Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers
In the overwhelming majority of American classrooms, pupils are divided roughly equally among teachers of the same grade in the same school. Parceling them out uniformly is viewed as fair to teachers—and doing otherwise might be seen as unfair. Parents might wonder, too. But what if more students were assigned to the most effective teachers, leaving fewer in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?
That’s the intriguing question that Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers tackles. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters (including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, sundry wonks, most parents, even teachers themselves).
Using data from North Carolina, economist Michael Hansen, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, looks at what right-sizing the classroom can mean for academic achievement. His results, in brief: As the best teachers teach larger classes and the weakest teachers progressively smaller ones, the net result is improved student learning—for all students, not just those who moved.
At the eighth-grade level
- Assigning up to twelve more students than average to effective teachers can produce gains equivalent to adding two-and-a-half extra weeks of school;
- Three-quarters of the potential gain (from moving twelve students) can be realized by moving just six;
- Moving a handful of students to the most effective teachers is comparable to the gains we’d see by removing the lowest 5 percent of teachers.
There are gains at the fifth-grade level, too, though not so large.
In the Media
Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments
As forty-six states and the District of Columbia implement the Common Core State Standards, questions abound regarding implementation, including the implications for curriculum and pedagogy. In Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments, researchers analyze what texts English teachers assign their students and the instructional techniques they used in the classroom. This study is meant to serve as a “baseline” that shows what the very early stages of CCSS implementation look like. This “baseline” study—with a follow-up slated for 2015—shows what the very early stages of CCSS implementation look like:
Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and an overwhelming majority of teachers say that their schools have already made significant progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development.
Watch our Fordham LIVE event, Common Core & Curriculum Controversies
But findings from this survey also show that, for the most part, the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS still lies ahead:
- The CCSS emphasize the centrality of texts in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still report that their lessons are dominated by skills and are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching. Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary school teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.
- The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) make substantial efforts to match students with books that presumably align with their instructional reading levels. This happens less often in middle and high school, with approximately two in five middle school teachers selecting texts this way. This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.
- The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays). Despite some public controversy over this, most of the teachers indicated that they are already devoting significant proportions of time to teaching such texts in their classrooms. Nevertheless, many English language arts teachers (including 56 percent at the middle school level) assign none of the literary or informational texts listed in the survey, which represent both CCSS exemplars and other high-quality texts.
In the Media
What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-offs
This groundbreaking study finds that nearly all parents seek schools with a solid core curriculum in reading and math, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. But some parents also prefer specializations and emphases that are only possible in a system of school choice.
- Pragmatists (36 percent of K–12 parents) assign high value to schools that, “offer vocational classes or job-related programs.” Compared to the total parent population, Pragmatists have lower household incomes, are less likely themselves to have graduated from college, and are more likely to be parents of boys.
- Jeffersonians (24 percent) prefer a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership,” although they are no more likely than other parents to be active in their communities or schools.
- Test-Score Hawks (23 percent) look for a school that “has high test scores.” Such parents are more likely to have academically gifted children who put more effort into school. They are also more likely to set high expectations for their children, push them to excel, and expect them to earn graduate degrees. Test-Score Hawks are also more apt to report that their child has changed schools because, as parents, they were dissatisfied with the school or its teachers.
- Multiculturalists (22 percent) laud the student goal: “learns how to work with people from diverse backgrounds.” They are more likely to be African American, to self-identify as liberal, and to live in an urban area.
- Expressionists (15 percent) want a school that “emphasizes arts and music instruction.” They are more likely to be parents of girls and to identify as liberal; they are less likely to be Christian. (In fact, they are three times more likely to self-identify as atheists.)
- Strivers (12 percent) assign importance to their child being “accepted at a top-tier college.” Strivers are far more likely to be African American and Hispanic. They are also more apt to be Catholic. But they do not differ from the total population in terms of their own educational attainment.
What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs uses market-research techniques to determine what school characteristics and student goals are most important to parents.
In the Media
Needles in a Haystack
“Nobody is satisfied with the educational performance of Ohio’s poor, urban, and minority youngsters—or the schools that serve them.” This was how we opened our 2010 report Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s High-Performing, High-Need Urban Schools, which examined high-flying elementary schools. That sentiment is just as true for the high schools in 2012 as it was two years ago for the grade schools we examined. Yet there are high schools in the Buckeye State that buck the bleak trends facing too many of our urban students. This report examines six of them -- urban high schools that are making good on promises of academic excellence; specifically, schools that work for low-income and minority students. These high schools make serious efforts not to leave anyone behind.
The Diverse Schools Dilemma
Many of today’s parents yearn to live in or near the lively, culturally vibrant heart of the city—in diverse, walkable neighborhoods full of music and theater, accessible to museums and stores, awash in ethnic eateries, and radiating a true sense of community. This is a major shift from recent generations that saw middle class families trading urban centers for suburbs with lawns, malls, parks, and good schools.
But good schools still matter. And standing in the way of many parents’ urban aspirations is the question: Will the public schools in the city provide a strong education for my kids?
To be sure, lots of parents favor sending their sons and daughters to diverse schools with children from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But can such schools successfully meet the educational needs of all those different kids? How do middle class children fare in these environments? Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor and immigrant children reach basic standards? Is there too much focus on test scores? And why is it so hard to find diverse public schools with a progressive, child-centered approach to education?
These quandaries and more are addressed in this groundbreaking book by Michael J. Petrilli, one of America’s most trusted education experts and a father who himself is struggling with the Diverse Schools Dilemma.
In the Media
Applying Systems Thinking to Improve Special Education in Ohio
Special education is a maze of complexity, highly bureaucratic and compliance driven, often a point of contention between educators and parents, frequently litigious, and the single fastest growing portion of spending on public education. It has been largely impervious to change or improvement efforts. Worse, despite the spending children in special education programs are not making gains academically.
Can special education be done better while controlling its growth? This is the question we posed to Nathan Levenson, one of the country’s leading thinkers on doing more with fewer resources in special education and whose District Management Council has done extensive work with local school districts here in the Buckeye State.
The result is a thought-provoking policy paper, Applying Systems Thinking to Improve Special Education in Ohio. In it, Levenson suggests three major opportunities, along with concrete examples, for making special education more efficient and better for Ohio’s students.
Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education
Special education consumes a growing share of increasingly tight district budgets but academic achievement among students with special needs continues to lag. How are districts spending their special education dollars? Does spending more translate to better results for their students with special needs? In this groundbreaking study, the District Management Council’s Nate Levenson uses the largest database of information on special education spending and staffing ever assembled to uncover significant variance in how districts staff for special education. Levenson concludes that if the high-spending districts studied reduce their staffing in this area to the national median the public could save $10 billion and offers clear recommendations for improving special-education quality and efficiency. Download the study to learn more.
In the Media
Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts and mathematics represent a sea change in standards-based reform and their implementation is the movement’s next—and greatest—challenge. Yet, while most states have now set forth implementation plans, these tomes seldom address the crucial matter of cost. Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? estimates the implementation cost for each of the forty-five states (and the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Common Core State Standards and shows that costs naturally depend on how states approach implementation. Authors Patrick J. Murphy of the University of San Francisco and Elliot Regenstein of EducationCounsel LLC illustrate this with three models:
- Business as Usual. This “traditional” (and priciest) approach to standards-implementation involves buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual student assessments on paper, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.
- Bare Bones. This lowest-cost alternative employs open-source instructional materials, annual computer-administered assessments, and online professional development via webinars and modules.
- Balanced Implementation. This is a blend of approaches, some of them apt to be effective as well as relatively cost-efficient.
The report examines the tradeoffs associated with each strategy and estimates how much the three approaches would cost each state that has adopted the Common Core. The authors also point out that, since states already invest billions annually in professional development, assessments, textbooks, and other expenses in connection with existing standards, proper forecasting of Common Core costs should “net out” the sums that states would spend anyway for activities that this implementation process will replace.
To learn more, download the report and watch the replay of panel discussion on the topic, Pricing the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost States and Districts? Also, watch the short video below on the study's findings, featuring Fordham Institute Vice President for Research Amber Winkler.
In the Media
Education Reform for the Digital Era
Will the digital-learning movement repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement? How much more successful might today's charter universe look if yesterday's proponents had focused on the policies and practices needed to ensure its quality, freedom, and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?
Can we be smarter about taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale—and to educational success? Yes, says this volume, as it addresses such thorny policy issues as quality control, staffing, funding, and governance for the digital sector. In these pages, the authors show how current arrangements need to change—often radically—if instructional technology is to realize its potential.
Table of Contents
Introduction, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild
Chapter One: "Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction," by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel
Chapter Two: "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions," by Frederick M. Hess
Chapter Three: "The Costs of Online Learning," Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans
Chapter Four: "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era," by Paul T. Hill
Chapter Five: "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," by John E. Chubb
In the Media
Teacher Compensation Based on Effectiveness: The Harrison (CO) School District's Pay-for-Performance Plan
A teacher’s effectiveness has a tremendous impact on a child’s learning and academic trajectory. Yet knowing that, and being able to create teacher evaluation systems that successfully measure and document teacher effectiveness, are two very different things. In fact, for as long as anyone can remember, a public school teacher’s effectiveness and performance in Ohio classrooms-as in the rest of America- haven’t been measured much at all. These critical factors have had little impact on decisions about whether she is retained by her district or laid off, how she is compensated or assigned to a district’s school, or how her professional development is crafted. This report, authored by Superintendent Mike Miles, takes a detailed look at the Harrison (CO) School District 2's Pay-for-Performance Plan. The Harrison Plan confronted the dual challenges of defining an effective teacher then identifying all the things that demonstrate her effectiveness. This how-to guide is meant to serve as a tool and model for Ohio’s school districts.