Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Job Market, Drop-Outs, and Career “Relevant” Education

I've been advocating for more high-quality career and technical education (CTE) opportunities for teens, in order to keep them engaged with school and lower the drop-out rate. So I do want to acknowledge that many of the existing programs are not up to snuff. A new report by New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio–a Democratic mayoral hopeful who often critiques Mayor Bloomberg's school reform record–finds:

  • About half of New York City's CTE high schools are on the state's Persistently Low-Achieving list
  • Most CTE programs are in low growth fields: Arts and A/V Technology comprise 18 percent of the City’s CTE programs—more than any other—but the field’s jobs will only increase 3 percent by 2018
  • Business Management and Administration comprise 14 percent of programs, but jobs in the field will only increase 2 percent by 2018
  • Jobs in Human Services will grow faster than any career cluster in New York State by 2018 (18 percent), but the field only accounts for 1.5 percent of CTE programming

I agree with de Blasio that the explosion of CTE programs in highly-competitive, low-growth creative fields such as fashion design and sound engineering is a problem. We see a similar trend in the for-profit college sector, where advertisements (like the ones you see so often in subway cars) and curricula are crafted to exploit young people's interests in music, video games, and the like. One perpetrator is Full Sail University, the Orlando for-profit college, owned by a Mitt Romney donor, that charges up to $80,000 for a 21-month program in "video game art" that has just a 38 percent graduation rate. 

All that said, I don't think the solution is to tightly tailor CTE programs to fit economic projections of growing industries. The service sectors are growing, but we don't want to limit working class kids to these often low-skills, low-pay jobs. Instead, we should advocate for more creative curricular connections between school and various places of employment. Consider the example of Tech Valley High School, outside of Albany:

…every student pursues an internship during January. This year, one teen shadowed an Amtrak engineer riding the Northeast Corridor; another interned at a local graphic design firm.

The flexibility of Tech Valley’s career curriculum—students can choose an internship that matches their interests, from baking to computer coding to marine biology—goes a long way toward scrubbing away the stigma of CTE as the “slow track” for working-class kids with few options. Every academic subject at Tech Valley is organized around projects intended to introduce teenagers to potential occupations. A history class worked alongside local attorneys to put Christopher Columbus and other European explorers on mock trial for decimating Native American populations. For a unit on pH levels, biology students worked with employees of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to collect Hudson River water samples and test whether the river was safe for swimmers.

I think of this type of curriculum as career "relevant," in that it actively shows students how their in-classroom learning can be applied to the labor market, but without limiting them to any specific job or field, as traditional vocational education does. The idea is to allow teenagers to explore the world of work in a way that emphasizes the importance of continuing education. 

The Evolution of Bill Gates, Education Philanthropist

One thing I admire about Bill Gates is that he isn’t afraid to update his thinking when presented with new information. I’ve written in the past about Gates’ annual letter on his philanthropic activities, which always includes a section on the nearly $400 million his foundation spends each year on American education reform. In these letters, Gates has been careful to praise teachers while simultaneously advocating for more rigorous, often data-based evaluation in order to weed out low performers. In his 2010 letter, for example, Gates controversially called student testing the model for teacher evaluation, noting: “It is amazing how little feedback teachers get to help them improve, especially when you think about how much feedback their students get. Students regularly have their skills measured with tests. The results show how they compare to other students.”

The new 2012 letter, however, marks a significant shift in Gates’ thinking, and shows he has learned a lot from dialogue with classroom teachers. The letter argues strongly in favor of teacher peer review, a more holistic, classroom-observation based evaluation strategy that is popular with teachers and their unions. Gates praises a program in Tampa in which teachers receive feedback from both their principal and a team of trained peer evaluators. “Most teachers want more feedback and will use it to improve, even if the financial rewards for performance are comparatively modest,” Gates writes.

Gates’ beliefs on teaching reform are more sophisticated than they used to be. While he still supports the use of student testing data as part of a teacher’s evaluation score, he now understands that teaching is a profession built around an ideology of cooperation, not competition. Indeed, the sociological research on teachers has shown this consistently for decades; check out the work of Edward Deci and Dan Lortie. Teachers’ disinterest in financial gain relative to other working conditions is why merit pay programs are rarely the transformative reform lever their supporters hope they will be.

Last year I visited the Math and Sciences Leadership Academy, a Denver public elementary school built around teacher peer review. I was really impressed, and you can read about the school here. To learn more about classroom observation as a teacher evaluation strategy, see this wonderful paper by my colleagues at the New America Foundation, which shows detailed rubrics on what effective teacher coaches and evaluators should look for when they step into a classroom.

More on Obama’s SOTU Proposal on High-School Drop-Outs

I love Twitter! After I published my Nation column on the education proposals in the State of the Union, friend and Obama admin alum Josh Bendor got in touch to alert me to some interesting research on the positive effects of forcing kids to stay in school until age 18. Some of this work was done by Alan Kreuger of Princeton, who is now the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Another paper, by Philip Oreopoulos, found that "dropping out one year later increases present value income by more than 10 times forgone earnings and more than 2 times the maximum lifetime annual wage."

I still think that alongside any discussion of raising the age of compulsory schooling, we must talk about how high schools can provide more relevant career and technical education. Keeping would-be drop-outs in the classroom without making sure they are engaged is a recipe for a dysfunctional school climate, and we know high-risk students are hungry for instruction with real-world applications. A 2006 Gates Foundation survey of high school drop-outs found that about half left school because it wasn't interesting to them, and a third felt they had to leave school in order to support themselves or their family financially. These are some of the teens who benefit most from courses and extracurricular activities that provide clear training for a career, and indeed, 81 percent of the survey respondents said they would have benefited from more connections between the worlds of school and work

Update: Slate asked me to dig a little deeper on this economics research. Check it out.

In Their Focus on Religious Giving, Romneys are Like Most American Donors

Mitt Romney's tax documents are out, and they show the GOP frontrunner and his wife donated $7 million to charity over the past two years, an amount equal to about 16.4 percent of their income. The Romneys gave to a number of secular non-profits, including the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, the Center for the Treatment of Pediatric MS, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Homes for Our Troops. But they donated far and away the most money–$4.1 million in cash and $2 million in stock–to the Mormon church. 

In their decision to prioritize religious giving, the Romneys are typical of American donors. When I was working at The Daily Beast in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, we decided to take a close look at how disasters impact American charitable giving. We were surprised at the results of our research: According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, only about one-third of all American charity–from individuals, foundations, and corporations–directly serves the poor, either within the United States or abroad. Year after year, religious organizations, typically local church groups, take home the biggest slice of American charity, even in the wake of major humanitarian crises. 

For example, Americans donated $100.63 billion to religious causes in 2010, accounting for 35 percent of all giving.

Screen shot 2012-01-24 at 12.34.53 PM

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Americans responded with $2.7 billion in donations over the first year. Yet this swell of support accounted for less than 1 percent of total giving in that time period. A similar pattern took shape after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami of 2004. In fact, the discrepency between emergency humanitarian giving and religious giving was so large, it was difficult for us to visualize on this chart; imagine the bar on the right as five times higher than it actually is:

Screen shot 2012-01-24 at 12.27.29 PM

Of course, some religious giving does serve the poor, through church-run food banks, homeless shelters, and the like. But Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, told me this is not generally the case. “A large part of that goes toward the ongoing cost of owning and operating a church,” he said, “paying for the rabbi, minister, or priest; heating and air-conditioning costs.”

Policy Implications of the New Teacher Value-Added Research

cross-posted at The Nation

Last month, economists at Harvard and Columbia released the largest-ever study of teachers’ “value-added” ratings—a controversial mathematical technique that measures a teacher’s effectiveness by looking at the change in his students’ standardized test scores from one year to the next, while controlling for student demographic traits like poverty and race.

Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff analyzed the test scores and family tax returns of 2.5 million Americans over a twenty-year period, from 1989 to 2009. The team concluded that students who have teachers with high value-added ratings are more likely to attend college and earn higher incomes, and are less likely to become pregnant teens.

In a rare instance of edu-wonk consensus, both friends and skeptics of standardized tests are praising the study as reliable and groundbreaking. Indeed, these findings raise several interesting questions about how to evaluate and pay teachers—one of the most controversial topics in American urban politics. In his annual State of the City speech last Wednesday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg cited the new research as he promised annual bonuses of up to $20,000 for teachers rated “highly effective,” based partially on value-added measures and partially on principals’ judgments. In a move that befuddled many casual observers of the education debate, the New York City teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, immediately opposed the proposal.

If we now know teacher effectiveness has a real, measurable impact on both student academic achievement and life outcomes like teen pregnancy, why aren’t teachers’ unions supporting plans to pay teachers with high value-added ratings more money? Pundits like Nick Kristof and the Daily News editorial page have jumped in to claim that the new research justifies merit pay plans like Bloomberg’s, and the oneinstituted by former chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC.

The policy implications of the Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff paper are, however, far from clear. As the researchers note in their conclusion, their study was conducted in a low-stakes setting, one in which student test scores were used neither to evaluate nor pay teachers. In a little-noticed footnote (#64) on page 50, the economists write:

even in the low-stakes regime we study, some teachers in the upper tail of the VA [value-added] distribution have test score impacts consistent with test manipulation. If such behavior becomes more prevalent when VA is actually used to evaluate teachers, the predictive content of VA as a measure of true teacher quality could be compromised. [Emphasis added.]

The importance of this caveat cannot be overstated. As I’ve written in the past, there is evidence of increased teaching-to-the-test, curriculum-narrowing and outright cheating nationwide since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, which put an unprecedented focus on the test scores of disadvantaged children.

Despite these concerns about testing, the United Federation of Teachers has agreed in principle to a new evaluation system that depends in part on value-added; a similar system, after all, is already in place for determining whether teachers earn tenure. Negotiations between the union and the city are stalled not because, in the words of the Daily News, the union has “placed protecting the jobs of incompetents over the future financial well-being of children,” but because the union would like teachers who receive an “unsatisfactory” rating under the new system to have the right to file an appeal to a neutral arbitrator. Currently, the city Department of Education determines whether to hear appeals of teacher evaluations, and it rejects 99.5 percent of the appeals filed.

Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process. What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay? That’s the sort of teacher “career ladder” that has been so successful in high-performing nations like South Korea and Finland, and that would guarantee that excellent teachers aren’t just reaching twenty-five students per year but are truly sharing their expertise in a way that transforms entire schools and districts.

Everything Old is New Again: “Teachers are Terrible! But You Should Become a Teacher!”

Michael Bloomberg, 2012 State-of-the-City Address:

"…we are raising the bar for teachers, just as we are for students. This year, we’ll do more to make sure every classroom has an effective teacher – and to remove those who don’t make the grade."

Barack Obama, 2011 State-of-the-Union Address:

“We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. …  In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher. Your country needs you. ”

Geoffrey Canada, 2010 Clinton Global Initiative Appearance:

"Here’s something that absolutely needs to be changed. I believe that if you’re a terrible teacher, you should be fired. I know, it sounds harsh. People are thinking, ‘Oh my God.’”  

"A Nation at Risk," 1983:

"The Commission found that not enough of the academically able students are being attracted to teaching; that teacher preparation programs need substantial improvement; that the professional working life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable; and that a serious shortage of teachers exists in key fields."

 Richard Hofstadter, 1964, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

"All too often, however, in the history of the United States, the schoolteacher has been in no position to serve as a model for an introduction to the intellectual life. Too often he has not only no claims to an intellectual life of his own, but not even an adequate workmanlike competence in the skills he is supposed to impart. Regardless of his own quality, his low pay and common lack of personal freedom have caused the teacher’s role to be associated with exploitation and intimidation."

Charles William Eliot, 1901, Educational Reform: Essays and Addresses:

"…the average skill of the teachers in the public schools may be increased by raising the present low proportion of male teachers in the schools. Herein lies one of the great causes of the inferiority of the American teaching to the French and German teaching."

A philanthropist, 1842, cited in Pillars of the Republic, by Carl Kaestle:

“At least four-fifths of the teachers in the common schools in Illinois would not pass an examination in the rudiments of our English language, and most of them have taken to teaching because they hadn’t anything in particular to do.”

Catharine Beecher, 1829, Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education:

"Most of the defects which are continually discovered and lamented in present systems of education may be traced, either directly or indirectly, to the fact that the formation of the minds of children has not been made a profession securing wealth, influence, or honor to those who enter it. … [Teaching] has been looked upon as the resource of poverty, or as a drudgery suited only to inferior minds and far beneath the aims of the intellectual aspirant for fame and influence, or of the active competitor for wealth and distinction. The consequence of this has been, as a general fact, that this profession has never, until very recently, commanded or secured the effort of gifted minds. These have all forsaken this for a more lucrative or a more honorable avenue; and few have engaged in it except those whose talents would not allow them to rise in other professions, or those who only made it a temporary resort, till better prospects should offer."

10 Years Later, Assessing the Legacy of No Child Left Behind

As the No Child Left Behind Act turns 10 today, the bill’s future remains uncertain, with Congress and the Obama administration divided over how to update the controversial law. Meanwhile, NCLB has been largely irrelevant to two of the major trends in national education policy-making over the past three years: the push to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement data, and the move toward a Common Core curriculum in math and English. (The main lever pushing those changes is the Obama administration’s deployment of billions of federal grant dollars to states that agree to adhere to those priorities.) Nevertheless, NCLB has had a profound effect on what students experience in the classroom and on the way the American public talks about its schools. Here is my assessment of how NCLB has changed American education over the past decade, both for the better and for the worse.

A spotlight on the achievement gap. NCLB required states to collect and publicize data on student performance broken down by race, class, English-language learner status, and special education status. As a result, it is no longer possible for the media or political elite to ignore the inequities in our education system. Unfortunately, there has been very little acknowledgement of the fact that gaps in academic outcomes have multiple causes—some of which are located within schools, but the vast majority of which can be attributed to the socioeconomic characteristics of students’ families and neighborhoods. Critiquing the law from a more conservative perspective, Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess point out that the laser-focus on gaps between rich and poor kids has detracted from attempts to provide gifted and talented students with more stimulating instruction.

An increase in standardized testing. NCLB required standardized testing in 4th through 8th grade English and math, which led to a narrowing of the curriculum as science, computing, the arts, and physical education were cut from the schedule in many high-poverty schools—those under the most pressure to demonstrate test score gains in basic skills. The Obama administration would like to address the issue of curriculum-narrowing by rewriting NCLB to also require test score growth in science, social studies, and other subjects. This would be better than doing nothing to change the law’s testing mandates, but would increase the number of hours and days schools spend on testing and test-prep. In practice, additional testing is usually unpopular with parents and teachers, potentially triggering a backlash to the entire notion of aggressive, federally-led school reform. Efforts to address the shortcomings of testing with more testing ignore the fact that—as in other historical periods when schools were asked to quickly raise test scores—there has been widespread evidence of an increase in cheating and tampering with test answer sheets since NCLB went into effect.

A sidelining of conversations about racial and socioeconomic integration of schools. There are reams of good research showing that “peer effects” matter for poor children’s academic achievement. Simply put, kids learn more when they attend classrooms that serve a mix of poor and middle-class students, in which teachers are less likely to be overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty. To acknowledge so much is not to deny that hundreds of schools nationwide effectively serve nearly-100-percent high-poverty student populations; indeed, we know such schools exist, but that they are astoundingly difficult to sustain and replicate over time. Public policy can help diversify classrooms by providing money for nearby poor and affluent schools and districts to work together, but NCLB did not do so. President Obama’s school turnaround programs have similary ignored the potential of integration, despite the positive track-records of voluntary, urban-suburban student swaps in the Hartford, Seattle and Milwaukee metropolitan regions. In those systems, suburban parents can choose to send their kids to high-performing urban magnet schools. The seats that open up in suburban schools are then made available to city kids.

A rhetoric of "failure." Kevin Carey has fairly pointed out that NCLB is long on mandates, but short on actual punishments for schools that fail to meet their annual test-score targets. Even so, the media conversation around the law has generated a national consensus that our public education system is failing. The real story is more complex; even in relatively bleak public school districts like the one in Newark, NJ, there are pockets of true excellence.

A debate among urban parents. Although only 1 percent of eligible parents were able to take advantage of NCLB’s school choice provisions, the law’s promise to provide an “out” from failing schools has contributed to vastly increased political support for the expansion of the charter school sector. Thousands of inner-city parents are thrilled to remove their children from underperforming neighborhood schools and enroll them in charters, but for every family happy about school choice, there are several who lost charter school lotteries or never entered them in the first place—and who see the energy and funding in education reform steadily drifting away from traditional, neighborhood public schools. I interviewed some of these parents for my recent piece at The Awl on Occupy Wall Street and school reform. As I reported there, the move to shut down failing schools in New York, Washington, DC, and other cities has raised the ire of many urban parents, with focus groups and national surveys demonstrating that parents would prefer their children’s schools be flooded with additional resources and support, not closed.

Upper-middle-class alienation. There is smoldering upper-middle-class resentment toward many of the priorities of No Child Left Behind and the entire federal school reform agenda. We see evidence of this anger in the viral popularity of the documentary Race to Nowhere: The Darkside of America’s Achievement Cultureand in the protest movement among (mostly) suburban New York State principals against value-added evaluation of teachers. Social movements need middle-class support to succeed, so the future of school reform depends, in part, on whether the majority of Americans believe that standards, testing, and accountability mandates will serve their own children as well as the children of the poor.

cross-posted at The Nation

Rick Santorum’s Catholicism, the Tea Party, and Education Reform

Santorum family

Once upon a time, Rick Santorum was a major supporter of federally mandated, standards and accountability-driven education reform. As a senator, he was a high-profile backer of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, even after his amendment mandating the teaching of intelligent design was stripped from the law. When he ran for reelection in 2006 against Democrat Bob Casey, Santorum filled out a questionnaire from the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group. In the document, he boasts about bucking his party to propose "increasing the appropriations for health and education programs by $7 billion in 2007," in order to fund gifted and talented programs and online education options in math and science. 

Fast forward to 2011, and Santorum–like Mitt Romney–can't seem to run away fast enough from his centrist education record. Santorum's new tax plan calls not for protecting education funding, but for cutting all social spending, including spending on schools, by $5 trillion over five years. In a CNN interview last week, Santorum said, "I talk all the time about having voted for No Child Left Behind. And, you know, it was a mistake. You know, it was a … a dumb thing to vote for because it gave more federal control over education, which was something that, you know, I didn’t advocate for, but I voted for.”

What happened? In short: the Tea Party. As I described in an August Slate article, the Tea Party's close alliance with the Christian Right has replaced the bipartisan, standards-and-accountability consensus on education with a stark, ideological battle between Republicans like Romney, who continue to see public schools as important anti-poverty and economic-competitiveness tools, and Republicans like Michele Bachmann, who have long seen schools as potential corrupters of the nation's youth–as institutions that illegitimately challenge the rightful role of parents in shaping children's moral, political, religious, and sexual belief systems. 

Santorum is uncomfortably wedged in the middle of this debate. Like Bachmann, he and his wife homeschool their children, in large part because of their fundamentalist religious beliefs. But Santorum is not an evangelical Christian; he is Catholic. Accordingly, like many Catholics, he has a more sanguine view of government's role in shaping the individual. Instead of railing against the public schools, he has historically fought to inject conservative social values into the curriculum, while arguing for public education to play a proactive role in ensuring economic mobility.  

As more policy contrasts are drawn between Santorum and Romney in the coming days, it will be interesting to see how both candidates speak about education–and if they speak about it at all. Santorum's campaign website never mentions school reform. Romney's site is similary silent on K-12 education, which is conspicuously absent from the sections on "human capital," "labor," and "fiscal policy." Their reluctance to discuss the issue is a sign of a deep divide within the Republican Party.

Beyond Pink vs. Blue: Why Gendered Toys Really Matter

Peggy Orenstein writes in the New York Times today about how various toy stores and toy manufacturers are navigating the minefield of gender and play. Parents of young children often marvel that, despite their own egalitarian intentions, their kids are the ones who police traditional gender norms. Indeed, as Orenstein notes, studies of primate and human toddlers found that while both sexes enjoy stuffed animals and books, boys prefer cars and balls, while girls are drawn to dolls. I myself have an embarrassing childhood memory of being distraught when given the gift of a remote-control airplane; my parents had to remind me to say thank you and then encourage me to play with it—and, of course, it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Orenstein points to research finding that children raised in households that practice and preach gender egalitarianism make better romantic partners as adults. But there are other reasons to encourage girls especially to play with stereotypically male toys. Research shows that boys get their first computers at younger ages than girls, and are more likely to become expert at video and computer games and to play with toys (like Legos) that develop spatial reasoning skills. This matters because all of these childhood activities are correlated with eventually pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM sector, which over the past decade has created three-times as many jobs as non-STEM fields. According to the Commerce Department, though women currently hold less than one-quarter of all STEM jobs in the economy, those who do work in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs.

Laura Reasoner-Jones is a Virginia elementary school computing teacher who enters teams of girls in  FIRST LEGO League, in which children compete to construct and program robots. She says parents should actively encourage their daughters to get over the “ick” factor many girls associate with traditionally “boy” activities, such as interacting with machines and building things. “Girls should be encouraged to go out and take apart the lawn mower; take the grass off the blades and see how it works. Parents can start with that.”

Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”

Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.

“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”

When schools fail to spark children’s interest in science, math, and computing, the result is that populations that have historically been drawn to those fields—the sons of college-educated parents—continue to excel, while girls and low-income kids lag behind. The toys kids play with at home matter, and so do the lessons children learn at school; in order to overcome overwhelming cultural conditioning to the contrary, both parents and educators should actively send the message that all children will have fun and learn a lot when they “tinker” in the physical and electronic worlds.

cross-posted at The Nation