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TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin Newsletter



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The view from NCTQ
  • The challenge of learning from others' mistakes
Digging into the research
  • Because every day in the classroom counts
  • This balloon is ready to pop

The view from NCTQ

The challenge of learning from others' mistakes

April 13, 2017

Dear State Legislator:

First let's get the obvious points out of the way. I get that your constituents love small class sizes. Certainly, no rational teacher will tell you that large classes are easier to teach than small classes. And, unlike many education fixes, the benefits of smaller class sizes do not require lengthy explanations making the eyes glaze over. Everyone immediately understands—and applauds!

For these reasons, I'm not surprised that the North Carolina legislature has gotten itself into a real pickle over class size reductions, now having to figure out what to do with a well-intentioned but unworkable new law. That law, passed in the last session, requires school districts to lower K-3 class sizes from the current limit of 24 students to as few as 19.

With the law set to go into effect next fall, districts have announced that in order to comply with the new law that they will have to concurrently lay off art, music, and PE teachers—who, in addition to being wildly important to parents and kids, are the reason classroom teachers get a much needed break during the day to refuel and plan. Catch 22. Suddenly this very popular move isn't looking so popular anymore.

It's not my intention to single out the NC legislature here. There is no shortage of states that have gone down this road and lived to regret it, most dramatically California in 1996 and Florida in 2003. Those states were dumbfounded over the unintended—but entirely foreseeable—problems of their own creation as a result of top-down mandates. It started with the lack of empty classrooms available to accommodate new teachers, but more importantly, they learned that there is not a bottomless supply of teachers, especially good ones.

In other words, it turns out that students are better off in a crowded classroom that is led by a strong teacher than in a small class taught by a weak teacher.

Here's an example in the extreme. My daughter lives on a farm in rural South Africa. She volunteers teaching English at the local public school, encountering class sizes that make a mockery of our class size debates. Classes in this remote Zulu school range from 75 to 100 students, with four children sitting in desks intended for two. Her first impression of this situation was immediate sympathy for the school's well-meaning English teacher and what an impossible job she has.

But as she has spent more time in this classroom, she is more struck by how poorly, indeed incompetently, the teacher and her principal have chosen to deal with this tough situation—such as ignoring a closet full of new computers that could help them break the classroom into more manageable groups and failing to assess the students on their proficiency so that they might be re-organized, if only to teach each other—to name but two basic strategies that could be relatively easily put in place, but which have not been. It is no wonder that most of these 13-year-olds, who must learn English if they ever want a real job, have yet to learn to string together a sentence of English.

Don't get me wrong. There's still no question that the class size here is a huge obstacle. But the bigger problem in this poor, rural school resides in the poor quality and training of the both the teacher and the principal who oversees her work. Neither is in a position to change the hand they've been dealt, but additional training and some ingenuity on the part of these adults could produce far better outcomes.

Every classroom has its challenges that must be overcome. While in the US, even the weakest teachers are likely to know to pull out the computers and find a way to group the kids, more complex and immediate instructional challenges are harder to anticipate, and certainly impossible to solve from on-high. And given my druthers—and I'd wager every parent's—I'd rather that the person in front of the room can think fast on her feet and pivot on a dime, which is what well trained, skilled teachers know how to do. 

When legislatures opine about smaller class sizes, I can't help but think that the evidence isn't getting a fair hearing, particularly the poor return on investment from a long history of states' class size reduction initiatives. Says economist Rick Hanushek, "Perhaps the most astounding part of the current debates on class size reduction is the almost complete disregard for the history of such policies."

I do know that the positive results from the Tennessee STAR class size reduction experiment routinely get trotted out in these debates, with one important fact routinely omitted. None of the STAR champions point out that it was a carefully constructed experiment involving only 11,000 students attending schools that had voluntarily signed-up to participate. The schools had the opportunity to decide it made sense for them to participate.

Buy-in, local context, and comprehensive planning all critically matter. Apparently, those are lessons that are best learned state by state, legislator by legislator, which is too bad for kids.

— Kate Walsh

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Digging into the research

Because every day in the classroom counts

While I have many memories from my first year of teaching, one of the most visceral comes from my early morning commute. I had to take several buses across the Bronx to reach my school, always aiming to arrive well before my students. In the dead of winter, after too few hours of sleep, I'd wait for one bus while watching the one I'd just exited turn around – heading back toward my apartment. Some mornings, I needed all my willpower not to chase it down and go back to bed. But instead, I always continued my journey to school, and to the piles of work and (mostly) eager 7th graders awaiting me.

A new study shows that like me, other first-year teachers are quite good at consistently showing up to school rather than staying home. Ben Ost (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Jeffrey Schiman (Georgia Southern University) look at how the number of teachers' absences (counting only sick and personal days, not professional development) change as their workload (e.g., class size, years of experience) changes.

While first-year teachers take few days off, teachers' absences edge up for the next few years of teaching (at least based on the data from North Carolina). This trend toward more absences among more experienced teachers is notable because past research has found that teacher absences hurt student outcomes. In fact, this paper estimates that the gains in student learning attributed to having a more experienced teacher would be about 10 percent higher if those veteran teachers took fewer days off. This finding reaffirms that every day a teacher spends in the classroom is a critically important one.

While improving teacher attendance is no simple task, the North Carolina study sheds light on one potentially influential factor: school culture. Researchers found that when a teacher transferred from one school to another, her rate of absence crept toward the average for that school – for better or worse. (And yes, the authors took several steps to ensure that they weren't simply capturing a "school-level shock" like a flu that hits everyone at the school.) Given that NCTQ's past work on this issue, the 2014 Roll Call study, didn't find any district policies that were silver bullets for improving teacher attendance, it seems that school-level factors may be a promising place on which to focus.

— Hannah Putman

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This balloon is ready to pop

If you're even a casual observer of the trends in higher education, odds are you're familiar with the persistent challenge of grade inflation. The rise of college grades—in the absence of any evidence that today's college student has become harder working than the students of the past—has led to questions about the role instructors likely play. Are today's college instructors holding their students accountable and taking the time to provide accurate feedback?

The question is particularly germane for teacher candidates, who must enter classrooms ready to teach on Day 1. And yet, our 2014 report, Easy A's and What's Behind Them, revealed teacher preparation programs to be particularly egregious offenders when it comes to grade inflation. In our sample of over 500 institutions, we found that grading standards were much lower for teacher candidates than for students pursuing other majors at a majority (58 percent) of those institutions.

Given the scale of this problem in teacher prep, we were particularly interested in a new study that provides fresh insight on the roots of grade inflation for all college students. Ido Millet, a professor at Penn State Behrend, assembled a massive dataset that included the grades awarded across more than 50,000 course sections and the GPAs of students enrolled in them. His analysis relied on two measures. The first, "leniency," is the difference between the average grade for a course and the average GPA of the students enrolled in that course. The second measure, "reliability," is a measure of how closely course grades align with students' overall GPAs.

The figure below shows the 50,000+ course sections graphed according to their leniency and reliability. In the upper left corner, we see that there are a lot of tough courses (those that score low on leniency) for which the grading is fairly reliable. In comparison, there are relatively few tough courses for which the grading is unreliable (notice that the bottom left corner of the graph is fairly empty).

Source: Ido Millet (2016)

So, why might a tough course have more reliable grading? Millet ventures a guess that it may be a matter of the quality of assignments given to the students in the class. Being an "easy grader" doesn't cause a professor to be unreliable; if that were the case, the graph above wouldn't show so many courses for which the grading was both lenient and reliable (upper right corner). What's more likely is that unreliable assessment tools lead an instructor to be lenient. In other words, if course assignments do not permit the instructor to make an accurate judgment about the quality of the work, then it becomes more likely that an instructor will inflate grades rather than risk giving a good student a low grade unfairly.

While Millet didn't have access to course assignments for his study, NCTQ's own review of assignments given in teacher prep courses would suggest that his hypothesis is spot on. In Easy A's, we analyzed assignments across multiple majors (nursing, business, and psychology, in addition to teacher prep) for a subset of seven institutions. By a substantial margin, assignments given in teacher prep courses were more likely to require an instructor to base grading on a subjective judgment.

Consider the assignments that we commonly find in teacher preparation programs: Reflect on your experience learning how to read. Write a philosophy of math instruction. Conduct a field observation. These assignments all require course instructors to trust the reality their students describe. And for each, the line between a right answer and a wrong answer—between someone prepared to become a teacher and someone who is missing the mark—is obscure at best. How could an instructor possibly grade such assignments reliably? More importantly, how will graduates respond when they begin a career that is much less forgiving than the college classroom?

— Amber Moorer

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