Strengthening Student Support: A Sensible Proposal with What Results?

Friday, August 28, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

Anyone who's taken a hard look at the reasons why more students drop out of community college realizes it's got to have at least something to do with their need for more frequent, higher-quality advising. After all, in many cases these are students who are juggling multiple responsibilities, only one of which is attending college, and they need to figure out a lot of details-- how to take the right courses to fit their particular program (especially if they hope to later transfer credits), how to get the best financial aid package, how to work out a daily schedule that can maximize their learning, etc. It's fairly easy to figure that in fact community college students would likely stand to benefit more from good advising than their counterparts at many 4-year institutions.

Except high-quality advising isn't what they get. Counselor-student ratios are on average 1000:1. That's right-- one counselor for a population the size of a decent high school. In elementary and secondary schools the ratio is 479:1. There's a pay disparity as well-- in k-12 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual earnings for a counselor in 2006 was nearly $54,000. For counselors at community colleges it was $48,000 (and for those at other colleges it was $42,000). Now, perhaps the salary differentials reflect the different work load, and assumptions about it being easier to counsel adults. But I tend to think this is offbase-- these are outdated notions of who community college students are and what they need.

So what would happen if we reduced the counselor/student ratio at community colleges to a standard even better than the national average in k-12? And at the same time ramped up the intensity of the counseling? Theory would suggest we should see some meaningful results. Many studies, including my own, point toward a persistent relationship between parental education and college outcomes that's indicative of the importance of information-- and information (plus motivation) is what counseling provides. So, putting more counselors into a community college and increasing the quality of what they provide should work-- if students actually go and see them.

To test these hypotheses, MDRC (a terrific NYC-based evaluation firm) recently conducted a randomized program evaluation in two Ohio community colleges. In a nutshell, at college A students in the treatment group were assigned (at random) to receive services from a full-time counselor serving only 81 students, while at college B students in the treatment group had a counselor serving 157 students. In both cases, the control group students saw counselors serving more than 1,000 students each. In addition to serving far fewer students than is typical, these counselors were instructed to provide services that were "more intensive, comprehensive, and personalized." In practice, students in the treatment group did see their counselors more often. The "treatment" lasted two semesters.

The students in this study are Midwesterners, predominantly (75%) women, predominantly white (54%), with an average age of 24, half living below the poverty line and half are working while in school. I think it's also worth pointing out that while all applied for financial aid, these were not folks who were overwhelming facing circumstances of deprivation-- 88% had access to a working car, and 64% had a working computer in their home. And 98% were U.S. citizens.

The results indicate only modest results. After one semester of program implementation, the biggest effects occured-- students in the treatment group were 7 percentage points more likely to register for another semester (65 vs. 58%). But those differences quickly disappeared, and no notable differences in outcomes like the number of credits taken and other academic outcomes occured. Moreover, the researchers didn't find other kinds of effects you might expect--such as changes in students' educational goals, feelings of connection to the college, or measured ability to cope with struggles.

So what's going on? The folks at MDRC suggest 3 possibilities: (1) the program didn't last long enough to generate impacts, (2) the services weren't comprehensive enough, (3) advising may need to be linked to other supports--including more substantial financial aid--in order to generate effects. I think these are reasonable hypotheses, but I'd like to add some more to this list.

First and foremost, there's a selection problem. MDRC tested an effect of enhanced advising on a population of students already more likely to seek advice-- those who signed up for a study and more services. Now, of course this is a common problem in research and it doesn't compromise the internal validity of the results (e.g. I'm not saying that they mis-estimated the size of the effect). And, MDRC did better than usual in using a list of qualified students (all of whom, by the way had to have completed a FAFSA) and actively recruiting them into the study-- rather than simply selecting participants from folks who showed up to a sign-up table and agreed to enter a study. But, in the end they are testing the effects of advising on a group that was responsive to the study intake efforts of college staff. And we're not provided with any data on how that group differed from the group who weren't responsive to those efforts--not even on the measures included on the FAFSA (which it seems the researchers have access to). Assuming participants are different from non-participants (and they almost always are), I'm betting the participants have characteristics that make them more likely to seek help-- and therefore are perhaps less likely to accrue the biggest benefits from enhanced advising. I wish we had survey measures to test this hypotheses-- for example we could look at the expectations of participants at baseline and compare them to those of more typical students-- but the first survey wasn't administered until a full year after the treatment began. To sum, up, this issue doesn't compromise the internal validity of the results, but it may help explain why such small effects were observed-- there are often heterogeneous effects of programs, and those students for whom you might anticipate the bigger effects weren't in the study at all.

A second issue: we just don't know nearly enough about the counterfactual in this case-- specifically, what services students in the control group received. (We know a bit more about differences in what they were offered, e.g. from Table 3.3, but not in terms of what they received,) We are provided comparisons in services received by treatment status only for one measure-- services received 3+ times during the first year of the study (Appendix Table c.3), but not for the full range of services such as those shown in Appendix Table C.1. For example we don't know that students in the control and treatment groups didn't have similar chances of contacting a counselor 1 or 2 times, only the incidence of 3+ contacts. If the bar was rather high, it may have been tougher to clear (e.g. the treatment would've needed to have a bigger impact to be significant).

Having raised those issues, I want to note that these are fairly common problems in evaluation research (not knowing much about either study non-participants or about services received by the control group), and they don't affect MDRC's interpretations of findings. But these problems may help us understand a little bit more about why more substantial effects weren't observed.

Before wrapping up, I want to give MDRC credit for paying attention to more than simply academic outcomes in this study-- they tested for social and health effects as well, including effects on stress (but didn't find any). As I've written here before, we need to bring the study of student health and stress into educational research in a more systematic way, and I'm very glad to see MDRC doing that.

So, in the end, what have we learned? I have no doubt that the costs of changing these advising ratios are substantial, and the impacts in this case were clearly low. Right now, that doesn't lend too much credence to increasing spending on student services. But, this doesn't mean that more targeted advising might not be more effective. Perhaps it can really help men of color (who are largely absent from this study). Clearly, (drumroll/eye-rolling please), more research is needed.

RttT: Redefining Teacher Effectiveness

My colleagues and I at the New Teacher Center have offered up what I believe to be a balanced and thoughtful series of recommendations to strengthen the teacher and principal effectiveness provisions in the U.S. Department of Education's proposed Race to the Top regulations. You can find the NTC's initial public comments -- submitted on August 21 -- here. And you find an addendum -- filed yesterday -- offering recommendations for specific language additions, here.

Generally, we are supportive of the overall direction of Race to the Top. But we feel that its focus on teacher effectiveness is too narrowly about measuring individual teacher impact at the exclusion of supporting all educators to strengthen their teaching and leadership skills and attending to teaching and learning conditions within schools that impact student success.

Here is a brief summary of our recommendations:
Improving Teacher Effectiveness and Achieving Equity in Teacher Distribution
• The RttT guidelines should include a definition of teacher effectiveness that acknowledges and
supports the development of teacher and principal practice, especially during the early years.
New teachers and principals, who disproportionately work in struggling schools, need strong
mentoring and support to become effective.

• The RttT guidelines should define ‘effective principal’ more expansively, drawing upon
additional measures of student success and data on teaching and learning conditions to fully
reflect the impact of teachers, school leaders, and school environment on student learning.

• The RttT guidelines should require states to address school leadership development and teaching and learning conditions in their strategies to improve teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of quality teachers.

Improving Collection and Use of Data
• RttT guidelines should specifically include teaching and learning conditions data gathered from
practitioners to help schools, districts and states better understand supports and barriers to
teacher effectiveness and equitable teacher distribution, and to incorporate this information into
their longitudinal P-20 data systems.
And here is some selected language that provides insight into our thinking around teacher effectiveness and teacher development:
Teacher effectiveness in the proposed RttT guidelines focuses exclusively on value-added student assessments. While value-added student achievement data can be used to reward and recognize certain achievements by educators, it should not be the sole method by which teachers are evaluated, observed, rewarded, and deemed “effective.” Firing the least effective teachers and rewarding the most effective alone is short-sighted and ignores the vast majority of teachers in the middle who can achieve greater success if given access to high-quality induction and professional development, strong and supportive school administrators, and opportunities for collaboration and leadership. Great teachers are made – not born. Teachers need professional support and opportunities to develop their practice, including focused induction during their initial years in the profession. It is important to measure teacher impact on student learning, but measuring impact without providing the means to help educators strengthen their practice will ultimately fail our schools.

If RttT is to be an effective reform strategy, it needs to recognize teacher development as a primary means to maximize classroom effectiveness. RttT should require states not merely to identify the best teachers, but see that their successes form the building blocks of a better understanding of effective teaching practice that can be replicated in classrooms across America.
And on teaching and learning conditions:
In order for school leaders to attract and retain quality teachers, research shows the need for school leaders to make decisions based on data that incorporate the perspective of classroom teachers. Teacher survey data can provide insight into the school culture, how decisions are made, and the use of instructional and planning time for teachers. Such contextual data may explain differences in teacher effectiveness between schools and districts. NTC has worked with over 300,000 educators in 10 states, and collected teaching and learning conditions data from over 8,000 schools to utilize in school improvement plans. In North Carolina, the State Board of Education now requires schools to utilize the data from the biennial working conditions survey to inform annual improvement plans and strategies.

Quality teachers will seek out and stay with strong supportive school leaders; therefore, using RttT funds for salary bonuses in hard-to-staff schools would not be the most effective approach. RttT should encourage states to show how they are using data from teachers, along with student achievement and other relevant data, to develop policies for these schools, strengthen school leadership, and ensure that they are settings where the most effective teachers want to work and can succeed.
The RttT public comment period closes today and a spate of organizations have submitted comments just under the wire. They range from narrow to broad, supportive to critical, and offer everything from research-based suggested line edits to what basically look like press releases buttering up Secretary Duncan.

Visit here to review all of the public comments submitted.

Is it Time to Get Onboard with Online Education?

Sunday, August 23, 2009
In several recent interviews and blog posts I've expressed my hesitation about the move toward online learning in higher education. My concerns are fairly common ones and go like this: How do we know that students are engaged, or even awake, when participating online? How do we know that online learning is as effective as classroom learning? How do we know that any negative consequences outweigh the cost savings? And what exactly are those cost savings? (After all, technology isn't cheap) And finally, despite claims to the contrary, the digital divide still exists-- so how do we know that low-income and rural populations will get the access to online learning they need?

Admittedly, I'll always be forced to note that for most of these big questions there's little evidence to the contrary-- e.g. we don't know much about the effectiveness of classroom learning in higher education either, we don't know its relative cost-effectiveness, and we don't know how many are left out of higher education because they can't make it to a classroom setting.

But, in this case I've tended toward the traditional and in some sense the sociological-- prioritizing the value of in-person face-to-face social interactions over online ones, and assuming that more mentoring occurs in an in-person relationship, adding value to the instruction. So, I tend to say things like "the move to online education is premature" and "we need more evidence."

Ok, so this summer the U.S. Department of Education came out with a decent response in the report "Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Studies." It came out in May-- yes, I'm late to the game here (but honestly, the thing is 93 pages and I read it cover to cover before writing this post). In typical What Works Clearinghouse fashion, the authors pay detailed attention to the methods used in each study they reviewed, and I'm very comfortable with the standards of evidence employed (though I have to note, not every study was peer-reviewed--many were dissertations). They also took care to distinguish between the populations considered in each study (e.g. k-12 versus higher education), and the type and quality of online education examined.

This report taught me the following: (1) There's been much more assessment of the effectiveness of online learning in higher education, compared to k-12. (2) Student outcomes of online learning seem to be somewhat better than those of classroom learning-- but it's not exactly clear that apples and apples comparisons are being made, mainly because the amount of actual instructional time in online courses is greater than that in classroom settings. As the authors write, "Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages."

In some sense this is the kind of evidence I wanted to see in order to be a bit more comfortable with the accelerated pace towards online education. Yet at the same time, I'm not convinced. Apart from the caveat regarding the actual medium, mentioned by the authors above, another reason is that while the authors are right that most of the studies of online learning aren't in k-12, it's also clear from reading the bibliography that they're not in typical undergraduate education either. The meta-analysis is dominated by studies of students in undergraduate education, yes, but of students who have declared their major in undergrad and are taking a specific kind of course (e.g. nursing). (I count only 5-7 studies in this meta- analysis that involve more entry-level courses, or those for struggling learners.) I'd argue this is a very specific, more highly motivated group of adult learners than the folks that a scale-up of online instruction in undergrad education is bound to reach.

Reading between the lines a bit, it seems clear that U.S. DOE won't be motivated to fund more evaluations of online learning outside of k-12 in the near future. I think that would be a mistake- we need to know more about which kinds of online learning work for which undergraduates and under what conditions. We also need to know more specifics about both costs and impacts, allowing for judgements to be made in a cost-effectiveness framework. In the meantime, however, I'm a bit more convinced that online ed is a reasonable way to move forward in solving crowding problems in specific majors, particularly with more advanced students.

RttT: The Odds

Thursday, August 20, 2009
The New Teacher Project's (NTP) odds sheet on states' chances for securing Race to the Top funding is a helpful guide on where states stand. It is relatively on target given available information, and shows that states like California, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin may be ineligible for RttT grants given existing statutory restrictions on what information can inform teacher evaluations or other factors.

Beyond that, I think the 'highly competitive,' 'competitive,' and 'somewhat competitive' gradations used by the NTP report are mostly guesswork. Until the U.S. Department of Education (ED) makes clear how it is going to balance the two primary selection criteria -- Reform Conditions and Reform Plan -- much of this is unquantifiable. The nine Reform Conditions articulated in the ED's draft selection criteria are: academic standards, high-quality assessments, statewide longitudinal data system, alternate routes to teaching, interventions in low-performing schools, charter school expansion, demonstrating significant academic progress, making education funding a priority, and enlisting statewide support and commitment. States that may not be as strong in having created these conditions for education reform can only hope that the ED weighs proposed Reform Plan strategies equally to or more heavily than the Reform Conditions criteria. If ED chooses to steer the money primarily to states that have a proven track record of education policy reform and the results to back it up, then middling and poorly prepared states cannot hope that a stellar application will bail them out from having been reform laggards in recent years.

Until we know more information about the selection process, it is just too easy to pick apart a 5-scale scoring rubric such as that employed by TNTP. As an example, I might quibble with the likes of Minnesota, Missouri and New Jersey being ranked above Massachusetts. Will Massachusetts get credit for its stellar NAEP results? Or will the fact that Minnesota is more charter school friendly trump such outcome measures, despite the fact that charters in the Gopher State don't appear to achieve particularly good results? Those are the types of decisions that the ED will have to make in establishing scoring criteria and the application reviewers will have to make in scoring state applications.

Another wild card in all of this is the funding that 15 states (Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas) are receiving from the Gates Foundation to hire consultants to help them write their RttT applications. Will that support from Gates be akin to getting dealt pocket aces? As Dana Goldstein notes in her American Prospect blog post: "During a time of state budget cuts and layoffs, the Gates funds could mean the difference between a barely completed application [which could take "up to 642 hours"] and one given enough attention to win the competition."

Bloomberg Takes a Cue from Obama

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
When my colleagues and I crafted our Brookings blueprint on community college reform earlier this year, one of our greatest hopes was that federal leadership would spur real changes at the state and local level. More specifically, we hoped that if President Obama spoke out on the important role played by community colleges, and came forward with a proposal to substantially ramp up their resources, he wouldn't be alone. The message-- and the money-- would travel.

At least that was our hope. Call us naive, but really that's the best way to scale up change.

So we were all incredibly psyched to read in August 14's New York Times that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged $50 million to that city's community colleges-- provided he's there to give out the money during a 3rd term of course.

According to the Times, "Mr. Bloomberg’s four-year proposal calls for graduating 120,000 students by 2020 from the city’s six community colleges, a 43 percent increase over the 84,000 students that are currently expected to graduate by that time, his campaign said. Nationally, President Obama has allocated $12 billion aimed at getting 5 million more Americans to graduate from the nation’s 1,200 community colleges by 2020."

This is a welcome shift in attitude from Bloomberg, whom (at least as I understand it) hasn't exactly made life easy for community colleges so far. I'll be in New York several times this fall, and look forward to learning more about exactly how that city's community colleges feel about his intentions. Stay tuned...

Need a Job??

Monday, August 17, 2009
Seriously, I'm hiring... If you're qualified and live in Madison, I want to hear from you!

Project Manager for College Access Program and Evaluation

Seeking a project manager for a one-year project to help design, implement, and plan an evaluation of a statewide college access program. The person will work with Drs. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Douglas N. Harris to craft a unique partnership between state and local governments, business leaders, non-profits, and researchers. The work will offer many opportunities to interact with key state leaders. It is also for an important cause—searching for ways to improve college access for low-income students.

Duties will include: managing daily project activities and deadlines, facilitating the collection of student academic data from state and local government sources, attending meetings with project directors and key partners, and crafting and authoring reports and grant proposals.

The position reports to Drs. Goldrick-Rab and Harris. It begins immediately and ends May 31, 2010 (with possible continuation, contingent on funding). The position is full-time but hours are flexible (some business hours are required). Bachelor’s degree required, MA preferred. Demonstrated interest in education issues and experience with program evaluation and basic statistics also preferred.

The salary associated with the position is $40,000, non-negotiable. The position is that of a consultant, and does not include benefits (benefits could be negotiated, but a lower salary would be required) or office space.

The ideal candidate is reliable, articulate, punctual, energetic, and able to work independently. Must reside in or near Madison, Wisconsin. Must have reliable access to internet, cell phone, and car.

We seek to fill the position immediately. Applications will be considered until the position is filled. To apply, send resume/CV and names and contact information for three references to: and with subject line “Project Manager.”

The Gimme Gimme Game

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

The President's proposed Access and Completion Fund, as represented in HR 3221, is an ambitious effort to get states and institutions of higher education focused on a crucial goal: moving more students from the starting gate to the finish line. By encouraging an emphasis on the need to find constructive routes to degree completion that can be brought to scale, helping more students more quickly, the legislation aims to enact a meaningful shift -- from access alone to access leading to success.

Of course, there had to be someone or something standing in the way of these lofty ambitions. And unsurprisingly, it's the colleges and universities themselves. The four-year institutions in particular, as self-interested and self-serving as ever, have come forward via their powerful lobbying associations to demand that the Fund work not via states but instead funnel the money directly to them. Why? According to a recent Chronicle article, colleges believe such an approach would be more "efficient and effective."

Unlikely. First, to be more efficient the money would have to incur bigger impacts at lower costs. Spreading the total sum ($2.5 billion) among all public 4-year colleges and universities would make that extremely hard to achieve. Imagine the administrative hassles alone. Second, the chances of colleges and universities achieving the kinds of intended impacts without coordination by states are slim to none. The success of the Fund will depend, in part, on getting states to change business as usual, implementing new innovative practices systemwide, reducing waste, and effecting new incentives for institutions. It's hard to imagine autonomous institutions, focused largely on their bottom lines (and yes, even state institutions are guilty of this), making such efforts. Coordination will be key, and 4-year colleges and universities hardly every play nice together. Systematic change requires thinking beyond the needs of colleges, to focus on the needs of students-- states will likely have to force institutions into making this happen by requiring partnerships.

I'll note there are at least two more potential problems with the colleges' proposed solution. Data collection and evaluation are required as part of accepting Fund dollars, and will be nearly impossible to implement unless distribution of dollars (and evaluation efforts) are coordinated at the state level.

And finally, as the Chronicle makes clear, advocates for this change to direct distribution to the colleges stems in part from the desires of private institutions. According to the article, "Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said private institutions are historically at a disadvantage when federal grant programs are distributed through state governments.

"We are the last group on the totem pole," she said. "There is data that shows that, especially during tough economic times, private institutions are limited in grant opportunities. States like to assist public institutions."

Ummm... duh. As it should be. Want more public assistance, state or federal? Become a public institution.

Sure, states might supplant rather than supplement existing state funds with this money. That would be lousy, but hard to avoid-- and it's a problem common to all federal dollars pouring into states right now. Requiring a match, preferably out of operational funds, may help. Clearly, skipping the states won't solve the problem-- colleges and universities will similarly use the dollars to supplant their institutional money.

So, here's to hoping that Congress--and Senator Kennedy's HELP committee in particular--remains focused on the bottom line. Despite the chorus of "gimme gimme" sung by the schools meant to help them, policymakers need to stick to the goal of helping students, not colleges. The two, sadly, are not one and the same.

Genesis of A Firewall

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
A question has been raised regarding the genesis of Wisconsin's restrictive law preventing the consideration of student achievement in the evaluation of teacher performance. Well, it dates back 18 years to 1991. Section 633m of Act 269 (page 131 of the PDF file), a huge omnibus bill, put this restriction into state law. After some minor wordsmithing in Act 16 in 1993, the relevant section of Wisconsin's current statute (118.30 (2) (c)) reads:
The results of examinations administered under this section
to pupils enrolled in public schools, including charter schools,
may not be used to evaluate teacher performance, to discharge,
suspend or formally discipline a teacher or as the reason for the
nonrenewal of a teacher’s contract.
I wonder if any long-time Wisconsinites could provide background detail on how this got into legislation. That was way before my time in the Badger State. UPDATE: A reliable source tells me that this biennial budget bill is where the 8th- and 10th-grade state assessment (the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination) was established.

Also, has anyone answered the question regarding the vintage of California's alleged law that may render it ineligible for Race To The Top funding? (Never mind, this news story provides the answer: 2006. A decent year in Napa, not so much in Sonoma.)

It has been widely reported that New York's firewall preventing the consideration of student performance in teacher tenure decisions, passed in 2008, is set to expire in 2010.

A Sociologist's Place in Educational Reform

Sunday, August 9, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

On Friday the Sociology of Education section of the American Sociological Association held a small conference in San Francisco specifically focused on the role of the sociologist in educational reform. Organized by some of the section’s smartest young thinkers including Mitchell Stevens, Amy Binder, and Elizabeth Armstrong, the meeting was refreshingly thought-provoking. Not everyone in attendance was one of the usual suspects—for example, Tom Toch appeared to give a great talk on school reform.

Central to the day’s discussions was a topic near and dear to my heart: Can, and should, a sociologist of education conduct relevant educational research and try to have an impact on educational reform? Is the academic’s place in the academy, or in the schools? Even if a professor desires to become involved with policy and practice, is her voice welcomed? Considered? Or, as so many (but not all) seemed to suggest, are those efforts a waste of time given that economists appear to dominate policy discussions in ways we can't compete with? Are we simply better off sticking to addressing the "how and why" questions, leaving those questions of greater immediate importance—questions of causal impact, for example—to those who are professionally rewarded for applied research? Sociologists who want tenure, the more senior folks tended to say, need to bring education to sociology—to make contributions to their discipline. Others argued for the sociologist to focus on bringing that perspective to education—making contributions to educational reform.

Obviously the debate is moot if only one approach merits tenure—if the latter kind of work isn’t rewarded, those doing it cannot remain in the academy. So right now, it's most common for sociologists to make the academic work the center of their agenda, and do the more applied stuff on the side—like a hobby. But is it time for this to change? Can, and should, more applied sociological research on education be rewarded in the tenure and promotion processes? I can report there’s very little consensus among my colleagues in this regard, and that differences of opinion are not entirely explained by professional or generational status. However, what’s most remarkable is how impassioned grad students, assistant profs, and tenured professors all are about this issue. Strong opinions abound—and a willingness to engage in debate pervades. That, in and of itself, is exciting.

ps. If you'd like to read a graduate student's perspective on what transpired at that meeting, I encourage you to check out Corey Bower's blog (see the post I'm linking to, as well as ones before and after it).

The Money Chase: California Edition

Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Yesterday's Los Angeles Times reports that state lawmakers in California are considering a statutory change that would increase the likelihood that the Golden States would be eligible to apply for Race To The Top funding. A 2006 state law restricts student test data from being used to inform teacher evaluation.
The state Senate will hold hearings later this month to determine if legislators need to change a California law governing the use of student test scores in order to qualify for competitive federal education reform dollars.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Education Committee, said she plans to hold a hearing when the legislature reconvenes later this month to determine if any laws should be revised.

"We would be letting down an entire generation of students if we failed to act," she said.

Several states have already changed laws to comply with the Obama administration's guidelines.

Any changes to the law could kick off a contentious fight with teachers unions, which have resisted some of the reforms advocated by the Obama administration, including performance pay and data-driven teacher evaluations.
Recent comments by California state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell would suggest that no statutory change is needed however.

As one of three states (California, New York, Wisconsin) apparently running afoul of the proposed Race To The Top application requirement that there be no state law restricting the use of student performance data in teacher evaluation, California joins Wisconsin in proposing changes to existing statutes in hopes of leveraging federal dollars for reform and innovation.

Remedial Education is Worthy of More Attention-- Agreed, But Now What?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mike Rose has a solid piece about the need to "re-mediate" college remediation. I love a professor willing to air his own laundry, in this case confessing to having been a remedial student once himself. And one of my favorite lines comes towards the end, where Rose places remedial education front and center as a key "second chance" function of our higher education system-- and one deserving of more "intellectual resources." Right on, good stuff.

But here's the rub. Remedial education really does need more intellectual firepower aimed at it-- so much so that it's kind of startling. The truth is, one reason remedial education tends to come out in empirical analyses as accruing a "penalty" for those who engage it in is that we know far, far too little about how to do it well. How thick is the body of "what works" evidence on remediation? Woefully, woefully thin. What we know, best of all, is that it doesn't. We also know we likely spend way too little on it (at least in the 2-year sector). I've seen one decent paper by Alicia Dowd that compares the costs of remedial education for decent outcomes to typical costs; she finds that effective remediation costs closer to what 4-years spend, and maybe $3000 per FTE more than what 2-years spend.

I'd love to see a plethora of studies over the coming years employing the kinds of mixed-methods research needed to establish causal impacts of good remedial models and account for those impacts. That's why I was psyched to see the recent announcement that Gates/Hewlett/Carnegie just made $2.5 million in grants to identify in a rigorous way remedial practices that ought to be brought to scale. As Tony Bryk said in his press release, the R&D needs here are massive.

The Money Chase

Monday, August 3, 2009
Today's Wisconsin State Journal (Madison's daily paper) reports that Governor Jim Doyle soon will release a proposal to eliminate the state's existing law that restricts student assessment data from being considered in teacher evaluations. This step is in direct response to the 'ridiculous' label that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan slapped on the state, and an attempt to qualify to apply for competitive Race To The Top funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Governor apparently also will embed within this proposal a series of other policy items, including requiring a third year of math and science for high school graduation (first announced in his 2005 State of the State address) and a push for alternative teacher compensation.

Doyle didn’t say when he would release details of his proposal or whether programs would be introduced individually or as a package. But he said he’ll urge the Legislature to pass the reforms by early next year.

Doyle said he would propose changes that would:

• Better track student performance, from prekindergarten to college. “With that data you can make really sound decisions about what works and what doesn’t work — not based just on what one test shows but on the performance of students that have had certain kinds of schooling over time,” he said.

• Require students to pass three years of math and science before graduating from high school. Currently, a little more than 70 percent of Wisconsin high school students take a third year of math and science. A third of all districts require three years of math, while a quarter of all districts require three years of science.

• Revamp school finance and teacher pay. Doyle wants to let districts get out from under state revenue caps, imposed since 1993, if they work together on union contract negotiations, make employees use the state health plan unless they already use a cheaper plan, and revamp teacher pay, among other things. Money saved can be used to hire teachers and raise student achievement, Doyle said.

Lawmakers and the governor already wiped out the “qualified economic offer,” or QEO, which lets school districts impose a minimum wage-and-benefit increase of 3.8 percent if bargaining fails to produce an agreement.

That move, Doyle said, will spur the development of alternative pay programs.

“You’re finally going to begin to see some innovation in teacher compensation,” Doyle said.

The state teachers union -- the Wisconsin Education Association Council -- is cautiously supportive of the Governor's proposals.

But will these 11th hour changes, if successful, be enough for Wisconsin to race ahead of other states with greater reform credentials in the Race To The Top competition?

Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don't

Sunday, August 2, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

I began the article with a nice, warm feeling--a sweet story of how Barack and Michelle Obama are trying to keep connected and close with their children is a lovely thing to find on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to parent in the White House. Sure, you have plenty of help-- no trouble handling all those bags and kids when you're trying to get out the door, or worrying that you don't have a sitter when you need to stay out late. But I think all parents suffer from a feeling of being too visible, especially when confronted with tantrums or difficult decisions, and these two are right out in front of everyone.

So I both empathize with-- and envy-- the First Parents. Their summer trips with the girls sound idyllic; making gelato in Rome, visiting the Eiffel Tower, Ghana, etc.... While the article focused on those outings as educational opportunities, what they are most clearly is time spent with mom and dad. A very, very busy mom and dad, who've made it a priority to combine work trips with famiy time.

Of course, the article had to take a nasty turn-- revealing that some critics are after Obama for what they see as extravagence. The "nerve" to enjoy one's children while juggling a heavy work schedule, when other Americans can't afford a vacation. This is just so sad. It reaffirms just how workaholic and disfunctional this nation is. We make it hard in so many ways for children to be active parts of our lives, especially if we are working parents. It's hard to fit into the schedule, it's expensive to afford-- and we get judged for it.

I have a friend who often does what feels nearly impossible to me; bringing his kids along when attending conferences (especially those in exotic places). I'd love to do this more, if only. If only it didn't cost so much (the tickets for my son and my husband), require me to make guilt-filled choices between time in a meeting and time at an outing, and most of all, if it didn't seem to diminish me in the eyes of some colleagues. Push a stroller around an academic meeting for an afternoon, and watch as your status facilitates between scholar and's no fun. Make it even more fun, and take a break to nurse on a bench-- just as one of your grad students walks by...

I've heard rumors that some funding agencies get the struggle that parenting academics and researchers feel, and allow for grant resources to be used to bring kids along, or finance childcare to make attendance possible. If it's true, that's fabulous and a practice that should be brought to scale. But in the meantime, let's start on the non-monetary side of things by simply casting a friendlier eye on all working parents who embrace children as part of their work and non-work lives. Barack and Michelle are simply showing us how it's done.

Musical Elective Of The Month

After a brief summer hiatus, August's Musical Elective of the Month is Guster.

You probably first heard of Guster in 1999, courtesy of the breakthrough single "Fa Fa" off their third studio album Lost and Gone Forever. My initial reaction to Guster in those days was "ho, hum." Then I heard their 2003 album, Keep It Together. This is rock/roots-pop music at its best and would be a great introduction for any neophyte to Guster's sound. It features the title track, "Amsterdam," and "Homecoming King."

In 2006, Guster released its fifth studio album, Ganging Up On The Sun, off of which came the single, "One Man Wrecking Machine." There are rumors of a new album coming soon, originally expected sometime in 2009.

As a native of the Bay State, I have a soft spot in my heart for any great band with a Boston connection, and Guster qualifies. The lads first met at Tufts University (located in Medford) -- and they've gone on from there. If you like the music of Barenaked Ladies, Crowded House, and the Old 97s, my guess is that you'll like Guster, if you don't already. Great songwriting, good vocal harmonies and instrumentation, and a refreshing sense of humor. I'm sorry to have missed Guster at Milwaukee's Summerfest this year.
On your way to the best years of your life
Everyone's banging on their gongs
The sooner you leave the sooner you're home
Back in Massachusetts
To your golden age where they tuck you in at night
You didn't see it coming
Now who you gonna wave to?
This time you're not homecoming king
--"Homecoming King," Keep It Together (2003)
For more on Guster, please check out their official web site.

Past Musical Electives can be found here.

Nothing to Do, and All Day to Do It

Saturday, August 1, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

August is upon us, and we academics are nearing the end of our so-called "summer vacation.” My heart always sinks a little when I hear someone (usually a student) call it that, since I know the truth—it’s the busiest, most stressful time of the year. Those three months after grading ends and before the next term begins is when we try and finish every article, start several new ones, plan courses for the upcoming year, write grant proposals, and accomplish a million other small tasks that can supposedly be crammed in since, after all, we are not teaching (ok—some of us aren’t). These insane expectations, perhaps most often held by the untenured among us, lead to 80-hour weeks where we work frantically in fear that come September our to-do list won’t be any shorter. It’s hot, the pool calls, our kids are around to play, but we ignore all that and keep going.

Is life like this after tenure? I'm terribly afraid it is. I'm also sad to think (to realize) that this is likely the life of most Americans—especially those with no hope of eternal job security, whose hourly wage is so low as to demand these long hours? I’m betting yes. Will it ever change? Is there any hope of bringing a little sanity to our working lives, such that we can feel good about saying yes to questions like “will I take a vacation this year?” and “will I take one now?” Since I’m fairly sure that intermittent periods of relaxation are required for mental and physical health, I sure hope so. I’d love to see the Secretary of Health & Human Services get together with someone like the First Lady to take this on. This is a stressful time for so many reasons—and we (all of us) deserve a vacation. Or at least, an afternoon beer summit.