Tag Archives: policy

Just one more way we pay to play

I am certainly not the first to observe that we jump through time and money hoops to become teachers, and that these hoops seemed designed to ensure not so much quality as inconvenience, the better to ensure that only the patient with no other options make it through. Heaven forfend that the state make it easy for smart people to get into the classroom. For all the talk about “alternative paths”, the reality is that all teachers have to go through a whole host of utterly useless classes, both before and after getting the credential.

After? Oh, yes, after, in at least 11 states, a horrible process that any recent teacher shudders to recall. This process, called induction, is the subject of a new report by the New Teacher Center.

Beginning teachers are, on average, less effective than more experienced ones. High-quality induction programs accelerate new teachers’ professional growth, making them more effective faster. Research evidence suggests that comprehensive, multi-year induction programs accelerate the professional growth
of new teachers, reduce the rate of new teacher attrition, provide a positive return on investment, and improve student learning.

As to the first sentence, sure. So what? New lawyers and doctors are, on average, less effective than more experienced ones. As to the second and third sentences, hold on a minute: a randomized controlled study of induction programs run by the Department of Education showed:

  • There were no impacts on teacher retention rates after each of the three years of follow-up.
  • There were no impacts on teachers’ classroom practices, which were measured during teachers’ first year in the classroom.
  • For teachers offered one year of comprehensive induction, there were no impacts on student achievement in any of the teachers’ first three years in the classroom.
  • For teachers offered two years of comprehensive induction, there were no impacts on student achievement in either of the first two years. However, in the third year, there were positive impacts on student achievement, based on the sample of teachers whose students had both pre-test and post-test scores. These impacts were equivalent to moving the average student from the 50th percentile to the 54th percentile in reading and the 58th percentile in math.

So if teachers jump through two years of hoops, a sample shows a very minor improvement in test scores, but no impact on retention and it doesn’t change a thing in our teaching practice. I’m sure New Teacher Center has other studies, but whatever.

Naturally, even in the face of this weak evidence, the New Teacher Center calls for more spending, more induction, more rules, more time spent.

Am I the only teacher who thinks that induction is a nightmare at worst, a waste of time at best? I don’t think so. I was lucky, too, since I taught at a small district the first year and induction was a formality. My second year, though, was at a big district, adding a good 50+ hours of work to an already unpleasant workload. Best case, you get a good mentor and at least have some quality discussions while going through the meaningless paperwork. I did have good mentors, although neither of them were math teachers.

And new teachers who don’t finish induction don’t get a permanent credential, or “clear”. Missing the two year window to get cleared renders a teacher largely unemployable at any district that pays for induction. Teachers who don’t get their clear in a given window have very little recourse. Teachers who go through an alternate program and get an internship credential have it even worse—if they don’t finish and get their clear in the five-year window, it’s as if none of it happened. Coursework, student teaching, all for nothing. Yet one more reason I went through the formal ed school program—it gave me a level of protection if something went wrong.

Last year, I was far more concerned that I get my clear than I keep my job for a second year—and I wanted a second year at the job pretty badly, which says something about how important the clear was.

As Steven Sawchuk observes, given how soft the data is in support of induction, why bother?

For my two cents, this review raises a lot of cost-benefit questions for policymakers and key supporters of induction, including teachers’ unions. Where should induction fall in the list of budget priorities? Is preserving and strengthening these programs the role of states or districts? How should it be weighed in comparison to other budget items, such as professional development, curricula, and salaries?

Exactly. Do teachers a favor—dump induction and give them a mentor or support group. Cheaper and far more valuable.


Homework and grades.

The NY Times rewinds the typical homework debate. The post gets predictable pro and con responses: “homework is ruining my kid’s life” vs. “homework is a necessary component to learning”.

As is often the case, the situation at hand involves middle and elementary school students. High school homework rarely gets much scrutiny, unless it’s high achieving students complaining (with a lot of justification) about the huge amount of work they have to stay on top of to stay competitive.

But outside the top 10%, homework’s impact on high school students is a much neglected issue, and it shouldn’t be. Few people seem to understand the inordinate influence homework has on student transcripts—and the results, for the most part, are near-fraudulent.

High school students are far less likely to do assigned homework and the consequences for non-compliance are much higher, because students who don’t do homework often fail—not for lack of demonstrated subject matter skills, but simply for not doing their homework.

Here’s a chart that pretty much any teacher in the country could produce, comparing achievement (test scores) to classwork and homework effort.

(from Reflections of a First Year Math Teacher)

Don’t be distracted by the positive correlation. This is for individual grades, so the individual points are what matter. Notice how many students work hard, yet have failing test results, and how many students don’t work much at all, yet ace the tests.

This graph reflects the reality I point out ad infinitum: effort is only tangentially related to achievement, and then only at the individual level. Students who try harder don’t do better than students who don’t try at all. The lurking variable, of course, is ability.

For this reason, teachers should not include homework as a significant part of a grade, and should never allow missing homework to lower a grade. (This means, English teachers, that if a student doesn’t do an assigned essay, you find another way to assess the student.)

But of course, teachers routinely include homework as 25, 35, 50% of the grade. Happens all the time, and no one calls teachers on this behavior because it’s so damn cheap and easy to argue that homework is essential, good for both discipline and achievement. Never mind that there’s no real evidence for the latter, and the former should not influence grading.

The “homework proxy for effort” skew is understandable, given that teachers really can’t grade students purely on demonstrated ability. Teachers would fail too many students if they set an absolute ability standard. (See the above chart again if you need reminding.)

Teachers tend to value effort anyway—it makes them feel needed. So this preference, coupled with the real dilemma imposed by teaching and assessing students whose skills are far below the required ability level, gives them license to reward effort, to some degree.

But the degree matters.

Boosting hardworking students’ grades just a bit (say from one grade’s “+” to another grade’s “-“) is fine. While some may raise an eyebrow at the idea of giving a failing student a D- because he shows up and tries, I not only forgive this, but engage in the practice frequently.

Giving a student with mediocre math skills an A or B simply because they work hard and finish all their homework is quite another matter and worst of all, giving a low grade to students with excellent test performance—in many cases even failing the student—is outright fraud.

This happens every day, although it’s drowned out by all the middle class parent whining about how much work their middle schoolers have.

In high school, teachers are assigning homework, students aren’t doing it, and teachers are giving lower grades—often failing students completely—even though their skills are strong, simply because they don’t do their homework. Teachers are a moralizing lot, by and large, and they are far more comfortable giving low grades, or outright failing, kids who don’t try and aren’t compliant than they are doing the same to hardworking kids with low skills.

This leads to astonishingly bizarre grade results. Two students might each have very weak algebra skills but one gets an A, because she goes to a school that weights homework as 50 or more percent of the grade and does extra credit, while the other fails at the same school simply for not doing his homework. Students who can read at basic proficiency can fail English for not doing their essays, while functionally illiterate students who earnestly string together sentences on books they didn’t understand get Bs.

Five of my algebra sophomore students last year scored Basic on their state tests–but failed algebra for not doing their homework. One of my best geometry students failed geometry last year for not doing his homework—at least, he was one of my best students until he left for alternative high school because he’d failed so many classes (all by not doing homework) that he can’t graduate on a normal schedule. Several of my top Algebra II students this year took Algebra II/Trig last year and scored basic—but, yes, failed for not doing their homework. Meanwhile, I have colleagues teaching AP Calculus to students who scored Below Basic on all their math state tests up to that point. How can that happen?

State universities don’t use test scores for basic admission, but grades. Which explains why remediation is such a huge problem, doesn’t it?

Of course, at this point in a conversation someone will say, condescendingly, that the students just need to learn how to put in some effort, go through the motions, and I have to fight the urge to go find a baseball bat. Really? We’re talking about a nationwide problem and some idiot treats this as a cheap sermon on morality and obedience? Seriously?

I mean, never mind the fraud that teachers are engaging in, failing competent students while giving good grades to functional illiterates. Consider the massive waste of money thrown away because so many teachers confuse homework obedience with academic achievement. And of course, because our nation is convinced that all kids must be on the college track, there’s so little room for error that one or two Fs ensure that a student is off-track and just marking time until alternative high school is an option.

Districts desperate to stop teachers from indiscriminately failing otherwise competent kids (compared to the kids who are passing) institute those policies that annoy eduformers and earn them lots of mocking catcalls—Fs can’t be less than 50%, homework can’t be more than 10% of the grade, and so on—but these policies make perfect sense when considered in light of the money districts lose to dropouts and quick credit factories that allow students to collect enough credits without learning a thing—even less than they learned from the teacher who gave them an F.

Never forget: grades are a fraud. And in homework, stop wondering about how much is given, and start asking about how much it’s worth to the grade. Because if it’s more than 5%, it’s too much.


Why higher standards are impossible

Rigorous academic standards are impossible. Full stop. Sorry, Checker (barriers #3 and #4).

Oklahoma’s recent fold is instructive. In 2005, the legislature voted in Achieving Classroom Excellence, a three-part implementation of tougher high school standards. High school graduates, beginning in 2012, would have to pass end-of-course tests in algebra, geometry, English, history, and science.

The math tests didn’t seem like cakewalks ( Algebra, Geometry) although the English test seems rudimentary.

But then, the state provided exemptions, which are an entirely different story. According to the exemption requirements, students could score an 18 on the ACT Math subtest (460 or thereabouts on the SAT) and a 15/17 on the English and Reading tests (430 ditto) in order to graduate. Any student who couldn’t pass the state tests faced a far friendlier standard–and a much lower one.

And yet, even with that low bye, Oklahoma is looking to end the requirement, because at least 6,000 students a year are at risk of not graduating.

Given that thousands of Oklahoma ACT testers can’t meet the exemption standard, which is above the mean for African Americans, and just at the mean for Hispanics and Native Americans, that’s not much of a shock.

I can never tell which side does more damage. Progressive educators set standards embarrassingly low while pretending to teach a challenging “idea-rich” curriculum. They think it’s demeaning to teach low ability kids what they need to know, so instead they “scaffold” advanced concepts and lead the kids through a mock-version of the real thing. So the kids “read” Hamlet, but in fact, all they do is watch a movie and talk about how they felt when their moms let them down. They are given difficult math problems to solve, in no particular sequence of instruction, but they don’t really have to solve them. It’s not the answer that’s important, it’s the process of thinking about the problem, didn’t you know?

And as frustrating and fraudulent as this behavior is, eduformers top progressives with their purely delusional insistence that all students can learn the same advanced curriculum.

Simple question: what is the algebra mastery rate for students with sub-100 IQs? What’s that? You don’t know? Well, it doesn’t have to be IQ. Pick the cognitive metric of your choice and take the bottom half. How are they doing in algebra?

You still don’t know?

Then kindly shut up about higher standards for all.


Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II

In Part I, I looked at the Richwine/Biggs criteria for judging school teachers’ cognitive ability based on GRE scores, which primarily involves secondary school teachers.

On to undergraduate ed majors and those terrible, terrible SAT scores:

Students who indicated that education was their intended major earned a combined math and verbal score of 967, about 0.31 standard deviations below the average of 1,017, meaning the 38th percentile in a standard normal distribution.

Just last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality buried the lede in its research on student teaching:

Fewer than half of all education majors (or even intended education) majors become teachers. Can someone tell me why eduformers are always squawking about ed majors’ SAT scores?

Yes, elementary school teachers are less than stellar, academically speaking. But why not use data that directly links SAT scores to teachers? The Educational Testing Service released a report on teacher quality that is directly on point–so, naturally, eduformers ignore it.

In the 2002-2005 cohort, elementary school teachers’ combined SAT score was over 1000, nearly 40 points higher than the overall mean that Richwine and Biggs use. Secondary school teacher scores in academic subjects are much higher–math and science teachers are above the national average in both, and English/history teachers above in verbal and slightly below in math.

Now, these reports are only for 20 states and DC (California, for example, doesn’t use Praxis tests and so wouldn’t be included). But it’s far more accurate than SAT scores for ed majors.

But Biggs and Richwine use education major SAT scores, when a Google search reveals actual teacher SAT scores for a huge number of states, and then, as before, they conflate elementary and secondary school teacher scores (to say nothing of PE and special ed instructors).

I really don’t mind an argument about teacher salary. But the data used on teacher quality is simply crap. Next time out, I’ll talk about why eduformers mislead about teacher quality (apart from the obvious goal of saving in salary), and why progressives let them.


New Year Resolution

I went a year without writing anything for publication (or attempted publication) because I felt sure that anything I’d write would either be deemed too controversial or too specialized or too opinionated for someone who wasn’t an expert. I kept tossing around ideas but nothing seemed to pass that barrier.

But then, I did write anyway–in the comments sections of a hundred different blogs, spouting my opinions,  telling people they are idiots, whiners, or unrealistic dreamers, throwing in inconvenient facts.  As a commenter I am not nice and am often disrespectful, two qualities (“not nice” and “disrespectful”) that aren’t given nearly their due in online discourse.  Over time, snark and sarcasm with decent data can change a lot of minds. But while I’m a mean and disrespectful commenter, I am not, in fact, a mean and disrespectful person. No, really. And comments don’t leave much room to initiate ideas, to talk about the fun side of teaching, or bring up things that no blogger noticed.  So as a New Year’s resolution, I decided to try blogging.

It’s very dangerous for teachers to engage in any online discourse. I’ll take the usual precautions, but I wish there were clear rules about what teachers can and can’t do. Right now the rule is “If your administrator finds out and doesn’t like it, you’re in a lot of trouble”. I’m also not a natural blogger; I like the many to many discourse format of forums much better than blogging. Hence the resolution to blog, to keep me focused on writing something daily, or close to it.

Education is filled with unpleasant realities that “experts” routinely ignore. Some realities are ignored because the experts have a policy idea they want to sell (literally). Other realities are ignored because it’s ideologically inconvenient to everyone. Still others, however, are ignored because our world is constructed in such a way as to make those realities illegal, or at least actionable.  The National Association of Scholars published an anonymous article by a teacher who called some of these realities The Voldemort View–The View That Must Not Be Named. Hence I will call these realities Voldemortean and, well, name them anyway.

Many Voldemorteans speak with what almost seems like glee. They don’t mean it that way; it’s more a “Hah! got you!” to the ignoramuses who refuse to even acknowledge what must not be named. I will not. I don’t see the Voldemortean realities as good or bad. They just are. And we won’t get anywhere until we start focusing on what these realities mean.

But education has all sorts of other realities, particularly the realities of teaching, and I’ll write about those, too. I love teaching. I do it as my job, I do it in my spare time. For most of my life, I’ve been paid for providing information and giving advice–and, for most of my life, my clients ignored me, even though they agreed with me. In contrast, my student “clients” listen to me. Not every day, not every class, not all of them. But the percentages are much higher than I ever saw in corporate America. I’m hooked.