Musical Elective of the Month: April 2010

Friday, April 30, 2010
After seeing a tremendous show in Madison, Wisconsin last Sunday evening with opening act Tift Merritt and headliner Amos Lee, it would be inappropriate not to give both artists kudos by recognizing their status as past Musical Electives.

That accomplished, the Musical Elective of the Month (just under the wire!) for April 2010 is Luka Bloom.

One of many in a line of fine Irish troubadours, Luka (née Kevin Barry Moore) is a 55-year-old Irish singer/songwriter. Appropriately categorized as folk, he brings heartfelt lyrics and a rich, grand voice to bear in his music. He was noticed in America and internationally beginning around 1990. Prior to and after that time, he has recorded 15 studio albums, including 1990's Riverside, 1994's Turf, and his latest, Dreams In America, released in 2010.

He also has embraced numerous covers both on his albums and in concert, including U2's "Bad," Hunters & Collectors' "Throw Your Arms Around Me," and Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" (all on 2001's Keeper Of The Flame).

For more, check out Luka's official web site.

For past Musical Electives, please click here.

Arizona Says...

So far in 2010, it appears that the state of Arizona's contribution to public policy is two-fold:

(1) First, the Legislature and Governor said: "Show me your papers (unless you look like you'd fit in at a Tea Party rally)" and

(2) Now, the Arizona Department of Education is asking teachers to "say 'toy boat' three times in a row -- or you'll be reassigned."

Am I missing something?

But, lest one gets too depressed, there is plenty of good work happening in Arizona, in places like the Arizona K-12 Center and Expect More Arizona. So, chin up, Arizonans!

Race and Debt

Monday, April 26, 2010
The College Board's Advocacy and Policy Center reports that "too many students are borrowing more than they are likely able to manage" and this is particularly true for black undergraduates. According to researchers, fully 27% of black BA recipients borrow more than $30,000 for college, compared to 16% of white BA recipients. The gap is especially large among independent students (those who are a bit older, are parents, or independent for other reasons)-- more than 1 in 3 black independent students who earn BA's graduate with high levels of debt, compared to less than 1 in 4 white independents.

This is a trend we need to know more about. There have been a few articles written about race differences in college financing patterns and receptivity to financial aid, but none have been especially adept at sorting out the underlying reasons for variation by race/ethnicity. Are the patterns attributable to factors which map onto race in this country (e.g. poverty, segregation, school quality, etc) or to factors more closely related to beliefs, expectations, values, etc?

I'm working on this question in the context of a study I co-direct in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study is exploring the impact of need-based financial aid on college outcomes. We've got very rich survey data from students' first two years of college, as we explore it we're beginning to learn a lot. For example, the data (from a sample of more than 2,000 Pell Grant recipients attending 2-year, 4-year, and technical colleges) indicate that black undergraduates are far more likely than white students to know who to contact in their financial aid office and to seek out help, yet at the same time they are less likely to feel comfortable doing so. They are twice as likely as white students to fill out the FAFSA without any help, and almost half as likely to get FAFSA assistance from a parent. In their first year of college alone, they are more than twice as likely to report receiving a private, non-federal loan.

As the College Board report concludes, too much college debt can contribute to future financial insecurity. Many of us hope that increasing rates of educational attainment among students from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds will perpetuate a virtuous cycle benefiting all families-- but those prospects will undoubtedly be diminished if debt takes its toll.

Image courtesy of John Fewings

Grasping At Straws

Illinois is sure to be disappointed if it continues to move forward with a private voucher program (SB 2494) for Chicago Public Schools. Just ask Wisconsin-- and Milwaukee.

Clearly, the Chicago Tribune editorial board ('Liberate the kids'), which is cheering the process on, has not done its homework, not checked its sources, and not looked to its neighbor to the north for guidance. Or it is simply drinking the Kool Aid mixed by Voucher Inc.:
And there's evidence that vouchers improve public schools. A 2009 report by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice examined 17 studies on the impact of voucher programs. Sixteen studies found that vouchers improved student achievement in public schools; one study found they had no positive or negative impact. In other words, competition works.
There is also plentiful evidence that vouchers do NOT improve public schools, including the on-going evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program -- the longest-standing voucher program in the country, just a short drive up I-94 from Chicago.

To look to the Friedman Foundation for guidance on this issue is akin to turning to Karl Rove's new book as a definitive history of the George W. Bush administration. From a University of Illinois professor, Dr. Christopher Lubienski, here's a critique of the Friedman report cited in the Tribune editorial:
[T]he report, based on a review of 17 studies, selectively reads the evidence in some of those studies, the majority of which were produced by voucher advocacy organizations. Moreover, the report can’t decide whether or not to acknowledge the impact of factors other than vouchers on public schools. It attempts to show that public school gains were caused by the presence of vouchers alone, but then argues that the lack of overall gains for districts with vouchers should be ignored because too many other factors are at play. In truth, existing research provides little reliable information about the competitive effects of vouchers, and this report does little to help answer the question.
Competition does not work. Plus, what evidence exists to suggest that these Chicago-area private schools will do any better a job of educating the students who would be taken out of the public system? I can't wait to see that evidence because I'm fairly certain that it doesn't exist. That raises questions about the Tribune's utter disregard of this issue: "What if student performance doesn't improve in private schools? Simple: Parents will vote with their feet." But if there's no comparable evidence of student performance between public and private schools, how can parents (consumers) make informed judgments about their child's education? In addition, what if there are insufficient openings at private schools for students wanting to go? Will the voucher be sufficient to cover the tuition and associated costs at these schools for low-income students?

What would be preferable to this exercise in grasping at straws would be energy directed toward a more difficult series of conversations about school-based policies like teacher quality, school leadership, teaching and learning conditions and overall school improvement, in addition to community-focused strategies such as early childhood education, after-school programs, quality child care, and school health in the city of Chicago that get to kids' readiness to learn when they come to school.

Vouchers are not the answer, but a major distraction from more efficacious approaches that should be the focus of the Illinois Legislature.

Image courtesy of Laura Lee.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Congratulations to my wife, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who was one of only four academics named yesterday as a 2010 William T. Grant Scholar!

UPDATE: University of Wisconsin-Madison press release.

The W. T. Grant Scholars Program supports promising early-career researchers from diverse disciplines, who have demonstrated success in conducting high-quality research and are seeking to further develop and broaden their expertise. Candidates are nominated by a supporting institution and must submit five-year research plans that demonstrate creativity, intellectual rigor, and a commitment to continued professional development. Every year, four to six Scholars are selected and each receives $350,000 distributed over a five-year period.

The four new William T. Grant Scholars and their research projects are:

Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Public Policy, Duke University --
“Economic and Social Determinants of the Educational, Occupational, and Residential Choices of Young Adults”

Phillip Atiba Goff, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles -- “Broken Windows, Broken Youth: The Effect of Law Enforcement on Non-White Males’ Development”

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Educational Policy Studies Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison -- “Rethinking College Choice in America”

Patrick Sharkey, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Sociology Department, New York University -- “The Impact of Acute Violence and Other Environmental Stressors on Cognitive Functioning and School Performance”

Where to Begin?

Where do I begin in critiquing such wrong-headed and vitriolic analysis of Florida Governor Charlie Crist's veto of SB 6, which would have eliminated tenure for teachers and based their evaluations primarily on a single year of student test scores?

One cannot accurately and fairly evaluate an individual educator's performance by test scores alone, especially based on a single year's worth of data (as the Florida legislation would have done) and particularly for new teachers. I've said it before and before that -- and I'll undoubtedly say it again. On this specific issue, I'll take the "what they said" approach. Read Claus von Zastrow, Sherman Dorn, David Kirp, and Steve Peha who provide the right amount of counsel and insight. Today's blog post by Rick Hess on value-added methodologies is also worth reading.

But, first, I'll say a little more. It appears that a fair number of the forces pushing SB 6 and now bemoaning its veto admit that it was a flawed bill. But, those parties then say, ANYTHING is better than the current system. No doubt the current system needs fixin', but why didn't Florida policymakers craft legislation that took a more nuanced view of teacher effectiveness and which recognized the shortcoming of evaluating teachers based on one year's worth of test scores? Dear Florida and Dear Reformers: Just because you believe the status quo sucks doesn't excuse your lack of effort in designing a reform that sucks just slightly less.

As for politics, it seems like, if anything, especially as Crist is a candidate for US Senate in a Republican primary, this veto was an act of political courage. How former Bushie John Bailey can claim it represents the opposite seems to me to represent fanciful, Republican-style logic that might play at a Sarah Palin rally, but that this Education Optimist ain't buying.

And, as for claims (here and here), that Crist's veto will cost Florida funding in Phase Two of the Race to the Top competition, check back here in September. I predict that Florida will be holding a bag of money at that point, this veto notwithstanding.

Building a Bigger and Better Summit

Sunday, April 18, 2010
It was really hard to watch the American Graduation Initiative get cut from SAFRA. It was one of the most promising initiatives for higher education in decades, representing a real shift from a culture of focus on college access to one focused on student success. I was crushed to see it go unfunded.

Of course, I'm feeling a little better since Jill Biden called for a White House summit on community colleges, to be held this fall. An Obama conference is a decent consolation prize. It's actually a coup, when you think about how seriously community colleges have been taken by policymakers in the past (read: not at all).

Washington needs to make the most of this opportunity. Doing this requires pushing far beyond a pleasant conversation about "best practices and successful models." Because let's be honest-there aren't very many "best practices" we can feel confident in scaling up right now. That's why building the body of research evidence on effective community college practices was a goal of AGI.

Instead Dr. Biden should move the ball forward on a serious conversation about the role of the two-year colleges in American higher education by asking the toughest questions. These should include:

• What constitutes positive, measurable outcomes for students at these schools? What does "making community colleges better" mean?

• Is making community colleges "more accessible" desirable, if it means bringing into college more students with less academic and financial preparation? Under what conditions?

• Are there efficiencies that can be gained without compromising the quality of the academic experience? For example, should state systems of community colleges be encouraged to specialize their in-person academic offerings and expand (and coordinate) their online offerings?

• What role should data play in informing decision-making of community college leaders? Data of what kind, and collected by whom?

• Which additional resources will generate the greatest returns for community college students?

Dr. Biden must emphasize that the entire sector needs to work together, across geographic boundaries (such as urban/rural and state lines), to come up with some common answers. Sure, community colleges grew out of independent communities but they now serve a much larger, national role. Collective thinking about solutions will benefit them, and help them to establish greater visibility and a more powerful voice.

This serious day will be a very important one. We can't be naïve. Even those who think the nation needs more college-educated adults and believe in accessible higher education openly discredit the work of community colleges. Know a kid who wants to earn a bachelor's degree? Some folks will counsel that kid to avoid community colleges. Their advice is based on pretty rock-hard statistical data, but its implications are troubling. Have we basically given up on a two-year route to a four-year degree? Or can we do more to change those numbers in the near future? I hope the answer from the Summit is a convincing "yes." We need the Obama Administration to lead the way.

ESEA Hearing on Teachers and Leaders

Thursday, April 15, 2010
The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is holding a hearing this morning on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind. Today's hearing focuses on the teacher and school leader elements of ESEA.

Among the witnesses are:
  • Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers
  • Stephanie Hirsch, Executive Director, National Staff Development Council
  • Jon Schnur, CEO, New Leaders for New Schools
  • Ellen Moir, CEO, New Teacher Center
  • Timothy Daly, President, The New Teacher Project
  • Thomas Kane, Professor of Education and Economics, Harvard University and Deputy Director, U.S. Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
A video replay of the hearing -- as well as links to the participants' testimony -- is available here.

Full Disclosure

Tuesday, April 6, 2010
The New Teacher Project (TNTP) this week released an excellent analysis of Race to the Top, Phase One state applications, debunking some myths about why some states failed to succeed and offering lessons for states that apply in Phase Two.

My only quibble is the absence of any disclosure from TNTP acknowledging that it has a proprietary interest in the outcome of the Race. Specifically, it touts the states of Louisiana and Rhode Island on its "honor roll," but fails to note anywhere in the document that TNTP is written into both state's applications. It has a stake in those states winning in Phase Two.

As an employee of an organization (New Teacher Center) written into numerous Race to the Top state applications, I am well aware of and try to constantly attend to the need to separate sound, dispassionate policy analysis from proprietary interests. Personally and professionally, I hope that the state of Rhode Island is funded in round two as well, not only because NTC too is written into its application, but because of the applications I've read, I believe Rhode Island's to be among the strongest. But, I believe, it would be inappropriate of me on this blog or through professional communications through my employer to tout the excellence of Rhode Island without making that self-interest clear.

Teaching and Learning Conditions

I'm catching up on education news and blogging after some well-spent time with our family in New York and Vermont last week....

Both successful Phase One Race to the Top (RttT) states -- Delaware and Tennessee -- plan to conduct a statewide teacher working conditions survey. Was this the secret to each state's victory? Well, not exactly, as the states of Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio also built such a survey into their applications. Of course, each of those states were among the 16 Phase One semifinalists. So, maybe there is something there.

Independent of RttT, however, such efforts are in line with President Obama’s recent Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which would require states and districts to collect and report teacher survey data on available professional support and working conditions in schools biennially.

Research has demonstrated a connection between positive teaching and learning conditions, teacher retention, and student achievement.
  • “There is good evidence to show that teachers’ working conditions matter because they have a direct effect on teachers’ thoughts and feelings—their sense of individual professional efficacy, of collective professional efficacy, of job satisfaction; their organizational commitment, levels of stress and burnout, morale, engagement in the school or profession and their pedagogical content knowledge. These internal states are an important factor in what teachers do and have a direct effect in what happens in the classroom, how well students achieve, and their experience of school.” (Leithwood, 2006)
  • “Working conditions emerge as highly predictive of teachers’ stated intentions to remain or leave their schools, with leadership emerging as the most salient dimension. Teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions are also predictive of one-year actual departure rates and student achievement, but the predictive power is far lower…Taken together, the working conditions variables account for 10 to 15 percent of the explained variation in math and reading scores across schools, after controlling for individual and school level characteristics of schools.” (Ladd, 2009)
  • “[O]ur analysis of teacher mobility showed that salary affects mobility patterns less than do working conditions such as facilities, safety and quality of leadership.” (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2007)
  • “…working conditions factors, especially principal support, had more influence on simulated job choice than pay level, implying that money might be better spent to attract, retain or train better principals than to provide higher beginning salaries to teachers in schools with high-poverty or a high proportion of students of color.” (Milanowski et al., 2009)
  • A survey of 2,000 educators from California found that 28 percent of teachers who left the profession before retirement indicated that they would come back if improvements were made to teaching and learning conditions. (Futernick, 2007)
Last week's press release from the New Teacher Center goes into greater detail:
“Research has shown that understanding and improving teaching and learning conditions results in increased student success, improved teacher efficacy and motivation, higher teacher retention, and better recruitment strategies that bring educators to hard-to-staff schools,” said Ellen Moir, Chief Executive Officer of the New Teacher Center. “In the past, policymakers have not had the data necessary they need to address educators’ working conditions. Our surveys change this by putting valuable information in the hands of people who make important decisions every day that impact our schools and all those who work and learn in them.”

The New Teacher Center (NTC) assists states and school districts in administering the anonymous, web-based Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey. The NTC has a proven track record of successful administration of teaching and learning conditions surveys in 15 states. In addition to working with state stakeholders to design a customized survey, NTC provides analyses and training materials to help all stakeholders understand and use the Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey results for school improvement.
The Teaching & Learning Conditions Survey has the longest history in North Carolina where policymakers at different levels have utilized Survey data in different ways. Local education leaders have used results at the district level to further bond initiatives. At the state level, data was used in rewriting standards for principals and teachers. The Survey initiative has been so expansive that it has supported the creation of additional funding for professional development in low-performing schools. Results also have led to the development of school leadership training which requires administrators to use Survey data in making school-level improvement decisions.

The news article ('Teacher Surveys Aimed at Swaying Policymakers') from Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk provides additional context:
Despite their differing sample sizes and specific questions, the surveys’ findings about what teachers say they need to be successful are remarkably consistent from instrument to instrument. Some of the top findings: Teachers report that the quality of their schools’ leadership, a say in school decisionmaking, and opportunities to work with their peers affect their own capacity as educators.

For-Profits vs Community Colleges -- The Debate Continues...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Are students attending for-profit institutions getting their money's worth, especially compared to attending community college? I've tackled this one before. Now, another study commissioned by a for-profit has appeared, claiming to fill gaps in our knowledge.

Since I only have a powerpoint presentation of the findings to review, and my opinion is pretty-well expressed in other media coverage, I'll just hit a few notes I've not yet seen mentioned elsewhere.

1. The authors want to claim that the for-profit sector is outpacing community colleges' capacity for enrollment expansion. To back this up, they compare recent enrollment growth in the two sectors. But they fail to mention the very different levels of overall enrollment --community colleges enrolled approximately 1.2 million more students in 2009 than were enrolled in 2007-- in comparison there were 1.4 million students total in for-profit institutions in 2007. Growth is affected by the starting point, and obviously capacity is too. It's harder to expand capacity when one's already nearing capacity. Moreover, this kind of assertion ignores the fact that the expansion of community college enrollment depends on the availability of public resources-- in comparison, the for-profit sector does not, and is correspondingly more nimble. But whether that's a "good" thing is far from clear.

2. The authors also purport that for-profit students realize greater wage gains from their investment. But they neglect the fact that community college students begin with higher earnings--and experience nearly the same dollar gains (over $7000). It is arguably more difficult to stimulate an increase in earnings for those who are better-off to start with compared to someone who starts at minimum wage (e.g. to bring someone from $21K to $28K, compared to $15K to $22K).

3. The study also indicates that for-profit students do not appear to know less about debt than other students. Given that they take on more loans, from a wider range of sources, "not knowing less" is insufficient-- if anything, the burden's on the for-profits to do a better than average job since their grads incur more than average debt.

All that said, I applaud the for-profits for their willingness to consider hard facts and data. I'd like to see them provide longitudinal student-unit record data to independent researchers so we can begin to sort out some of the bigger, lingering questions about student learning and the like. Maybe that's in the future.