TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin Newsletter
Quick look at what's inside....The view from NCTQ
- Ed Reformer: Does self interest make us Debbie Downers?
- Myth buster on inequitable assignment of teachers?
- A workaround for counterproductive pension systems
The view from NCTQ
Ed Reformer: Does self interest make us Debbie downers?
For over 50 years, Americans have worried about our students' mediocre performance on international tests. A single-minded focus on rankings--not only in the media, but also bouncing around the echo chamber of the education reform community--meant that the nation has missed a recent and significant opportunity to celebrate some success.
I worry that the ed reformers, us included, are often guilty of highlighting bad news to stress the need for reform. But our habit of only seeing the black cloud and never the silver lining is just plain demoralizing. That's why I want to highlight some good news.
Last month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of its 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While the news media expressed disappointment at our overall performance—down in math and flat in science and reading—they pretty much ignored this chart.
It turns out that the US is showing some surprising success at significantly narrowing socioeconomic achievement gaps in science. The percentage of students in the bottom quarter of socioeconomic status but the top quarter of academic performance – went up 12.3 percentage points in science since 2006, an increase eight times the OECD average. High achievers now comprise 31.5 percent of the bottom quarter in the U.S. (above the OECD average). The OECD reported that the "United States shows the largest improvements in equity during this period."
I ran this data by Education Trust, as well as some esteemed scholars including Eric Hanushek, none of whom surfaced any obvious reason to dismiss the results.
Said U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr., "Data show that the relationship between poverty and student achievement has declined in recent years, at least in science, with students' socioeconomic status becoming a less reliable predictor of performance… Socioeconomic status accounted for 11 percent of the variation in student performance in 2015 – down 6 percentage points from 2006. And the U.S. has made more progress in closing the socioeconomic achievement gap than any other PISA country."
People, this is good news plain and simple. Even though our low SES students continue to score lower than their wealthier peers, the science score gap is below the OECD average. The average science score of our lowest-achieving students went up 18 score points.
Some reformers dismiss these findings for reasons I can't appreciate—and which I suspect reside in our penchant for the negative. It's easier to call for changes by harping on the bad news. And yet, by constantly emphasizing the negative, we play into the hands of those who would completely dismantle public education. If all the public hears is bad news about our education system, and the constant reforms never seem to result in good news about improvement, eventually they will give up on reform and public education both and agree to some form of privatization.
Those of us in the education community need to present an accurate picture of what is happening in our schools, the good as well as the bad. At NCTQ we are striving to take a more positive tone, balancing positive and negative findings as appropriate and if we can do it, anyone can. For instance, our December Landscape report on undergraduate teacher prep programs educating elementary teachers emphasized the progress since our last Teacher Prep Review – especially in reading. And later this year we will announce the winners of our Great Districts for Great Teachers competition, recognizing the districts that most successfully support great teaching.
Digging into the research
Myth buster on inequitable assignment of teachers?
Do low-income students have the same access to effective teachers as their more affluent peers? A new study from Eric Isenberg and his colleagues at Mathematica Policy Research and the Brookings Institution examines this question and draws a surprising conclusion.
In 26 urban districts, the researchers set out to measure the "effective teaching gap," that is, the discrepancy in students' access to effective teachers depending on their socioeconomic status (SES). Teacher effectiveness was determined entirely by value-added scores.
Applying this framework, if all students had equal access to effective teachers, the effective teaching gap would be zero. The reality wasn't that far off the mark and in contrast with the findings from a fair amount of other research. Many (though not all) of the districts turned out to be providing all students, no matter what their SES, roughly the same access to effective teachers.
To the districts' credit, these results reflected a good deal of work on their part. On average, districts in the study had implemented around five common strategies aimed at promoting the equitable distribution of teachers across schools. They include comprehensive teacher induction, highly selective alternative routes to teaching, targeted use of bonuses, performance pay, and early hiring timelines in high-need schools.
What makes this study so different from others that have pursued similar questions and gotten different results? For one, there were clear methodological differences, particularly when it comes to calculating a teacher's value-added score. Isenberg's study controls for peer effects (a measure of how the characteristics of a class as a whole might affect the performance of any one student); however, many other studies do not incorporate peer effects in value-added measures. In addition, this study focused solely on the distribution of teachers within each district, not between them. It did not attempt to answer the question as to an effective teaching gap between urban districts and the suburban districts that border them.
For a detailed discussion of the conflicting literature related to the effective teaching gap, we recommend this CALDER brief, which describes the debate around peer effects, differences in research conducted across vs. within districts, and other methodological points.
A workaround for counterproductive pension systems
No school district wants to lose their most effective teachers. But pension systems, which are under the purview of state legislatures, are one roadblock to retention. These pension systems often incentivize teachers to make early retirements - and districts are powerless to change that.
Dongwoo Kim and his colleagues at the University of Missouri experiment with a novel retention tool aimed at teachers nearing retirement age.
They developed two models - one addressing STEM teachers in Missouri and the other addressing teachers found to be highly effective in another unnamed state. Each model estimates the effects of giving these teachers bonuses at particular ages, beginning with teachers in their mid-50s, around the time when they might begin to retire to maximize their pension benefits.
Not all that surprisingly, the bonuses did the trick, with larger bonuses having bigger effects. Furthermore, the effects compounded over time, meaning that experienced teachers would come to factor the expectation of bonuses into their retirement decisions and stay longer.
How expensive is this approach? They found that the net cost to get a STEM teacher to stay an additional year in Missouri schools is $32,000 (including the cost of the bonus, plus the additional cost of the experienced teacher's salary compared to an inexperienced new hire). That's not cheap, but for districts with specific shortages, the cost may be worth it.
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