The Revolving Door of Teachers In Chicago

Monday, June 29, 2009
The Consortium for Chicago School Research today released an informative study ("The Schools Teachers Leave") of teacher turnover in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). It reviewed the personnel records of approximately 35,000 public school teachers in 538 elementary schools and 118 high schools over a five-year period between the 2002-03 and 2006-07 school years. Its primary finding is that half of all Chicago public school teachers had left their school within four years -- and more than two thirds of new teachers had. It also identified 100 CPS schools with "chronically" high teacher turnover -- losing about a quarter of their teachers annually. While these statistics are slightly worse than Illinois as a state and the nation as a whole, CPS is not a huge outlier with regard to teacher mobility. It is a problem across the board.

From an equity standpoint, teacher mobility and turnover is a particular chllaenge for schools within urban districts like CPS because of the student population they serve. Turnover has significant implications for educational equity because schools with large percentages of African-American and low-income students are more likely to be inflicted with this revolving door of teachers. These students in greatest need of access to quality education and quality teaching are the least likely to receive it. They are more likely be taught by beginning teachers and those without full credentials or relevant subject matter knowledge. This lack of educator quality feeds low student achievement, socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, and dropout rates.

The Consortium reports offers some guidance about what relatively successful schools look like. It identifies teacher working conditions as a major factor in retention and in developing a nurturing and collaborative professional environment.
The schools that retain their teachers at high rates are those with a strong sense of collaboration among teachers and the principal. Teachers are likely to stay in schools where they view their colleagues as partners with them in the work of improving the whole school. They are likely to leave schools where colleagues are resistant to school-wide initiatives and where teachers’ efforts stop at their own classroom door. Teachers stay in schools with inclusive leadership,
where they feel they have influence over their work environment and they trust their principal as an instructional leader.

Thus, teachers stay in schools where the conditions are well suited for them to have the potential to be effective—where their colleagues are collaborators, school administration is supportive, parents trust teachers to do their jobs, and the learning climate for students is safe and non-disruptive. These elements of school working conditions are among the key elements needed to improve student achievement, along with a school-wide focus on improving instruction.
To address this teacher quality problem, one solution that new CPS CEO Ron Huberman has announced is to expand the new teacher induction and mentoring work of the Chicago New Teacher Center throughout the district. (Disclosure: I work for the New Teacher Center, the CNTC's parent organization.) CNTC is currently active in five CPS Instructional Areas, mostly on Chicago's South Side. Its intensive mentoring work -- and high-quality induction overall -- has been shown not only to increase teacher retention, but also to help beginning teachers become more effective in the classroom. The work of the CNTC was recently profiled in the Center for American Progress report, Ensuring Effective Teachers for All Students.

This kind of data analysis is exactly what all states and school districts should be engaged in. It's hard to fix a problem that isn't understood and it's hard to set a policy goal to address something that isn't quantifiable. More often than not, the reason this type of analysis isn't occurring is due to the lack of political will and the unwillingness to grapple with bad news, rather than the absence of data systems or human talent to conduct it. Where there's a will, there's a way. Without naming names, I've seen a 'can't do' attitude triumph again and again in states and districts. It's best to take this work out of the direct control of politicians and educational leaders who serve systems over kids. Perhaps that's why this effort ("Education Week: Chicago Group Promotes Links for Districts, Researchers") to replicate the Chicago Consortium model is a promising one. And, in this case, kudos to CPS leaders for being open to this scrutiny and their willingness to learn from it.

Chicago Tribune coverage
Chicago Sun-Times coverage and editorial
Catalyst Chicago blog

No Money Left Behind

Thursday, June 25, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

The U.S. Department of Education has finally announced some concrete plans to reduce the complexity of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After years of debate that largely focused on whether to kill the beast entirely (ditching the form and using IRS data instead) or cutting off some of its limbs (cutting some of questions but keeping the form), ED is starting with a middle-of-the-road approach. In spring they’ll pilot a program to use IRS data to populate forms for students who elect to go that route, and in the meantime cut back on asking questions about assets.

While most consumers agree that simple is best, and easy, transparent programs are notably more effective in reaching the families who need aid the most, these steps are not popular with everyone. Complex forms require specific knowledge, and those who specialize in them are nearly assured of keeping their jobs. Reduce the complexity, and paper-pushing jobs can be eliminated entirely. Increase the number of aid applicants, and financial aid officers worry about the increased workload on their end. Furthermore, some states and institutions are concerned that they will not have enough information from a simplified FAFSA with which to tailor their programs. There’s also the potential (unlikely, based on calculations by Sue Dynarski and Judy Scott-Clayton) that fewer criteria will mean that need-based aid will be only slightly less targeted.

But if our goal is to make sure that scarce resources are used efficiently and effectively, FAFSA simplification is one step in the right direction. Set aside the issue of targeting for the moment, and let’s consider how much financial aid money is currently left on the table. Each year, the American Council for Education estimates that each year more than one million students are Pell Grant-eligible but don’t get that money because they do not file a FAFSA. While some people like to blame individuals for inaction, and claim those who don’t file forms don’t “deserve” the money, there are many PhDs who themselves find the FAFSA overwhelming and would agree the time it takes to complete one is well-beyond what’s available in a working-class family’s day.

Ultimately there is no excuse for allocating resources and then not doing everything we can to make sure people can access them. We could do so much more. Right now, there are many programs available to help low-income students build human capital, but they are poorly coordinated or worse yet work at cross-purposes. Welfare reform (TANF) effectively took money for college off the table for poor women, at a time when tax credits for higher education were expanded and we were all implored to attend college. The Workforce Investment Act currently utilizes a byzantine system that makes accessing education and training, particularly at community colleges, harder than ever. Many states and institutions make money available to poor kids, but as they disburse it via the aid package they substitute it for existing resources. Did you know that if your kid gets a Rotary scholarship, their college will likely reduce the institutional aid they’re offering by a similar amount?

Better coordination of existing resources and a simpler, more transparent system – the best would be no application process at all—these things are essential to achieving the President’s goal of more college graduates. ED is going in the right direction—now let’s hope that conversations with Department of Labor and Health & Human Services are coming soon.

UPDATE: Budget Balancing For Dummies

Friday, June 19, 2009
The Wisconsin State Journal has the update on this recent blog post ("Budget Balancing For Dummies").

Almost all state workers will have to take furloughs, regardless of whether their paychecks come from the state, federal grants, or private sources, under versions of the budget passed by both the state Assembly and Senate.

Some state workers paid with federal grants, particularly university researchers, argued they shouldn’t have to take the 16 unpaid days off as mandated by Gov. Doyle over the next two years because it wouldn’t save the state money.

An amendment proposed by Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, that would have shielded some of those employees from taking furloughs never made it into the Assembly's budget.

No one proposed a similar amendment in the Senate, making it unlikely that it will be inserted in conference committee, which reconciles the budgets passed by the two houses.

Seems to me that this brain-dead policy choice is completely counter to economic stimulation. By unnecessarily reducing workers' paychecks through a policy that saves the state of Wisconsin $0, how much will the state lose in income tax revenue, retail sales taxes, and the like as a result of this policy aimed solely at 'feel good' public relations?

Also, treating non-state-funded university faculty and staff in this way sorta flies in the face of the retention fund aimed at keeping high-demand faculty in Wisconsin. At best, it's going to create a run on this fund - by slapping UW faculty and staff with the furlough, plus the rescinded salary increases over the next two years. That's money out of the state's pocket.

What was it that Forrest Gump said?

Thoughts on Equitable Teacher Distribution

Wednesday, June 17, 2009
In a U.S. News & World Report article (“In Urban Classrooms, the Least Experienced Teach the Neediest Kids”), the New America Foundation’s MaryEllen McGuire offers a compelling analysis of the problem of inequitable teacher distribution in American schools.
Why are our least experienced professionals consistently being handed the most challenging teaching assignments? Because of the way seniority is rewarded in teacher contracts. More often that not, union contracts dictate that veteran teachers get first dibs on available positions within a school system. As a result, when given the chance, teachers often choose to transfer to more desirable, low-poverty schools. As a result of these transfers, students with the greatest educational need are time and time again taught by the least experienced teachers.
This is a topic that the Education Optimists have written about previously (see here and here). In addition, The Education Trust has done some good work on this issue, including this 2006 report ("Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality") by Kati Haycock and Heather Peske.

But compared to her solid conception of the problem, McGuire somewhat misses the mark on proposed solutions to inequitable teacher distribution. She writes:

This will require a long-term commitment to systemic reform including investing in low-poverty schools to make them more attractive teaching placements and funding incentives to initially attract experienced and, we hope, higher quality teachers to low-income schools. Will this require dollars beyond what we have? Not necessarily. Federal law already provides schools with money to pay for this. It's just that the funds typically go to reduce class sizes or provide professional development for teachers instead - strategies that have mixed results. Some of these funds should be redirected to pay for incentives drawing teachers into high-poverty schools. This is also a great use of stimulus money.

Should some federal Title II dollars be used for recruitment incentives? Sure - but let's not take that idea too far. The distribution problem is one of retention as much as it is one of recruitment. Title II funding should and can be used for high-quality professional development and high-quality induction and mentoring focused on improving teaching practice – efforts directed at making teachers more effective that simultaneously improve retention and self-efficacy. This legislation, sponsored by U.S. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, would go a long way toward these ends. Arguably, these approaches to teacher development are arguably a far better use of stimulus money than recruitment incentives.

In addition, as the author suggests (“more attractive teaching placements”), we need to work with school leaders and policymakers to improve the working conditions in these hard-to-staff, high-poverty schools and districts. We need to provide educators time to collaborate and a role in school decision-making—things that don't cost a whole lot of money but that do require a new way of doing business. Research has shown these factors are often more important than often paltry recruitment incentives in keeping the highest-quality, most effective teachers at hard-to-staff schools.

Valuing Children

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

I am in the midst of what I sometimes feel is an incredibly risky endeavor. Or rather, what some would have me feel is risky.

I’m having a baby. A second baby. On the tenure track.

My ears sense some e-groaning. My fears detect some e-judgment. Maybe, somewhat out there, there is a little applause, and elsewhere sighs of relief.

The truth is, I don’t know what to say—except that I’m completely happy and scared, all at the same time.

Why happy? Because having a family is exactly what my husband and I always wanted. And having our first has proven to both of us that professional success is entirely eclipsed by the sheer joy of watching our son learn to eat a popsicle, or experience his first swim lesson.

Why fear? Because it is far from clear what baby #1 means for my tenure prospects, let alone baby #2. Because I have already been the recipient of far too many stories about pregnant professors overburdening their colleagues when they take leave, of comments from both men and women who say “well, one kid pre-tenure is one thing, but two…?” Because the question of how I am to juggle a late December birth with a two-course teaching load come spring has not yet been resolved.

I know I’m in good company—plenty of American working women have more than one child, and do it while working far less cushy jobs than I. Many have to forgo the pleasures of nursing, a job that requires upwards of 30 hours per week initially by itself. And a scary proportion do it all without healthcare.

I am lucky, to be sure. I am also—however—completely freaked out. Maybe that will change? I’ll keep you posted.

Teacher Preparation: Mend It, Don't End It

Monday, June 15, 2009
Some education reformers want to cut higher education out of the business of teacher preparation and give the job to non-traditional providers. While there are numerous alternatives to traditional teacher preparation--such as residency programs and initiatives such as Teach for America--the vast majority of the nation's teachers continue to graduate from schools of education.

I recently authored this policy brief, funded by the Carnegie Corporation through a grant to my employer, the New Teacher Center, as part of its Teacher for a New Era (TNE) initiative. TNE is built upon the premise that teacher preparation can be strengthened by building upon strong teacher development partnerships that currently exist between higher education and k-12 schools. The brief makes the case that teacher development should not assumed to be over the day a teacher leaves his or her preparation program, but should be viewed as a developmental continuum spanning the entire teaching career which should include a robust induction period. It offers up some promising partnership models and example of state policies that support the development of such linkages between teacher education and school-based induction programs.

Here's are some brief excerpts:
The Carnegie Corporation’s Teachers for a New Era (TNE) initiative is an attempt to rethink teaching by building upon what works, focusing on available evidence to improve, and learning from successful reform models. In effect, it is an opportunity and a call for traditional teacher preparation to reinvent itself.


A challenge for practitioners and policymakers alike is to envision and create a continuum of teacher support which stretches from the first days of pre-service education throughout the entire teaching career. The critical element of this challenge is to strengthen the connection between the pre-service curriculum and district-based teacher induction program and to develop mutual accountability for new teacher development among the key stakeholders. The reality is far from this vision.


The alignment of teacher preparation and induction has been a focus of conversation among academics, practitioners, and policymakers for more than two decades. Calls continue to come from many quarters for greater action on this front. Most recently, James G. Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, has vowed to use the organization as a “lever for reform,” urging institutions of higher education to build intensive partnerships with schools and districts.

Only in a select few settings have imagined reforms actually occurred. An on-going challenge is to continue to move this work forward and to create replicable partnership models and policies. Another challenge is actually demonstrating the impact of such work—not just for teachers, but also for their students and the schools they serve. Advocates of such a system, including the Carnegie Corporation’s Teachers for a New Era initiative, have made a compelling case that an aligned system of teacher development is in the best interest of the educators themselves. But does it result in more effective teachers? And does it benefit students and schools? Perhaps it does, but we don’t really have sufficient evidence to demonstrate it.

Due to the rarity of data systems that bridge the divide between higher education and k–12 schools, it has been nearly impossible to measure the impact of the small number of partnerships and state policies that have sought to create a seamless teacher development continuum encompassing both pre-service education and new teacher induction. Theoretically, if the alignment is strong, then we should see a number of outcomes as a result: greater teacher satisfaction, increased educator self-efficacy, reduced new teacher attrition, stronger teacher evaluation data, and perhaps even improved student achievement.

The College Payoff

Sunday, June 14, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm...

One reason I was so excited to join Brainstorm was that it presented a chance to go toe-to-toe once in awhile with my colleague and friend, Kevin Carey. Over the years I’ve read Kevin’s work frequently, and often found myself respectfully disagreeing with him. What’s the best is that our points of disagreement are always worth arguing over—as we are both so clearly interested in seeing major changes when it comes to equity and educational attainment.

This past week presented an illustration. I wrote a critique of an American Enterprise Institute report Kevin co-authored, and he responded with a post taking on some of my points. Since I have plenty to say in turn, and since I think this is a discussion very much worth having, I want to continue the debate here.

My main point in the original post was that the AEI authors jumped to conclusions I don’t find particularly helpful. They want to do something about low graduation rates, but prematurely conclude the solutions lie in changing institutional practices. Kevin replied with “colleges make a difference” and who would want to argue otherwise?

Well, in some sense—me. To put a finer point on it, I argue they individually make a difference, but mainly on the margins and for uncomfortable reasons.

Here's the outline of what I'm thinking. First, I emphatically believe that there’s an economic payoff to years of college, and credentials in particular, and that most students learn at least something during the time they spend in college. I also buy the research of Jennie Brand & Yu Xie (and others) who find that students least likely to attend college are in fact most likely to benefit from attending. This is why I'm for greater equity in access and completion. Second, I definitely do not believe that the sources of observed differentials in student outcomes among colleges—things like levels of student engagement, graduation rates, and returns to the degree—are about institutional policies and practices of the kind Kevin's referring to. Why? Since at least to some degree, most of our colleges select kids for admission based on evidence that they will be engaged and “able to benefit” from the experience--and they do this in different ways and to differing degrees-- then variation in graduation rates is clearly going to result.

So that's why colleges themselves probably only matter on the margins. And here comes the "uncomfortable" part. We have to recognize that (like it or not) the primary functions of our colleges and universities are (1) facilitating the creation of social networks and (2) credentialing. We go to college to hang out with people who will later be our friends, spouses, colleagues, and Facebook buddies-- and these people will help us find jobs and make good connections throughout our lives. We also go so that future employers will find us more desirable-- whether or not they should.

Ultimately, I don’t think that detracts from the importance of higher education, and in particular from the goal of broadening access to higher education. It’s a gatekeeper, and more people need to get in. But it does—and should- detract from the sense that some colleges “do a better job” than others. What does that really mean when what they "do" is help you meet your socially advantaged counterparts and send smoke signals to employers? If that’s what you’re buying, and you understand that, ok. I don't think most people do.

Now back to Kevin’s points. Sure, some colleges have high dropout rates and that’s a shame. Part of the reason is that they’re enrolling students who—a decade or two ago—wouldn’t have attended college. Now, in a college for all culture, they go. Some get a degree- and in this sense, opening doors is serving them well. Others suffer enormous personal costs, financial investments and feelings of personal failure. These things are hard to measure, but are undoubtedly affecting the numbers we observe. We hardly pay attention to (or measure) important factors like individuals’ health and development, and yet we assume that any remaining variation in outcomes (e.g. engagement or graduation rates) not accounted for by observable factors can be credited to college practices—instead of attributing the variation to the vast array of important predictors of individual functioning that we just don’t measure. Why?

If we want to make better policies to increase attainment and close gaps we need to get a better handle on what the real problems are. What if the differences in graduation rates are explained by differences in how mentally and physically prepared students at different colleges are for postsecondary education? Right now, that doesn’t show up in the data. So Kevin says the remaining variation is in the colleges’ domain. Yet if, based on that, we direct policy interventions at the colleges when the real problem is health, we’ll fail to generate change. That’s simply not useful, and potentially a waste of money. Why wait for research? This is why. We need more numbers, and less conjecture.

How College Gets Under Your Skin

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm, over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

I’ve been preoccupied by sleep lately. Not sleeping— though as I approach the end of my first trimester I sure could use some— but sleep itself. What it means to sleep a little or a lot, how it affects your daily interactions with others, etc. This is something I know a tiny bit about, having spent a solid year sleep-deprived after the birth of my first child, but not something I’ve devoted my academic time to.

Until now. I just spent two full days at the Cells to Society (C2S) Summer Biomarker Institute. C2S is also known as the Center on Social Disparities and Health at Northwestern University. It’s directed by developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, and has additional star power in folks like Thom McDade, Emma Adam, and Chris Kuzawa. These are social science researchers who have mastered the hard sciences as well, and are using medical tools to get at how social practices and environments “get under the skin.”

What does that mean? Well, to explain I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about sleep. It all begins with an attempt to understand the reasons why so many low-income kids drop out of college. A big problem, to be sure— and one that we still don’t know enough about. I’m thinking that has to do with the limited number of ways in which we’ve approached the problem. It’s primarily treated as an educational issue, one we tackle with a combination of college practices and individual-level incentives like money.

But what if, in fact, higher rates of dropout had something to do with poorer mental or physical health? What if the conditions in which low-income kids experience college actually make them less healthy? We all understand stress, and most of us think it’s a regular part of life everyone deals with. But we have differing types and degrees of stress, and in turn differing responses and reactions. Some of us think being stressed out is about trying to fit in an optional French class to our busy schedules, because we’d like to hang out with that cute French boy. Others feel stressed because they do not have enough money to pay for lunch, and are working 2 jobs on top of 4 classes to try and make ends meet.

Looking at sleep patterns, and sleep quality, is one way to try and quantify the effects of college— and policies associated with college-going — on health. I have Emma Adam to thank for getting me to really start think of this as a research topic— one I plan to pursue. When you wake up well-rested your cognitive functioning is improved, and you can go out and learn. When you’ve been in bed for very few hours, or tossed and turned all night, it can be hard to drive to school, let alone master the material in class. At some point, you may just give up.

Lest anyone read this to mean that I think genetic differences underlie social class differences in college attainment— stop right there. Not at all. But there are complex ways in which one’s social environment can alter the biological state, even temporarily, which in turn affects academic achievement. I think it’s about time we start thinking, then, about how college gets under our skin.

Everyone Gets an 'A'

The New York Times editorial page opines ("Truth in Teaching") this morning on teacher evaluation, informed by a new report from the New Teacher Project. I am happy to see the Times's expansive take on this issue, not focusing purely on firing ineffective teachers, but also talking about better training of school administrators, rewarding teaching excellence, and access to better quality professional development to improve classroom practice across the board. That said, the teacher evaluation process needs a complete overhaul to serve a real purpose for both teachers and students.

Read a selection from the editorial below:
Education reform will go nowhere until the states are forced to revamp corrupt teacher evaluation systems that rate a vast majority of teachers as “excellent,” even in schools where children learn nothing.

A startling new report from a nonpartisan New York research group known as The New Teacher Project lays out the scope of the problem. The study, titled “The Widget Effect,” is based on surveys of more than 16,000 teachers and administrators in four states: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio.

The first problem it identifies is that evaluation sessions are often short, infrequent and pro forma — typically two or fewer classroom observations totaling 60 minutes or less. The administrators who perform them are rarely trained to do the evaluations and are under intense pressure from colleagues not to be critical. Not surprisingly, nearly every teacher passes, and an overwhelming majority receives top ratings.

At the same time, more than 80 percent of administrators and nearly 60 percent of teachers surveyed said that they knew a tenured teacher who deserved to be dismissed for poor performance. Half of 12 districts studied had not dismissed a tenured teacher in the previous five years. The study also says that teachers who need and want to improve their skills find it very hard to get help.

Until things change, excellent teachers will not be recognized and rewarded, low-performing teachers will remain in the classroom and teachers who could become high achievers if they had more support never will.

To break out of this failing system, the report says, the states will need to create effective evaluation practices. Those must fairly rate teachers’ different levels of ability. School districts must also invest in teacher development programs and be prepared to fire bad teachers who show no ability or desire to get better.
In a related story, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports ("Ackerman vows tighter teacher standards") that just 13 of 10,700 Philadelphia teachers district-wide received an "unsatisfactory" evaluation last year. It is simply not possible in any human resources system -- assuming the existence of an honest, useful and properly weighted evaluation instrument (which clearly is not the case here) -- that only 0.12% of employees are performing unsatisfactorily. And, not that it is all the teachers' fault, but this in a school district in its sixth year of corrective action! This just further highlights the problem. Teacher evaluations are neither providing informative feedback to educators to help them improve nor are they holding truly ineffective educators accountable for either improving their performance or moving onto something else.

Clout Goes To College - UPDATE

Here's an update on this blog post ("Clout Goes to College") from last week.

Chicago Tribune (6/10/2009): "University of Illinois shields data on clouted students"
The University of Illinois has refused a request by the Chicago Tribune for test scores and grade-point averages of applicants who appeared on its admissions clout lists, saying the release would violate privacy rights even if the students are not named.

Open records experts scoffed at [the] reason for withholding the information, saying the data do not identify the student and as such cannot be an invasion of privacy.

Experts point to a 2002 decision in which the
University of Wisconsin was forced to turn over test scores, grade-point averages and class rankings. In that case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that when a request does not seek personally identifiable information, there is no overriding public-policy interest in keeping records confidential.

Chicago Tribune (6/10/2009): "Gov. Pat Quinn to create panel to probe U. of I. admissions"

Gov. Pat Quinn will appoint a panel Wednesday to investigate University of Illinois' admissions practices, stepping into the controversy nearly two weeks after the Tribune first reported the existence of a clout list for well-connected applicants.

Quinn's seven-member Admissions Review Commission, led by well-respected retired federal Judge Abner Mikva, will have 60 days to complete its work, according to an executive order expected to be signed by the governor.

Budget Balancing for Dummies

Tuesday, June 9, 2009
I hate to pick on my state of residence, but sometimes it's just too easy and too well deserved.

A proposal in Wisconsin suggests that state policymakers may be prioritizing the appearance of belt tightening over the enactment of meaningful savings. To close a $6.5 billion deficit, the governor and legislature will require that all state and university employees be furloughed regardless of whether their positions are actually funded with state dollars. It's a proposal that attends to a 'Keep It Simple, Stupid' view of budgetary public relations rather than striving for intelligent budgeting. The furlough as enacted enables politicians to blather blindly that "everyone is sacrificing, doing their part, tightening their belt, blah, blah, blah," even if it won't save Wisconsin one red cent--and could actually cost it money. In fact, the furlough could actually serve as an anti-stimulus. It would pull money out of the state economy by forcing employees funded through federal and private grants to not spend those dollars at a time the state desperately needs such an influx.

Erica Perez of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports:

Facing state-mandated furloughs, University of Wisconsin System employees are struggling with how to handle unpaid days off in an academic environment.

Professors and instructors aren't sure if they will have to cancel classes. And many argue that a break from federally funded research does nothing to help the state budget.

To help close the state budget gap, lawmakers recently approved Gov. Jim Doyle's plan to require all state employees - including those represented by unions - to take 16 unpaid furlough days over the next two years, the equivalent of a 3% pay cut.

They also rescinded a 2% pay increase that was to take effect this month. That freeze affects state employees not represented by unions, including 19,500 faculty, academic staff members and senior executives in the UW System.

Then there are the university employees whose salaries aren't paid with state money. Thousands of UW employees are paid partially or fully with non-state sources of revenue. For instance, many researchers have won federal grant money that helps pay their salaries. Other staffers, such as for a pre-college program, are federally funded.

They have to take furloughs and the corresponding pay cut even though the state has assured UW officials that the non-state funded parts of the unpaid salaries, such as federal grant money, would not be taken away, [UW System spokesman David] Giroux said.

"What the researchers are pointing out is that not only does that not help the state financially, it actually hurts the state," UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin told regents last week.

Where seasoned leadership lets us down, a savvy, first-term legislator, Rep. Kilda Helen Roys, injects some common sense into the budget process. (As a Madison area legislator, she undoubtedly also represents large numbers of state and UW System employees, making her proposal good politics as well.)
Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (D-Madison) issued the following statement on her proposed amendment to the state budget, a motion that would only furlough state employees if doing so would result in a net savings to the state:

"A blanket furlough of all state workers may, in some cases, actually end up increasing the cost to state taxpayers.

Some examples of this include workers whose furlough times will need to be staffed by other workers at overtime pay rates (time and a half or more), workers whose positions are funded by federal or non-GPR dollars, and workers whose positions bring money into the state through matching funds based on the hours they work, like university researchers.

Part of this is making sure that state employee furloughs actually save taxpayer money. My amendment ensures that furloughs for state workers will be implemented strategically, at a savings to the state. "
Here's more from the Wisconsin State Journal.

My prediction: PR will triumph over common sense. But, stay tuned.

Cal Grants: Spared From Termination?

Sunday, June 7, 2009
The San Francisco Chronicle reports ("Cal Grants may be spared from budget cuts") that a key legislative committee in California has rejected the Terminator's budget proposal to eliminate Cal Grants.
The Conference Committee on the Budget, which has been wading through Schwarzenegger's budget plan that makes drastic spending cuts across the board, voted to reject his Cal Grants proposal in a 6-4 party-line vote with Democrats in the majority.
Cal Grants are state-funded monetary grants that help eligible students pay for college expenses, up to $9,700 per year.

BACKGROUND: Cal Grant on the Chopping Block

Clout Goes To College

Friday, June 5, 2009
Over the last several days, the Chicago Tribune's Stacy St. Clair and Jodi S. Cohen have produced an eye-opening series ("Clout goes to college") on the so-called "clout list" (or "Category I" list) utilized by the University of Illinois, apparently affording the well-connected a leg up in the admissions process at that state's flagship campus. And, yes, even former Governor Rod Blagojevich and influence peddler Tony Resko make guest appearances in this series. It's a good read.
At a time when it's more competitive than ever to get into the University of Illinois, some students with subpar academic records are being admitted after interference from state lawmakers and university trustees, a Tribune investigation has revealed.

Hundreds of applicants received special consideration in the last five years, according to documents obtained by the Tribune under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The records chronicle a shadow admissions system in which some students won spots at the state's most prestigious public university over the protests of admissions officers, while others had their rejections reversed during an unadvertised appeal process.
While UI officials initially downplayed the use of the clout list, they since have suspended its use pending further investigation. "Clout list put on suspension" (6/2/2009)

Is anyone really surprised by the existence of such a list or the fact that well-connected students get preferential treatment? In actuality, is it necessarily any worse than legacies or athletes receiving special consideration? Don't all such exceptions trample upon an assumed merit-based admissions process?

I'm no expert in this area -- but I imagine that this isn't simply an "Illinois is corrupt" issue, but that such practices are rather widespread in college admissions processes. Am I wrong? Or is UI simply a bad apple spoiling the whole bunch?

Sanford is Stimulated

Ed Week's Politics K-12 blog reports that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford will be forced to apply for federal stimulus funding, despite his opposition.
South Carolina can now get a boatload of federal aid, some $700 million, largely designated for education under the economic-stimulus law. The state Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that Republican Gov. Mark Sanford must apply for the money.

The court found that the state’s General Assembly had authority in passing its state budget plan, which assumed use of money from the state fiscal-stabilization fund, to order the governor to formally seek the money. The governor had contended that he had the sole authority to request the federal aid. He said earlier this month that he would not appeal the ruling.

I guess he won't be running as the "effectiveness" candidate should he decide to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.

For background, see here, here and here.

Sorting, Selection, and Success

Thursday, June 4, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The latest report from the American Enterprise Institute, Diplomas and Dropouts, hits one nail on the head: plenty of students starting college do not finish a degree. Access does not equate with success, and partly as a result, U.S. higher education is perpetuating a lot of inequality.

What do we do about this? The authors identify a key fact: “analysis of graduation rates reveals wide variance among institutions that have similar admissions standards and admit students with similar track records and test scores.” They interpret this to mean that “while student motivation, intent, and ability matter greatly when it comes to college completion, our analysis suggests that the practices of higher education institutions matter, too.”

This is a pretty common argument made by many policy institutes and advocacy organizations, including but not limited to the Education Trust and the Education Sector. I understand their goal—to make sure that colleges and universities can’t hide behind the excuse of “student deficits” in explaining low graduation rates, and instead get focused on the things they can do something about. In some ways that mirrors efforts over the last fifty years to focus on “school effects” in k-12 education —witness the continuing discussion of class size and teacher quality despite evidence that overall variation in student achievement is much more attributable to within-school differences in student characteristics than to between-school differences (school characteristics). Like many others, I read those findings to say that if we really want to make progress in educational outcomes, we must address significant social problems (e.g. poverty, segregation) as well as educational practices. Don’t misinterpret me- it’s not that I think teachers don’t matter. It’s simply a matter of degree—where and how can we make the biggest difference for kids, and under what circumstances.

Unlike k-12, access in higher education isn’t universal and competitive admissions processes and pricing structures result in lots of sorting of kids into colleges and universities. As a result, they differ tremendously in the students they serve. In turn, as the AEI report admits, this necessarily shapes their outcomes.

The problem is, all this sorting (selection bias) has to be properly accounted for if you want to isolate the contributions that colleges make to graduation rates. (I’ll qualify that briefly to add that the role college enrollment management —tuition setting, financial aid, and admissions— plays in the sorting process is quite important, and is under colleges’ control.) But if you want to isolate institutional practices that ought to be adopted, you first have to get your statistical models right.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the AEI authors have done that. To be sure, they try to be cautious, pointing out colleges that look “similar” but have extremely different graduation rates (rather than modestly different ones). But how they reached “similarity” leaves a lot to be desired. It seems to rest entirely on level of selectivity and geographic region. Their methods don’t begin to approach the gold standard tools needed to figure out what works (say, a good quasi-experimental design). Important student-level characteristics (socioeconomic background, high school preparation, need for remediation, etc) aren’t taken into account. Nor are many key school-level characteristics (e.g. resource levels and allocations). In sum, we are left with no empirical evidence that the numerous other plausible explanations for the findings have even been explored.

I’m not surprised by this, but have to admit that I’m a bit bummed. Yes, I “get” that AEI and places like it aren’t research universities. Folks don’t want to spend long periods of time conducting highly involved quantitative research before starting to talk policy and practice. But I don’t see how this approach is moving the ball forward—sure it gets peoples’ attention, but it’s not compelling to the educated reader—the one who votes and takes action to change the system. Moreover, it doesn’t get us any closer to the right answers, or provide any confidence that if we follow the recommendations we can expect real change.

There have been solid academic studies of the causes for variation in college graduation rates (here’s one example). They struggle with how hard it is to deal with the many differences among students and colleges that are not recorded – and thus not detectable—in national datasets. If we want better answers, we need to start by investing in better data and better studies. In the meantime, I think skipping the step of sifting and winnowing for the most accurate answers is inadvisable. Though, sadly, unsurprising…

Here's To Your Health

Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The Wisconsin Governor's School Health Award is a worthy initiative that recognizes schools for creating environments that promote student health and support learning. (Disclosure: I was involved in the establishment of this program when I served as the Governor's education advisor.)

A number of national education organizations -- some supported by the Centers for Disease Control, Division of Adolescent and School Health -- have been active for years in supporting this type of work. They include the National Association of State Boards of Education and the National School Boards Association. In addition, the National Governors Association released a comprehensive policy brief on building healthy schools back in 2006.

Hitting the Big Leagues

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
It's with quite a bit of trepidation that I share the news... I have joined the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm. Starting today you can check me out over there and over here too, of course.

This assistant professor mommy didn't really need more on her plate, but what can I say? I guess I'm just a girl who can't say no... (I hope you all hear the Oklahoma theme music in the background.) G'nite!

Whining Vouchers

When school voucher advocates tell you that they support accountability for public dollars used to fund private education, check their credentials. They're not all cut from the same cloth.

On the one hand, this is a great example of whining by school voucher inc. and opposition to all notions of public accountability. The overstated claims ("improved public school results"), fear mongering ("a thinly disguised effort to crush school choice"), and hyperbole (accountability "legislation" pro-voucher advocates "helped to develop") is amusing.
The nation’s largest and most successful urban school choice program is in jeopardy.

Opponents seek to suffocate Milwaukee’s choice program with financial cuts and a barrage of red tape cloaked in the guise of “accountability.” Their strategy will mean a slow but certain death
In this case, it comes from an organization called the "Institute for Justice," a self-described "libertarian public interest law firm" based in Arlington, Virginia. It was co-founded in 1991 by Clint Bolick -- a right-wing activist with ties to Clarence Thomas and a track record of opposition to civil rights legislation, including orchestrated right-wing attacks on Lani Guinier, President Clinton's appointment to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Along with Kenneth Starr -- yes, that Ken Starr -- Bolick was involved in defending the Milwaukee voucher program in the courts on behalf of the state of Wisconsin back in the 1990s (hired by then Guv'nah Tommy Thompson).

Here's what former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley said about the Institute for Justice in 1997: "It is quite clear to me that the Institute for Justice has something in mind other than helping all children get a good education. In his pursuit of vouchers, Mr. Bolick seems eager to gut some of the most fundamental civil rights laws of this land -- in particular, laws that have done so much to help disabled children and young women get the best education possible."

Caveat emptor.

Over at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Alan Borsuk reports of a "schism" in the voucher movement with the likes of Howard Fuller finding the proposed reforms acceptable, while Susan Mitchell, the Institute for Justice, and other grenade throwers incensed.
The 120-plus private schools, with about 20,000 students, will have to give standardized tests and report the results, employ teachers who have at least bachelor's degrees and meet the same minimum hours of instruction as public schools, according to the agreement that is part of the state budget proposal endorsed Friday by the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee.

The upshot is a schism within the ranks of voucher leaders that has, among other things, separated the most prominent voice of the movement, Howard Fuller, from a longtime, influential ally, Susan Mitchell, president of the organization School Choice Wisconsin.

Fuller described the outcome as "a decent result."

Texas State Board Evolves

Monday, June 1, 2009
Evolution sometimes happens right before our eyes. There's been a coup d'etat of sorts in Texas.

The San Antonio Express-News reports ("Senate ousts creationist as head of state ed board") that the Texas State Senate, in an all-too-rare rebuff of Governor Rick Perry, has removed the State Board of Education chairman who has led the charge against evolution in the Lone Star State.
In a rare rejection of an appointment from the governor, the Senate on Thursday ousted Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education as his supporters claimed the Bryan dentist was the victim of his strong religious beliefs.

McLeroy is a devout Christian who believes in creationism and the notion that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. He has steadfastly argued that Texas students should be taught the weaknesses of evolution.

Background here and here.