A Higher Bar for All of Us

April 28, 2011

Last week, CEOs in Change the Equation’s coalition came out forcefully for higher expectations for all students.  It’s well known that most states have set a low bar for their students and that pass rates on state tests don’t tell us nearly enough about how students are really doing. But we do not believe for a moment that raising the bar in itself is enough to turn every student into a champion high jumper. We have much work ahead to get students to clear it.

Better standards and a higher bar on state tests won’t mean anything unless they have a real impact on how teachers teach. The New York Times ran a story on Sunday that offers a taste of what that impact might be. A large and diverse high school in Queens is already test driving new “Common Core” content standards that 43 states have pledged to adopt. If they’re a success, those standards will change what happens in the classroom. Here’s an example from Queens:

A math teacher, José Rios, used to take a day or two on probabilities, drawing bell-shaped curves on the blackboard to illustrate the pattern known as normal distribution. This year, he stretched the lesson by a day and had students work in groups to try to draw the same type of graphic using the heights of the 15 boys in the class.

“Eventually, they figured out they couldn’t because the sample was too small,” Mr. Rios said. “They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them.”

One could argue that good teachers should always engage students in this way, with or without clear standards. Yet not all teachers do, and even the best teachers need support. The need staff development, better curriculum tied to the standards, teaching tools to help bring standards to life, and state tests that accurately test what’s in the standards.

That’s a pretty high bar, and we’re all going to have to clear it together.


Tags: standards, Common Core

Is There Hope for Teacher Evaluation?

April 27, 2011

How should we evaluate teachers? Few questions these days are more vexed than this one. The old way was for principals to pop into classes every now and again and assign a rating. The fact that, in most school systems, the vast majority of teachers get a pat on the back--and scant advice on how to improve their teaching--has fueled fierce criticism of this method.

A much newer method is to tie teachers' evaluations to their students' test scores. The teachers whose students' scores see the most improvement get the highest ratings. Critics of this method charge that it is complex, prone to error, tied to unreliable state tests, and irrelevant to most teachers, because state tests cover relatively few subjects and grade levels.

A new study suggests a third way that can enhance the other two. Researchers at Harvard examined the Teacher Evaluation System in Cincinnatti, and they gave it a pretty positive report.

TES is based on classroom observations, but it is a far cry from what happens in most schools. Here's how the researchers describe it: "During the yearlong TES process, teachers are typically observed and scored four times: three times by a peer evaluator external to the school and once by a local school administrator. The peer evaluators are experienced classroom teachers chosen partly based on their own TES performance. They serve as full-time evaluators for three years before they return to the classroom. Both peer evaluators and administrators must complete an intensive training course and accurately score videotaped teaching examples."

The study of TES found that teacher who received high ratings were more likely to boost their students' test scores than those who didn't. What's more, it found that certain classroom practices were more effective than others. Another study of TES found that the evaluations themselves improved teacher performance in math (though not in reading).

These studies suggest that there is more to a good teacher than that je ne sais quoi principals are trying to sniff out in each crop of new candidates. There are observable, measurable practices that we can identify and teach. That's a lesson for the ages.


Algebra II? Trigonometry? What's in a Name?

April 26, 2011

High schoolers in the U.S. are taking more advanced courses than they ever have, yet their test scores have remained largely flat. What gives? Some experts blame false advertising: Many of those courses may be advanced in name only.

Sam Dillon tackles this issue in today’s New York Times. He reports on a recent federal High School Transcript Study, which found that the share of high school students taking a rigorous curriculum “nearly tripled” over the past twenty years. But he also checks in with researchers who have peered behind the curtain and found that some of those rigorous courses are not what they appear. According to William Schmidt, a researcher who examined the actual content of high school courses that may bear high-falutin’ names, “the titles didn’t reveal much at all about how advanced the course was.” 

Course title inflation might be most common in schools that serve students of color, worries Kati Haycock, who leads the Education Trust, a think tank that focuses on education equity. She notes that Black and Latino students who take a more advanced course load still score behind their white peers. “This picture of higher level course-taking with little or no progress in achievement raises serious questions about the level of course rigor in schools serving many students of color,” she writes.

Dillon touches on another possible cause for the gap between ambitious course schedules and flat performance on tests: High school seniors may not take the test seriously. The federal tests that paint such a bleak picture of high school seniors’ progress over the past 40-odd years have no consequences. That’s hardly the thing to inspire seniors to do their best work.

Still, there's ample cause to doubt what some high school transcripts seem to be telling us.


Tags: math, minorities

Will Our High Achievers Save Us?

April 25, 2011

We often hear that, though the U.S. lags behind many other countries in its students’ math performance, we have a healthy share of high achievers that puts us on par with those other high flying countries. Is that true?

According to a recent study (PDF), not so much. A trio of researchers compared the percentage of high achievers in the U.S. to that in other industrialized nations. They found that, even on that measure, we perform nearer the bottom of the than the top.

Some will object that our student population is much more diverse than that of high-flying countries, which might drag down our results. What happens when we focus only on students who are most likely to do well—say, students who have at least one parent who attended college? While our results get a bit better, even then we fall behind 14 other industrialized nations. And that’s an unfair fight, because we’re comparing a fairly privileged group in our own population with all students in those other countries.

So we can’t really take solace in our high achievers after all.


Time to Raise the Bar

April 21, 2011

The data that many states publish about how their students are doing in math and science just don’t add up. While most states report that the majority of their students are proficient in math, for example, other data tell a very different story. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP), which sets a consistent bar for students in all states, rates only 38 percent of 4th graders and 33 percent of 8thgraders proficient or advanced in math. And NAEP scores are not where they need to be if American students are to keep pace with their peers worldwide.

This week, a group of leading chief executives sent letters to all 50 governors and the DC Mayor urging them to tell the difficult truth about student performance in their states. They also sent another message: We’ve got your back.

Each letter to a governor came with a brief “Vital Signs” report on the condition of math and science learning in that governor’s state. The reports offer real cause for concern. For example, the data show that many 4th and 8th graders seldom carry out or write about science projects, that many math teachers lack an undergraduate major or minor in math, that most states set low passing scores on content licensure tests for elementary teachers, and that few students take challenging Advanced Placement tests or make it through college. 

CEOs are also encouraged by good news. NAEP math scores have risen over the past 15 years. Some states, like Massachusetts and Missouri, have maintained high expectations for students. Others, like Michigan, New York, Oregon and Tennessee, have been raising the passing scores on their state math tests. And now forty-three states have joined forces to create a common set of clear and demanding academic content standards in English and math. All of those states have also joined consortia to create tests that align with those standards. This progress is a testament to the hard work and courage of educators and state leaders across the country. Similar work is underway in science.

But the CEOs recognize that there could be trouble ahead. If states follow through on strong standards and tests that set a high bar, then they can expect student pass rates to drop suddenly.  That could lead to outside pressure to back down. CEOs say they will stand by state leaders as they hold the line on standards.

They will also stand by state leaders as those leaders do the hard work of giving schools the tools they need to help students clear a higher bar. After all, high expectations are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for preparing students to meet the demands of a global age.  If teachers don’t get the training, support and materials they need to teach to the high standards, then higher standards will put us on a road to nowhere.  

Even as they keep an eye on states, CTEq CEOs will also hold themselves to account. Together, our companies spend more than half a billion dollars a year on STEM learning opportunities for teachers and PreK-12 children. Our CEOs recognize that some of this money is not having much of an impact, so they will judge their investments against a set of principles for effective philanthropy. They will also use the Vital Signs reports to see where their philanthropy and advocacy for STEM learning can have the greatest impact.

Change the Equation will continue supporting states in the years ahead. Going forward, we will release a second, more robust set of Vital Signs reports with the most complete state-by-state data ever assembled on STEM learning. The reports will further extend our knowledge of where states are making gains, where they have work to do, and how they can prepare many more students to thrive in a global economy. Real improvement depends on this kind of honest accounting.

Much progress has been made across the country, but such progress will be fragile indeed if we do not stiffen our spines against the temptation to lower the bar.


Tags: math, science, standards

Rebels with a Cause

April 17, 2011

What do the youth uprisings in the Middle East have to do with efforts to raise math scores in the US? If you ask Nicholas Kristof, quite a lot. His Saturday column in the New York Times presents youth movements as the key to social change. How? They put rebellion to very good use.

Kristof uses recent tobacco campaigns to illustrate his point. Teen smoking surged amidst all the goody-goody campaigns through the 70s and 80s. Telling kids not to smoke because it's bad for them is merely an invitation to rebellion. "Oh yeah? Just watch me!"

But a campaign that invited students to stand up to authority--tobacco companies, for example--had much more success. Young people themselves put together a series of ads featuring teens making prank calls to ad agencies promoting cigarettes. One particularly cutting example: Would they accept an award for killing high numbers of teens? Kristof reports that, in states where these ads ran, teen smoking rates plummeted. 

Then he gets to the subject of math. He describes a famous program designed by Uri Treisman, "an extraordinarily successful effort to improve the performance of black college students in calculus. Started at the University of California, Berkeley, after black students there earned an average grade of D+ in calculus, it puts black and Hispanics into small groups to provide peer support, and participants by some measures now outperform white and Asian students."

The program was indeed a big success, but it's hard to see where rebellion comes into the picture. The power of student groups and peer support seem clear, but where's the object of the students' disdain? Kristof seems to lose the thread here--unless I'm missing something.

Still, his big idea is intriguing. Can we get teens to rebel against the very forces that drag them down in math and science? How would we do it?


Tags: math, science

Words of Wisdom from Woz

April 10, 2011

Steve Wozniak, known to his friends (and everyone else) as "Woz," wowed Lucas Mearian from Computer World with his theory of learning. Woz has earned his chops as a commentator on schools. After co-founding Apple with that other Steve, he taught fifth grade computer science for eight years.

Like many other tech pioneers, he worries that schools aren't designed to foster the next generation of innovators. "A really innovative person is known for something that usually took an awful lot of thinking, maybe even over years, and a lot of development in a laboratory putting it together and getting it to work," he said at a recent conference. "And it's new and it's different. And it's not something you read about in a book." Math or science classes in schools are often at odds with that spirit of innovation, he argues.

First, Wozniak criticizes the push for right answers in such classes, which can stunt divergent or critical thinking. In that, he's not alone. (Transformative ideas seldom arise from the "right" answer.)

But his take on testing is pretty compelling. Here's how Mearian reports it: "The learning cycle between what is taught and when a student is tested on it is far too short, [Wozniak] proclaimed. Short learning-testing cycles, he said, are nothing like the projects that technology innovators are afforded in real life."

That, too, is not necessarily a new criticism of what's going on in schools. But when Woz says it, people should listen.


Will Rio Build this Magnificent Tower for the 2016 Olympics?

April 6, 2011

Will this magnificent structure greet visitors to the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro? That would certainly be very cool. It would be an observation tower, a waterfall, and even a source of energy. Solar energy gathered by day would power pumps to keep the waterfall flowing at night. The waterfall, in turn, would drive turbines and create more energy.

If we're to believe some bloggers, the tower is practically a fait accompli. It will start rising from the brazilian shores in no time.

Not so fast, says Brett Christensen. The "Solar City Tower" is just a proposal submitted by a firm from Zurich. Here's how the head of the firm describes it:

We don't have any confirmation from the local authorities so far and don't know if this project will ever happen! Therefore the design is in a very early stage and we are facing lots of technical problems. Even though we have done some research in this field, a solid cost estimation or an energy consumption of this building is not possible at the moment.

The description of how the building would work does seem a tad far-fetched. Still, it's a gorgeous concept and would be a stunning addition to the Rio coast.


Do US Schools Demand Too Much?

April 4, 2011

Depending on whom you ask, American youth are all loafing or all working themselves into the ground.

Two recent films about US schools pretty much sum up the two positions. Two Million Minutes portrayed even our best schools as posh holding pens for idle young people. More recently, Race to Nowhere painted them as pressure cookers that drive students to nervous breakdown.

Jay Mathews at The Washington Post takes a more nuanced approach. There is "harmful academic pressure on students in some college-conscious home." There are indeed some tiger mothers and fathers who, in league with schools, push students too far. But is this a national epidemic, as Race to Nowhere suggests?

Mathews isn't buying it. He cites data that teens in US devote 3 1/2 hours a day to TV and 42 minutes a day to homework. He points to the many hard-working teachers who sorely wished their students felt a bit more pressure to do well. And he notes that the problems that bedevil schools for the wealthy are worlds apart from problems that schools in poor communities face.

It's never a good idea to paint all US schools with a single broad brush. That said, as we compare our students with students in some of the top performing countries, can we really conclude that all or even most of them are being asked to clear too high a bar?


In Schools, Those who Need the Most Get the Least

April 3, 2011

The students who most need our best teachers are least likely to get them. A new study of teachers in 10 school districts finds that schools serving the wealthiest students have the highest share of effective English Language Arts and math teachers. (The study defined effective teachers as teachers whose students made the greatest gains on state tests.*)

Almost 30 percent of the top middle school math teachers were in the wealthiest** 20 percent of schools. In one district, the numbers were far more serious. A whopping 62 percent of the most effective teachers were in the wealthiest schools, and a mere 6 percent were in the poorest.**

Dismaying as they are, such inequities shouldn't really surprise us. A report published last year found that math classes in low-income schools are twice as likely as those in high-income schools to be taught by teachers with neither a major nor a certification in the field.

Yet such qualifications can be mere proxies for actual effectiveness. The newer study attempts to gauge teachers' success by measuring how much their students actually learn.

A word of caution: Critics of such studies argue that the tests themselves are flawed, and that estimates of teachers' effectiveness are very imprecise. Proponents, on the other hand, claim that we have no better way of measuring teachers' effect in the classroom.

But there's a further complication we don't often hear about: Good teachers might not be good no matter where they go, no matter what students they teach. Even if we could simply reshuffle the deck and send the "best" teachers from our wealthiest schools to our poorest schools, would those top teachers still do as well under such new conditions? That's not clear, though at least one study is trying to come up with some answers.

In all, we can be quite sure that students who need the most help are often least likely to get it. Big differences in teachers' pay, training, background--and maybe even their effectiveness--stack the deck against children in low-income schools.

We have to confront that problem head on.

* The study defined "effective" teachers as the top 20 percent as measured by their students' growth on state tests.

** The "wealthiest" schools in the study were actually the 20 percent of schools with the lowest share of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch. The "poorest" were the 20 percent with the highest share of such students. The study itself did not refer to "wealthy" or "poor" schools.



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