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January 2012 Archives

Does the current push for "Value Added" measures mean that education has finally figured it out, or is this yet another silver bullet that will fail -- and perhaps do more harm than good along the way?

While that is an interesting question, a number of prior questions need answers:

1. What exactly do we mean by 'value'?
2. Who adds 'value,' and how do they do it?
3. How can we enable the women and men now teaching to add more 'value'?
4. How can we attract people who add value to go into teaching?
5. At the end of the day, what do we value?

Recently I was introduced to Masha Tarasyuk, who spoke no English when she immigrated from the Ukraine at age 6. Masha told me that one teacher at her public school in the Bronx took her under her wing, supported her when she got down in the dumps and never stopped believing in her. Masha eventually graduated from Barnard and the Fordham School of Education and now is a Teach for America corps member at the High School for Medical Professionals in New York. She's giving back, helping others just as that teacher helped her (and Masha is in her third year, by the way, even though the TFA term is just two.)

Surely that teacher 'added value' to Masha's education, but, judging from the way Masha told the story, the value had less to do with her academic achievement and more to do with the emotional connection.

I'd like to believe that everyone reading this had at least one teacher like that, someone who made a huge difference in your life. We did a series on it, available at our YouTube channel

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have to be aware of the recent value-added study by economists from Harvard and Columbia, positing that students who have truly effective teachers for a few years of their education end up making lots more money. Much of their findings are conjecture or at least extrapolation, and the authors were careful to warn against basing policy decisions on their study.

The economists measured 'value' with test scores, of course, because that's what is available. Bubble tests results are how we keep score, at least for the moment. And if the kids in Teacher X's classroom always seem to do well on those tests, while the students in Teacher Z's classroom always seem to do poorly, why shouldn't we draw some conclusions about the value each teacher is adding?

It is a stretch to connect better test scores to attending a better college, getting a better job and eventually making more money, but even if the connections are flimsy, we surely need more teachers who can motivate their students to do well.

Nick Kristof, the well-respected columnist for the New York Times, ignored the caveat about policy recommendations and made some: pay effective teachers lots more and fire ineffective ones. But it didn't take Kristof's words to energize politicians like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York's Andrew Cuomo and New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all of whom are pushing value-added measurement as a way of doing what Kriistoff recommends.

That's a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent, if you're keeping score, which suggests that 'value-added' is either a non-partisan idea whose time has come -- or a mad rush to judgment.

But let's dig deeper? What do truly effective teachers do that adds value? Can those skills be taught?

The father of "value-added" measurement is Dr. William Sanders, now nearly retired in North Carolina but still very much engaged. He has not been fond of some of what I have been writing in this blog about bubble tests and, ever the gentleman, asked if I would be open to having a conversation.

Which we had recently.

A good deal of what follows is based on our 96-minute phone meeting, several days ago. What Dr. Sanders wanted to explore was the 'how' of value added. What is it that excellent teachers do that adds value to their students' learning? Can a trained observer see what excellent teachers do that no-so-good teachers do not?

Here's where it got interesting. Bill told me that teams of observers cataloguing the classroom behaviors of teachers from both groups could not find differences in their behavior. 'Look again,' he told them. Still no luck, they reported. 'Look some more,' he directed.

Eureka. The truly effective teachers, his observers finally figured out, were able to provide what's called 'differentiated instruction' (treating kids individually according to their needs) and able to disguise what they were doing, so that the children were not aware of the different treatment.

These teachers, Bill said, don't see a classroom of 25 students; instead, they see 25 different kids and figure out the best ways to reach them. And then they camouflage the different treatment lest some kids feel like Robins and others like Crows in those infamous reading groups.

They do not spend hours or days on test preparation. (Administrators, please read that sentence again!)

Do some teachers intuitively know how important it is to disguise what they are doing? If not, how did they learn to do that? He's a fan of Teach for America because, he says, the data tells him that those teachers are more likely to be truly effective than teachers from traditional schools of education.

What's the evidence, I wanted to know? The old Tennessean cited his research in Memphis, where, he said, for three years in a row the cadre of TFA teachers outperformed teachers who attended Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee, using student achievement scores as the measure of performance.

Bill suggested that it was not the TFA summer training that makes the difference as much as the caliber of their recruits. When society opened up more opportunities for women, he reminded me, the entering ACT scores of those enrolling in education and home economics fell dramatically. Since the late 1960s, he said, talented young women are likely to enroll in other departments. Today, women make up half or more of those studying to be lawyers, doctors and veterinarians.

"TFA is bringing capable people back into the teaching pool," he told me. If Bill is correct, then one sure-fire way to 'add value' in education is to recruit more people like the men and women who apply to Teach for America.

How do we entice them to become classroom teachers? With about one million teachers approaching retirement, TFA's corps of 15,000 teachers is not the answer. We have to appeal to hundreds of thousands of talented young men and women and convince them that teaching is a respected and rewarding career.

Ask yourself if what's going on in the public arena now is likely to attract people into teaching. Are the heavy-handed campaigns by politicians like Governors Christie and Cuomo (and the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio) helpful? Is Mayor Bloomberg's effort a step in the right direction? Is Michelle Rhee's campaign to restrict collective bargaining and tenure likely to persuade talented young men and women that teaching is an appealing career? Are union leaders who oppose charter schools 'on principle' adding value to the teaching profession? When union leaders insist that teachers cannot be held accountable for student learning, are they elevating the teaching profession?

As the lawyers say, asked and answered.

Surely an important part of the value of an effective teacher is her ability to connect with individual children, her willingness to become emotionally attached to her students as individuals. (I write about this at some length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Those teachers need the time and space to make connections, but today teaching seems to be all about higher test scores. In an earlier piece, we explored the impact of test pressures on young readers: Maybe it's time to figure out the impact on young teachers, too?

Because evaluating teachers using student achievement scores is here to stay, it's in teachers' interests to argue for better measures of achievement. We need better ways of assessing the value that teachers add to the lives the children they teach, beyond test scores.

What do we value?

Back to basics

Lately I have been lying awake at night thinking about basic skills. To be precise, I am wondering what you -- or I -- would do if we were in charge of getting America "back to basics" in education. Just what are 'the basics' anyway? Is that a place we've actually been and now have to return to?
For me, there are four basics in education -- but more about them in a moment. Three events prompted this line of thought. The first was an encounter with a teenage girl, perhaps 16, at a skating rink. To get a locker, I had to give her $10.50 but would get some money back when I returned the key. "So how much does the locker cost me," I asked? She said that I would get $6 back, but something about the way she said it made me ask my question again. She said she didn't know -- and she reached for a calculator. That girl is in school now, at a time when all systems are focused on math and reading, but she wasn't able to work with a fairly simple problem that entailed some thinking, not just calculating.
While an apple for the teacher can remain an education basic, we need to focus our attention in four key areas to see results.
A week or two later I discovered that a woman I know, who is about 40, has trouble writing a coherent page of prose; she went to good schools and a top university but cannot present a logical argument on paper. She went to school in the 70s and 80s, the height of an earlier 'back to basics' phase/craze, but somehow her writing flaws went undetected or untreated.
If 'back to basics' didn't work for those two (admittedly random) examples, what's ahead for the next generation, including my 6-month-old granddaughter, who has been living with us for the past week? What are the basics for her education, and the education of your young children and grandchildren?
"Back to basics" is a silly notion without some understanding of what is basic in the life of a child and where schools fit into the picture. So here are my four: 1) reading and writing; 2) numeracy; 3) creativity; and 4) health and nutrition. Our shortsighted leaders have in the past focused on 'The Three R's" of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, which is euphonious but shortsighted.
Reading and writing are inseparable and are the first 'basic.' We read to gain information, and we write to convey it. While neither is a natural act and therefore must be learned, they belong together. I've seen first graders reading and writing competently and confidently in some very poor neighborhoods, so there's no doubt that schools can handle that basic:
Numeracy ('rithmetic) is also a basic skill, and the best teachers engage their young students in the joy of mastery of the mystery and utter rationality of numbers. They use Cuisinaire Rods and other manipulatives, they create puzzles and group challenges, and they allow students to make and learn from mistakes.
"'Suppose we were going to repaint this classroom. What colors? How much paint? How much would it cost? How long would it take?" That's a 'real world' problem that most kids would enjoy solving. Similar ideas were recently discussed on the Learning Matters podcast series.
I remember a teacher drawing two (uncut) Pizza pies on the board and asking her class whether they would rather have two pieces of Pizza or four? Everyone opted for four pieces, of course, at which point she divided one pie in half, the other into eight pieces....and waited while her 4th graders reconsidered their decision.
Achieving success in teaching these two 'basics' will require some changes: smaller classes in the first four or five grades, team teaching, ungraded classrooms, serious professional development, and appropriate technology. Our most qualified teachers belong in those classrooms, and they cannot have people looking over their shoulders at every turn.

The third 'basic' is creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson and others have reminded us:
I believe the earlier 'back to basics' movements failed because schools obsessed about The Three R's to the exclusion of creativity, fun, art, music and physical education. The current focus on student achievement is making the same mistake. The problem is not the testing itself but far too much time on bubble-measured 'education.' Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said (including on our Twitter Town Hall) that 10 days of tests and test-prep in a school year is too much, but I will wager that almost every school district in the nation spends more time than that.
William Sanders, the pioneer in value-added testing, trumps the Secretary. "Three days max!" he told me recently, citing a study that indicated that the more time teachers reported spending on test prep, the worse their scores on value-added measurements!
We need courageous leaders at the Board and Superintendent level who will say 'No more!' to the excesses of bubble-testing, but I haven't heard of anyone making a serious effort to even keep track of how much time is devoted to those exercises, let alone restricting the time.
Who benefits from the focus on test scores, since the evidence suggests it's neither students nor teachers? Maybe we should follow the money. Testing companies like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill are pushing hard to sell school districts 'intra-course' tests that -- they assert -- will help teachers modify their instruction. To Dr. Sanders, these companies are "preying upon insecure leaders" who are under pressure from NCLB to make what's called 'adequate yearly progress.' This means more testing, not less, even though Dr. Sanders reports that these tests add less than 1 percent to overall scores.
My fourth 'basic' may push the inside of the envelope for some. To me, health and nutrition are basic components of a balanced education. In this case schools and teachers cannot get there on their own but must develop alliances. It's disgraceful that the number of children living in poverty is increasing, and it's outrageous that our political leaders at every level and in both parties are unwilling to raise taxes on the wealthy so that the safety net can be repaired.
It's tough enough being a teacher as it is. Larger classes with increasing numbers of children who are undernourished or otherwise in poor health are not a prescription for a vibrant future, not for kids, not for teachers, not for the nation.
So that's my view of 'the basics' in public education. It's not about going back to basics, because we've never gone there. I think it's time we did.
What do you believe?
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