Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Median NFL Player and the Lockout

Hank Koebler of the Huffington Post disputes the assertion that NFL players are overpaid and greedy.  He does so by examining median salaries and median playing careers, which are $770,000 and 3.5 years, respectively.  After taxing out taxes and agent fees, that salary works out to just under $50,000 for 22 years. (The figure is amortized to see how many years an NFL players earned the median US salary.)

Not all NFL players are Peyton Manning, but the math described above doesn't really seem to work.  Just think:  in working for only 3.5 years, a median NFL player can earn the median US salary for over two decades, which places them in a much better position than the median US worker.  I'm not sure that makes the point Koebler thinks it does.  He seems to argue that because the bottom half of NFL players aren't financially secure for life as a result of a few year swing through the NFL, they players are just like you and me.  They aren't.

Friday, July 22, 2011

NY Times Room For Debate on Law Schools

The NY Times features "The Case Against Law School" in the Room For Debate section today.  I've included this link as a follow up to a previous post of mine that seems to have attracted an unusually high number of views.  Included in the Times piece are David Van Zandt, former dean of Northwestern Law and current president of the New School, and David Lat, who writes Above the Law.  Also featured are law professors from Syracuse, Hofstra, the University of Chicago, and Wisconsin.

There are a number of defenders of the current system, including Geoffrey R. Stone of UChicago, who claims it's not possible to fit legal education into a shorter, more cost effective timeframe.  I haven't gone to law school, but I'm inclined to disagree with Kevin Noble Maillard of Syracuse University, who says law school emphasize educated citizenship.  That's ridiculous.  Lawyers certainly don't monopolize educated citizenship and would-be educated citizens are probably better off reading the newspapers than legal textbooks.  If incoming law students ranked their goals for their legal education, I'm not sure becoming a more educated citizen would make the top five or top ten.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Relay School of Education Looks to Reform Teacher Training

The Relay School of Education, borne out of Teacher U via collaboration between KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First, is training young teachers in revolutionary ways, according to this NY Times article. Teachers in degree programs incorporate their students' academic progress into their graduate studies - students must reach a certain threshold of growth for teachers to earn their degree.  Other education schools in the area, including CUNY, objected to its establishment.  The schools has earned funding from the Robin Hood Foundation and hopes that the AmeriCorps stipends Teach For America teachers receive will make the program affordable.

Lin Goodwin of Teachers College and Jerrold Ross St. John's have concerns about the program.  However, the school is an early adopter of what will become a state-wide practice - it will not be until 2013 that New York State requires all graduate students in education to demonstrate student growth to earn their credentials.

National Council on Teacher Quality Finds Flaws in Student Teaching Programs

The National Council on Teacher Quality recently rated over 100 teacher preparation schools and concluded that three-fourths did not meet expectations for student teaching.  The report has generated controversy amongst officials, who remain skeptical of the methodology used to evaluate and grade programs.  The Times reports on the issue here.

Bronx Charter School Illegally Reviewed Applicant Files to Determine Admission

Academic Leadership Charter School is under city investigation for allegedly reviewing the academic files of students applying for a seat in the school.  Students in charter schools are supposed to be picked randomly by lottery without an examination of their prior records.  Several former teachers and a number of parents told investigators stories of school officials reviewing files and weeding out weak performing applicants to deny them admission.  Norma Figueroa-Hurwitz, the current principal, saw success while running Public School 83 and Sisulu-Walker Charter School.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Teach For America Corps Members Implicated in Atlanta Cheating Scandal

Per 11 Alive in Atlanta, Teach For America corps members are among the teachers guilty of cheating in Atlanta schools.  Three teachers confessed and it seems there are others who may be identified.  Kwame Griffith, the Executive Director of Teach For America Atlanta called the teachers' actions "unacceptable."

Hat tip @BobSikes

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Another Perspective on the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

Kevin Carey of The New Republic writes that perhaps the Atlanta cheating scandal shouldn't just be blamed on standardized testing.  After all, teachers are choosing to act inappropriately.  In other industries, we don't blame the entire system for the actions of a small minority of individuals.  Excerpts below.

TO BE SURE, people (and teachers) will succumb to dishonesty. They cheat on their taxes, spouses, and golf partners. Cheating corrodes trust in all things, especially education. Students whose test scores are manipulated upward don’t the get the extra attention they need. And, since teachers are increasingly being evaluated by how much their students’ test scores improve, a teacher who inflates scores could potentially cost her colleagues in the next grade of their job performance.
But cheating also means that public schools finally care enough about student performance that some ethically challenged educators have chosen to cheat. This is far better than the alternative, where learning is so incidental and non-transparent that people of low character can’t be bothered to lie about it. Blaming cheating on the test amounts to infantilizing teachers, moving teaching 180 degrees away from the kind of professionalization that teacher advocates often profess to support.
Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that cheating scandals tend to erupt in municipalities whose public institutions suffer from corruption. 

Teach For America Alumni - Return to Teaching! (Or Just Stay)

Something that I wonder about is why so many teachers - good teachers - leave the classroom so soon into their teaching career.  I see great classroom teachers who feel the only next step is to move on to something else, and I wrote briefly about how Teach For America recruits its outgoing corps members extensively and what some studies have indicated about teacher attrition.  Many of the successful teachers in programs like Teach For America or various teaching fellows programs actually join the staff of those programs after teaching for two years.  I was fortunate enough to have interviews with a number of well-known charter schools in New York after I decided I wanted to return home and teach.  All of the recruitment team members I met were Teach For America alumni who taught for two years, were successful, and obviously feel enough passion for education that they continue working for schools.  But they left the classroom for non-teaching positions.  Why?

Part of the reason must be that that teaching is hard.  I haven't worked as in recruitment, but without weekend grading, early evening phone calls to parents, lessons plans, observations, and everything else that comes with teaching, I suspect it's less hectic that working in a classroom.  There aren't chronic misbehavior problems to deal with, and I don't think it's a job where you get cursed out with any regularity.

Teach For America also doesn't set up alumni to stay in teaching as well as they could.  Understandably, their focus is on placing their incoming corps members.  But Teach For America teachers are at their most effective just as the majority of them are looking to leave teaching, and the national movement of Teach For America would be positively impacted by having more experienced TFA teachers in the classroom.  Students would be hugely better off.  Maybe keeping 10% more rising third year teachers in the classroom would mean Teach For America has to reduce the size of the incoming corps by 8-9%, but such a move would put better teachers in front of students, increase the impact corps members have on children, and better prepare teachers for an eventual transition into non-teaching positions in education.  Surely the teaching force in cities with corps members would be strengthened by such a move.

When I first met my program director, we talked about what our relationship would look like.  They explained to me that they chose to work as a PD because they felt that doing so would allow them to have a greater impact because they would be affecting many more children.  I feel like that overstates the impact PDs have on students, and sounds more like a post-hoc justification than a driving factor for leaving teaching.  We need great teachers in the classroom and in schools (some schools brilliantly have members of their administration teach a class) where they directly touch the lives of students.

Finally, it seems a little disingenuous to hear a recruiter discuss how much they love teaching, their students, and the work their school is doing when they so recently left that role.  I'm in no position to make somebody else's life plans, but I found it a bit off-putting to be told how great teaching at a particular school was was by someone who just jumped ship.  I almost feel like having a group of people say "You know, I left the classroom because it was so difficult/tiring/frustrating..." would open up a useful conversation about what it takes to make turning into a lengthy and fruitful career.  Part of that useful conversation could very well be a study of how effectiveness would be impacted by having greater support for corps members from mentors, staff, and veteran teachers or through changing the institute framework to better prepare teachers for their placements.  And keeping great people in the classroom with our students would make it all a worthwhile endeavor.  (I don't mean to suggest everyone who leaves the classroom thinks those things or feels that way.  I'm speaking for a decently-sized sample of people, the exact size of which I can't determine.  Majority?  Plurality?  Minority? Not sure - but perhaps others can weigh in.)

I can't be alone in thinking along those lines, am I?  I'm interested in hearing from teachers, especially Teach For America alumni and staff and veteran teachers, who have seen this sort of thing firsthand.  And, of course, sometimes we need an outsider to tell us what we're missing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Washington Post Roundtable on Cheating

"You are what you measure", according to a Washington Post article from a leadership roundtable on education.  Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor from Duke, argues that by measuring a particular statistic and including it in employee evaluation, employees will devote a disproportional amount of their effort to maximizing that measure.  His analysis from the corporate word seems to support this.

Steven Pearlson writes that based on the actions of other employees across a whole host of sectors, we shouldn't be surprised to find teachers cheating.  His solution is to punish the offenders so as to deter others from engaging in similar behavior.  Certainly that's true, but I hope there can be structural changes to reduce cheating because it impacts not only data and things that matter to adults but also the futures of children.  Cheating has consequences for kids, and actively minimizing such dishonesty requires a multi-pronged approach.

Charter Schools Use City Funds to House Schools at NYCHA Locations

Space for schools in New York City is limited, so some charter schools are turning to to the New York City Housing Authority for help.  While some schools have run into challenges as they try to share space with traditional public schools, others like the Harlem Children's Zone have paid seven figure sums to the NYCHA to develop unused space for new schools.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this setup is the NYCHA itself.  Struggling for funds, it is now able to convert some of its holdings into cash and benefit residents.  Still, some have argued that the charters that are setting up new schools do not need additional space, and are funding their building projects with city-supported funds that are not available to traditional public schools.  Critics accuse the Bloomberg administration of playing politics with school funds, and ignoring the many public schools where overcrowding is a problem.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reevaluating Collective Bargaining Agreements to Benefit Students and Teachers

The School Turnaround Group has published a guide to reevaluating collective bargaining agreements in failing schools to facilitate increased student achievement.  They identify four reasons changing existing agreements is important - they claim that CBAs...

1.  Restrict a school's decision-making abilities with respect to human capital.  (Hiring is taken out of their hands, and evaluation systems don't allow for staffing changes when necessary.)
2.  Prevent schools from setting up classroom structures that respond directly to their needs.
3.  Makes teacher performance a secondary consideration to teacher's years of employment.
4.  Rob schools and teachers of valuable time and money due to lengthy arbitration provisions.

The report seeks changes in a variety of areas, including:

1.  Focusing staffing decision on effectiveness, not seniority; evaluating all teachers each year; and using student outcomes as part of the evaluation process.
2.  Allowing schools to give financial incentives to high-performing teachers based on their successes and reward results rather than years in the district.
3.  Increasing student learning time and giving schools the ability to create a schedule that addresses their needs.
4.  Making instructional decisions at the building level and utilizing data in creating staff professional development programs.

I'm a firm believer that student results should play a part in a teacher's evaluation.  Students need the most effective teachers, not the longest-tenured ones.  And unions ought to agree as well - if experienced educators are better than newcomers, their data should reflect that.  I do not, however, think student data should be the entirety of a teacher's evaluation.  There are too many variables that determine the gains students make, and a teacher is only one of them.  Take the same teacher and put them in two different classes, two different schools, and you get very different results.  As someone who has experience in a traditional public school and a well-run charter school, I have seen this firsthand.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that teachers should be protected from the whims of an administration that may not like them.  I don't think this is often a problem, but during my first year teaching the best teacher on my floor did not have a great relationship with some members of our administration.  I don't know if that would endanger her job, but I could see where in some cases it could be a concern.  The solution lies, and the report mentions this, in creating an evaluation system that does not consist of just going through the motions of an observation.  This may mean more frequent observations, somewhat regular conferences, and more rating options than satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  Teachers should be paired with mentors for meaningful development opportunities, and should be able to observe their peers to learn best practices as frequently as they wish.  But this means changing the way teachers are hired, employed, and, if needed, let go from their positions.

I think some of the report's recommendations with respect to money are good while others aren't.  One thing that's absolutely necessary is compensation for meeting attendance goals.  I know, I know, teachers shouldn't need additional funding to be at work.  But the difference between 95% teacher attendance and 99% teacher attendance is a big one and in my former district a teacher had twelve days per year they could use as needed - and older teachers had many more, as they rolled over from year to year.  The district paid teachers for unused sick and personal days when they left the district for any reason - at a rate of a few cents on the dollar.  When dozens of teachers were told they were not going to be rehired, attendance took a hit.  This structural issue could be fixed by providing a bonus (even a modest one) for reaching a specific attendance goal.  Teachers aren't necessarily doing something wrong by using the days off they're allowed in their contract, but if there were incentives for teachers to not use the days they're allocated, schools would be better off.

I'm hesitant to support giving schools greater autonomy over their budgets.  There's potential for misuse, and I think a school needs to demonstrate financial acuity before expanding their control over budgets.

I do think the way teachers are employed by districts needs to change for there to be meaningful, system-wide improvement.  The current system has failed for decades and isn't working - ask anyone who has stepped into a large number of urban classrooms.  Reforms like these would be a meaningful step toward setting teachers up to succeed.

20-Somethings Moving in With Parents

Brilliant post in the Times' opinion section written by a handful of unemployed recent graduates.  40% of 20-somethings move back in with their parents.  As many have said before, finding a job is no picnic in this economy, even for well-heeled college graduates, as the writers appear to be.

A Generation of Debt Repayment

The Scotsman, a British newspaper, features an article discussing the era of debt repayment in Europe.  Tom Friedman's op-ed discusses the upcoming clash of generations, as the baby boomer generation continues to enjoy the relative comforts available today while future generations are left to service debt.

Countless government programs have made people's lives easier and more comfortable over the past 70 years.  We've built roads, provided health care and income to people in need, supported children's education and health, set up mechanisms to support Americans in their retirement, promoted investment in new industries, encouraged homeownership among groups that haven't traditionally been homeowners, and fought a number of expensive wars.  And some of it we've paid for along the way, and much of it we haven't.  And in the coming generation, that money will have to be repaid - which is going to make sustaining the types of programs Americans are used to (and, many would argue, need) at the same time is going to be very difficult.  As a young person, it's demoralizing the think about the fact that my generation will help fund the expenditures that were racked up without much attention to their cost, and at the same time try to fund our own lives.

If money is being diverted to servicing debt, we aren't going to be able to buy as many things.  A bit less consumerism is probably a good think for individuals, but it's going to drastically alter the way the economy functions and produces jobs.  There's already evidence of that - big purchases like cars and overs are down substantially from a decade ago, and per capita consumer spending has decreased by more than twice the maximum previous percentage in any recession, and it doesn't show any signs of turning around.  The employment situation for 20somethings isn't good - even traditionally lucrative fields like law are suffering (see the comments as well).

What needs to happen to snap out of this funk?  An economist I'm not, but working to reduce long term debt obligations while maintaining government programs in the present seems like a wise start.  We can't afford to drastically curtail government spending right now, but we have to in the long run.  A substantial  part of a long-term strategy needs to include spending cuts for defense (an industry that appears to be concerned about the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars).  I know defense spending can be good for constituents, but the goals of our defense policy shouldn't include financing high-paying private sector jobs.  I realize that education is a large cost for this country, but how is it possible that so many people are rallying for cuts in schools (and sneer that teachers, who only work ten months a year, are overpaid) while so few pay attention to the things that really put a dent in our wallet?

Atlanta Schools Cheating Details

The AP provides details of exactly how cheating in Atlanta schools occurred.  Teachers actively changed students' wrong answers to right ones, and also sat struggling students next to their high-scoring peers so they could copy answers.  172 teachers were identified in a report on the matter, and 82 have admitted their guilt.  They may face a variety of charges.

The article quotes teachers describing the intimidation they faced from principals who threatened their job security.  It's clear that there was incredible pressure from school administrators to raise student scores, regardless of how far behind students were when the year began.  And now it seems the district may have to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars earned for good test scores at a time when funds were short to begin with.

It's disheartening to think that faced with thousands of struggling students in a huge urban school district in a major city with millions of people, educators put all their heads together, used the wisdom of their professional experiences and all of their schooling, took advantage of whatever resources they had access to and decided the best way to bring scores up would be... to hope everyone cheated off the smart kids and to rebubble the tests of the kids who didn't.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

New York Law School Rakes In Dollars While Students Flounder

Legal news seems to be hitting the mainstream; this article in the Times is follows up nicely to my post from several days ago about law schools.

The article confirms the anecdotes I've heard from my former college classmates who have entered law school:  schools are focused on increasing their rank in US News and World Report instead of teaching or finding jobs for students.  Part of this focus involves deceiving would-be students about their prospects for employment following graduation.  Stories like this, combined with stories like this, make me wonder if investment bankers are the ones running schools.

Richard Matasar is the dean of New York Law School (which, for the record, is not New York University Law School).  He's long claimed that schools that don't serve their graduates' interests should shut themselves down - since, of course, the objectives of a law school are to prepare its students to become lawyers.  That makes sense to me.  I'll excerpt some relevant quotes, but the entire article is worth reading.

N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800  a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.

[I teach math, so I think I can tackle this: If most graduates earn less than half the reported median salary... someone's made a mistake in the reporting.)

Asked if there was a contradiction between his stand against expanding class sizes and the growth of the student population at N.Y.L.S., Mr. Matasar wrote: “The answer is that we exist in a market. When there is demand for education, we, like other law schools, respond.”

[Shouldn't law schools be leading students, not following them?]

The article outlines how the school increased the number of students who enrolled and earned an extra $6.7 million, while only adding costs of about $500,000.  Law schools are so profitable that some of them send 20-30% of their revenue to other parts of the university to subsidize less profitable departments (not NYLS, which is an independent school).  NYLS's enrollment allowed the school to improve its bond rating for an upcoming building project; some argue that adding more students to the class makes it tougher for graduates to get the few legal jobs available.  See below:

“At a school like New York Law, which is toward the bottom of the pecking order, it’s long been difficult for our students to find high-paying jobs,” said Randolph N. Jonakait, a professor at N.Y.L.S. and a frequent critic of Mr. Matasar’s. “Adding more than 100 students to an incoming class harms their employments prospects. It’s always been tough for our graduates. Now it’s tougher.”

The article states clearly, as others have done, that law schools overstate their employment numbers and make impressive claims ($160,000 salary!) with a lot of data missing (only 26% reporting).  How is it that schools of all types feel that they can review important statistics, disregard the ones they dislike, and promote a farcical version of the truth?  It's upsetting when teachers in Atlanta or Philadelphia change students' answer keys, it's embarrassing that there are countless degree programs from for-profit colleges that leave graduates with no job prospects and huge debt, and it's shocking that law schools seem to be doing something similar.  While they're not outright lying, they set the bar for ethics and disclosure lower than I'm comfortable with.

I'm not sure how many readers have experience with this side of the education world, but if you do, let us know about it in the comments.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Food Vendors on the Streets of New York City

The number of people who blog about their experience in education/politics/nonprofits/whatever is huge.  And it's a bit boring.  I want to infuse my blog with something more amusing every now and then.  This is the first time I'm doing so, but I hope to have a similar post covering something amusing once or twice a week.  You can find them by searching the tag "extracurriculars" below.  As an aside, feel free to subscribe to my blog and get updates whenever there's a new post.  Follow me on Twitter - my most recent Tweets should be on the top right of this page.  And finally, if you'd like to write a guest post, leave a comment or send me an email.

Zach Brooks writes in the New York Times about the proliferation of street vendors in Midtown Manhattan and the recent push to clean up what has become a very disorganized industry (I use that term quite loosely).  His regular website is here, and if you're from New York, you'll know exactly what he's talking about.  If you've visited, you'll get to learn more, and if you've never been, you'll have a small idea of the many things you're missing.  What's great about New York is that if you feel the need to spend $500 on dinner, there are places for that (some that I know of, none that I've been to), and if you feel the need to spend $5 on dinner, there are places for that (this is more in my wheelhouse).  As ashamed as I am to admit it, I love the roasted nuts (the ones you can get from basically any vendor) and what must be one of many kebab vendors on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  Food recommendations are always welcome.

Five Percent of DC Teachers Fired

Just over 200 teachers in the DC school system were released for performance reasons.  The evaluation mechanism set up by former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, known as IMPACT, measures teachers based on the results of classroom observations, compliance with nine teaching strands, and standardized test results.

206 teachers were fired in all, 65 of whom were rated ineffective and 141 of whom were rated marginally effective for the second consecutive year.  (For comparison, last year 72 teachers were judged to be ineffective.)  663 teachers were rated highly effective, and may receive bonuses of up to $25,000.  Because the design of evaluation systems is not covered by collective bargaining agreement, Rhee was able to reform teacher evaluations during her time as Chancellor.  Around 70% of teachers are rated effective, though the union claims the evaluations do not offer development opportunities and are simply a mechanism to push older teachers out of the classroom.

Teach For America Placement in Memphis

Memphis schools are in the process of laying off teachers - including veterans and four from Teach For America.  New hires were to be restricted to placement in only four schools (the lowest performing schools in the district, per the article) - I'll return to that later.  The superintendent anticipated having over 500 job openings for this fall, but ended up with fewer than 200, meaning 60 out of 100 2011 Teach For America corps members who were to be in the district are still unplaced.  The placement landscape looks somewhat bleak, but if you're a 2011 corps member in Memphis (or elsewhere) I'd love for you to comment and update others on what the latest information is.  I wrote a post that can be found here about my experience with placement, and as I said, the process is a fickle one and can shift quickly.  If I had to guess, I would guess that TFA may try to place teachers in the surrounding area or in charters to make up for the decreased demand from Memphis schools.

Something that concerns me each year is that each corps gets larger and larger while teaching positions get harder and harder to secure.  I know of people who have gone unplaced and had to take the emergency release, which means that they packed their bags and moved home - in essence, setting themselves back a year in their professional development.  Overestimating open positions by more than 300 is definitely surprising, and now there appears to be a number of corps members who are currently at institute with a lot of job uncertainty.

Finally, I want to return to the fact that the union negotiated an agreement that new hires would be hired only in the city's four lowest-performing schools.  That's just... frightening.  Unions argue (vehemently) that more senior teachers are more effective, and by sequestering themselves in the more manageable schools in the city, the union's members are protecting themselves from having to teacher where they're most needed, essentially saying "We give up on those students - our members don't want to teach there."  This setup prevents young teachers from building relationships and learning from veterans and seems likely to foster an us-versus-them mentality that can't be a good work environment.  Wow.

LA Officials Vote Against Two Charter Schools

The LA Times reports that two charter schools may close because a principal accused of cheating was working for an organization hired by the schools, despite an order that no such individuals be permitted to work for Crescendo or Celebrity charter.

In March, there were allegations that the executive director and founder of Crescendo, John Allen, ordered teachers and principals to use actual test questions to prep students.  Two teachers claim they were suspended after bringing the incident to light.

Incidents like these demonstrate the high pressure on schools to increase test scores.  Instead of teaching effectively and trusting that students will learn enough from their teachers to show growth on exams, schools try to wring every possible test point out of students - and then some.  Test taking is an important skill - in my old district, students who wanted to enter our district's college prep high school or enter a local scholarship program that offered generous financial aid for college had to take a certain test.  In helping students through the process of demonstrating their knowledge on those tests, I made sure their test results accurately reflected their knowledge.  But increasing test scores isn't, and shouldn't be, the sole goal of any teacher's class.  The goal should be to promote learning and critical thinking skills; the score increases will be incidental.

Schools often make decisions about which students should get remediation or be placed in certain groups based on test scores.  Depriving a student the right of a fair assessment of their abilities can prevent them from getting the services they need to be successful.  It also makes it impossible to accurately gauge the effectiveness of subsequent teachers, because there is little basis for honest comparison.  And finally, these practices reflect a lack of faith in the teachers at a given school.  If a principal (or other administrator, or other teacher) feels that they need to engage in these practices to demonstrate learning in their school, I wouldn't want to work there as a teacher or send my child there as a parent.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Law School Lawsuits

I'm neither a lawyer nor a law school administrator, but recent issues in legal education have brought the spotlight of the mainstream media to law campuses around the country.  This post regarding Thomas M. Cooley Law School links to lawsuits the school has filed against posters who allegedly wrote about the school in a negative manner on a number of websites.  At least some of the posters claimed to be students at the school.  There has been widespread attention on the students at elite law schools who struggle to get jobs, the graduates who are unable to payoff their astronomical student loans, and the schools which give generous scholarships that are almost mathematically impossible to keep.  Given that many law schools appear to be misrepresenting the employability of their graduates in order to convince prospective law students that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education at their school is a good investment, it's unsurprising that there may be government investigations on the horizon.  I'll keep an eye on the developments described in the first link, and as always, invite comments from people who know more than I do.

Going to professional school is expensive; time-consuming; and, it seems, risky.  With many highly-educated, well-credentialed people having trouble finding work, what will happen to the students who today are in middle schools or high schools?  As Thomas Friedman says, the focus on technology, skills, and efficiency means "It's not your parents' job market."

No kidding.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

National Council on Teacher Quality responds to the NEA

The National Council on Teacher Quality reacts to the NEA opposing TFA.  The NEA claimed TFA is often used to reduce teacher costs, but the NCTQ responds that if TFA teachers are paid standard wages and benefits, savings would be marginal.  (As an aside, many unions are outraged that districts pay TFA for each teacher placed, claiming that's wasted money.  Well, which is it?  Is TFA bad because their teachers are more expensive or bad because their teachers are less expensive?  You can't argue both.)

Other NCTQ musings:

The number of TFA teachers across the country is so small that their impact is unlikely to alter unions.
95% of corps members' principals viewed them as effective as other beginning teachers coming from traditional certification programs.
While the NEA claims programs like TFA lower the standards for entry into teaching, it's clear that's just not true.

In my experience, many teachers are misinformed about Teach For America.  In my second year at my placement school, I had teachers who thought that Teach For America paid for my housing expenses, that the school district didn't pay me, and that all Teach For America teachers were told not to join the local union.  All untrue (though I wish the first one were reality!).  In fact, the majority of my Teach For America friends who taught in my school district were union members.  In our schools we were regular teachers.  The divide between traditionally trained teachers and teachers who come through alternative programs (TFA, various teaching fellows programs) isn't there.  All answer to the same people and work for the same cause.

NYC Graduation Rates and College Readiness

Very interesting post about graduation rates in New York.

Students who were incoming freshmen in 2006 had a 61% graduation rate in 2010, which is a substantial increase from previous years.  The extent to which this is due to easy Regents exams and credit recovery is unknown, but a topic for discussion.

4% of the class of 2010 graduated by August of that year.  The additional time is useful for ELL students, whose five year graduation rate is thirteen percentage points higher than their four year graduation rate.

ELL graduation rates have doubled from 2006, though students with disabilities still struggle.

The achievement gap in New York City is twice as big as it is in other cities.  The graduation rate gap between white and blacks and white and hispanics is approximately 20%.  Other cities in New York State have much smaller gaps.

Charter school graduation rates are up but below city-wide graduation rates.

With a graduation rate of 61% and a college readiness rate of 21%, there are many, many things wrong with education in the city.  40% of students are graduating but aren't college ready, which says something about the rigor of Regents exams and the use of credit recovery tools.

KIPP Leadership

Per the Washington Post, KIPP founders Levin and Feinberg are transitioning to focus on big picture issues in education.  Levin will spend some time working with the Relay School of Education, a partnership created by KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools.  The creation of an education school focused on urban education and populated by staff members from some of the city's successful charter schools will be an interesting development.  I'm generally skeptical about most education programs, but I'll try to keep tabs on the Relay School to see if it benefits teachers and students.  The article outlines KIPP's aggressive expansion plans and fundraising targets, which have been revised since the financial crisis.

Teacher Attrition

After teachers at Opportunity Charter School wanted to unionize, they were berated by their school's leader.  Now, the union organizers are out of a job.  Thirteen pro-union teachers, including five who were part of a group that organized the union vote, were let go.  As charter school employees, their employment is at will and based on annual contracts.  Attrition at the school - both students and teachers - has been rising.

There are a number of directions to take in a discussion on this article, but I want to talk about teacher attrition.  (I don't mean to ignore the situation at Opportunity Charter.  There are likely legal questions to be raised, and as I'm not a lawyer, I'll refrain from adding my footsteps to what will be well-walked ground.)  Teacher attrition figures are included in city reports on individual schools, and colleagues of mine report that their schools actively try to recruit teachers who seem inclined to stay beyond a few years.  That's logical - it costs money to recruit new employees, and it takes time for new teachers to get up to speed in an unfamiliar system.  Experienced, effective teachers make meaningful contributions from Day 1 of the school year (and over the summer, as they tie the ending year into the beginning one).  I recall from my own experience beginning at my school that the first few weeks overload the senses and that it takes time to ramp up and become a contributor in an existing framework.

Naturally, high attrition rates suggest that something is amiss.  If a school is functioning well, fewer teachers will want to leave (though some may be let go for performance reasons).  If it isn't, the teachers who can get out will get out.  And teachers aren't generally leaving for financial reasons; a 2005 report indicates that teachers are leaving because they lack planning time, have too heavy a workload, and are frustrated with student behavior.  Some unsurprising findings regarding attrition and transfers:

1.  Attrition is 50% higher in poor schools than wealthy ones.
2.  "The best and brightest teachers are often the first to leave."
3.  Beginning teachers leave more frequently than experienced ones (perhaps because they are assigned lower performing students).
4.  New teachers who are mentored by an experienced teacher have more effective classrooms and lower attrition rates.
5.  Experienced teachers who mentor new teachers actually improve their own classrooms due to the nature of their work as mentors.
6.  Teacher attrition costs over $2 billion annually.

If I'm designing a school where I want to keep my best teachers from leaving, I take a few lessons from this.  I pair younger teachers with either full-time mentors (who have experience and successful classrooms) or master teachers.  I provide ample feedback that is focused on identifying areas for growth and the means to improve, and encourage new teachers to observe other teachers in action to see examples.  I provide more than sufficient planning time for teachers and streamline their schedules so that they teach 1-2 courses throughout the day instead of 3-5 different topics.  I make sure that I recruit people with the drive to push their students and the willingness to take feedback, and I may tend to favor hires with classroom experience.

I also want to apply this to Teach For America.  As an alumnus of Teach For America, I'm invested in the organization and want to help it continue to do good things for students and improve its practices.  Teach For America generally recruits staff members after their corps experience, and I think they would be well advised to try to recruit more candidates with 3-7 years of experience.  I know the have a pipeline of talent with two years of experience who are able and willing to join staff, but the study I linked to above has quantified what I have believed about the importance of mentors.  With experienced mentors, corps members would be better able to lead their classrooms and will be more likely to stay in the profession.  During my first year teacher, I had a great mentor teacher and a fantastic science teacher who taught just a few doors down from me.  I used them so much and I know that the insight they had due to their experience had a big impact on my year and my students' year.  We need more great teachers like them working with new teachers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

National Education Association

The New Republic reports on last week's NEA convention.  Offers a simple explanation of the development of testing in classrooms and the contradiction of unions extolling the skill and impact of their teachers as a whole (to justify protections and benefits) but downplaying the need to analyze the impact of individual teachers (protecting individual teachers for whom that analysis could be professionally damaging).

Innovation Schools Emerge in Massachusetts

In Boston, "innovation schools" are catching on.  Innovation schools are governed by school districts, but have control of staffing and instructional decisions.  The schools are expected to compete with charter schools for students, and keep students who would otherwise go to a charter school (and their government funds) in the district.  The teacher's union supports the move but doubts there is a difference in the quality of education provided by charter, innovation, and traditional schools.

With a longer school day and hiring authority, innovation schools seem like they should be a meaningful option.  Reviewing the data that come from the different types of schools across Boston will have interesting policy implications.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Teacher Education

I did not go through a traditional education program.  Should I have?  Here, it's argued that teacher education is a "low-status field in universities" with weak admissions standards.  The New America Foundation cites studies that suggest there is a relationship between teacher's verbal ability and student success and also a teacher's education and student success.  (As an aside, it makes sense to recruit teachers from among the top students at a diverse set of colleges.  This report confirms that doing so would be good for students.)  The report then gives examples of the low admissions standards for education schools, which is concerning because setting low standards for entrance to programs that don't prepare their students seems like a terrible path to funnel would-be teachers through.  Even though states are required to identify low-performing preparation programs, most states have never identified a single such program.  That's alarming.

Teacher experience and preparation are important.  But many classes are not relevant to the classroom, and teacher education programs do a poor job of attracting the best candidates to go into teaching.

It's also noteworthy that in 2009, 60,000 new teachers were hired through alternative certification programs.  Teach For America provides only a small number of those new hires, though the percentage may be higher in the current economy.

Cheating Schools

Incredible post by a teacher explaining why and how his school cheated.  Great level of detail.  Read it.  Given the situation in Atlanta and in other cities across the country, this is a timely discussion.

At an old school I worked at, one self-contained teacher told me that during our state test she stopped her students, explained how to do a problem, and then let them continue working.  It was the sort of thing where I almost didn't believe her because even if someone is inclined to cheat, I can't understand at all why you would mention it to coworkers.  It was truly bizarre.  I have no doubt that this type of thing happens more than we expect.

If it's happened to you, or at your school, I would be interested in hearing a comment from you.  I suspect other readers would be as well.

Harlem Success Academy 3

The Times reports on a charter school allegedly counseling out a young student whose behavior was a problem in class.

After reading the article, I would really like to see the message the principal sent to the parent that the parent "took as a veiled message to leave."  With all of the email quotes in the article, you would think at least a few lines from that message would be included.  Readers should be able to judge for themselves the tone of the email (which may make the author's point more compelling).  And to be perfectly honest, I'm just interested in seeing what one of those messages actually looks like.

The second page explains, using data, how charter schools serve fewer special education students and English language learners than traditional schools.  Based on percentages, Success 3 (the charter being discussed) has approximately half the percentage of special education and ELL students a comparable traditional public school has.  Which is certainly interesting, but those figures themselves can mean a variety of things.  While the article implies students in those categories are counseled out, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that fewer of those students actually enrolled in the charter.  Many of my students at a previous school were ELL students, and I know the unique challenges in working with that population.  I know of schools where there are no school officials who can communicate with parents in their native language, which means they have no way to communicate with those parents.  Needless to say, few of those children end up at such schools.  In a major city, the language barrier shouldn't shut children out of schools.  Nor should a lack of understanding of school options or a fear of drawing attention to one's family (which is often the case when someone in the family is undocumented).

It seems odd that the student discussed in the article left his school so quickly.  I support the mindset present at the top of the article's second page, where it's emphasized that both behavioral and academic skills are retaught to students.  Helping a student learn how to fit into a school's behavior system sets them up for success.  It can often be a long, tiresome process with each individual student.  And it seems like the school he was enrolled in worked to find him a new school rather quickly.  A school that was truly having success should be able to explain to parents the process of reteaching behavioral expectations and point to successes throughout their school.  And assuming, for the sake of argument, that a school did try to separate from students who weren't a fit, it should be an absolute last option to explore if and only if all other options have been pursued and given sufficient time to take effect.

Lastly, a few readers have reached out to me via comment or email.  I hope to follow up with a few of them this week.  If you have a blog, link me to it so I can read it and add it to the list of pages I keep up with.  You can also follow me on Twitter at NYCteacher99.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Detroit Accountability

Detroit union leader demands charter schools be held accountable, and argues that if a school has consistently poor scores, "it shouldn't remain open."  Isn't that the same argument that education reformers make about traditional public schools?  That if they don't succeed, they should be turned over, or closed, or drastically altered through some other means?  And isn't there visible frustration on the part of many teachers when those things are suggested?

If we're trying to determine what should happen to a floundering school, should it make a difference whether or not the school is a charter school or a traditional public school?

Doug Ross, at the end of the article, makes that point.  Students need good schools and it doesn't matter who governs them.  I do take issue with the solution he proposes in the last sentence.  While moving students from low performing schools to high performing schools will help some students, it won't solve all education's problems.  There are examples from around the country that demonstrate that.

Charter School Attrition

There's some interesting data here that takes a look at high schools beyond reported graduation rates.  I'll admit that I'm not an expert on calculating graduation rates, and the subject seems fairly complex.  But what the data indicate is that a school can claim 100% of seniors have graduated and claim that legitimately without that being the whole story.  But beneath the surface, it might be that the graduating class of 50 was actually a class of 100 when they were freshmen.  There are many reasons a student who entered as a freshman might not be there as a senior, and I don't want to speculate.  But this is aligned with anecdotes I've heard from friends of mine who teach at charter schools.  These teachers are concerned that students who most need successful schools are the ones being left behind because they are removed from the school for a variety of infractions.

On one hand this may show that there are students who are graduating from these schools and are getting a good education in a structured environment.  And if students are kicked out for failing to meet expectations, other students may be more likely to meet those expectations because they know there are consequences.  I don't take issue with a school's ability to discipline students as appropriate.

However, it goes without saying that a school operating under this model should see increasing test scores regardless of learning.  If problem students, who are more likely to struggle academically, are leaving at the end of each year, successful students will make up a growing percentage of the school's population.

So?  I don't know.  It means that graduation rates or proficiency rates, which are currently widely discussed in the media, should be viewed warily.  We should look for raw numbers.  Beyond that, look to compare apples to apples by studying the 9th and 10th grade results (for example) of students who spent both years in a given school.  That gives a more meaningful snapshot of the school's ability to teach students.

I want to go back to a question I asked previously.  How do schools reach the last 1% of students, who have serious problems with investment, behavior, and academic skills?  I've been thinking about alternative schools, because I knew a teacher who taught in one.  This teacher was randomly chosen, as were the others, to teach in this school.  They were given no additional resources.  Their administration had no particular experience in working with an alternative population.  It was, in this teacher's opinion, a holding area for students no other school put up with any longer.  So, from what I've seen (I have visited this school myself), alternative schools aren't hugely helpful.  Do any readers have experience in alternative schools?  Share anecdotes, positive and negative, if you're comfortable.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Teach For America to the Outside World

Interesting blog post regarding Teach For America teachers.  Respect and humility?

Often, how you say something is just as important as what you're saying.  And by often I mean just about always.

Teacher job loss

Newsday reports 1200 teaching jobs were lost in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, a New York City suburb.  The article cites labor economists as identifying education as the "next big employment crisis."  Reduced state funding and a cap on property taxes means the outlook isn't rosy.

Teacher Placement in LA

In this article from the LA Times, the author describes how teachers leave certain low-performing schools and cannot find jobs elsewhere because of the stigma of being associated with failing schools.  It's an interesting two way issue:  perhaps principals rightly pass on hiring teachers who were on the faculty of a failed school because they have concerns about their performance.  One principal said that despite interviewing many candidates, he did not find any teachers who seemed truly invested in their work.  He said all candidates seemed desperate for a job.  On the other hand, who's to say those candidates aren't well qualified?  Schools don't fail only because of bad teachers.  For many teachers, being moved to a more supportive environment where they are given the tools to succeed by their coworkers can make a huge difference.

Before I moved back to New York, I taught in an urban school district in another city.  I was told repeatedly by veteran teachers that if I wanted to job in another district in the area, particularly a suburban one, I would probably be better off leaving my experience in the district I worked in and trying to get hired as someone without experience.  While I never thought to actually do that, the fact that it seemed to be an advisable practice is something I find shocking.

What constitutes success?

An upcoming New York Times article discusses the no-excuses school movement here.  Advocates of certain low-income schools point out particular schools, many of which are charter schools, as models of success.  Critics point out that these schools have proficiency rates that are far below state averages and also their graduates"were below average in the basic academic skills necessary for success in college and in life".  School advocates countered that it's unfair (and, I'll assume, not useful from a data perspective) to compare students from low-income backgrounds and their more affluent peers in such a manner.

The article explains the situation clearly and I'll try to avoid making the author's points for him.  Towards the end of the article, however, he asks a tough question:

So why are some reformers resorting to excuses ? Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard. But it is not impossible, as reformers have repeatedly demonstrated on a small scale. To achieve systemwide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.

To shift strategies, we need to acknowledge the importance of several things.  First is the quality of education children receive.  Children need excellent teachers.  They also need their teachers to work under the leadership of dedicated administrators and district leaders who promote accountability.  Children need parents who are supportive and a positive force in their lives, and that means that schools and other groups should work toward equipping parents to empower their children.  One way schools can support this is by giving additional planning time to teachers so that teachers can reach out to parents.  Schools can also more effectively enforce their codes of conduct to incentivize positive behavior and give positive reinforcement to the students who need it most.

The article mentions small-scale success stories from the education reform movement.  It's going to be much easier to reach the first 1% of low-income students (who likely are talented, supported, and eager to learn) than the last 1% of students (who likely come from the most challenged of circumstances, and may have severe behavioral problems).  How do we reach the last 1% of students?  I'm interested in reading comments and offering my own thoughts once I formulate them.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teach For America placement

Teach For America rightfully earns mediocre marks for its ability to place first year corps members into schools in a timely manner.  Every year thousands of young people (and some not-so-young people) accept their Teach For America offers and wait eagerly for either a school assignment or interview opportunities.  And each year, a sizable percentage of corps members go to induction unplaced and are reassured that they will have jobs and will likely leave institute with a school assignment.  Many people fall into one of the following categories:  placed in a position during institute, placed in a position between the end of institute and the beginning of the school year, placed in a position after the start of the school year, and not placed in a position at all.  All four are problematic.

People who are placed during institute aren't in a particularly bad spot.  However, a placement before institute begins would allow for alignment between summer and fall placements.  And while good teaching is good teaching, and one can be successful without such alignment, it seems obvious that an elementary school teacher is best served with an elementary school institute experience.  It builds familiarity with content, with students, and allows teachers to try out strategies and receive immediate feedback from faculty advisors, CMAs, and others in a way that's just not possible during the year.

People placed after institute but before the school year suffer because they often have little time to plan - I know several teachers who were placed in schools within two or three days of classes beginning.  The challenges here are numerous: there's often little time for planning, you can't fully utilize your PD to get feedback (since you have so little time), and you have few opportunities to build a relationship with your school staff.  They may be unable to set up their classroom or find out the details of what they're teaching.  This stress and these challenges surely have a non-negligible effect on corps member satisfaction and effectiveness.  TFA tells corps members that Round 0 is an integral foundation for success during the academic year, and people placed in this timeframe by and large miss that boat.

One of the biggest challenges is being placed in a school after the year begins.  I was in this situation as a first year teacher.  I had to learn everything on the fly:  school procedures, teacher's names, what and to whom I'd be teaching.  I couldn't plan effectively for the first month because I struggled to identify my role in my school, and my PD had to deal with 35 beginning teachers and couldn't give me the attention I needed.  I also had to teach an entire course in a shortened timeframe, and obviously my not teaching on Day One meant I didn't have the impact I could have otherwise had.

Finally, there are some people who aren't placed at all.  Don't panic - it is not common.  When staff members say that they're confident you'll get placed, you should generally trust them.  They'll place 95%+ of corps members, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that people are not placed.  While there's not a lot you can do to get yourself placed, there are a few things that will maximize your chances of getting put in a school.  First, be a presence at your regional office.  If the school year's already started, visit the office daily to get some face time with your placement person.  I did this because I was scared our office would be okay with placing 96% of our corps, and I wanted to convey my enthusiasm and invest them in getting the last few people placed.  Was this necessary?  Probably not, but at least I felt like I was doing something.  I also wanted them to think of me and not somebody else when they found an opening.  Self-serving, I know, but I wanted to maximize my impact on my students, and I can only do that if I have a teaching job.  I also talked to placed corps members in my region and asked them to identify their school's needs.  Schools can be slow in communicating their needs to HR, but I knew two high schools that needed math teachers, and I brought those positions to the attention of the right TFA staff member.  Finally, I reached out to institute staff members, asking for advice and looking for tips.  Most staff members are involved in their region and have worked on staff before (there are many staff returnees each year), and they're valuable thought partners.

If you're not placed, don't panic!  Odds are you will be (placed, that is, not panicked).  I'll also say that because I didn't start teaching until well into the school year, I had no time to be nervous.  I also really appreciated my students and placement, and because I entered a classroom without a teacher, I knew I was at a school that truly needed me.  I am rarely a person who says that everything happens for a reason, but I think my late placement helped me have a better year.

The goal of this post is twofold.  First, I want corps members who are currently unplaced to know that their situation isn't uncommon and will likely work out.  I want them to know from my experience that it's possible to be late placed and still have a great year.  My second purpose is to address the fourth scenario I described above:  teachers who aren't placed.  This happens more than it should, because in my mind it shouldn't happen at all.  It's wrong to bring a person to a new city, tell them to lease an apartment, enroll in graduate classes, and start training without being certain they'll have a job.  An inability to count job openings doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence.  And while the organization says that these corps members can defer for a year and rejoin the next year's corps, few people in TFA's age bracket can put their lives on hold without employment only to go through the same process next year.

If I were a higher-up in TFA I would suggest the following:  avoid aggressively increasing the corps size.  This would reduce instances of unplaced corps members and would allow for a reallocation of resources to training and support.  A slightly smaller corps of more effective teachers would help improve thousands of corps member classrooms and truly build a group of teachers who are well-suited for success on their first day.  It would also reduce the number of corps members who struggle by giving PDs smaller cohorts to work with and giving each corps member substantially more classroom time with their PD.  And TFA really ought to be focused on increasing teacher effectiveness rather than the size of the corps.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A reintroduction to New York City

I live in New York but spend a few years in another part of the country before returning home.  Since I've been back, I've added a number of college friends and coworkers from other cities to my New York circle of friends.  I'm always amused to listen to their thoughts on the city.  For example, I recently overheard a friend who has lived in Manhattan for just about one year yearning for an Upper East Side apartment, partly on the basis of affordability, and turn up his nose at the thought of living in Brooklyn.  This friend, and a few others, has spent a year rarely venturing out of the work-apartment corridor in which they live, and when they do leave that area, it's to go to the same three Lower East Side bars.  If you live in one of the world's largest, most interesting, and most diverse cities, you should take advantage of it.  Go get dinner in Jackson Heights, pizza in Dumbo, a drink in Park Slope.  Find some dumplings in Chinatown; go to the Bronx outside baseball season; and pick a place in the city you've never had reason to visit, grab your Metrocard, and get to it.