An Amazing Year

What can you say about a company that–in just one year–produced major films about education for Frontline and Netflix, 20 reports for the PBS NewsHour, 36 web-only pieces, 25 “Why I Teach” essays, a new web series called “Follow the Leader,” and 50 major “Taking Note” blog posts (including several that exposed Michelle Rhee’s failure to investigate clear evidence of cheating by adults on Washington’s standardized tests)?

You might say, “Wow.”

And what if I then told you that just 8 of us accomplished all this for about $1.6M?

I’m hoping  you will say, “Wow, that company deserves to be supported.”

If you are having that reaction, here’s your opportunity, because Learning Matters, the non-profit organization with that track record, has received a challenge grant of $150,000 from the Brin Wojcicki Foundation.  However, to earn the $150,000, we must raise the equivalent amount in the next few months.

Meeting the challenge will put us in the black for 2014, because $300,000 amounts to nearly 20% of our annual budget.  Meeting the challenge will also guarantee another year of probing coverage of education’s toughest, most important issues: the Common Core, expanding early childhood opportunities, deeper learning, the arts, leadership gaps, student debt, the uses of technology and more.

While we are hoping for a few major gifts, we know that we won’t be able to climb this mountain without help from a supportive network of small donors.  We hope we can count on you for help.

Please keep in mind that every fully tax-deductible gift is worth twice that amount to Learning Matters. We get twice the bang for your bucks, and you can feel twice as good about helping us.

We will be creating an icon on our website that will fill up as gifts come in. You may donate online or mail your contribution to Learning Matters, 127 W. 26th Street, Suite 1200, NY NY 10001.

All of us at Learning Matters feel blessed.  We have the privilege of reporting in depth on complex education issues for the 1.4 million people who watch the NewsHour, America’s most respected news program.  Our challenge is to choose from among dozens of significant issues and hundreds of compelling stories.

Ahead in 2014: We are bringing back The School Sleuth, whose exploits in 2000 brought us our first George Foster Peabody Award. This time the aging detective will be investigating ‘blended learning’ and other new-fangled stuff in America’s classrooms.

Thank you, and best wishes for the holidays from all of us at Learning Matters.

Follow the Leader – A New Series

We are excited to announce the premiere of a new Learning Matters production, “Follow the Leader,” a web-only series that will, we hope, reveal a great deal about the men and women who lead American education. Your guide in this new series is Sam Chaltain, an educator and writer of great sensibility and intelligence. The first leader we chose to follow for a day is Josh Starr, the current Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland–and someone on the short list, we hear, to be Chancellor of the New York City schools.

Here’s the link to the 2-part series.

Here’s what Sam sent to his contacts: “Since his surprising victory last month, New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has sparked curiosity around the country as to whether his education policies will be the sort that make a progressive like John Dewey proud.

Speculation abounds as to whom he might choose to become the next schools chancellor of NYC — and recently, I spent a day with one of the leading contenders, Josh Starr, as part of a new web series for Learning Matters called “Follow the Leader.”

I did everything he did — from 5:30am workouts to 3-hour budget meetings. Along the way, I learned a lot about what it’s like to be an urban superintendent and got a preview of the type of leadership he might bring to the top job in New York City.”

Of course, we would love to hear your reactions to the premiere edition (post them here, please). And we want your recommendations. What other leaders would you like Sam to follow for a day? We’re operating under a big umbrella, meaning that we are defining ‘leader’ very broadly. We look forward to hearing from you.

An End to Bullying?

Next Wednesday in NYC, Lee Hirsch, the producer of “Bully,” will be showing clips from his remarkable film and talking about the growing problem of bullying in our schools (and beyond).

Please  watch the trailer:

Once you’ve done that, I am certain you will want to be at the JCC of Manhattan Wednesday evening, December 11th at 7:30 to hear from Lee, ask your questions, and perhaps share your own stories.    I hope to see you at 334 Amsterdam Avenue (76th Street) on Wednesday.  Please call 646.505.4444 to make a reservation, or write me so we can hold a place for you. Tickets are only $15, and you get a glass of wine out of the deal too, if you choose.

The topic of bullying has been swept under the rug for too long. As Lee will tell us, it’s a problem we can solve, and must solve.

Be Thankful for Libraries

Like many of you, I gave thanks for our public schools and their teachers during American Education Week, which just ended. Now, during Thanksgiving week, I suggest we give thanks for our public libraries.

First of all, they’re everywhere: “If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the ubiquity of McDonald’s, this stat may make your day: There are more public libraries (about 17,000) in America than outposts of the burger mega-chain (about 14,000). The same is true of Starbucks (about 11,000 coffee shops nationally).”  So wrote Emily Badger in the Atlantic Cities back in June.   She adds that libraries serve 96.4% of the US population.  While that does not mean that nearly everyone uses a public library, they could if they wanted to.

Public libraries are aggressive because they have to be; they need people coming through their doors, and so they provide internet access, loans of DVDs and more, all with the endgame of promoting literacy.

The strategy of meeting the public’s needs seems to be working: Library membership and usage are up in most parts of the country, even though public financial support has been declining.  Here in New York City for example, circulation, participation in educational programs and the number of visitors are up by 45% on average, although funding from the City is down 18%, according to the Library’s President, Tony Marx.

New York’s public library system could be a national model for how to work with schools. NYPL main library and its branch libraries deliver books to about 600 of the city’s 1700{{1}} public schools, when requested by students and teachers.  The aim, Dr. Marx told me, is to supplement school libraries “…so that those libraries can also circulate from our 17 million books and better meet needs, rather than forcing students and teachers to rely only on the books they have in their own small collections.” His goal, he said, is to support school libraries and learning everywhere–and to give every child a (free) library card.

I have been a fan of libraries for a long time, probably because, when we were kids, our Mom was a regular patron of our local public library.{{2}}   In the Preface to The Influence of Teachers, I wrote:

Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge—on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge.  We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.

Not any more.  Today knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the Internet.  Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world.  Most have become multi-purpose centers with Internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD’s.  Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions, because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.

By contrast, schools remain a monopoly, places where children are expected to answer questions, by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.{{3}}

Those thoughts can be condensed into a bumper sticker: “People go to libraries to find answers to their own questions.  We make kids go to schools to answer someone else’s.” It’s not that simple, of course, because there are schools and teachers that insist on students taking control of their own education, and some teachers pose questions that they themselves do not know the answers to—and then enlist their students in figuring it out. {{4}}

But schools in general aren’t changing fast enough. It’s time to recognize that, because our children are growing up swimming in a sea of information, it’s incumbent upon adults to make certain that the institutions we force kids to attend are teaching them how to formulate questions, not merely regurgitate answers to the questions we pose. Meeting that challenge will require a sea change by the people in charge, and all the talk about ‘deeper learning,’ ‘blended learning’ and ‘flipped classrooms’ won’t amount to much if we don’t make that fundamental change.

The old saying, “If you can read this, thank a teacher,” still resonates. but I would add, “If you are a reader, you probably should thank a library.”

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah, everyone……


[[1]]1. Dr. Marx said his goal is to provide that service to every public school within the next two years.[[1]]

[[2]]2. And one of my sisters ended up working there for many years.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Page 5. The book was published in 2011 and is available on Amazon.[[3]]

[[4]]4. For an example, watch this remarkable piece[[4]]

Who Writes the Songs?

I write the songs that make the whole world sing.
I write the songs of love and special things.
I write the songs that make the young girls cry.
I write the songs, I write the songs.

No doubt that the Barry Manilow tune is now playing in the heads of most readers.{{1}}    But who “writes the songs” in the larger sense of the term?  Who and what determine how we look at the world, what you might call our ‘political narrative’?

We know this matters. Time and again research has shown the power of preconceptions over conclusions and decisions. If people are led to believe that a particular artist’s work is masterful or a certain composer’s music is sophisticated, that’s what most people are likely to see and hear.  When a teacher is told that her students have low potential, those kids somehow end up performing poorly; conversely, if the teacher is told the students are gifted, that’s how they do in class.  That’s the influence of the narrative.

What I find intriguing is the power of the current narrative about public education, which goes this way: “Effective teachers are the cornerstone of quality education, and, because so many of our public schools are failing today, it stands to reason that our schools must have a surfeit of ineffective teachers. Ergo, to reform education, we must drive out those bad teachers and replace them with quality teachers who will produce higher scores on standardized tests.”

Once one accepts that narrative, it makes sense to evaluate and fire teachers based on student test scores.  Accept that narrative, and it’s logical for the federal government to award millions of “Race to the Top” dollars to states which agree to evaluate teachers based on test scores.

When I wrote about the public narrative about education just three years ago, the two sides were engaged in a fierce battle, and the outcome was still in doubt.

“On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers.  Led {{2}} by former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, 15 leading school superintendents issued a 1379-word manifesto in October 2010 asserting that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers ‘has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.’

This side believes in charter schools, Teach for America, and paying teachers based on their students’ test scores.  Publicly pushing this ‘free market’ line is a powerful trio: Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ movie; NBC’s semi-journalistic exercise, Education Nation; and Oprah Winfrey.  And if one movie isn’t enough, this side also has The Lottery in the wings.

It has identified the villains: bad teachers and the evil unions that protect them, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

The other side is clearly outnumbered: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two teacher unions; many teachers and some Democrats.  Its villains are No Child Left Behind and its narrow focus on bubble test scores in reading and math. This side’s far weaker megaphone is wielded by historian Diane Ravitch, a former Bush education policy-maker turned apostate.{{3}}

No longer. Now those in what I named the “Better People” camp rule. Their view has become the lens the world is viewed through, ‘the new normal.’ Of course, teachers will be judged{{4}} by their students’ test scores–and perhaps fired if scores aren’t high enough.  It’s ‘the new normal’ to accept that we are losing the education race to most of the rest of the world. It’s ‘the new normal’ to set a ‘college for everyone’ goal. And it’s ‘the new normal’ to support universal early childhood education, even if that means school-like conditions for three- and four-year olds.

Diane Ravitch argues in “Reign of Error” that our schools are not failing, and I don’t intend to repeat her arguments here.

What I am interested in are the consequences of accepting this narrative. Of course, it makes life simpler, even black-and-white. Unfortunately, the current narrative has, from my perspective, at least SIX negative consequences.

1) MORE TESTING.  I’ve given up trying to count how many days are given over either to testing or to test-prep in what are called ‘the testing grades.’  Standardized testing used to begin in third grade, but now we are seeing the downward push for testing in second and even first grades. And while I hate giving free publicity to anyone who’s seeking to make money from our testing obsession, I have to provide at least one example of wretched excess, so here it is: Some teachers have developed practice tests for kindergarteners, to get them ready for their future.

2) TEACHERS BEING JUDGED BY SCORES OF STUDENTS THEY DO NOT TEACH.  That’s right. It’s now possible for a teacher to be rated based on the test results of kids she or he has never seen, let alone taught!  There’s no standardized testing regimen for physical education, music and other ‘fringe’ subjects, but ‘fairness’ demands that all teachers be judged by test scores…and so that’s happening.  The alternative, by this logic, is to create standardized tests for those subjects–and that’s happening too.  The adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ comes to mind.

3). A NARROWER FOCUS. The ‘narrowing’ of the curriculum to emphasize the tested subjects has been going on for some time now. Equally disturbing is the concentration on ‘on the bubble’ students who are close to meeting the standard that will keep their school from being disciplined.  Those two steps make school less interesting for everyone, but particularly for gifted students, who, because they are already certain to meet the (low) benchmark, don’t get the stimulation that their giftedness requires.

4) MORE ANSWERS, LESS INQUIRY.  Bubble tests are blunt instruments that require correct answers and little else.  But true learning is messy, uneven and often quite sophisticated.  Getting things wrong–failure–is a large part of genuine education, but the value of making mistakes and learning from them is what today’s narrative does not recognize.  The disease of perfectionism is contagious and insidious.  The admissions committees of some elective colleges eliminate candidates who earned a C in one subject in 9th grade. And why not? They have thousands of applicants with straight A’s all through high school!  Parents hover, ready to complain—or even sue–if their child gets a low grade.  In some classes students who dare to say ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t know’ are mocked by their classmates (even though they themselves are equally uncertain).

The focus on getting the right answer at all costs–as opposed to asking questions and learning to cope with ambiguity–is an especially dangerous outcome today, because our kids swim in the Internet’s 24-hour sea of information and data.  But ‘information’ can be partial, misleading or wrong. Because not all information is true, young people need to develop the skills that enable them to sift through the flood of information and separate truth from half-truth and falsehood.  They need to be, in the jargon, ‘critical thinkers,’ but the best way to develop those ‘habits of mind’{{5}} is through trial-and-error.  They learn from making mistakes–preferably in the ‘safe’ environment of a classroom.

Our test-score-driven system is, inevitably, an answer-driven system.  Students are rewarded for regurgitating the correct answers.  Teachers encourage that because their livelihoods depend on enough students getting enough correct answers. Some parents encourage it because they want their children to qualify for a top college.

5) “TEACH ME, OR YOU’LL GET FIRED”  That’s what some high school students told their teachers in Washington, DC, a few years ago, according to those teachers.  I have since heard similar tales from other teachers. These are examples of a system turned upside down.  Apparently those students have absorbed the narrative–it’s all about the teacher–and interpreted it to mean that, while they have no responsibilities, they do possess the power to get people fired. All they have to do is flunk.

6) MORE CHEATING. You know these awful stories: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC.  And on and on…..

Not everyone accepts the narrative, of course.  Paul Tough has written convincingly about the importance of ‘grit,’ a quality that some value above straight A’s on a report card. Some politicians–California’s Jerry Brown comes to mind–want to limit the frequency and number of standardized tests.  A few hundred public schools are actually led by teachers, and in those schools testing counts for less. Hundreds of school boards in Texas have taken a stand against excessive high stakes testing, and last year some teachers in Seattle flat out refused to administer one standardized test they found to be egregiously irrelevant.  Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and others have called for a moratorium on high stakes testing to judge teachers while the new Common Core National Standards are rolled out, on the assumption (thus far correct) that the new tests will result in lower scores.

How can the narrative be changed?  One crucial step is to identify those who benefit from the current one.  That means following the money.  Are there significant interests who actually benefit from failure?  They need to be called out.

A second step is to persuade those on the sidelines that their long-term interests are being damaged by the current narrative.  And since 75-80% of households do not have school-age children, that’s a big group.  Those folks need to understand that answer-based (“regurgitation”) education is not keeping America competitive.  They need to know that using high-stakes testing to hold teachers ‘accountable’ is a not a proven strategy but a gamble that could do lasting harm to public education.

The third step is peace talks.  This suggestion comes out of a conversation I had with Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Fund and Jerry Weast, the former Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, recently.{{6}} Weast and McGuire believe that it is in the best interests of warring parties to come to the table, because, even though they disagree bitterly on a raft of ‘adult’ issues, they have a common enemy, failure.

Nobody wants our children to fail. Weast and McGuire believe that should be enough to bring people together.

Peace talks wouldn’t be easy. The warring parties would have to agree on a definition of ‘success,’ for one thing.  For that to happen, they would first have to agree to focus exclusively on young people.  Discard everything else….tenure, evaluating teachers, class size, pay scales, merit pay and all the other adult issues.

The unions, the school boards, the charter school folks, the schools of education, the superintendents, the state leaders, Teach for America, and everyone else would have to agree to decide what ‘success’ in education means.

One rule for a successful marriage is to fight only about the thing you are fighting about. No fair bringing up the mother-in-law or the no-good drunk of a brother-in-law.  And no fair bringing up the fight you had last month either.

To change the narrative, we must decide what we want our young people to be able to do and become once they leave school.  And we must keep arguing about that–and only that–until some resolution is reached. Having that argument would certainly be a better use of our energy than the demonizing ‘blame game’ that is now going on.

The complex definition of success that would emerge could become the new narrative.  I think it’s time for a new song.  Who’s ready and willing to help write it?


[[1]]1. And it’s probably going to keep on playing in your head for the rest of the work day. Sorry about that. By the way, Barry Manilow did not write the song. Bruce Johnson did![[1]]

[[2]]2. If I were writing that paragraph today, I would add names: Paul Tudor Jones and the Robin Hood Foundation, Whitney Tilson and other hedge fund powerhouses, Tim Daly and others at The New Teacher Project, and some major foundations, and others.[[2]]

[[3]]3. The Influence of Teachers (Page 6)[[3]]

[[4]]4. The distinguished emeritus UCLA professor James Popham laid out very clearly why standardized test scores are not adequate for judging students, let alone teachers, in this well-argued piece from 1999.[[4]]

[[5]]5. The great Deborah Meier’s wonderful phrase[[5]]

[[6]]6. The occasion was a Board meeting of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, DC, whose Board I have just joined. IEL will be observing its 50th Anniversary next year.  While I am new to the Board, IEL was my first non-teaching job, after I finished graduate school, back in the fall of 1973.[[6]]

NAEP and “Getting Tough on Teachers”

When the scores on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released, much was made of gains registered in Washington, DC, which led the nation in rate of improvement. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson called them “breakthrough gains” and attributed the increases to a stronger curriculum, better teachers, and the District’s ‘get tough’ approach to evaluating teachers. She told the New York Times, “When you raise expectations for students and teachers, they rise to the challenge and produce.” The Times noted that the “get tough” approach preceded Henderson’s tenure. “The district’s new policies, initiated by the former chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, have come under criticism from teachers’ unions and others who say they put too much emphasis on test scores,” Motoko Rich wrote.

Teach for America issued a press release praising TFA alumna Henderson.{{1}} All in all, these NAEP improvements represented, much of the press and many politicians said or implied, the triumph of the no-nonsense, “get tough on teachers” approach begun by Rhee.

I understand spin and the desire of those responsible for current policies to want to make things look good, but the rest of us need to take a deep breath and a second look.

In fact, a closer look at the DC data reveals all sorts of contradictions. It raises the possibility that DC is celebrating prematurely. It could be that reports of the triumph of ‘get tough’ policies are misleading–and perhaps just plain wrong.

You know the old saw about “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,” of course. I offer a variation: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Headline Writers.” Take your pick, because the DC NAEP press reports could have been headlined “DC Achievement Gap Grows Wider.”

Or “District Schools Tied with Mississippi for Worst in the Nation.”

Or “DC’s 20 Years of Educational Progress Continues at Same Rate.”

And so with that, let’s take another, deeper look. NAEP scores began rising in Washington long before Rhee arrived in the summer of 2007. Take 4th grade math, for example. Fourth graders scored 193 in 1992, and in 2013 scored 229, a dramatic rise of 36 points in 17 years. But they had jumped to 214 before she was hired, meaning that 21 points of that 36-point gain, 60% of it, did not occur on Rhee’s watch or result from her policies.

Or look at 8th grade math, which has improved from 231 in the early 1990s to 265 in 2013, a gain of 34 points over 21 years. Again, much of the credit ought to go to those running the schools before Rhee arrived, because 17 points–half the gain–occurred before she came to Washington.

Graph the changes, as Guy Brandenburg has done, and you see that the steep climb began long before Rhee.

That the improvement has continued is praiseworthy. However, what most reports do not mention is that DC is still bringing up the rear, roughly even with Mississippi.

And if you dig deeper into the data, a disturbing picture emerges. Michelle Rhee came to Washington determined to close ‘The Achievement Gap,’ but–as I have reported before –it widened on her watch. The performance gap between higher performing students (those at the 75th percentile) and lower performing students (those at the 25th percentile) is now 47 points, and that is SIX points larger than it was in 1992.{{2}} Rhee and Henderson have widened The Achievement Gap, but of course they are not issuing press releases about that.

But maybe it’s not on them. There’s likely a demographic explanation, because DC is gentrifying. The percentage of White students has increased from 4.7 in 2003 to 11.2 today. Given DC’s history of racial and economic inequity, it’s likely that most of those new White families are middle- or upper-income, and we know that test scores are highly correlated with family income. That–and not the Rhee/Henderson policies–could explain both the gap and the NAEP increases.

The percentage of DC students scoring at Basic or Above increased from a mere 24% in 1992 to 66% today. That’s a praiseworthy jump, but the percentage of students scoring BELOW Basic remains at 34%, as contrasted to the national average of just 18%.

Combine “Basic” and “Below Basic,” and the news is still not good. Nationally, 59% of students are in that combined category, but in Washington an astonishing 73% of students score at that level. ‘Basic’ amounts to a grade of C, hardly a cause for celebration; rather, it’s questionable whether students scoring at Basic or below are adequately prepared for a fast-changing world.

Celebrating is premature for two other reasons: First, we don’t know how much of the increase can be attributed to students in private schools and public charter schools, close to 40% of total student enrollment.{{3}} Second, DCPS muddies the waters. It treats the scores of higher income students as ‘low income’ if they happen to attend a school where 40% qualify for free or reduced price lunch. That’s explained in detail in the footnote, {{4}} but the bottom line is that scores identified as ‘low income’ cannot be relied upon. That change is “masking whatever is actually happening,” Jack Buckley, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Washington Post. He cautioned against relying on the 2013 results to draw conclusions about the progress of the District’s low income children.

Sadly, DC students score significantly below students in every state except Mississippi; the two are now in what amounts to a dead heat for last place in the academic race to the bottom. For more state-by-state comparisons, see Gary Rubenstein’s blog or the NAEP website.

About the reporting: A small handful of critics, including Diane Ravitch and Bruce Baker, pointed out the contradictions that most of the press and politicians like Secretary Arne Duncan overlooked: the ‘get tough’ approach did not work across the board. Scores went up in DC and Tennessee and to a lesser degree in Indiana (all of which use what Ravitch calls “Test and Punish” strategies), but NAEP scores were stagnant or even declined in the “get tough” states of Wisconsin, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Connecticut and North Carolina. As Ravitch asks in her blog, “If test-and-punish strategies work, why don’t they work everywhere?”

Rhee is trying to rebuild her reputation, which is in tatters after USA Today, Frontline and this blog revealed the extent of the cheating on her watch and, more importantly, her failure to investigate. Given that reality, the press needs to be more vigilant and skeptical. Of course, she and Henderson will boast about these results, but there’s far less than meets the eye. And there’s nothing that I can see to support a “get tough on teachers” approach as a way of improving educational opportunities for children.

Since leaving Washington, Michelle Rhee has lobbied aggressively for ‘get tough’ teacher evaluation policies, with some success. But most places that are doing as she encourages did not do particularly well on NAEP, as Bruce Baker skillfully notes in his blog, School Finance 101.

Perhaps by now state policymakers and politicians have figured out that a “buyer beware” approach is in order when it comes to the “get tough on teachers” policies that Michelle Rhee and her lobbying group are peddling.


[[1]]1. But pointedly did not mention Rhee, although she is arguably TFA’s most prominent graduate.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Another report says the gap was 55 points in 2013 and 62 in 1992, which would mean that it’s now slightly smaller. Whatever the 21-year spread may be, the gap between the groups widened on Rhee’s watch.[[2]]

[[3]]3. That information should become available in mid-December when the analysis of large school districts is released.[[3]]

[[4]]4. This from Mary Levy, a widely respected analyst: “DC changed the basis on which students receive free lunch in 2013, as described in more detail in the attached.  Most schools have stopped collecting the income-level forms.  Instead of free lunches for students whose families had submitted forms stating that their income was below the cut-off, all students at schools where at least 40% of the students are homeless, in foster care, or are from families receiving TANF or food stamps receive free lunch.  Most of the schools, both DCPS and charter, are in this category and are reported as having 99% free-lunch students, a big change from prior years.  This resulted in increasing the reported percentage of DCPS low-income students to 77%, which matches the percentage of DC NAEP test-takers.  This means that students in many schools who are not in fact low income would have their NAEP scores reported as free-lunch eligible.  Since these students in the past had significantly higher NAEP scores on average, shifting their scores into the low-income category almost certainly raised the low-income average.”

From the Washington Post:  “It is nearly impossible to track the performance of poor children because the method for identifying low-income students in the District has changed since 2011.

A child’s poverty status is measured by their eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch. Until last year, children became eligible for free meals by turning in forms showing household income. Now, if 40 percent of children in a D.C. school are in foster care, homeless or receive welfare benefits, every child in the school is deemed eligible for free meals.

The change in the District is a test of a new federal policy meant to ensure that more hungry kids have access to free meals. It means that some children who are not actually poor but who attend high-poverty schools are now included in the low-income category, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

That change is “masking whatever is actually happening,” said Buckley, who said his office is concerned about and working to address the inability to track the progress of poor children. He cautioned against drawing conclusions about the progress of the District’s poor children based on the 2013 test results.”[[4]]

News and a Request

Dear Friends and readers,

First the news, then a request.

A lot of our attention these days is focused on the debut on Netflix of our film, “Rebirth,” which covers the reconstruction of public education in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding in 2005.  We hope you will take a look at this compelling story, one that has lessons for the rest of the country. (But perhaps not the lessons you are expecting.)

Here’s the basic information:

Netflix: This is the easiest way to watch the film. You have your choice of NINE languages, by the way.

Learning Matters Shop: If, on the other hand, you want more than an hour, then the DVD is what you need. It includes quite a few scenes that almost made the film. Some of this material is also available on our website.  You may purchase it from us directly, or you may head for Amazon.

Livestream Video: Recently I sat down with John Tulenko, my colleague, to answer his questions about the film. I hadn’t expected to be grilled, but I discovered that JT doesn’t believe in softball questions.

Next week our report on the arts in public schools should air on the NewsHour.

Finally, the request:  I had a 90-minute conversation with the editors of US Catholic Magazine today about No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, charter schools, teacher training, pre-school and on and on.

At one point we played “If you were Arne Duncan, what would you do?”   It’s a popular parlor game for people like me–and perhaps you.  I’m curious to know what you would do–and hope you will post your thoughts.  Some of you will say “I’d resign,” but I hope most of you will take this more seriously. (The Secretary told me that he reads the blog, by the way).

My response was,”I would get the federal government out of the ‘teacher accountability’ business completely because that is simply not Washington’s business. Holding teachers accountable is the responsibility of principals, districts, state policymakers, other teachers and parents. It’s simply not in Washington’s power, interest or capability.”

Your thoughts?

A Rash of Studies

Fall brings the World Series, lots of football games, and–it would seem–almost as many reports on education. Here’s my summary of four recent studies, with close analysis of the most controversial, a study of Michelle Rhee’s IMPACT program in Washington, DC.

These reports claim 1) The teaching force is more qualified than it was 20 years ago;  2) The nation is getting tough on teachers and teacher education; 3) The skill levels of many American adults leaves a lot to be desired; and 4) Getting tough on teachers works.  With your permission, I will attempt to unravel these threads and, let’s hope, find a common meaning.

1. The teaching force seems to be more qualified academically. The average SAT score of new teachers climbed 8 percentage points between 1993 and 2008. That’s the takeaway from a new study from researchers Daniel Goldhaber and Joe Walch of the University of Washington, published in the magazine Education Next.  This is surprising{{1}} news, given the rash of criticism of teachers and teacher training, including the slam from the National Council on Teacher Quality (controversial rankings) and a tough op-ed by Bill Keller in New York Times.  He called teacher training programs “an industry of mediocrity,” a fairly typical example of the lack of respect shown schools of education.

2. Consistent with the rash of criticism of teachers, a public policy has emerged.  35 states now tie teacher evaluations and tenure decisions to student test scores. That’s the big takeaway from the National Council on Teacher Quality’s “state of the states” report. This follows a prior overview by the same organization in 2011. Thirty-five states are now tying teacher evaluations — and tenure decisions — to student test scores. NCTQ wants more of this.  “Get tough on teachers” is a pretty common mantra these days.

3. But it’s not just today’s students that (apparently) are being failed by their teachers. American adults aren’t doing all that well either. Should we blame their teachers? In math, reading and problem-solving using technology, American adults scored below the international average on a global test called PIAAC and released by OECD.{{2}}  (OECD Survey of Adult Skills)   In fact, nearly three out of 10 American adults (28.7%) perform at or below the most basic level of numeracy, compared to around one in ten in Japan (8.2%), Finland (12.8%) and the Czech Republic (12.8%).  We ranked below Italy (31.7%) and Spain (30.6%).  The study covered 20 countries and tested 166,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65.  These skills are, of course, widely considered to be essential for America’s economic strength and global competitiveness.

In other words, whatever’s wrong now has been wrong for a while.  The Associated Press has a good summary of the PIAAC report here.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement saying that the country needs better ways for adults to upgrade their skills. Otherwise, he said, “No matter how hard they work, these adults will be stuck, unable to support their families and contribute fully to our country.”

While that’s undoubtedly correct, my reaction is different.  I think the data indicate that most of what we have been doing in the name of school reform for the past 30 years has been off-target–and perhaps misguided.  I say that because the PIAAC data reveal how much social background matters, and how little difference schooling seems to make.  In the PIAAC study, for example, those whose parents were college-educated did better in both reading and math than those whose parents did not complete high school.   Here in the US we talk about ‘the achievement gap,’ ignoring the fact that social class, parental income and parental education–not ‘teacher quality’–are the chief determinants of that gap.{{3}}  And what we are doing in schools is, by and large, not closing the gap.

This is not to say that schools don’t matter or that education cannot change lives.  What happens in classrooms matters, which suggests to me that we ought to re-examine what we are doing.

4. “Getting tough” on teachers works, or maybe it doesn’t. That’s the takeaway from a study by professors from Stanford and the University of Virginia, who asked whether IMPACT, {{4}}Michelle Rhee’s controversial teacher rating system, was having an impact.

NCTQ was, predictably, enthusiastic: “Yes, says a new study released today. Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance: Evidence from IMPACT, by James Wyckoff and Thomas Dee found that the IMPACT evaluation system implemented by Michelle Rhee during her tenure as DCPS Chancellor is indeed raising the performance of teachers.”

Current DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson also hailed the research as evidence that IMPACT is working. “We’re actually radically improving the caliber of our teaching force,” Henderson told The Washington Post’s Emma Brown.

Professors Wycoff and Dee report that low-rated teachers were more likely to resign and that highly-rated teachers were more likely to work harder to try to win the financial rewards the system promises.  In other words, it’s a win-win: the (supposedly) bad teachers left, and the (supposedly) good teachers got better IMPACT ratings and a bonus.

However, the study itself is full of caveats, such as “A notable external-validity caveat is that the workforce dynamics due to IMPACT may be relatively unique to urban areas like DC where the effective supply of qualified teachers is comparatively high.”{{5}}

And the study conspicuously does not say whether student performance improved, only that IMPACT ratings did. {{6}}

Mary Levy, a thoughtful analyst who is often asked to testify before the City Council on education matters, believes that the report is “highly misleading,” adding that “The report was worded carefully to avoid stating explicitly any assumption that the ratings system is valid.”  Or as analyst Bruce Baker put it, “Put simply, what this study says is that if we take a group of otherwise similar teachers, and randomly label some as ‘ok’ and tell others they suck and their jobs are on the line, the latter group is more likely to seek employment elsewhere. No big revelation there and certainly no evidence that DC IMPACT ‘works.’”

Ms. Levy has done a deep dive into the data, and her analysis reveals what the researchers apparently ignored: the impact of social class and income.  Through this lens, IMPACT emerges as deeply flawed.{{8}}

Below is the distribution of ‘highly effective’ teachers in Washington.  You need to know that Ward 3 is Washington’s wealthiest region by far, populated by upper middle class families. Only 23% of students in Ward 3 schools {{9}} are low-income.  By contrast, Ward 8 is one of the poorest parts of the city; 88% of students in Ward 8 schools are low-income.

Now look at the teacher effectiveness ratings. 41% of teachers in Ward 3 were rated ‘highly effective,’ while only 9% of Ward 8’s teachers made the grade.  Ward 3 had one ‘highly effective’ teacher for every 35 students, while the ratio in Ward 8 was 1:145.

The city is also roughly divided by Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River. Upper income families are far more likely to live West of the Park, and 44% of teachers West of the Park were ‘highly effective.’  East of the River, where 87% of students are low income,  only 10% of teachers earned that distinction.  Just 23% of students who go to schools West of the Park are low income.  The correlation is pretty obvious, and while correlation is not causality, the implications are tough to ignore: If you want to be a highly effective teacher in Washington, choose your students carefully! On the other hand, if you want to increase the chances of losing your job, teach poor kids.

DCPS:  Distribution of Highly Effective Teachers {{10}}

DCPS:  Distribution of Highly Effective Teachers

Now let’s come full circle. What this study confirms are the findings of the PIAAC study of adults: when it comes to schooling, social and economic status are the greatest determinant of educational outcomes.

It doesn’t have to be that way, because schools and teachers can make a difference.  But when the system is narrowly focused on scores on bubble tests–as ours is–and on holding teachers ‘accountable’ for results–as we increasingly do–all bets are off.

[[1]]1. Some have predicted that the growth of high-stakes testing would drive competent college students away from teaching. That has not happened, the report says.  “We find that new teachers in high-stakes classrooms tend to have higher SAT scores than those in other classrooms, and that the differential in teachers’ SAT scores between the two classroom types grew by about 6 SAT percentile points between 1993 and 2008. Test-based accountability greatly increased after the 2001 passage of NCLB, but we see no evidence that more academically proficient teachers entering the workforce in the year immediately following graduation are shying away from (or at least are not being assigned to) high-stakes classrooms.”[[1]]

[[2]]2. PISA stands for Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.[[2]]

[[3]]3. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, but as long as we remain obsessed with test scores, efforts to ‘close the gap’ will fail.  I think we may see more protests against standardized testing this school year, following last year’s refusal by some Seattle teachers to administer a test.  California seems to be the epicenter of concern and action.  Its efforts to eliminate some tests required under No Child Left Behind have produced a stern warning: it could lose as much as $15 million in federal education aid if it fails to toe the line.  John Fensterwald of EdSource has a good summary here. [[3]]

[[4]]4. Under IMPACT, which Rhee put into effect during her second year, teachers are rated on a 1-4 scale, with student test scores counting for half the rating, and observations by trained specialists from the central office counting for most of the rest of the score.  Get a ‘1’ and you’re fired, whether tenured or not.  Rhee’s successor changed the system slightly, and now student scores count for just 35%.  The flaw in this approach, as most veteran teachers know, is that teachers switch to the special “demonstration lesson” that they keep handy to impress observers.  This is often done with the knowledge and complicity of the students, I’m told.  Over the years, I have observed enough observations to be convinced of the unreliability of the approach.[[4]]

[[5]]5. This prose is worse than the usual education-speak because it’s also bad grammar: Nothing can be ‘’relatively unique.’ Just as the female of a species cannot be ‘a little bit pregnant,’ there are no degrees of uniqueness. A thing is unique–or it is not.[[5]]

[[6]]6. I asked Thomas Dee, a co-author, for more information, and he graciously replied as follows: “I think the “plain English” takeaway from our study is something like: The incentives embedded within IMPACT improved teacher performance and encouraged the voluntary attrition of low-performing teachers.

I’m seeing at least two issues about this takeaway that seem confused in the public discussion so far.

(1) A somewhat subtle issue of interpretation that seems invariably to get muddled in the broader public discussion is that we have estimated “the overall effect of IMPACT.” It’s not really possible to do that given that IMPACT went to scale district-wide and at once (it’s an experiment with a sample size of just 1!).

Our inferences are instead based on comparing the outcomes of teachers close to the rating thresholds (i.e., those with big, plausibly experimental incentive contrasts). There are at least two reasons this comparison differs from the “overall effect of IMPACT.” One is that all of these teachers are subject to IMPACT so any shared effects of this policy regime are washed out. Second, our inferences leverage only those teachers whose initial ratings placed them “close” to these thresholds. So, we can’t rule out the hypothesis that teachers who are consistently average in their measured performance perceive neither a threat of dismissal nor the lure of performance bonuses (i.e. IMPACT may have no effect on them). Interestingly, the recent redesign of IMPACT’s performance band appears designed to target the thick band of “effective” teachers.

Anyway, this interpretative issue (overall effects of a policy vs. effects of incentive contrasts within a policy) may simply be “inside baseball” for academic researchers like me. We try to be exacting in terms of what inferences we are making and we discuss this sort of issue all the time!

From a broader perspective, our results are strongly consistent with the logic model advocated by IMPACT’s proponents (i.e., these types of incentives coupled with the other design features and supports driving teacher performance and positive selection into the workforce). And this study has the imprimatur of credible causal inference (RD designs are coupled with RCTs in terms of the highest evidentiary standards in the What Works Clearinghouse). So, I think the reactions from Henderson, NCTQ, etc. are understandable.

(2) A second misunderstanding I’ve observed (possibly going back to Emma’s WaPo article) is that the study says nothing about achievement. In fact, we find effects on IVA for minimally effective teachers and effects among highly effective Group 2 teachers on their more flexibly designed achievement measure (TAS). Moreover, the results of the MET Project suggest that multiple measures (i.e., like those in IMPACT) are better at predicting future student performance than test scores alone. So, this meme seems off base to me.

I also asked Professor Dee, some other questions about the study, which he recalled began in 2011. “For most of this time, we had no external funding; no financial support (or in-kind) transfers from DCPS. We recently received a small grant from the Carnegie Corporation of NY to support this work and we’re currently seeking other research grants for further studies.”[[6]]

[[8]]8. And potentially dangerous–if it encourages other efforts to use test scores as the chief determinant of teacher effectiveness.[[8]]

[[9]]9. Mary Levy added, “Almost none of the students in Ward 3 schools who are low income live in Ward 3.”  A few schools West of the Park, including Wilson High School,  draw students from outside Ward 3.[[9]]

[[10]]10. Data provided by Mary Levy[[10]]

“Rebirth” on Netflix

I have just returned from Tokyo, where I had the honor of being the American judge for The Japan Prize. While I was away, “Rebirth: New Orleans” began live-streaming on Netflix, and I hope it’s in your queue–or that you have already watched the 1-hour film. It’s based on 6 ½ years of filming, and so the DVD, now available on the Learning Matters website, includes a lot more footage that you wonks will want to watch.

The folks in the Learning Matters office have decided to webcast a live-streamed conversation between John Tulenko and me on Monday, October 28th at 4PM Eastern. John will be asking the questions, yours and his own, and so I hope you will join us or submit your questions directly.

We would love to have your participation:
a) Tune in on Monday, October 28 at 4pm.
b) Spread the word with your network.
c) Submit any questions you or others may have about the film!

The Livestream event page

Watch REBIRTH: New Orleans on Netflix

There’s a lot more news, of course: international data, more controversy about the Common Core Standards and the like. I will weigh on next week, in case anyone is interested.

A Professional At Work

First I want to tell you about a terrific teacher–and then invite you to watch her at work. When I met Maria Eby, she was wearing a fluorescent green wig and was dressed all in green. As she passed me, I smiled and said something like “You’re either early for Halloween or late for St. Patrick’s Day.” She smiled and said something that I didn’t catch, but it didn’t matter. After all, we were filming in an arts-oriented elementary school, so it was perfectly logical that an arts teacher would appear in a weird costume.

As it happened, the film crew, producer Cat McGrath and I walked into Mrs. Eby’s class shortly afterwards, just as she was telling the first-graders that it was time to hear the story of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the Beanstalk. The light bulb went on in my head: She was the Beanstalk!

As you will see in the video, once she got into that role, she inhabited it. Not only did she explore the characters and elements of the story from the Beanstalk’s perspective, she also, as a representative of all plants, demanded to know from the kids what plants contribute to the world. The first graders knew the answers: oxygen, food and shade. Before long she invited students to join in the drama by playing other parts: the ogre, Jack and so forth, and they got into and stayed in their roles.

At one point I whispered to Cat that this woman was a terrific arts teacher. “No,” Cat whispered back, “She’s a regular first grade teacher.” Oh, wow…..

I asked Mrs. Eby to tell me how she came up with this approach. Here’s her response: “You look at your objectives for the upcoming week and you say, OK, I need to cover this, this this and this. (you ask yourself) what is the best way I can do this? What’s going to be engaging? What integrates more than one of the things at a time?”

Me: So you sat home and thought and thought, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to teach science, higher level thinking, literacy.’ Did you just dream this thing up?
Maria Eby: You kind of start at the end. You start off with what you want to accomplish and then you decide what is the best way to accomplish that, and which part of the arts can I bring into this to meet the needs of the goals and the objectives of my kids.

In other words, no one told Mrs. Eby how to get across the concepts of photosynthesis and role-playing and empathy. She’s trusted to be a the professional that she is. What a concept!

The teachers in her school, the Charles R. Bugg Creative Arts and Science A+ Magnet Elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina, work together on curriculum, doing their best to integrate the arts into all aspects of learning. (You will see more of the school on the NewsHour soon.)

My favorite moment in the entire class was when one student said she did not want to take a role in the play because….well, you really have to see that play out, especially Mrs. Eby’s response.

Please watch this edited version of her class below (or click here.)

Maria Eby, 1st Grade Teacher, Charles R. Bugg Creative Arts and Science A+ Magnet Elementary
For 20 years Maria Eby worked in Michigan as a graphic arts designer in a company she ran with her husband. Feeling a need for a change after her 2 boys started school, she became a teacher’s assistant and eventually earned a teaching certification through Saginaw Valley State University. In 2008, when Michigan’s economy crashed, she looked for jobs in other, warmer, states. Because North Carolina and Michigan have reciprocal licenses and Wake County was recruiting, she found it an easy transition to move her family to Raleigh. Mrs. Eby took her first teaching position in her early 40s and over the past 6 years has had the opportunity to teach 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. A self proclaimed “life-long learner” Mrs. Eby is currently in the process of obtaining her Masters degree in arts integration at Lesley University. This year, in addition to Jack and the Beanstalk, Mrs. Eby has integrated Theatre Arts into teaching her 1st grade class The Three Little Pigs and the The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff. Although she enjoyed dressing up as a pig and a troll, she says the beanstalk has been her favorite role because it is a unique perspective to think about how the beanstalk might have felt.