any other year in history—even more than at the peak of the Baby Boom. But the numbers started to plummet in 2008; as of 2013 (the most recent data), we’ve seen six straight years of decline. We are now 9 percent below 2007’s high.

So what does this mean for schools? For starters, remember that there’s a five year lag between birth and kindergarten entry. Do the math and you’ll learn that, at least nationally, there are a whole lot of first and second graders (born in 2007). But the kindergarten...

In a previous post, I referred to New York’s fierce political battle over teacher evaluations. Since then, New York lawmakers have passed the education portion of the budget—and moved Governor Cuomo’s controversial teacher evaluation proposal forward. State teachers’ unions responded by calling for parents to opt-out of standardized tests, hoping that a lack of data would sabotage the system. In response, the Brookings Institution’s Matthew Chingos has published an analysis of whether opting out will actually affect teacher evaluations. The short answer is “no,” and here’s why:

To conduct his analysis, Chingos examined statewide data from North Carolina—specifically, the math achievement of fourth and fifth graders during the 2009–10 school year. Chingos ran two simulations of the data: one that investigated a random group of students opting out of state exams, and another that investigated a group of the highest-performing students opting out. Both simulations found that the effect of opt-outs on a teacher’s evaluation score is small unless a large number of her students choose to opt out.

So what happens if a large number of students in New York opt out?[1] As the number of students opting out increases, so...

Kate Walsh is calm under pressure

The end of federal teacher evaluation mandates, the House overreaches on student privacy, NCTQ’s teacher prep review, and college interruptions. Featuring a guest appearance by NCTQ's Kate Walsh.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: P. Wesley Routon and Jay K. Walker, "A Smart Break? College Tenure Interruption and Graduating Student Outcomes," Education Finance and Policy 10 no. 2 (2005). 

Mike Petrilli:               Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net.

                                    Now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Jordan Speith of education reform, Kate Walsh.

Kate Walsh:                 I'm a little too old for Jordan but I'm happy to be here.

Mike Petrilli:               You are a rock star, Kate. You … You are calm under pressure just like Jordan the golfer.

Kate Walsh:                 You don't know what I am like on the inside but yes I am calm on the outside.

Mike Petrilli:               You are. I've seen it. It's very impressive.

Kate Walsh:                 Yeah.

Mike Petrilli:               As we will talk about, just as he was chasing some of the legends in golf you have been chasing the education schools and they are not happy about that. Kate is the president, the executive director, what's your title?

Kate Walsh:                 President.

Mike Petrilli:               The president. That's a great title isn't it? I love it.

Kate Walsh:                 You're enjoying that title are you?

Mike Petrilli:               I am. The president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which is doing fantastic work on everything related to teacher effectiveness. We're excited to have you with us. Let's get started. Ellen, let's play pardon the gadfly.

Ellen Alpaugh:             It looks like federally mandated teacher evaluations are going away. Is that a good thing?

Mike Petrilli:               Oh yeah. Woohoo.

Kate Walsh:                 I probably … I don't know. Maybe we do or don't have the same view of this. We certainly don't think it really matters much. It's a rather insignificant decision. The waivers …

Mike Petrilli:               What doesn't? The federal policy doesn't matter?

Kate Walsh:                 The federal policy on evaluation, while I think it served a certain purpose on the bully pulpit, I think it helped states understand it was important. But the implementation through the waiver system was flawed, shall we say, in that the states wanted to do evaluation well they just went about and did it well. Those that were being forced to do it, because of the waiver, they basically half-assed … Can I say that on the radio?

Mike Petrilli:               I'm shocked. Yes you can say that. I'm shocked, Kate, that this would happen. None of us could have foreseen this that when you have a federal mandate that states that don't want to do it well would just go through the motions.

Kate Walsh:                 It isn't just mandates. You can say … Race to the Top. The states that wanted to do Race to the Top because they bought into the agenda of Race to the Top, they got very serious about it. The states that were chasing the cash, they chased the cash. They got it and I don't think we have a whole lot to show for it.

Mike Petrilli:               All right, so let's imagine that … What we're talking about here is again that all the versions of the ESEA bills that are being debated in Congress, if miraculously Congress actually completes its work, gets a bill. All of those bills say we're not doing federally mandated teacher evaluations, that they are going to say this is … What the secretary did through the waivers, these conditions, that would go away. What's your anticipation? We've got now teacher evaluation systems in 40 states or something. Are a big chunk of those going to simply go away?

Kate Walsh:                 No and they're not. I think that most of those states that have bought into it have them for a reason and they believe in them.

Mike Petrilli:               But what about the half-assers? Do those go away?

Kate Walsh:                 The half-assers won't be any different with or without a federal mandate.

Mike Petrilli:               But why don't they just say we never really wanted to do this so let's just not do it and that might be actually better?

Kate Walsh:                 You're … I don't know. I'm not going to bet with you. Let me put it that way.

Mike Petrilli:               All right. Thank you very much, Kate. It sounds like Kate's not too upset about this. All right, Ellen, let's hear question number two.

Ellen Alpaugh:             A draft house bill would allow parents to opt their students information out of state data systems. Is this a good idea?

Mike Petrilli:               Kate, you think this somehow relates to this other question on teacher evaluations?

Kate Walsh:                 Actually I think all of this has to do with an overinvestment in the belief that the feds can solve a lot of these problems. This relates to all of the things we're going to address today. I would just argue that the FERPA is a huge concern. Here's an example of how things can go really badly. This isn't about mandating a new policy this is about allowing people to opt out. If that happens education research is going to take a real … It's going to be very dangerous for the future of education research. This is the opposite move as a proactive policy.

Mike Petrilli:               Let's explain this a little bit here. We've got this law that's been on the books for, I don't know, 30 years, something like that. FERPA, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act …

Kate Walsh:                 It's why I can't see my children's grades when they go to college even though I'm paying the tuition.

Mike Petrilli:               Right, that's very interesting.

Kate Walsh:                 I'm not a FERPA fan.

Mike Petrilli:               FERPA is supposed to protect student privacy and it does have some allowances for states to collect data, for example through testing systems, and put together these administrative record systems that many researchers find so useful and make them available to researchers under certain conditions, right? The researchers have to sign away their life in terms of confidentiality or the state has to run the numbers. There's different protocols for making sure those data don't get out of hand.

                                    What the House bill that is being debated now would do would say to parents hey parents, if you want to opt your kid, you want to basically take their records out of that state system, you may do so. That would mean suddenly their data would not be in there when the researcher runs the numbers or when the state tries to figure out the teacher's value-added score or the school's value-added score. It could really wreak havoc on a lot of these policies, right?

Kate Walsh:                 Yeah and to no good end. I don't know what a parent … What is the parent's interest in saying that Dan Goldhaber, probably the best teacher quality researcher in the country, I don't mean to insult any other friends …

Mike Petrilli:               No, he listens to the show. Hi Dan. That is always okay to do a shout out.

Kate Walsh:                 To deprive Dan Goldhaber of the ability to advance our knowledge in what we know about effective teacher is not a public service. There is nothing the parent gains by not having that test score included.

Mike Petrilli:               But in the era of Edward Snowden and all the rest, parents say hey you promised that you're keeping these data safe and that anything that goes out is going to be anonymous, et cetera, but how can we trust you? Do we really think states have their act together enough to know how to protect these data? We really don't think the Chinese could hack it? What if North Korea gets your kid's test score information?

Kate Walsh:                 Good luck to that. In all the years we've been doing this I don't know of a single instance … I'm sure there has been one but I don't know of a single instance myself in which a parent's privacy or a child's privacy has been violated by our ability to aggregate test scores. It would be nice if those who were fighting for this would be able to cite a little bit of evidence that this has been an actual problem that needs to be solved.

Mike Petrilli:               Yup. I understand people on the hill feel like they have to do something with the words "opt out" in it.

Kate Walsh:                 Yes.

Mike Petrilli:               I think we need to come up with other ideas of things that kids could opt out of. They could opt out of free lunch for example. That could be one thing.

Kate Walsh:                 I think they already have that option.

Mike Petrilli:               Darn it. All right, question number three.

Kate Walsh:                 That's why middle and high schools have very low free lunch rates as opposed to elementary schools.

Mike Petrilli:               Mm-hmm (affirmative). All right. Topic number three.

Ellen Alpaugh:             Kate, how's it going with the teacher prep review? Are ed schools cooperating with your evaluation of them?

Mike Petrilli:               They love you guys. They love you. A little backup, I think most people know this, but NCTQ now has done a couple rounds of this incredible project, ambitious project, to evaluate the teacher prep programs at most of the nation's ed schools. Most recently they not just evaluated them but also rated them.

Kate Walsh:                 We ranked.

Mike Petrilli:               I mean ranked.

Kate Walsh:                 We changed it from a rating to a ranking.

Mike Petrilli:               Ranked them. The ed schools haven't been thrilled about this.

Kate Walsh:                 No. What we've learned a few hard lessons in there and one of them is that they're not probably ever going to like us too much unless they happen to be in the top 25.

Mike Petrilli:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kate Walsh:                 Those that are in the top 25 or 50 are very quick to boast on their websites that they've been highly ranked. But most, let's face it, are far cry from being in the top. But we realized that our primary constituent here are school districts and aspiring teachers.

Mike Petrilli:               Yeah.

Kate Walsh:                 That's who we need to get this data in front of. How the ed schools react to it or don't react to it is not really our primary concern at this point.

Mike Petrilli:               Kate, is this an issue around race and class?

Kate Walsh:                 That comes out of left field.

Mike Petrilli:               Yeah, well let me ask. Where it comes out of, there's a big New York Times essay this last weekend, Motoko Rich saying where have all the teachers of color gone and talking about the dearth of teachers of color in the classroom. You could say for these ed schools, or a lot of us would argue, the major thing you need to do is have much higher entrance requirements into ed schools and that would solve many of the problems. Yet if you use test scores for that because of achievement gaps that's going to mean weeding out a lot of potential teachers of color or low incomes.

Kate Walsh:                 Here I start to get …

Mike Petrilli:               I'm curious. Is it the historically black colleges that are particularly frustrated with you? Is it the non-selective colleges that serve lots of working-class kids that are upset with you? Is it the elite schools that are expensive that are doing well in your ratings?

Kate Walsh:                 That's so funny you ask because it's elite schools that don't do well on our ratings. So if anything we have really angered … Let's use nicer language here. We have really angered the elite schools because they're used to being considered at the top and in fact they're anything but. They lead the problem, shall we say, in their commitment that says they don't have to train teachers they just have to form a professional identity. If you understand what that means you're ahead of me.

                                    But I think this has very little to do with diversity. In fact we have not had any particular push back on that issue per se. From HBCUs, they are no more or no less unhappy with us than anyone else in the ed school world.

Mike Petrilli:               All right, very good. That is all the time we've got for pardon the gadly. Now it's time for Amber's research minute. Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber Northern:        Thank you, Mike.

Mike Petrilli:               Are you also a big fan of this Jordan Speith character?

Amber Northern:        Wow, what a rock star, right? That was amazing. I only watch it when it gets exciting like that and I watched it just to see that kid. It's great.

Mike Petrilli:               Some people around here are saying he's a good looking kid.

Amber Northern:        He is easy on the eyes.

Mike Petrilli:               Robbing the cradle, people. Robbing the cradle.

Kate Walsh:                 I think he's a lot nicer than Tiger Woods.

Mike Petrilli:               Well, did we know that when Tiger Woods was 21? Yeah, exactly. All right, Amber what you got for us?

Amber Northern:        We've got a new study in the Journal for the Association for Education Financial Policy that examines the impact of two different types of breaks in college. The kind where you take an internship, and so you just don't take courses but you're taking an internship, and when you take voluntary academic leave. Internships or on-the-job training takes place in a professional job and they work for a semester in a field that they're considering as a career.

Mike Petrilli:               Hey, that sounds like student teaching by the way.

Amber Northern:        It does.

Mike Petrilli:               I wonder did that count?

Amber Northern:        It had to.

Mike Petrilli:               Yeah.

Amber Northern:        Voluntary academic leave is when a student takes a gap semester. This is becoming more and more popular with kids, right.

Kate Walsh:                 My daughter did a gap.

Amber Northern:        Yes, a gap semester or a gap year. They don't withdraw but they choose just not to take courses during that time period. Data are collected from the Higher Ed Research Institute, they collect surveys at the beginning and end of each student's college career. The sample includes about 95,000 students, pretty big sample, 460 institutions for survey years 1994 to 1999. It's a huge sample but it's not necessarily representative because private colleges and religious colleges are a little over-represented in the sample. They tend to participate more than the others.

Kate Walsh:                 That's not true for the teacher prep review.

Mike Petrilli:               That is true also?

Kate Walsh:                 No it's not.

Amber Northern:        26% have participated in internships, just a little over 2% who took voluntary leave. The control group … This is why this is 30 pages of the study talking about the control group. But they're students who attended the college continuously and full-time but they had to match on 50 different variables. They call it propensity score matching just to make sense of these groups. That's a ton of stuff. But they did the best job they could. They matched on family demographics, student demographics, high school GPA, SAT score, quality of college, whether they are attached to their college, it goes on and on and on.

                                    Key findings. This is the part where you go uh-huh, you nod your head. Overall, results for students who do internships is positive. There is a bump in their senior year GPA, they score higher on the MCAT, which is the medical college entrance exam, they're more likely to want to work full-time, to attend graduate school, to be well off financially, and they report greater increases in their interpersonal skills.

                                    As for those who took academic leave, results are mostly negative. This is what my best friend did in college, I remember it well. Their senior year GPA is negatively impacted, they study less per week upon their return, they are less likely to want a graduate degree, they are more likely to report being overwhelmed during their senior year, it goes on and on. I mean at the risk of oversimplifying, take an internship and don't leave school for an academic leave. Right?

Kate Walsh:                 Do they know that some of those people were on academic leave weren't asked to take a little leave?

Amber Northern:        They specifically took those out.

Kate Walsh:                 Okay.

Amber Northern:        It's all voluntary leave, not probation or anything like that.

Mike Petrilli:               Yeah.

Kate Walsh:                 Because I knew quite a few people who got invited to take a semester off.

Mike Petrilli:               Take a semester off. You figure that … No, it's not surprising. That you would think maybe the alternative for academic leave is kids just dropping out entirely.

Amber Northern:        Right but they don't. This is … Those kids are all taken out too.

Mike Petrilli:               Right. But these are people that come back. Because who knows something's happened in their life, they have a nervous breakdown, they whatever.

Amber Northern:        Or in the case of my best friend she wanted to go to Florida, Key West, for a semester with her boyfriend. What are you doing? It was her senior year. Then she came back and she graduated and she found herself. Whatever.

Mike Petrilli:               This is consistent, right? That there's other … I feel like some of the other higher ed folks talk about wanting kids to have momentum. Especially low income kids or first generation college goers that when it takes too long to get through college, because they're trying to work and they're only taking a few courses, that they are much less likely to graduate. That you really want them to get to and through and have some momentum going. Taking this kind of time off does not work.

Amber Northern:        I think the survey … They asked them a bunch of questions but I think the sense was when these kids came back it was just like they were trying to get through it. There was a lot of less satisfaction among those kids. That they were in it because somebody told them you got to get this four-year degree but they didn't really see the real value in it. There was a qualitative difference too I think in some of the survey data that we saw in the study.

Mike Petrilli:               Very good. I always assume that when you go higher ed that it's been a slow news week on the front.

Amber Northern:        They gave me a bunch of common core stuff and I'm like I can't do it this week. I just don't want to deal with the common core studies.

Kate Walsh:                 Mike, you're just not on the bandwagon. I think higher ed's … They're much juicier.

Mike Petrilli:               It's interesting.

Kate Walsh:                 It's a lot of fun to get into higher ed issues.

Mike Petrilli:               No, I agree …

Kate Walsh:                 My favorite journal is Inside Higher Ed, my favorite daily read.

Mike Petrilli:               No I'm happy to. Especially the fact that those higher ed institutions should stop taking kids who are not going to succeed there, have no chance in hell in succeeding there. I get interested in that side of the higher ed issues.

Amber Northern:        It's becoming under more scrutiny, right? I just feel like you're seeing more rigorous higher ed studies and this whole accountability question in higher ed. Yeah, I think it's really exciting.

Kate Walsh:                 It hasn't happened yet, Amber.

Amber Northern:        You're helping to push that forward.

Mike Petrilli:               Very good. Alright, that is all the time we've got. Thanks so much, Kate, for coming and being on the show, and Amber for another stellar research minute. Until next week …

Kate Walsh:                 I'm Kate Walsh.

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


In a 2011 Education Next article called “The Middle School Mess,” Peter Meyer equated middle school with bungee jumping: a place of academic and social freefall that loses kids the way the Bermuda triangle loses ships. Experts have long cited concerns about drops in students’ achievement, interest in school, and self-confidence when they arrive in middle school. Teachers have discussed why teaching middle school is different—and arguably harder—than teaching other grades. There’s even a book called Middle School Stinks

In an attempt to solve the middle school problem, many cities are transitioning to schools with wider grade spans. Instead of buildings for grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12 (or any other combination that has a separate middle school), districts are housing students at levels ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade on one campus. To determine if a switch to K–8 grade span buildings is in the best interest of Ohio districts, I took a look at the research, benefits, and drawbacks surrounding the model.


A 2009 study examined data from New York City to determine if student performance is affected by two measures: the grade spans of previously attended schools, and transitions between elementary and...

It may not be obvious at first blush, but the political fight happening in New York right now over teacher evaluations has implications for Ohio. Governor Cuomo has proposed increasing the weight of a student’s test scores to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, made possible by a proposed decrease in the weight of a principal’s observations. Ohio Governor John Kasich hasn’t proposed any significant changes to teacher evaluations this year, but consider this: both Ohio and New York do a poor job of objectively evaluating teachers  who don’t have grade- and subject-specific assessments, both states allow the unfair option of shared attribution, and stakeholders in each are questioning whether teacher evaluations give rise to extra hours of assessments that aren’t meaningful for students. This leads to a big question: Is there a way to fix these problems?    

Enter Educators 4 Excellence  (E4E) and their alternative teacher evaluation framework. E4E is an organization comprised of former and current teachers. Its mission is to magnify teacher voices in policy and legislative arenas where educator views are often overlooked—despite the fact that ensuing decisions significantly impact the day-to-day lives of teachers. E4E supports teacher evaluations...