Monday, September 17, 2012

CTU Strike, follow up

So the strike goes on. Andy Rotherham and Rick Hess have initial thoughts on the implications of the strike extension. I see Andy having some better points, but it's hard to tell what the political and policy upshots will be.

There were three other pieces of journalism I wanted to share with regard to all these things. The first is a really, really good piece at This American Life which takes a look at all the ideas in Paul Tough's new book. Very enlightening and nice to hear some positive stuff in the midst of the strike mess. Second, if you're feeling cleansed by the TAL piece and want some more strike info take a listen to this episode of the Diane Rehm show which features a lot of interesting talk of the strike from some smart people. And finally this New York Times infographic adds some other important context to the whole matter. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chicago Teacher's Strike Roundup

So the blog has been in hibernation for quite some time (predictably so) because, it turns out, I am generally a bigger fan of using my free time to watch online TV than formulate thoughts about education policy, but with the Chicago teacher's strike happening, I thought it might be good to revive the blog for a bit of a roundup of interesting things I've read on the subject and then add a few thoughts of my own at the end.

First, we should look at what's really being asked for in this strike. Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog did a great rundown of the basic parameters of the strike. The biggest disagreements, he says, are about evaluation and hiring practices:
What do the two sides still disagree on? 
The Chicago Public Schools in March unveiled an evaluation system (pdf) in which standardized testing makes up 40 percent of the rubric, which was designed by panels that included teachers, principals, and teachers’ union officials (including the president). The system goes above and beyond the state requirement that testing make up 20-40 percent of teacher evaluations. The teachers’ unions are resisting this system, calling it too punitive. 
Teachers also want laid off teachers to be able to be automatically “recalled” to positions if they open up. Emanuel would allow these teachers to apply to new openings, but given his desire to focus layoffs on worst-performing teachers, does not want automatic recalls. Finally, the teachers’ union is demanding smaller class sizes (both to improve working conditions and to improve student learning and life outcomes) and air conditioning for classrooms that don’t currently have it.
Matthews also adds important context to the evaluation point, noting that the Illinois legislature has already passed a law that dictates that "schools must incorporate standardized tests as a 'significant factor' in their evaluations of teachers, which the state school board has defined (pdf) as meaning 20-40 percent of those evaluations’ content."

Next, a few pieces of relevant info on the state of Chicago schools and school children. In the same post, Dylan Matthews also gives an informative explanation of the current state of Chicago public schools, as seen from the national point of view. The first of those points is that Chicago significantly underperform national averages. He explains, "As Reuters notes, fourth-graders in Chicago performed an average of nine points worse than the big city average and sixteen points worse than the national average on the math section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national gold standard for measuring learning. On reading, they were eight and seventeen points worse than big city and national averages, respectively."

Another great source of info on Chicago student outcomes is a great article Paul Tough had in the New York Times magazine recently (pre-strike) that took a look specifically at the challenges of poor Chicago students, which is nearly all of them:
Chicago’s public-school population is almost entirely low-income — just one in eight students does not qualify for a federal lunch subsidy — but within that population, some students are much more disadvantaged than others. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research were able, recently, to identify a subset of students who were particularly disadvantaged, living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and unemployment, with high levels of crime and an elevated incidence of child abuse.
And these extra challenges result in persistently lagging educational outcomes for many, many students in Chicago Public Schools:
The researchers found that these students were clustered at 46 public schools, which the researchers, borrowing a phrase from William Julius Wilson, labeled “truly disadvantaged” schools. These 46 schools were the targets of frequent reform efforts. But they were much less likely to respond positively to those reforms than schools with a less disadvantaged (but still poor) student body.
And the challenges of the school system go beyond just the poorest of the poor. As Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach For America) noted in her piece on the strike in the Financial Times:
Chicago, where 80 per cent of public school students qualify for free or subsidised lunches, is a microcosm of the national education crisis and its devastating consequences. Only 20 per cent of city students perform at “proficient” levels based on national standards. Four in 10 do not graduate from high school. At a time when a university degree is a prerequisite for financial security, only 6 per cent graduate by the age of 25.
So what does this all mean?

This debate about the state of Chicago public schools has quickly switched to debate about the reform efforts of the Obama administration and Mayors like Rahm Emmanuel and Michelle Rhee. It's easy to see why: Emmanuel is the president's chief of staff, Chicago is Obama's adopted hometown and his current Secretary of Education used to run (gated link) the Chicago public school system. And, in an election season that will have a lot to do with turnout, the implications of an administration pitted against one of its most important political constituencies, the unions, are considerable. But with the nationalization of the debate comes a great deal of the national rhetoric about the reform movement. You get pundits such as Diane Ravitch who continue to lament the rise of charter schools, merit pay and other reform ideas. (For my view on Diane Ravith's conventional anti-reformist arguments, see Matt Yglesias here.) And you get anti-unionism of the Scott Walker sort. But the real debate on this subject takes place in the specifics. That is, your views on the reform movement or the value of collective bargaining need not dictate how you come down on this. Matt Yglesias said it best recently: 
Indeed, what baffles me about these discussions is the tendency of labor's alleged friends to simply refuse to look this reality in the face and instead insist that any hostility to specific union asks must secretly reflect the skeptic's hostility to the existence of the union or its members. If you think that Chicago's teachers deserve the right to form an association to advocate, lobby, and bargain on behalf of the interests of its members (and why shouldn't they?) then you have to think that they deserve the right to advocate for ideas that may not be in the public interest.
In order to judge the demands of the teachers unions, you have to understand them in context. A crucial component of that context is the current attainment levels of students in Chicago public schools. Simply put, Kopp's quoted college graduation rate of 6 percent by age 25 is devastating. A 6 percent college graduation rate destroys the social mobility and, as Kopp notes, financial security of the students stuck in that system. And one of the main pro-union arguments that results from seeing such numbers is that high-poverty is entirely to blame for educational outcome in the city. As Ravitch asserts, "Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.Are there non-educational factors that play into that abysmal level of educational outcome? Of course! Paul Tough himself notes how highly correlated failing schools are with high levels of poverty. Does this mean that teachers are therefore absolved of their responsibility for student outcomes? Definitely not. 

Because one's judgement on matters of education so often gets clouded by a number of biases we have in our lives (one's own educational experience, one's personal relationships with educators, one's own self-identification as educators, or one's reflexive sympathy for workers in labor disputes), I like to apply the doctor test to questions of our expectations for teachers. In other words, in situations where I wonder, Is this reasonable to ask of a teacher?, I check my conclusions against the question, Would it reasonable to ask a reasonable analogue of this job demand of a doctor?

In this case, would we accept a 6% survival rate? Further, would we accept a 6% survival rate even if we knew that the doctor treated patients that on average began at a much lower levels of health? I really don't think we would. True, we wouldn't instantly fire all of those doctors, but we would be singularly focused on ways to improve care and get survival rates up. And if we saw that some doctors or hospitals were managing to significantly raise survival rates despite the extra health challenges in their patient community, we would study what they were doing. And we would be begin to increase the number of successful doctor types and decrease the number of unsuccessful ones. And we would feel bad that those unsuccessful doctors lost their jobs, but we wouldn't feel nearly bad enough to let that cloud our judgement about whether or not they should still be doctors.

And if the types of hospitals that were getting unusually high results were part of a class of hospitals called charter hospitals and we knew that many charter hospitals were doing significantly better than the average hospital, while many (perhaps even more) were doing significantly worse than the average hospital, we would know better than to try to say anything about the class of charter hospitals generally and focus instead on what those successful charter hospitals were doing right. And once we established the factors that allowed success in those charter hospitals, we would see if they could be applied to regular hospitals. And if they could, we would apply them.

What does this all have to do with the Chicago teacher's strike? I think it clarifies the stakes a bit. 
Because the effects of limited educational opportunity are so distant we tend not to understand the immediacy in the same way that we do with health care, where mistakes often have instantly disastrous or salubrious results. Still, educational attainment is incredibly intertwined with matters of poverty and it remains one of the most powerful levers we have for helping children to find a way out. So when we measure the interests of teachers (and we certainly should measure the interests of teachers; they work hard and do important work) we need to measure it against the fact that a quality education is just as important as quality health care. 

So to address the exact demands of teachers in this debate, let's apply the doctor test once more. We're in a hospital with a 6% survival rate that is losing funding (Matthews: "Chicago public schools are facing a $665 million deficit, one which even raising property taxes to the maximum amount allowed by law and tapping reserves that had been built up by the district in better economic times could not close.") and therefore has to fire some doctors. Which way will you fire doctors? Consider two options: 
  1. Fire doctors by when they were hired (the most recently hired will go first).
  2. Fire doctors by how effective they have been in raising the survival rate, among other factors. 
Now consider a few added details: You're hospital has suffered financially in large part as a result of a major financial crisis and may at some point in the near future have improved economic conditions and be able to afford more doctors again. The rehiring method can also look a lot like either of the firing methods, but in reverse. That is, you can either rehire in order or by effectiveness. Also, consider another thing: the method by which you judge effectiveness can be unreliable. But the unreliable part will be just 40% of the overall evaluation and can be outweighed by more subjective methods of evaluation, such as evaluation by superiors. Finally, know that firing doctors by when they were hired will force you to fire more doctors, because junior doctors are cheaper to employ because they've been employed for a shorter amount of time. Which do you choose? 

Even knowing that judging effectiveness is tricky, I choose basing it on effectiveness. Judging effectiveness accurately is crucial in any profession, but especially in those as important as education and health care. Even a flawed system of judging effectiveness is better than one that openly disregards quality. In addition, the only way to put enough pressure on the system to create the most effective methods of judging effectiveness is to increase the importance of getting it right, which putting it at the center of hiring and firing methods will do. 

Ok - one last programming note. As I'm currently living and teaching in Madrid, I will have a bit more time on my hands and will hope to give some insight into the Spanish school system, which has it's own fiscal difficulties right now. So stay tuned and hopefully I will do a better job of blogging!

Monday, April 23, 2012

When Policy Meets "Art for Art's Sake"

Reading Jonah Lehrer's post about the promise of developing the ability of people (especially children) to focus, I was struck by how much it contrasts the usual rhetoric on matters of focus, especially when it comes to education. There's a lot of conventional wisdom out there about focus issues, and it consists mostly of excessive doubt or excessive sympathy. That is, most people either treat all focus issues as the upshot of bad parenting/bad-kidness or treat every ostensibly focus-based issue as the result of a disorder and beyond the control of the student. But rather than engage in this pretty fruitless back and forth, he instead highlights the evidence for various methods of improving the executive function of those students who lack focus (emphasis mine):
But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills. 
The list is surprisingly varied, revolving around activities that are both engaging and challenging, such as computer exercises involving short-term memory, tae-kwon-do, yoga and difficult board games. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain school curricula, such as Montessori and Tools for the Mind, have also been shown to consistently increase executive function. 
Yet, despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function. Even worse, education departments are slashing the very activities, such as physical exercise and the arts, that boost executive function among the broadest range of students.
Lehrer's critique of cuts here is spot on, but its interesting how rhetorically different it is from so much of the criticism you hear of such cuts. Unlike most criticism, Lehrer cites the specific value of the arts and physical education in his defense of keeping them in school curricula. Too often, you hear a defense such programs on a much less clear basis. People tend to argue that cutting such things deprives students of a fuller curriculum and the broad range of subject matter that they deserve. I certainly agree with that, but when policy makers find themselves making cuts, especially in the recent economic environment, they aren't cutting things like art and phys. ed because they are malicious bureaucrats hell-bent on the destruction of the liberal arts. Nor are they even underestimating the value of art and phys. ed. They're simply setting budget priorities and, given the fiscal constraints of the system, are forced to make choices between cutting programs they see as more essential to a child's education. So, rhetorically, if you want to make an argument for saving such programs, it's important not to overlook the utility of such programs. Now, I fully understand that a big part of the value of a liberal arts education is learning to appreciate art for arts sake. But it's important to recognize that just because the arts may have an inherent value doesn't mean they don't also have a utility value. And if you're sitting down for a budget meeting, you're going to get a lot farther with an argument based on utility than you will with one based on the squishy, feel-good value of the arts.

One version of this type of argument appeared in a weekend editorial by Claire Needell Hollander in the Times tellingly titled "Teach the Books, Touch the Heart," except this one was aimed at standardized testing. In the article, Needell Hollander laments the disappearance of high-quality literature in today's classrooms and, especially, on exams. Instead, she says, exams are beginning to feature the boring, lifeless informative texts. She explains,
Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.
Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.
Now, it is certainly a negative thing that students have to spend more time preparing for tests and less time reading great literature. But this is hardly the fault of standardized exams. Instead, doing that seems to me to be a case of blaming the thermometer for the temperature. That is, what stops students from accessing great literature in way that all students deserve to is that far too many students still lack the requisite skills to handle such texts in a robust way. Take for example this chart from the National Center for Education Statistics based on data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy:

Given that even those adults registering as "Intermediate" in their prose literacy can only "perform moderately challenging literacy activities," it certainly seems questionable that anyone other than adults at the proficient level could handle the type of literature Needell Hollander rightly values, and it is certainly doubtful that anyone at the Basic or Below Basic level could. And, if people aren't able to handle it as adults, then they certainly weren't prepared while they were students either.

That this adjustment in the focus of the curriculum was made to compensate lacking literacy skills and not rather the result of a misguided desire to advance a crazy standardized testing regime seems to be betrayed in Needell Hollander's column itself. As she notes, "the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes." This suggests that those students with high literacy skills don't need the strict test prep in order perform well on the tests. Put another way, if you have the skills, test prep isn't going to add a lot of value to you. But, if you lack the skills, intensive test prep can produce an increased focus on gaining those literacy skills necessary to not only handle the tests, but also handle texts such as those that Needell Hollander would like to see stay on syllabi throughout the country. Sure, this may be, when executed poorly, a short-sighted, short-term way of boosting student scores. But it is crucial to see that this is both a failure of pedagogy and a symptom of the tremendous deficits students have. The response, therefore, should not be to roll-back the testing requirements that make such deficits apparent, but rather continue to focus on the methods of both policy and pedagogy that will set students up to develop the literacy skills necessary that they need to read the great books in the first place. 

Also - just as a quick PS to all of this. To my mind, one of the failings of Needell Hollander's article is that it confuses the value of exposing students to interesting and moving stories with the value of developing in students a sharp literary sense. This may seem like splitting hairs, but to me it is the difference between reading the SparkNotes version of Shakespeare and reading the actual text. Great plots are wonderful as far as they go, but the value in literature is not simply in reading an entertaining, emotional story. Instead, great literature helps us examine the created world of fiction or poetry, and instead, using skills that help us dissect more fully the tropes, diction, imagery, etc., we learn to think more clearly and profoundly about our own world. This distinction matters because students with substandard literacy skills might be able to connect with the plot of great stories, but they will struggle much more to connect with its true depth as a piece of literature. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Go Read "The Blind Side"

I haven't seen the movie, but I finally just finished Michael Lewis's The Blind Side. It's a really tremendous read that provides a unique perspective on football, race, class and poverty with a depth and power of metaphor you rarely see in non-fiction like this. It's hard for me to do it justice here, so it's probably just worth going out and picking up the book. But, if you're into the whole brevity thing, The New York Times ran an adapted version of the Michael Oher story called the Ballad of Big Mike back when the book was about to be released. Here's a taste: 

For his first year it didn’t matter. He failed his classes and didn’t play anything. As far as the Briarcrest teachers could determine, he didn’t have a thought or a fact or an idea in his head. But then almost by accident they figured out that he needed to be tested orally, whereupon he proved to them that he deserved high D’s instead of low F’s. It wasn’t clear that he was going to acquire enough credits to graduate with his class, but Simpson and Graves stopped thinking they were going to send him back out on the streets, and they let him play sports. He joined the basketball team at the end of his sophomore year and soon afterward the track-and-field team (throwing the discus and putting the shot). In his junior year he finally got onto the football field. 
The problem there, at first, resembled his problems in the classroom. He had no foundation, no idea what he was meant to do as a member of a team. He said he had played football his freshman year at Westwood, but there was no sign of it in his performance. When Freeze saw how fast he could move, he pegged him as a defensive tackle. And so for the first six games of the 2003 season, he played defense. He wasn’t any worse than his replacement, but he wasn’t much better either. One of his more talented teammates, Joseph Crone, thought Big Mike’s main contribution came before the game, when the opposing team stumbled out of its locker room or bus and took the measure of the Briarcrest Christian School. “They’d see all of us,” Crone says, “and then they’d see Mike and say, ‘Oh, God.”’
Michael Lewis has something of a pattern he uses when writing, especially about sports. And it's a smart idea that he does because it's a really compelling pattern. The pattern is roughly: here's some way that talent once went unrecognized, and now let's tell the story of how it got recognized. If you've seen Moneyball you know that this is the basic structure of the plot, and that is true as well for The Blind Side. In the Blind Side, though, the story of why Michael Oher's talent went unrecognized for so long (even though it was so obvious) has a lot to do with race, class and educational opportunity. Lewis tells that story in a really interesting way and does not fail to recognize just how many kids like Michael never get their talent recognized, whether in sports or academics, because of the limitations of their environment. 

Lewis also authored a piece of this same basic structure (tremendous talent gets underestimated, and then, suddenly, properly estimated) in the New York Times about Shane Battier. It too is a story colored in interesting way by the backdrop of race and class, and whether you're interested in those things or are just a basketball fan, it's well worth your time. Here's a bit: 
Battier was half-white and half-black, but basketball, it seemed, was either black or white. A small library of Ph.D. theses might usefully be devoted to the reasons for this. For instance, is it a coincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketball to prove his character — take a charge, scramble for a loose ball — are more pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are on inner-city asphalt? Is it easier to “play for the team” when that team is part of some larger institution? At any rate, the inner-city kids with whom he played on the A.A.U. circuit treated Battier like a suburban kid with a white game, and the suburban kids he played with during the regular season treated him like a visitor from the planet where they kept the black people. “On Martin Luther King Day, everyone in class would look at me like I was supposed to know who he was and why he was important,” Battier said. “When we had an official school picture, every other kid was given a comb. I was the only one given a pick.” He was awkward and shy, or as he put it: “I didn’t present well. But I’m in the eighth grade! I’m just trying to fit in!” And yet here he was shuttling between a black world that treated him as white and a white world that treated him as black. ‘‘Everything I’ve done since then is because of what I went through with this,” he said. “What I did is alienate myself from everybody. I’d eat lunch by myself. I’d study by myself. And I sort of lost myself in the game.”

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The School and the City

So I have recently discovered a love for the 99% Invisible podcast. Roman Mars has a developed a really admirable aesthetic for the show and some deeply cool stories on the design behind everything we encounter in our daily lives, but rarely notice. But besides being greatly entertaining, 99% Invisible takes seriously the idea that design has real consequences for the quality of life of those people interacting with the design. They trace this theme through examples small and large, from the design of queues through the design of the World Trade Center. But one episode in particular caught my attention recently:

In this episode they explore the way the design of cities can serve to exclude or segregate various groups within that city. This is a theme that's been on my mind a lot recently. Especially having recently read Matt Yglesias's new book, "The Rent is Too Damn High," and being in the middle of Ryan Avent's book "The Gated City," of similar subject matter. In their books, Yglesias and Avent explore another kind of design, policy design, and the ways in which it subtlety shapes and distorts the cities in which we live, and as a result, the quality of life of the people living in those cities. Both see a tremendous power in the ability of cities to generate innovation, maximize productivity and just plain make people happier by providing them with more of what they like and need nearby. But both also see how the design of cities, specifically regulations that affect the supply and use of land, can lead to majorly destructive constraints on the potential of cities to make the most of those positive attributes. For Yglesias, the story is simple: artificial constraints on the housing supply (such as minimum parking regulations or height restrictions on buildings) drive up the cost of rent. This is a problem because these regulations not only straightforwardly prevent more people from moving to the city (that is, if you build less places for people to live, less people will live there), but also do indirectly by pricing less affluent people out of the market. Most people know this process of rising land value pushing out poor people as gentrification. (For a funnier explanation of gentrification check out Michael Che subtlely here.) But, as Yglesias explains in the book, this isn't just an immutable law of city physics. Part of what exacerbates the problem of gentrification is that regulations that constrain the supply of housing artificially raise rents. And, he explains on his blog, equality of access requires abundance.

So what does all of this have to do with schools and poverty? Well, as it turns out, schools have to pay rent too. (Or at least have to purchase land. Either way, they're affected directly by the artificially high cost of land.) But also it seems fairly obvious that the problems of gentrification make people uncomfortable because of the exclusion it implies. Economic exclusion is just one type of exclusion that can be embedded in our cities, as the 99% Invisible episode makes clear. And exclusion in schooling is called segregation. Granted, this is de facto segregation, but it's segregation nonetheless, and it leads to all sorts of inequitable outcomes for students. This became really clear to me recently when I was looking at some maps of DC recently on the tremendously cool Radical Cartography site. Here are a few maps that show the effects of such exclusions.

First, you can see that there clearly is a divide in DC based on income (the darker the pink you see, the higher the income; the darker the blue you see, the lower the income):

Second, as you can see, this divide is also disproportionately one of race: 


Third, you can see this divide also tracks very much with educational outcomes, as measured by attainment of a bachelors degree. 

As is pretty clear, if you live in deep northwest, you have a college degree or will someday get one. If you live almost anywhere else, you don't. This is pretty obviously a big problem for those of us interested in seeing a large portion of the population receiving a high quality education. But in an economy where low-skill labor jobs are increasingly disappearing (highly recommended link, by the way), this is pretty clearly a major economic problem too. Matt Yglesias also recognizes in his book that the disparity in educational outcomes implies that some people currently are receiving a high-quality education. Which raises the question of why poor families don't just move to the areas where the best educational opportunity is. Well, as you might have guessed, it's because the rent is too damn high:
Many parents, of course, do relocate. It's common for affluent young couples to move out to the suburbs when their children reach appropriate age. "Everyone knows" that poor families can't afford to do this. But we only rarely ask why it is that poor families can't afford to move to nice suburbs. It's not because construction costs are higher in the suburbs. It's because it's frequently illegal to build the kind of dense apartment buildings that could accomodate lower-income families.
This is all just to say that for all the bluster today about the importance of school choice, education reforms often focus on increasing choice by increasing the supply of schools available to students, especially to those attending the worst schools. But, in addition to building charter schools at a dizzying pace, much of which often allows sub-par quality charter schools to enter the market, education reformers might take a second look at the promise of increasing choice by promoting density.