The Importance of Good Teachers

Most of us can point to that one educator who truly affected our lives — both in and out of the classroom.  We remember the one teacher who really pushed us to achieve.  Or the instructor who refused to let us take the easy way out.  And while we may not remember much about that year in the seventh grade, say, we definitely remember that educator from that year.

Which is why it is always so interesting when you hear folks arguing that “good teachers” can’t be measured in terms of student performance.  Yes, there are multiple measures that need to go into determining educator effectiveness.  Yes, there are inputs a teacher brings to the classroom that need to be factored in.  But at the end of the day, those teachers who likely left their marks on our lives also left their marks on our GPAs.
This morning, we have two interesting pieces out there reflecting on the importance of good teaching and good teachers.  The first is from Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times.  Kristof is reflecting on last week’s mega-study which showed the impact a strong teacher can have on the life of a student.  As Kristof notes:

What shone through the study was the variation among teachers. Great teachers not only raised test scores significantly — an effect that mostly faded within a few years — but also left their students with better life outcomes. A great teacher (defined as one better than 84 percent of peers) for a single year between fourth and eighth grades resulted in students earning almost 1 percent more at age 28.

Suppose that the bottom 5 percent of teachers could be replaced by teachers of average quality. The three economists found that each student in the classroom would have extra cumulative lifetime earnings of more than $52,000. That’s more than $1.4 million in gains for the classroom.

To complement Kristof’s keen analysis of an important piece of research, we have a new study coming from Education Trust.  In typical EdTrust fashion, EdTrust-West looks at more than 1 million students and 17,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  One of the major takeaways?  Good teachers in LAUSD can close the achievement gap for Black and Latino students.  The disappointing reality?  Historically disadvantaged students in the City of Angels often have the worst instructors.
We should all be able to agree that all teachers should be evaluated every year to determine the sort of job they are doing.  We should all be able to agree that good teachers have a demonstrable impact on their students, including on student achievement measures.  We should all be able to agree that those good teachers are particularly important levers in the lives of low-income and minority students.  So with all of this agreement, why do we fight teacher effectiveness measures with such gusto?  Why do we fear outcomes being part of educator evaluation?  
Research such as that reflected on by Kristof and released by EdTrust makes a few facts clearer than ever.  Good teachers are essential if we are to improve student learning and close the achievement gaps.  We can determine who those good teachers are, and we can use test scores to help get there.  We need to do everything possible to determine who those good teachers are and ensure they are where they are needed the most.  And while it is not in the research, we need to properly pay and support those teachers that are making the sort of differences we expect to see in our classrooms.
Enough for today’s lesson.  Class dismissed.
   

Playing Games with LA’s Future

For more than a year now, we have been hearing about the dire financial state of public education in California.  We’re ridden a roller coaster of threats of massive teacher layoffs and a two-year ban on the purchase of any textbooks or instructional materials.  We’ve viewed district after district struggle to meet the school equity requirements placed on them by the courts.  And we’ve witnessed state officials dance a West Coast two-step to quickly eliminate the barriers to additional federal education funding.  And even though California has spent more of its education stimulus dollars, percentage wise, than any other state in the union, schools in the Golden State are still hurting and are still facing tough decisions and even tougher cuts.

Fortunately, Cali Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has now stepped up to make a major investment in the future of the state, or at least in the future of the greater Los Angeles area.  In the name of creating jobs, growing the economy, and strengthening the community, the guvernator yesterday signed a bill that could deliver upwards of a billion dollars to the City of Angels, money that would be coupled with a $150 million bond pledged by the business community.
Unfortunately, not a dime of these funds will ever see an LA classroom or be used to help an LA teacher improve their craft and meet the new demands being placed on our public schools.  Not a dollar of it is doing to school improvement or innovation.  And not a penny will go to support Los Angeles’ blossoming charter school movement.  No, the entire kitty is designated to go an build a new football stadium for the city, a stadium for an NFL football team that does not exist.  The full story can be found here.
Why does this matter?  In these tough economic times, we have to make choices.  Schwarzenegger signed the controversial spending bill claiming that this stadium investment would generate jobs and bring an economic boost to Los Angeles.  Noble goals, yes.  But there are few facts to back it up.  Even since the renaissance of baseball stadium construction launched two decades ago in Baltimore, we have heard how new sports stadiums result in jobs and economic development.  But in study after study, researchers have found that such impact lasts only as long as the construction cranes are on site.  Once the venue opens to the public, the economic impact is complete.  Jobs are temporary, manifest in the construction itself.  Then the community goes back to normal.  That’s why cities have shied away from paying the tab for such construction projects in recent years, leaving it to the teams that will enjoy the long-term benefits of a shiny new stadium.
In an era where dollars are in short supply in California, if the goal is really to invest in job creation and economic strength, is this really the best investment for the citizens of Los Angeles?  Right now, the state is trying to move heaven and earth to get Race to the Top dollars, following the belief that these dollars can serve as make or break for the future of California education.  If successful, RttT would likely result in a few million dollars a year for four years to LAUSD.  Yes, LAUSD’s cut of a successful RttT grant likely won’t even cover the laundry costs for the school district’s athletic teams. 
Imagine what would be possible if they could muster the strength to move this $1 billion from a stadium that may be used on any given Sunday and instead invest it in LAUSD.  One billion to ensure that LA students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to hold 21st century jobs.  One billion to improve high school graduation rates.  One billion to demonstrate the relevance of K-12 education to the futures of K-12 students.  One billion to truly innovate and improve.  A $1 billion targeted investment at what LA public schools need the most.  
Football stadiums may be the sexy choice, but they’ll break your hearts and empty your wallets.  If the goal is to create jobs and strengthen the economy, it doesn’t take a Vegas oddsmaker to tell you that the schools are a far better bet than a new stadium.  Years from now, LA will have its new stadium (which may or may not remain empty), but how many area kids will have the high school diplomas, skills, and jobs necessary to enjoy a beautiful LA Sunday afternoon in its friendly confines?
    

Grad Rates in the City of Angels

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times included the boastful headline, “Dropout Rate Declines Almost 17% in L.A. Schools.”  Officials at Los Angeles Unified School District crowed that the latest data demonstrated “the results of three years of work.”  Part of the credit goes to duplicate student records which accounted for extra enrollees who never saw graduation.  But part of the credit also goes to specific interventions put to use by LAUSD to ID and work with at-risk students.

Overall, the drop-out rate for the 2007-08 school year was 26.4 percent in the City of Angels, down from 31.7 percent a year ago.  The LA Times reports that it was one of the largest improvements in the Golden State here.

I don’t want to take anything away from the educators out in Los Angeles.  I applaud them for recognizing the long-term problems caused by the city’s drop-out factories and a history that only had two of every three high schoolers graduating.  They should be encouraged by these first year numbers, spurred on to believe that major improvement is possible when one dedicates the time and resources to it.  But it send a dangerous signal when we are slapping each other on the backs and declaring mission accomplished because of one year of promising data.
It all begs an important question — how do you recognize progress while recognizing that the end result is still far in the offing?  How do we applaud the first sprint in what is going to be a marathon race?  And how do we “prove” our work is genuine?
Don’t get me wrong, reducing the drop-out rate by 5.3 percent is recognition-worthy.  But in doing so, we lose sight of the fact that more than 25 percent of LAUSD students are not graduating from high school.  If we do a deeper dive into the numbers, I’m sure we will find that a vast majority of those drop-outs come from historically disadvantaged homes.  They are kids from black, Hispanic, and low-income families who most benefit from a high school diploma, but are least likely to earn one.
Readers of the LA Times should be horrified that a quarter of students are dropping out long after they are pleased with a 5.3 percent reduction in the number of drop outs.  The true test will be next year and the year after that, once those phantom registrations are off the books.  Does the drop-out rate continue to fall, or does it remain steady, cemented in the notion that our urban high schools are regularly failing anywhere from a quarter to a half of all students?
Good data collection is a first step.  The LA Times notes that the drop-out rate is calculated based on four years of data, but does not track individuals.  It also doesn’t track those students who leave one LAUSD high school for another school.  Why not?  How can a state or school district effectively track graduation rates if the data is not linked to individual students?  In an era where most realize we can manipulate data points to say just about anything,  But grad rates that are “estimations” and guesstimates shouldn’t be allowed in today’s era of data quality and data systems, particularly in a district like Los Angeles where money is scarce, the stakes are high, and principal (and superintendent) jobs are on the line based on student performance measures … including graduation numbers.
Calculating a graduation rate should be an easy thing.  Back in 2005, all 50 states, including California signed onto the National Governors Association’s common graduation rate formula.  Last year, the U.S. Department of Education passed Christmas Eve regs requiring states to adhere to that formula.  Yet we only see a fraction of those 50 states put the formula into practice.  And many of those states — including Michigan and North Carolina — had to deal with a perceived “increase” in drop outs because they were calculating the graduation rate effectively for the first time.
It is relatively easy math.  Take your number of ninth graders, subtracting those students who transferred out or otherwise may have left the school district.  Then look at the number of kids who graduate four years later.  Divide the latter by the former, and you have the graduation rate.  Subtract that rate from 100, and you have the drop-out rate.  It doesn’t take high school calculus to determine the percentage of graduates — and drop outs — in a given state or a given school district.
In its pursuit of Race to the Top dollars, California officials (including the Governator) are claiming that they can effectively track student achievement data with individual teacher records.  School districts like Long Beach claim they are already doing so.  But how can we expect a state like California to effectively use individual student data to incentivize individual educators when it still struggles to accurately calculate graduation rates in districts like Los Angeles?  If LAUSD is still “estimating” grad rates, do we really expect them to manage a RttT grant that financially rewards teachers for the achievement of their students?  It seems like we need to learn how to walk before we can run this latest race. 

What Reading Program Works

Earlier this week, the What Works Clearinghouse released its analysis on the research base for the Open Court and Reading Mastery programs.  To the surprise of many (or at least many of those who are paying attention to the WWC these days), both programs were found to lack the research umph that WWC and the Institute of Education Sciences demands under the “scientifically based” definition.

EdWeek’s Kathleen Manzo has the full story here — http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/08/13/01whatworks.h28.html?tmp=1851512060.

The reports are particularly interesting because most believed Open Court and Reading Mastery were two of the leading programs for which Reading First and SBRR were intended.  Open Court is the program of choice in Los Angeles, for instance, and both programs have been credited with boosting student reading achievement in the classroom.

Critics of RF will use this as yet another “I told you so” moment, that such golden list programs lack the research merit to warrant inclusion.  And while it might make good AERA chatter, there is a much larger issue we should be discussing.

What is the true impact of the What Works Clearinghouse?  Based on these reports, does anyone expect LAUSD to drop its contract with Open Court?  Of course not.  LAUSD has long believed the program has helped students in LA, and they’ll point to their own student achievement numbers to prove it.  Same goes for most of the schools using both Open Court and Reading Mastery.  It is in those schools because administrators, teachers, or both have found it effective with their kids. 

As with much of the federal education reforms of the past decade, WWC is in a time of transition.  Now is the time for the Clearinghouse to figure out what it really wants to be, and what role it is to play in P-12 education.  Is it an evaluator of commercial programs?  Is it an arbiter of scientifically based research?  Is it a Consumer Reports for education?  Or is it a tool to help education decisionmakers make intelligent decisions about instructional practice?

We need to start shifting from an “all or nothing” thinking and start determining how WWC fits into the larger framework.  Otherwise, it could be another story of unfulfilled potential.

Jumpstarting a Dialogue?

We often hear about action for action’s sake, but how often do we act for the benefit of rhetoric?  Apparently, that’s what LA Mayor Villariagosa is saying regarding his attempt to take over LAUSD.  In today’s Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-lausd19may19,1,3072284.story?coll=la-news-learning&ctrack=3&cset=true) the LA Mayor talks about dropping his bid for takeover, rewriting history by saying his intent was to “provide a framework for dialogue.”

I’ll be the first to say that dialogue is good.  But I am a firm believer that you use rhetoric to advance action.  Pick the right words, the right spokespeople, and understand the right audiences, and you can drive the right action.  Nowhere is that more true than in education reform.  Our goal should not be talk.  Our goal should be to change public behavior (and improve student achievement) through effective communication.

I respect Villariagosa’s attempt to save face in what was a difficult situation.  But when we see the effectiveness of Bloomberg in NYC, or Fenty’s undeterred effort to take over DCPS, do we honestly think either the NYC or DC Mayors would be happy knowing that they had simply provided a “framework for dialogue?”  Of course not.

In the end of the day, Villariagosa forgot an important key to reform communications — build a strong cadre of supporters and advocates.  At times, it appeared he was fighting a one-man fight.  Fighting the school board.  Fighting the union.  Fighting just about anyone who stood for the status quo.  And at the end of the day, he paid the price.  A loss in court, a loss of stakeholder support, and ultimately a loss of public trust.


Lost in the discussion is the fact that LAUSD has some strong reforms they can boast of, particularly the recent successes of Green Dot Schools.  There, they have a reform focused on students and teachers, focused on academic success, and focused on strong communications and ally building in the community.  And its successes have helped it weather public rhetorical opposition from the unions and other sources.


The aborted takeover of LAUSD was a defeat for Villariagosa, no matter how he tries to publicly spin it.  But it teaches an important lesson to many of today’s education reformers.  Reform can’t be personal.  This isn’t about what a particular mayor, a particular superintendent, a particular corporate leader, or a particular researcher want.  As we have seen from LAUSD and from the Reading First and NCLB hearings, personalities can be torn down.  Individual personalities are easy targets.  Find a hole in their rhetoric, their background, or their public persona, and you can turn back their ideas. 

For such reforms to be truly successful, they need to focus on those who are being helped, those who are ultimately benefiting.  Instead of hearing what Villariagosa would do if he won and how he would change the school board and who he would hire, we should have been hearing about that child in Southcentral LA who would finally have that chance to succeed under a streamlined system.  Let’s hear how reform would impact the teachers and the students, not how it would bolster the power of the mayor.

Yes, LA can teach many of our urban districts a great deal.  Hopefully, Mayor Fenty is listening as he prepares to wage a public battle to get his school takeover plan through Congress.  Let’s hear how it will benefit DC schoolchildren and educators, and not how it will enhance the Mayor’s legacybuilding efforts.  In districts like DCPS and LAUSD, simply initiating a dialogue is not enough.  Communication without reform is simply talking to maintain the status quo.  Should that really be a goal … or an achievement to celebrate?

A Seat at the Table

Why is it so hard to reform our K-12 systems?  For one, virtually everyone has an opinion on the schools (and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing).  We’ve all attended schools.  We know what we liked and what we didn’t.  And we have thoughts on what would have made it better.

More so, education reform is an emotional process.  We all know someone affected by it.  Teachers, principals, support staff.  But most definitely students.  And if we don’t know a student affected today, we sure know one impacted yesterday or tomorrow.

Eduflack is usually up on the soapbox, advocating for inclusion when it comes to stakeholders.  If we are improving the schools, we need all the help we can get.  That’s why so many reform efforts include parents, community leaders, business leaders, the clergy, and just about anyone else walking through that educational village.

The good folks out at LAUSD seem to understand part of that, but skipped an entire chapter of the book.  As part of his proposal to close a number of campuses out in Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa and his team reached out to teachers.  They reached out to parents.  They sought buy-in and support for the Mayor’s plan.  They even allowed these stakeholders to vote on the plan.  The LA Times has the story — http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-students2jan02,1,1342026.story?track=rss&ctrack=1&cset=true.

Forgotten in this otherwise strong public engagement strategy was the student.  The students even actively sought a voice in the process.  They have distinct views that impacted the plan.  But at the end of the day, according to the LA Times, they were brushed aside so the “adults” could make these important decisions.

And that, my friends, is a huge communications blunder.  Too often, we write off students in the reform process, believing that they don’t care, don’t know, or don’t matter.  In actuality, students know far more than we give them credit for.  They know how important a high school diploma is.  They know they need postsecondary education.  And they know a good education today results in a good job tomorrow.  They get it.  And they feel it more deeply than many of the other stakeholders engaged in the process.  I am consistently surprised by what I hear from the average middle or high schooler in a focus group or at a public event.  They get it (and sometimes understand it far better than their teachers or parents do).

Of course we don’t want to let a group of middle schoolers be the deciding vote on whether their school is to be closed next year.  But they should have a seat at the table.  They should be part of the process. 

If we want today’s students to be the leaders of tomorrow, we need to push them and engage them and give them the opportunities to lead and to understand what public stewardship really is.  They don’t get that from a pat on the head or a squeeze of a shoulder.  They get it from being treated as equals and given the impressions their voice, opinions, and experiences matter.

 

Best of, Worst of for Student Test Data?

Two data sets on student performance are out this week.  But what exactly does the data tell us?  And more importantly, what do we say about the data?

According to TIMSS, math and science scores for U.S. students simply aren’t keeping pace with performance of students in foreign countries (particularly those in Asia).  We’ve heard this story time and again, but TIMSS provides us some pretty clear data that we have a ways to go before our students are truly about to compete on the evolving global economic stage.

And then we have yesterday’s release of the Trial Urban District Assessment (or as it is affectionately know, the NAEP TUDA).  This data set shows that students in our urban centers are making gains in math and reading.  And the math scores are really showing promise.  Of course, these urban scores are still below the national averages.

So what does it all tell us?  With regard to NAEP TUDA, one has to assume that some of the interventions made possible through NCLB are working.  Districts like Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, DC, and LA are prime targets for NCLB and Title I dollars, and these test results demonstrate that students in those schools are posting increases higher than the average American student.  That speaks of promise and of possibility.

But juxtaposed with the TIMSS data, it sends up a warning flag.  If we’re making gains at 2X, but our international counterparts are running at 3X, it doesn’t take a NAEP numbers cruncher to see that we are never going to catch up.  How are we supposed to read all this?

The communications challenge here is identifying our goals, both in terms of policy and public perception.  Do we seek to be the best in the world, or do we focus on the gains in our backyard?  Does it matter how we are doing against Singapore if our Title I schools are making the gains necessary to put all students on a pathway to a good-paying job?  And when are we going to see the quantitative proof of reading gains that we have witnesses anecdotally for the past two years?

At the end of the day, the message is simple.  Our schools, particularly those in low-income communities are improving.  Our focus on student achievement, effective assessment, and quality teaching is starting to have an impact.  And by identifying what works in Houston, NYC, and other cities, we can glean what will work in other cities and towns across the country.  We’re gaining the data to move the needle and get beyond the student performance stagnation we’ve experienced for the past  few decades.

Yes, the TIMSS scores are disappointing.  But sometimes we need to set the negative aside, and concentrate on the positive.  Let’s look at what works, and use it to fix what doesn’t.  Who knows?  Those NAEP TUDA students may be just the answer we need to right the TIMSS ship in four or eight years.