When the New York City Council moved the other day to require every one of the city’s thirty-two community school districts to develop a school desegregation plan, it was yet one more example of municipal social engineering that prizes diversity over quality and mandatory over voluntary. If families with means don’t like their new school assignments, they’ll simply exit to charters, private schools or the suburbs, meaning that the city’s social engineers will mainly work their will on those with the least.
When the New York City Council moved the other day to require every one of the city’s thirty-two community school districts to develop a school desegregation plan, it was advancing a major initiative by Mayor Bill de Blasio, his schools chancellor Richard Carranza, and a sprawling advisory panel, all of them committed to rooting out every form of selectivity and “disparate impact” in the offerings of the country’s biggest public school system. Yes, that’s the same gang that’s been applying “disparate impact” reasoning to admissions to the city’s famous “exam schools”—places like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant—and seeking to replace test-based entry with something that would yield pupil populations more akin to Gotham’s complex demographics. And, yes, that’s the advisory panel that recently recommended ending the city’s sparse (and much sought) gifted-and-talented classrooms in earlier grades.
The city council was also following the lead of several of those community districts, which have implemented or are developing “diversity plans” of their own. One such district, #15 in Brooklyn, has been in the news lately. Located not far from the borough’s eponymous bridge and incorporating Prospect Park, as well as neighborhoods that are probably more varied, both racially and economically, than any of New York’s other thirty-one districts, it contains eleven middle schools.
How kids end up in which schools in New York is truly complex, not to say byzantine, both for those of us attempting to describe the process and—far more so—for families having to navigate it. For the most part, elementary pupils attend their neighborhood schools, if they don’t enroll in one of the city’s well-regarded charters or myriad private and parochial schools, although there are ways to gain access to more distant schools, particularly if one is gifted, disabled, or limited in English proficiency. At the high school level, which operates as a city-wide system rather than under the community districts, families have city-wide choices and every eighth grader is expected to rank order his or her top dozen out of more than four hundred options, many of which are specialized, often have prerequisites, and also get to rank-order their applicants! The upshot is that thousands of teenagers travel (usually by public transportation) to faraway schools that have something they want, while many more thousands end up in all-purpose high schools not far from home.
The middle school part involves choices and rankings, too, but generally within the community district where one resides, which for those living in District 15 ordinarily means one of the eleven middle schools. Over the years, according to the Washington Post, “criteria set by each school played a big role in deciding who went there. Certain middle schools required high test scores and excellent behavior ratings from elementary schools, and affluent families gravitated to them. Over time, various schools won reputations for excellence, and with each passing year, their incoming classes grew whiter and wealthier.” Conversely, other schools wound up with mostly poor and minority pupils.
Unlovely student distributions of that sort occur from time to time throughout the world of school choice, especially where the good stuff is limited and rationed, competition for it is intense, and families therefore must strategize, game the system, and pull strings to produce satisfactory placements for their daughters and sons. That, of course, is a major reason for encouraging the creation of lots more quality charters and voucher programs (which New York doesn’t have) so as to boost access to more excellent classrooms for more kids, particularly poor and minority youngsters. District 15 contains eleven charter schools, of which several serve the middle grades—and have exceptionally diverse pupil populations. But instead of creating additional quality options, state lawmakers have capped the creation of charters in Gotham, and the leaders of District 15—and now the entire city—have opted to rejigger the admissions process so as to distribute kids “more equitably” across the schools that exist, be they good, bad, or indifferent.
This is fairly termed social engineering, and it has been reenergized by today’s political environment, which not only celebrates diversity over quality and mandatory over voluntary, but in the K–12 space is also pressed by desegregation hawks for whom just about the worst thing that can be said about a school is that it’s racially or socioeconomically homogeneous.
The early returns in District 15 have generally pleased the hawks and engineers. The city council was informed that when school opened this fall, eight of those eleven middle schools “met targets of having 40 to 75 percent of its students from low-income families learning English as a new language or living in temporary housing—up from just three schools last year,” and the district’s overall population of white students remained stable. But the new rules didn’t work for everyone: Of the forty-five children that the rejiggered system assigned to Charles O. Dewey middle school, which has long been almost entirely minority (mainly Hispanic), and which gets a rating of 3 out of 10 from GreatSchools, most never turned up there. They evidently shifted into charter or private schools or moved out of District 15 altogether. Meanwhile, reports the Post, “the percent of kids from priority groups enrolled in Dewey’s sixth grade class went from 95 percent last year to 92 percent this year.” Bottom line: not much integrating, early signs of middle-class exit.
It’s not fair to conflate today’s “managed choice” with “forced busing,” but some similarities bear noting. Both are social engineering schemes devised by experts and officials confident that they know what’s best for kids and that manipulating who goes where to school is a way to bring about their vision of a better society. In neither case are parents trusted to know what’s best for their kids. But because, in a free society, no family can ultimately be compelled to do something it views as bad for its daughters and sons, those with the means and savvy to foil the social engineers will do so—and in my view should. The only policy sin is not to equip many more families with the means to do so. In consequence, the engineers are most successful in working their will on those with the least.
Even then, they face limits. One of the most imaginative of the engineers, Richard Kahlenberg, estimates that just nine of New York’s thirty-two districts have sufficiently diverse populations that shrewd assignment algorithms could ever yield significant integration. Middle schoolers in the other twenty-three districts would have to travel far afield.
I’m no fan of free-for-all school choice. Experience has shown that many parents will settle for inferior schools so long as they’re safe and convenient, that many schools of choice offer less than quality education, and that adroitly navigating a complex set of varied choices is daunting for lots of families.
That said, many families don’t like being manipulated and will go to great lengths to evade the manipulators, particularly when they believe—for whatever reason—that the manipulators’ goals and priorities are not in the best interest of their own children.
Sometimes those reasons are less than admirable. Yesterday’s mandatory busing triggered a lot of white flight (and some middle-class black flight) from local public school systems, sometimes just because of distance, time-on-bus, and family hassle, but often because parents really didn’t want their daughters and sons to attend school with more of “those” kids. Some of that may be going on today in Brooklyn, too, but it’s at least as likely that the middle-class families opting out of District 15 are doing so because the schools the engineers would have their kids end up in aren’t as good as the schools the parents seek for them. If that means exiting the system’s schools in favor of charters, private schooling, home instruction, or schools in other parts of the city or in the suburbs, many of those who can will.
Elsewhere, some mayors, superintendents, and chancellors organize their manipulations to retain as many middle-class families in town and children in their schools as possible. Daley did this in Chicago and Bloomberg in New York. San Diego’s Kevin Faulconer is on a similar quest today. They have good reasons to do so—sustaining the tax base, retaining jobs, retaining tranquil neighborhoods, retaining the many amenities and services that middle-class families gravitate to—and retaining demographic diversity, too. It’s ultimately a way to avoid segregation. But it does invite gentrification—another of today’s taboos. And it nearly always requires the existence of good schools, the kinds that college-educated, middle-class parents are apt to insist on, enough such schools that they’re both geographically accessible and relatively easy to get into, while accepting the inevitability that enrollments in those schools are not likely to end up mirroring citywide demographics.
As part of Bloomberg’s team, chancellor Joel Klein did much to shape the city’s vast education system to retain both talent and the middle class while also expanding opportunity for poor and minority youngsters—many of whom are, of course, also highly talented and potential entrants into the middle class so long as the education system gives them a boost.
Klein created more exam schools, encouraged gifted-and-talented and Advanced Placement programs, fostered city-wide high school choice, broke up vast and dysfunctional units into more manageable and focused schools, assisted in the birth (and housing) of many first-rate charter schools, gave successful principals greater control of their schools’ staffs and budgets, supplied parents with clearer information on school performance, sought out curricula with evidence of success, boosted teacher quality and pay (and expedited the entry of more talented people into classrooms), in effect outsourced a number of schools to solid organizations such as the Urban Assembly, and did his best to close the very worst schools when he could not transform them.
The de Blasio team has moved in very different directions on almost all of these fronts. (Not all. They’re doing a creditable job of pushing AP into many more high schools, a welcome combination of equity and acceleration.) In seeking to undo what they view as elements of elitism and exclusivity, buying into a “disparate impact” view of just about everything, and opening themselves both to identity politics and social engineering, they can be expected to continue dismantling the kinds of programs and schools that draw middle class and upwardly mobile families while re-engineering access to what remains. Though hizzoner has lately seemed more attentive to pursuits far beyond Gotham, two years remain in his mayoral term. That’s plenty of time for a lot more mischief in education, as well as innumerable other realms.
There’s been a lot of talk about racial equity in Montgomery County as of late. It is motivated in part by a disturbing “racial equity profile” released in June, which shows dramatic disparities between white and Asian residents and their African American and Latino counterparts in employment, health, education and many other domains.
If leaders want to do more than engage in virtue-signaling—and especially if they want to make a tangible difference in the lives of families of color—they have a rare opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. That’s because the county’s teacher contract is up for negotiation—and it could be the most effective mechanism for driving better outcomes for Montgomery County Public Schools’ black and brown children. That is, if the union and the school board are willing to pay teachers more to serve in the county’s highest-need schools.
It’s clear that equity and achievement gaps are on the minds of county officials. The entire Montgomery County Council recently introduced the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, which, according to The Post, seeks to “correct racial inequities through government policy.”
The school system is stepping up its focus on equity, too. Last spring, Superintendent Jack Smith introduced a new Equity Accountability Dashboard to highlight achievement gaps at the school level, with the goal of “reducing disparities in performance among all student groups.” He and his team are also working hard at expanding gifted and talented programs for low-income students and increasing access to Advanced Placement courses. This builds upon MCPS’s long and proud history of driving additional resources to the system’s neediest schools, in the form of smaller class sizes, extended day programs and free preschool.
Perhaps the most promising recent development is the launch of a new advocacy effort in Montgomery County, the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence. At a community meeting last month attended by hundreds of activists, the coalition called for MCPS to take a number of actions, including providing “incentives to recruit and retain strong teachers and principals in high needs schools.”
A new study on Montgomery County by Education Resource Strategies found that “higher-need schools have lower average teacher compensation and a higher percent novice teachers than lower-need schools.” (This is hardly a new problem or unique to our region.) At the middle school level, for example, affluent schools pay their teachers $9,000 more on average than high-poverty schools do. That difference is driven by the fact that disadvantaged schools have twice the proportion of new, lower-paid teachers as rich schools do (20 percent of all teachers versus 10 percent). Given that new teachers tend to be less effective than experienced ones, this “teacher quality gap” could explain a significant portion of Montgomery County’s achievement gap.
The good news is that there’s a proven, common-sense strategy to draw more effective and experienced teachers to the neediest schools: Pay them more. For instance, a rigorous federal study of the Teacher Transfer Initiative found that $10,000-per-year salary increases were extremely effective at encouraging teachers to take positions at high-need schools and led to improved teacher retention and, in some grades and subjects, improved student test scores. Other studies reach the same common-sense conclusion that pay matters, even more modest amounts, though the strategy seems to work best if the extra pay is baked into regular salaries rather than provided as bonuses.
Happily, dozens of large school districts nationwide provide this sort of “differential pay” for teaching in tough schools, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. The best example is in our own backyard, in the District of Columbia Public Schools, where the most effective teachers can earn up to $20,000 a year more for teaching at the neediest schools. This is surely one reason that DCPS has become such a formidable competitor of MCPS when it comes to recruiting teacher talent, including highly skilled teachers of color.
Yet Montgomery County doesn’t offer a single extra penny to teachers assigned to the district’s toughest schools—those serving large proportions of kids living in poverty who often come to school with unmet needs and below grade-level proficiency. Instead, its current salary schedule, negotiated with the teachers union, offers extra pay for earning master’s degrees and graduate credits. For example, a ten-year teaching veteran earns almost $6,000 per year more if he or she has a master’s degree and almost $15,000 a year more for the equivalent of a doctorate. Multiple studies have found that these lofty credentials don’t seem to make teachers any more effective outside of a couple of fields.
There’s a fresh opportunity, though, given that the union contract is now under negotiation, and a few small changes could make a big difference for the county’s kids of color. Here’s a modest proposal: Grandfather all current teachers into the traditional salary schedule, but tweak it for new teachers going forward. Shift some of the money that is now paid for master’s degrees and the like and use it instead for salary increases for teachers who take positions at the toughest schools. Even better: Put resources into improving working conditions at those schools as well.
The message to the teaching force would be clear: If you want to max out on Montgomery County’s salary scale, you need to teach the students with the greatest needs. And to the community the message would also be clear: We value equity, and we’re not just saying so. We actually mean it.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published by the Washington Post.
“It’s like some bullsh-t way to get kids to pass.” That’s the cynical description of high school “credit recovery” programs an eleventh grader gave to the New York Post last year. But cynicism appears to be in order. These programs, which purport to help high school students make up work in courses that they’ve failed, are implicated in a new scandal every time you turn around.
From New York, to L.A., to North Carolina, to Virginia, to the nation’s capital, credit recovery is at least raising concerns from parents and educators worried about academic rigor, and at worst enabling administrators and students to collude in handing out diplomas whether the students have learned anything or not. An upbeat story on a local credit recovery program in the Tulsa World notes that a computer program “does most of the teaching” and that, using the program, “One student was able to earn credit for twenty-one courses, essentially an entire school year, in just a matter of weeks.”
Of course, schools have always had some form of credit recovery, such as summer school. The new generation of computer-based credit recovery programs, which aim to get more students passing while keeping costs low, are, however, of a different breed.
Local scandals have proliferated, and rigorous assessments of these new computer-based credit recovery programs are scarce. The few results we have confirm the need for skepticism, as one of the few researchers to conduct rigorous assessments of these programs puts it, “I do have a lot of concerns about the widespread use of online courses for credit recovery.”
Cautious readers will note that the rigorous impact studies have been of individual credit recovery programs, so other programs may be working better. At the same time, the scandals uncovered by journalists probably involve only the worst of these programs. In other words, we’ve heard some bad things about credit recovery, but are they representative? When researchers have conducted national studies of credit recovery programs, as I did in a co-authored Fordham report last year, the data are as thin as they are broad, and we can’t conclude anything about how the programs actually work beyond what types of schools have the programs and how many students they enroll.
A new report by Nat Malkus at the American Enterprise Institute aims to fill in some of this story. Where previous studies got into the weeds of a single program or, alternatively, looked nationwide without saying anything substantive about the programs themselves, Malkus’s team randomly selected and surveyed 168 districts from around the country to find out how their programs worked.
While there are fair-minded arguments for not strangling credit recovery with regulations, Malkus presents us with a Wild West, where districts buy these programs from a variety of for-profit vendors, (human) teachers are barely involved, and most districts exert little oversight. When Malkus looked across eight types of regulations districts might impose, three-fourths of the districts had adopted no more than three regulations. After suggesting that holding back on each policy could individually be justified, Malkus puts the lack of oversight this way: “Taken together, however, these policies offer little assurance that serious attention is given to quality and rigor.”
The fixes to these programs are obvious enough, and Malkus suggests some good ones. Districts (or states or schools) could require students to pass an external exam—either a state-developed test, a school-faculty-developed test, or even an oral presentation officiated by teachers in the department. (As it is, just 17 percent of districts have any external validation requirement.) Or they could require much more involvement from teachers both to ensure that the students are supported and to make sure they aren’t just brainlessly clicking through computer modules.
Yet the reason these fixes aren’t being implemented goes to the heart of the contradiction in these programs. The premise of credit recovery is to take the neediest, worst-performing students and put them in the cheapest, lowest-touch, computer-enabled environment. Sure, districts could require intense teacher involvement or rigorous external assessment. But if they did, the programs would no longer possess their dual raisons d'etre: they would no longer be cheap or easy to pass.
What no one has suggested, oddly, is that districts take greater precaution and press pause until they can figure out if they are actually upholding their academic standards. Are their programs rigorous? Are there external checks, or does the vendor—who is paid by the district, presumably to pass as many students as possible—have the last say? Are they setting the bar high, or is credit “recovered” with little effort, rendering it meaningless?
Researchers, ever concerned about the generalizability of our findings, have been timid about suggesting districts simply stop. Policymakers have watched graduation rates soar and have not wanted to rock the boat. Teachers have mostly been left out of the whole process.
With the accumulation scandals and other red flags, school boards and states can no longer look the other way. They must find a solution to the obvious moral hazards. And if that is going to take some time to figure out, they ought to simply stop these programs before they do further, irreparable damage to the meaning of the high school diploma.
When asked about teacher satisfaction in the credit recovery program, one official told Malkus’s team, “I don’t ask that question [to teachers], because I don’t care.” We can lament this administrator’s lack of commitment to academics, but, given the incentives, why should he care? We have set up a system where the graduation rate is king, and if outsourcing accountability to predatory for-profit vendors helps you get there, we’ve assured these district leaders that—until the reporters start poking around—we won’t ask too many questions.
The student teaching experience is a crash course in lesson planning, organization skills, and classroom management—and also in learning from and gelling with the teacher who is in charge of teaching you these things. That can be challenging, especially since cooperating teachers (CTs) are recruited in multiple ways, none of which is all that thoughtful or organized. For instance, if several teachers want a student (or preservice) teacher, assignment can be based on seniority (veteran teachers get first dibs), or conversely a student teacher can get assigned to “help” a new, struggling teacher. Other times, educators in a subject-area department simply take turns taking on a student teacher, or the department head asks for volunteers. It’s rare that teacher effectiveness be a criterion for assignment to a student teacher. Yet a new study shows the merit in such an approach.
A team of analysts conducted a random experiment to see if a low-cost intervention could improve how cooperating teachers are assigned to preservice teachers. Specifically they provide a recommended list of CTs to district leaders.
The study was conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education and a large teacher education program at the TN Technological Institution, where candidates must complete a year-long student teaching experience. In 2017–18, when the study took place, the institution placed 162 candidates in twenty-two neighboring districts. Candidates must obviously complete their residency in the subject and grade level of their certification, but are able to request a specific district or county to accommodate travel constraints. The analysts used this information to identify for each candidate all teachers that matched their subject and grade level and requested district. They calculated a composite measure of instructional effectiveness based on teacher value-added, observation ratings, and years of experience, and generated a list of the most instructionally effective and experienced CTs to guide recruitment. Only teachers in the upper three quintiles of the quality distribution were on the list, which was organized chronologically with teachers with the highest scores at the top. The researchers randomly assigned neighboring districts to either receive the recommendation list or to the business-as-usual approach. District leaders in the treatment group were asked to use the lists, starting with the teachers at the top, if possible, but told to use their judgement and skip teachers on the list if they had reasons for doing so.
After controlling for differences among the fields that teachers are placed in, they find that the average placement quality for CTs in treatment districts is 0.43 standard deviations higher than the placement quality for CTs in control districts. In looking at individual quality measures, CTs in treatment districts have on average value-added scores that are 0.68 standard deviations higher than CTs in control districts. These are technically “intent-to-treat” results because there are no data on how the lists were or were not followed.
The researchers also examine a variety of self-reported survey measures and find that preservice teachers who learned to teach with these more effective CTs also felt significantly better prepared to teach at the end of their training than those in the control group (by about 0.62 standard deviations). Specifically, they felt better prepared with regards to their questioning techniques and other instructional skills. Future work will examine the bigger question of whether preservice teachers in the treatment districts are also more effective during their first year of teaching.
But the takeaway right now is that simply providing district leaders with actionable information in the form of a more “strategic” recruitment list raises the average effectiveness and experience of the pool of cooperating teachers. Moreover, the intervention is feasible and low-cost. Apparently if you build the list, they will use it. Sure sounds like a better way to recruit teachers than the haphazard approach we use now.
SOURCE: Matthew Ronfeldt et al., “Improving Student Teachers’ Feelings of Preparedness to Teach Through Recruitment of Instructionally Effective and Experienced Cooperating Teachers: A Randomized Experiment,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (October 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Kim Marshall, author of The Best of the Marshall Memo, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to talk about the challenge of spreading evidence-based practices in schools. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how performance-based scholarships affect the ways college students use their time.
Amber's Research Minute
Lisa Barrow & Cecilia Elena Rouse, “Financial Incentives and Educational Investment: The Impact of Performance-Based Scholarships on Student Time Use,” Education Finance and Policy (September 25, 2018).