A “good enough” school isn’t adequate or average, much less mediocre, but rather one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for life’s endless frustrations. And public schools, thanks to their oft-exasperating rules and frequently-unruly students, tend to do this better than their elite counterparts. Academic learning might happen more efficiently and effectively with homeschooling or private schools. But maybe that shouldn’t be all we’re after. Read more.
The Education Gadfly Show: Philadelphia’s brotherly love between charter, district, and parochial schools
An article in the Times caught my eye the other day: “The Good-Enough Life.” The author, Avram Alpert, a writing teacher at Princeton, draws on the work of D.W. Winnicott, who popularized the idea of “the good-enough mother.” Alpert summarizes her thusly:
This mother is good enough not in the sense that she is adequate or average, but that she manages a difficult task: initiating the infant into a world in which he or she will feel both cared for and ready to deal with life’s endless frustrations. To fully become good enough is to grow up into a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.
It made me wonder if that’s the sort of school I should want for my children. (Others have wondered this too.) Not a school that is just “adequate or average,” much less mediocre, but one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for “life’s endless frustrations.”
This is hardly a hypothetical question, as my kids are getting an ample dose of frustration at their public elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s nothing terrible; they are making solid progress academically, and I know they are safe. These are not things that all parents in America can take for granted. I know we are extremely fortunate—my friends on the left would use the word “privileged”—and that “good enough” would not be good enough for families without our advantages.
But my boys have to put up with plenty of annoyances all the same. Some are small, like their school’s new recess policy: Because playing on a muddy field is “unsafe” (figure that one out), and the black top isn’t very large, they only get to go outside every other day. Or their weekly art class, which is boring and uninspiring. But some are big, like a recent spate of near-constant disruption caused by a handful of unruly boys in one of my son’s classrooms—disruption that’s starting to take a toll on learning.
I have no doubt that if my only goal was for them to excel academically—to develop their reading, writing, and math skills; to build an understanding of the wonders of the world through history, geography, art, and science—it would be more efficient and effective to homeschool them or send them to private school. In just a few hours a day at home they could learn way more than they can at school, what with the realities of dealing with large groups of kids, differing readiness levels, and so much more. And my brief experience as a private school parent—when my boys were in preschool—indicates to me that a tuition check would earn me more responsiveness from school administrators, instead of the “talk to the hand” attitude we public school parents enjoy today. High-end private schools are a luxury good, after all.
Yet perhaps there is something valuable in my kids learning to put up with the hassles of public school, so as to be ready for the hassles of life. They are going to have to deal with stupid rules and difficult (and sometimes troubled) people in the real world. Why not now?
It reminds me of the reason the U.S. military at one time didn’t want to take kids who graduated from fulltime online schools: They hadn’t dealt with the B.S. of a traditional high school, so they weren’t sure they could deal with the B.S. of the military. Maybe sucking it up is a valuable “social and emotional” skill.
To be sure, I might be rationalizing. To find the money to send two boys to private school would require a painful change in our family’s lifestyle; likewise with becoming homeschoolers. But the truth is that we could do it if we wanted it badly enough. So I have a strong self-interest in conflating “mediocre” and “good enough.” Maybe I’m just trying to feel better about the fact that I haven’t figured out how to get my boys into a school that’s excellent.
In the end, I feel OK about our choices. It helps that while their school is often mediocre, they do get to experience flashes of excellence, thanks mostly to some fantastic teachers. Getting a taste of both greatness and daily annoyances might be the best preparation for an excellent—er, good enough—life.
Everybody knows that teacher quality matters hugely in education, indeed may be the single most potent variable in a classroom, school or system. Yet it’s also an exceptionally elusive and inherently contentious quality. Is a “quality” teacher simply the same thing as an “effective” teacher, with the latter typically gauged by looking at measurable student outcomes of one sort of another, preferably via a sophisticated “value added” calculation? It’s both helpful and unhelpful to judge teacher quality on the basis of student learning, even setting aside the interminable arguments over the limits of test scores, the difficulty of making reliable “growth” calculations, and the methodological and logistical challenges of associating such growth with the work of a given teacher.
It’s helpful because, yes, of course, the quality we most value in a teacher is the production of successful student learning. It’s certainly a good way to distinguish between highly effective and ineffective instructors. It’s so much better than looking at paper credentials, for example, or subjective judgments based on fleeting classroom observations. So, yes, kudos to the late Bill Sanders and those who have followed in his wake. Yet this way of identifying quality is unhelpful because it means waiting until a teacher has dealt with students over enough years to have a shot at making a defensible value-added appraisal—and withstanding the inevitable political and teachers-union yammer about how unfair this is and how it conflates correlation with causation. It gives you nothing useful to use at the front end, such as deciding who gets to become a teacher in the first place. Plus the educational carnage for those students whose teachers turn out not to have been effective.
The Holy Grail of teacher quality is some valid and defensible way of knowing ahead of time who will be effective in the classroom, i.e., whose students are likely to learn a lot.
Historically, though, we’ve had no good way to do this, so we’ve used weak proxies such as whether a prospective teacher is in the top or bottom third of their high school class, how they fare on a Praxis exam, what their ed-school grades are, and how many college-semester hours they took in the subject they’re being hired to teach.
For umpteen reasons, none of those is very satisfactory, and in places and fields where there are teacher shortages, it hasn’t mattered much, anyway, since schools haven’t been able to do much picking and choosing.
People wanting to boost teacher quality—and who doesn’t?—have often been brainwashed by unions and others who insist that if only we paid teachers more we’d get better ones, often leading (as recently in the Maryland commission I’ve been serving on) to proposals for higher starting pay and across-the-board raises. And all such proposals carry whopping price tags because nobody is able to deal with the straightforward fact that if the country didn’t employ near four million individuals as teachers, it could easily pay quite a lot more to those it did employ without adding a big tax hit.
Enter Eric Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold with a very important new study. “Do smarter teachers make smarter students?” they ask—and the answer turns out to be yes, indeed they do. Employing international data from the OECD, and some very sophisticated analyses, they demonstrate “a strong relationship between teacher cognitive skills and student achievement across countries. We estimate that increasing teacher numeracy skills by one standard deviation increases student performance by nearly 15 percent of a standard deviation on the PISA math test.” Almost the same gains in student reading are associated with higher literacy skills among teachers.
It’s a long but lucid and accessible article that should be read—twice—by everyone concerned about teacher quality. Hire smarter, better-educated people as instructors and—lo and behold—the kids they instruct will learn more.
Easier said than done, you respond, and of course that’s so. The study also showed that abler teachers are harder to come by in countries where educated women have more career opportunities—and that teachers’ “wage premiums are also highly correlated with student achievement across countries.” (Wage premium refers to how well paid are a country’s teachers when compared to the pay of “other college graduates with the same gender, work experience, and literacy and numeracy skills.”)
In recent decades, the U.S. has opened many career pathways to educated women—and American teachers are paid “22 percent less than comparably experienced and skilled college graduates doing other jobs.” Those realities do not, however, point toward obvious, feasible measures to boost teacher quality. Nobody is going to reverse course on job opportunities for women. And there’s little reason—based on either this research or common sense—to suppose that a giant across-the-board boost in teacher pay would yield commensurate gains in teacher quality. As Hanushek and his co-authors write, “Increasing teacher salaries would undoubtedly expand the pool of potential teachers and help to reduce teacher turnover. Our evidence does not, however, indicate that more talented teachers would be hired out of the enlarged pool, nor does it indicate that the teachers induced to stay in the profession would be the most effective.” In short, “policymakers will need to do more than raise teacher pay across the board to ensure positive results. They must ensure that higher salaries go to more effective teachers.” Shorter still: They also gotta make some really tough distinctions and even tougher decisions.
Seventeen-year-old Sandra can’t wait for school to start each day. Perhaps that’s because her school day looks nothing like what most of us envision a classic high school schedule to be.
Her morning begins with Advanced Placement calculus, but as soon as the class ends, she heads to her half-day internship at a local electronics manufacturing plant. There, depending on the day, she alternates between sitting in on executive team strategy meetings and working on the manufacturing floor alongside hourly workers assembling circuit boards.
At the end of her morning, Sandra sits with a senior engineer who acts as her mentor and discusses what she learned that day. The mentor gives her a few journal articles to read about the latest advancements in semiconductor technology. He says they can discuss the articles when they meet the following week. Sandra marks in her calendar to have the articles read by Sunday evening.
Sandra has a passion for engineering, and nothing she has experienced during her internship has cooled that ardor. But she has to confess to feeling conflicted because some of the other careers she’s been exposed to during structured visits arranged by her school hold great appeal as well. She’s had a chance to sit with some online sleuths at a cybersecurity firm, and that caught her interest. And a daylong visit to the Denver Zoo to shadow a veterinarian got her thinking about vet school as well.
Sandra gets back to school for a late lunch, attends three classes, spends an hour in the school’s maker-space working on a robotics project, then heads to volleyball practice. She gets home on time for dinner, then retreats to her room to do homework. She reaches first for her calculus book, but then picks up one of the journal articles instead.
Some students in my home state of Colorado are fortunate enough to have experiences similar to Sandra’s. Many more, however, continue to attend schools that follow the old model wherein schooling is confined within the walls of a single building.
What Sandra’s experience exemplifies is a model career and technical education (CTE) program. It’s a CTE program for a more agile future. A future that is unpredictable but also full of possibility for agile learners who are able to adapt and respond and continually learn in this Age of Agility.
We find ourselves at a moment in which learners must develop knowledge, skills, and competencies to succeed in an uncertain future and adapt to a dynamically changing world. While the pace of change is accelerating at an exponential rate, the needs of learners are also becoming more complex, and their interests increasingly more diverse.
That’s why it’s important to completely rethink what career and technical education looks like in our country. To many people, CTE, once called vocational education, conjures up memories of making muffins in a home economics class, or shop and auto-body-repair classes. In the worst ways it was instruction for kids perceived not to be “college material.”
Much like our modern society, the best of CTE has evolved. In fact, the proper frame through which to view CTE is that it’s exactly the education every student needs. Not because we’re trying to make every student ready for a career, although most students will eventually need to get a job, but because CTE offers us the best examples of how learning happens.
Learning cannot be strictly confined to the walls of a school. It’s not comprised of class after class spent sitting in rows and absorbing material to be recalled and tested by how well students can fill a bubble. CTE is relevant, experiential, and meaningful.
Programs have been designed to include a healthy mix of academic challenges, hands-on, real-life work experience, and exposure to a host of possible careers that appeal to a wide range of students—whether they’re bound for a four-year college or something else. In other words, top-flight CTE is a school-wide program, one in which all students participate, to the benefit of all.
We also know that engagement and relevancy are critical, and on both counts, CTE has an advantage over the traditional model. Year after year, national student surveys conducted by Gallup show that fewer than half of U.S. students feel engaged by school or hopeful about their future. Hope, which Gallup found is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores or GPA, is in too short supply among students. Yet at schools where high-quality CTE is in place, truancy goes down and college-going rates rise.
And while CTE is often thought of as high school programming, ensuring that students are prepared for high-quality, rigorous, work-based learning experiences starts much earlier. The basic building blocks of literacy and numeracy skills students need to access this learning must be foundational, but it doesn’t need to be disconnected. Importantly, students engaging in high-quality career awareness and exposure earlier on in elementary and middle school grades benefit from the connections to business and civic leaders in their communities and the relevance that occurs when the classroom becomes a place where reading, writing, and math come to life.
In Colorado, we’ve learned a great deal about what makes CTE work well—for students, employers, and school systems. We’ve extracted five key steps to building world-class programs: understand your supply and demand; create multiple pathways into postsecondary and career; come to the table as a collaborator; reimagine how you define and measure success; and empower students to realize their potential. All of these are scalable throughout American communities. And I’ll expound on each in a future article. Stay tuned.
“On strike for our students.” “Our kids deserve more.” So say the picket-line placards of teachers’ unions. The message is clear: Supporting the unions and their demands also helps students. But how true is this?
An analysis by economists Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willén calls into question whether teacher unionization benefits students in the long run. They study the adult outcomes of children exposed to changes in state laws from 1960 to 1990 that encouraged union formation and collective bargaining. With enactment of “duty-to-bargain” statutes, most states began requiring school districts to negotiate with unions over wages, hours, and working conditions. Wisconsin was out the gate first with a duty-to-bargain law in 1960, and Nebraska was last in 1987; seventeen states have not passed such a law.
To undertake the study, Lovenheim and Willén use employment data of thirty-five- to forty-nine-year-olds in the 2005–12 American Community Survey (ACS). They rely on information about adults’ age and state of birth to determine the number of years they would have been exposed to duty-to-bargain laws during their K–12 school years (if at all). To isolate the impact of collective bargaining, researchers compare the differences in the outcomes of students from the same state (before and after duty-to-bargain) to differences in the outcomes of those educated in non-bargaining states over this period. This method helps control for states’ demographic and economic trends, and they also account for a few major policy changes that occurred during this period, such as school finance reforms. They also perform analyses under varying assumptions about interstate mobility during individuals’ school years, and conclude that “any [statistical] bias from post-birth mobility is small.” “Taken together,” the authors claim, “these results provide extensive evidence that supports the causal interpretation of our estimates.”
The results are not pretty, for males specifically. For men exposed to ten years of schooling under duty-to-bargain laws, the study finds significant reductions in adult wages of $2,134 per year. In relation to the average annual salary of men in the ACS data set of $54,296, this represents an earnings loss of 3.9 percent. The wage losses are especially acute for African American and Hispanic males who lose on average $3,246 per annum, equivalent to a 9.4 percent loss relative to the average African American or Hispanic male’s salary. Troubling also are findings that collective bargaining led to fewer work hours per week, which the analysts tie to lower labor market participation rates. Men who were partly exposed to collective bargaining—for instance, their state enacted changes when in fifth grade—also had depressed annual wages, though of smaller size. For example, the wage loss for males exposed to five years of duty-to-bargain laws was $1,729 per year. Thankfully, the analysts found no long-run impacts on females; they also found no clear effects of collective bargaining on high school completion.
Why the negative labor-market outcomes among males? It’s hard to be sure, especially in absence of state exam data during this period. But the research suggests that collective bargaining may have resulted in lower non-cognitive outcomes among male pupils. Based on an analysis of the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which includes data about young people’s sense of self-esteem, locus of control, and more, Lovenheim and Willén conclude, “We see consistent evidence that exposure to a collective bargaining law negatively impacts non-cognitive scores among men.”
This study finds that teacher unionization and collective bargaining dimmed the earnings power of one generation of male students. Perhaps things are different today as states have stronger accountability mechanisms than during the era of this study. But the findings do remind us that we should at least eye the political messages of teachers’ unions with greater skepticism.
SOURCE: Michael F. Lovenheim and Alexander Willén, “The Long-run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy (forthcoming). An open-access version of the paper is available here, and a summary was also published in Education Next
We here at Fordham love a good school rating system, and one of the most popular independent rating platforms is GreatSchools. Once a California-specific hub for school quality information, GreatSchools went national in 2003 and now provides ratings for over 100,000 public schools around the country. At its best, access to clear, intuitive information about local schools allows families to make better decisions about where to educate their children. But a new study from Duke University’s Sharique Hasan and the University of Florida’s Anuj Kumar highlights one potentially negative consequence of this information boom: The availability of school ratings appears to coincide with greater financial and racial inequalities between zip codes.
GreatSchools expanded regional availability of its ratings slowly between 2003 and 2012, allowing Hasan and Kumar to compare otherwise-similar zip codes before and after the change (to follow trends, their analysis extends through 2015). They tracked several variables in each zip code, including housing prices from Zillow.com, annual household income from the IRS, and regional racial and ethnic composition from the Census Bureau. GreatSchools itself uses a 1–10 school rating scale overall, once based only on test scores and now incorporating a variety of factors like attendance and advanced course-taking, but to compare schools with GreatSchools ratings to schools without, the researchers also collected state math test scores.
They find that the availability of GreatSchools ratings accelerates the divergence between zip codes in home prices, annual income, and racial composition. Among zips with comparably high-performing schools, those with available ratings saw an additional 3.5 percent increase in housing costs. When Hasan and Kumar compared high- and low-performing zip codes, they found that the introduction of ratings caused an additional $9,000 of divergence in home prices and an additional 1.6 percent increase in the share of wealthy families. In general, only after school ratings became available did divergences between academically similar zips start to appear.
Additionally, zip codes with high-performing schools and available ratings saw increased migration into their boundaries and a greater number of residents staying put. Likely as a result, these zips also saw a change in racial and ethnic composition, with an additional jump in the share of white and Asian residents, a minor drop in the share of black residents, and a significant drop in the share of Hispanic residents.
In short, the authors say, “access to school performance ratings appeared to accelerate, rather than reduce, economic divergence across zip-codes in the U.S.”
This is likely because, while the ratings themselves are free for anyone to view online, “affluent and well-educated families are simply in a better position to act on [them],” according to an article on The 74. Not every parent has the means to change their address at all, much less to move into a better-rated school district. Put another way, school ratings are in some sense achieving their stated purpose, enabling families to learn about better schools—but divergences appear when only a select group can actually choose to enroll in those schools.
More research is needed into the effects of widely-available school ratings, especially now that many state ESSA plans include similar school grading systems. GreatSchools did not select their represented zip codes at random, which may have led to slightly skewed results in Hasan and Kumar’s study, and zip codes themselves can be fairly large and unaligned with school district boundaries. Moreover, as test scores alone are often connected to family income, the demonstrated economic divergence reminds us of the importance of including student academic growth scores in a school’s overall rating (something not all states are doing). Fortunately, GreatSchools has recently done exactly that—and time will tell how these more comprehensive ratings affect communities, families, and students themselves.
SOURCE: Sharique Hasan and Anuj Kumar, “Digitization and Divergence: Online School Ratings and Segregation in America” (October 2018).
The Education Gadfly Show: Philadelphia’s brotherly love between charter, district, and parochial schools
On this week’s podcast, Mark Gleason, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, joins Mike Petrilli to discuss the burgeoning, and surprisingly collaborative, school choice scene in the nation’s sixth largest city. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines whether smarter teachers make smarter students.
Amber’s Research Minute
Eric A. Hanushek et al., “Do Smarter Teachers Make Smarter Students? International Evidence on Teacher Cognitive Skills and Student Performance,” Education Next (Spring 2019).