Category Archives: Current Affairs

Teachers still want “apples”

When teachers enter the field, they have high expectations of making a difference. Too often, however, they quickly realize that they don’t have the professional support, feedback, resources, or modeling of what it takes to help their students succeed.

Read More

The American tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries

According to a recent analysis, compared to an average teacher, a good teacher (in the 84th percentile) generates as much as $400,000 in increased future earnings for her class of 20 students. So if we define the benefits of teachers in financial terms alone, it would appear that paying six figures to attract and retain great teachers in the classroom might be defensible given the three- to four-fold return on that investment for society.

So why don’t we pay teachers more?

One might assume it’s because we invest too little in public education. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. As I note in my latest column in Educational Leadership, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in the last 40 years the United States has more than doubled its spending on K–12 education and now outspends almost every other country in the world—devoting 4 percent of GDP to K–12 education compared with, for example, Japan’s 2.6 percent.

Strangely, though, while more dollars were funneled to education, average teacher salaries actually declined about 2 percent per year since 1970 when calculated in terms of per capita GDP. U.S. teacher salaries now rank fourth from the bottom among 34 competitor countries in terms of teachers’ relative spending power.

It’s probably no coincidence that this decline in salaries occurred at the same time that U.S. schools went on a hiring spree. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of teachers increased by 46 percent, more than twice the rate of student enrollment growth (21 percent). As a result, teacher-student ratios fell from 18.7 to 15.7. However, had they remained constant and funding increases had been funneled into teacher salaries, the average teacher would now make $78,574, instead of $52,578.

Class-size reduction initiatives have been one of the driving forces in creating our uniquely American teaching corps of low-salaried classroom teachers teaching smaller classes amid a supporting cast of higher-paid specialists. Yet as John Hattie notes in Visible Learning, reducing class sizes—from say, 25 to 15 students—still has only a small effect on student achievement. And even that small benefit assumes that teacher quality remains constant as districts scramble to fill vacancies for teachers.

Certainly, smaller classes make managing behavior and grading papers less burdensome for teachers. But when given the choice between having a few more students and making a few thousand dollars more per year, most rank-and-file teachers would gladly accept the larger classes and paychecks. As Marquerite Roza, a researcher at the University of Washington, reports in her book Educational Economics, a study in Washington State asked teachers if they preferred a $5,000 raise, class size reduction, a teacher’s aide, or increased preparation time (four investments of roughly equal value). Fully 83 percent of teachers said they preferred a raise over class-size reduction, 88 percent preferred a raise to a teacher’s aide, and 69 percent preferred the raise to increased preparation time.

While no one goes into teaching to get rich, it’s clear that great teachers are worth a great deal more than most are currently paid. So perhaps it’s time we re-think our approach to smaller classes (and smaller teacher salaries) so that we can find and reward great teachers with salaries that reflect their real benefit to students and society.

Killing with kindness?

For as long as letter grades have been around, so too, have fears of grade inflation. As far back as the 1890s, Harvard University professors were wringing their hands about students earning “sham” grades that would “seriously cheapen” the university’s reputation if the outside world were to learn of them.

Read More

The next frontier of education: Implementation

In my latest “research says” column in Educational Leadership, I report that a new slew of “gold-standard” studies has unearthed (somewhat inadvertently) that in a lot of cases, educators really aren’t very good at the whole implementation thing. The studies, commissioned by the Institute for Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, were carefully constructed with impressive sample sizes and rigorous statistical analyses. They found little or no effects for several popular education programs, such as Odyseey Math and Rick Stiggins’ Classroom Assessment for Student Learning.

Yet, almost without exception, the programs in question were so poorly implemented that it’s difficult to determine if they—or the poor implementation—were the reason for the weak results. In other words, the programs might have actually worked had they only been implemented with fidelity.’

This may be true of many education approaches and reforms, which ultimately get thrown on the trash heap because we believe they don’t work, when in reality, they may work just fine when they’re implemented well.

On the upside, we have seen a lot of improvements in education (for example, great teaching and curricula that challenge and engage students, to name just two) that can have a tremendous impact on student success … when done well. In fact, most of the big impact approaches aren’t new at all. For decades, we’ve known that teachers setting high expectations, being a “warm demander,” and intentionally matching instructional strategies to learning goals really do work. We just need to do these things correctly and stick to them.

Educators might take some solace in knowing that they’re not alone in struggling to do what everyone knows must be done. Businesses have the same trouble. Everyone in the airline industry knows Southwest Airline’s open secrets of success, such as their “all aboard” seating; yet few, if any, competitors have been able to effectively follow Southwest’s formula. Doing things right, of course, is a thorny challenge. Yet, it’s not impossible—in fact, we know quite a lot about the keys to good implementation.

So the good news is this: we don’t need to wait for silver bullets, or Superman, or some yet-to-be invented innovation to improve our schools. As we show in the video below, we simply need to do better what decades of research says matters most to change the odds for student success.

Bryan Goodwin is the author of a new book from ASCD, Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

Saying no to fads—in dieting and education reform

Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success offers not a new “fad diet” for education, but rather the education reform equivalent of a “healthy lifestyle”—those things that decades of research says are most likely to have a big effect on student achievement.

Read More

Merit bonuses: Try, try again?

On July, 27, 2010, Secretary of Education and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan made this statement to the National Press Club about Chicago’s pay-for-performance program: “…every adult in the building—teachers, clerks, janitors and cafeteria workers—all were rewarded when [a] school improved. It builds a sense of teamwork and gives the whole school a common mission. It can transform a school culture.” However, we know, from studies of similar programs in New York and elsewhere that results of such programs have been inconclusive.

In New York City Public Schools, from 2007−2010, teachers chose to receive bonuses based on the test performance of the entire school. Schools were randomly selected for the study from the city’s highest needs schools, and participation was mandatory. After analyzing data from over 200 participating public schools, researchers found no evidence that the bonuses influenced student performance. In fact, in some schools, student performance actually decreased during the trial.

In 2006–2009, Vanderbilt University conducted a merit pay study that offered randomly selected middle-school math teachers up to $15,000 to increase student test scores. The result: Their students progressed no faster than the students of teachers not selected. And last year, Learning Point Associates conducted a review of Iowa’s merit pay program and found insufficient student test data to determine the real impact of the program on student achievement.

Education Week blogger Justin Baeder points out what most teachers are probably thinking: “Teaching is highly complex…and teachers are already motivated.” So if it isn’t money, what motivates us? Daniel Pink wrote Drive to answer to that question. As it turns out, employees are increasingly more intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, motivated, especially in a heuristic task—one that requires experimenting with possibilities to devise a novel solution—such as teaching. Pink cites the principle of Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile’s, which holds, in part: “Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.”

Is teaching a creative task? Can we be extrinsically motivated to be more creative? If not, do performance pay incentives help us or hold us back?

Supporting the whole child, but not with arts education

There is a lot of talk these days about meeting the needs of the “whole child.” Once past the bizarre visual image of a less-than-whole child that the phrase tends to conjure up, we understand its intent, and, in near unanimity, we agree there should be more student supports that actually prevent problems from arising in the first place.

In April, the National Education Association convened a panel of 100 of the country’s top educators. Many asserted that students need more than a curriculum focused in reading and mathematics, saying America’s students also need opportunities to learn more about career technical education, social sciences, and the arts. Yes, that’s right—the arts, as in music and art classes. It seems reasonable that to fully address the issue of whole-child supports, we need to nurture children’s minds in every way, including the unique ways that music and art offer.

Last month, the president’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities released the report, Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools, the result of an 18-month in-depth review of the current condition of arts education, research about its benefits, and opportunities for advancing it. The report acknowledges one effect of high-stakes testing has been a trend away from arts education, but it also identifies the increased interest of civic and business leaders in arts education as a positive and promising development that somewhat counters that effect. Then it dives into some lesser known research. How many educators know the work of anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath or education researcher Milbrey McLaughlin? Do parents and teachers know these researchers found links among arts education, school attendance, and high academic achievement? The report’s authors also describe impressive longitudinal studies and findings from neuroscience that suggest “early arts education is a building block of developing brain function” (p. 22). Lastly, they make several recommendations, including developing the field of arts integration and reinforcing the role of arts education through federal and state policies. Yet, the larger question is whether there is enough public will to act on any of the committee’s recommendations, despite a few influential voices.

It may be that neuroscience will be the driver that restores art and music to America’s classrooms.

Knowing this, one can only ask, if we really care about supporting the “whole child,” and we know that our brains work better when we are being creative, why in the world are we eliminating arts education from our schools?

[Go here to watch a TED Talk on artistic creativity as a neurologic product: Charles Limb: Your brain on improv | Video on TED.com]

See how two teachers are integrating art and politics: Schools That Work: Integrating Art and Politics to Improve High School Student Engagement | Edutopia

Teach for America: Effective solution or resume builder?

Just a few months ago, Teach for America (TFA) was one of many programs facing severe cuts in the federal budget. It was spared and then some—it also has received a $50 million “scale-up” grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition and, in early June, announced that this year’s teacher corps is the largest in the organization’s history.

TFA places outstanding recent graduates as teachers in struggling urban and rural public schools in order to fight educational inequality. Acceptance to become a corps member is fiercely competitive—of the nearly 48,000 applicants this year, only 11 percent were selected. And Glassdoor.com recently ranked TFA in the top 10 for toughest interviews.

The program has been praised as a win-win solution for low-performing schools and students who need bright, hard-working teachers and for TFA teachers who want to make a difference. But TFA also has detractors who question the effects that inexperienced, possibly culturally naïve, and transient teachers may have on student learning. In the article, “Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose,” Stanford University researcher David Labaree argues, “TFA’s approach to teaching reinforces an old and dangerous vision of teaching as a form of slumming, a missionary effort by the White middle class” (p. 52).

Studies from Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee have shown that corps members have a positive impact on student achievement, but a 2010 review of evidence by University of Texas researcher and professor Julian Vasquez Heilig found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers” (Executive Summary). He also points out the high cost to schools of replacing TFA teachers, who tend to move on once they’ve fulfilled their two-year commitment, and suggests policymakers support TFA staffing only when certified teachers are not available.

What is your experience with Teach for America? Do you believe that TFA helps at-risk students receive a better education? Or is it more of a “stepping stone” for ambitious young people who know it will impress potential employers in other professions?

Maura McGrath is McREL’s knowledge management specialist.

What’s good for the body is good for the mind

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the country speaking of healthy eating habits, Dr. Oz answers your health questions on daytime TV, and the USDA recently updated the food pyramid. As obesity rates rise, healthy living is front page news. Then why are schools cutting physical education (PE) programs? That answer has also been front page news: budget cuts and falling academic scores. Schools need to do more with less, and cutting PE leaves more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy brief released in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1.3 million teens in California do not participate in any school-based PE classes.

However, research shows that PE may be just what students need to perform better at school. Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital implemented a program among 1st through 6th graders at low-performing schools in South Carolina that incorporated academic skills into physical activity. For instance, younger children used scooters to trace shapes on the ground, and older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with changing numbers to help them solve math problems. Students were engaged in this program for 40 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the year, test scores improved from 55 percent to 68.5 percent proficient.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), cites a similar study that examined the brain power of children before they began an exercise program. The children began jogging 30 minutes two or three times a week and, after 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. Perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels.

Because students are expected to learn more and more information at an increased rate, they need all the brain power they can create. Scores keep falling regardless of the programs and strategies schools implement—not unlike a “check engine” light that keeps appearing because, no matter how many times you take it to the shop, the mechanic isn’t fixing the actual problem. Maybe the mechanic is even making the problem worse.

Have you noticed the academic effects of cutting physical education in your school? Is more academic time a viable reason to cut ancillary programs?