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Ted Hershberg: A comprehensive framework for reform

Posted by Mar 22nd, 2011.

Editor’s note: This post was submitted by Ted Hershberg, a  professor of public policy and history and director of the Center for greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke at the Tuesday, March 22 “What Matters and What Counts in Education” breakfast.

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned recently that upwards of 80 percent of the nation’s schools this year will fail to meet adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. When the law was passed in 2002, a bipartisan consensus assumed that educators would figure out how to get all students to proficiency by 2014.

What was not realized at the time is that the goal they set was impossible to achieve if pursued within the confines of the status quo public education system.

The deep flaw in NCLB was not that the nation had set an unprecedentedly challenging goal – educating all children to stand­ards – but that it had done so without at the same time aligning the incentives for adults with the new goal for students.

Indeed, Race to the Top, and the related reforms being introduced by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, are an attempt to remedy this situation, and it is the subject of our recent book, Theodore Hershberg and Claire Robertson-Kraft, eds., A Grand Bargain for Education Reform: New Rewards and Supports for New Accountability (Harvard Education Press, 2009).

We argued that success can come only when public education’s rewards (how teachers and ad­min­i­stra­tors are evaluated, compensated, remediated and dismissed) and supports (how to provide our ed­u­ca­tors with expanded and enhanced pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment) are aligned with the new goal of all students achieving at high levels, and our volume presents a com­pre­hen­sive frame­work for school reform describing how this can be done.

The deep flaw in NCLB was not that the nation had set an unprecedentedly challenging goal – educating all children to stand­ards – but that it had done so without at the same time aligning the incentives for adults with the new goal for students.

The new reforms unavoidably require the introduction of a new way to measure how much students learn other than achievement, which cannot be used because it is highly influenced by family income. Fortunately, a new metric based on growth (academic progress made by individual students over a school year) has emerged as a promising and much fairer alternative. But because it is both new and cannot yet be applied to all subjects and ed­u­ca­tors, it has generated considerable criticism: The cur­ri­cu­lum is being narrowed to a few tested subjects, there is too much testing and too much teaching to the test.

Many people, with limited know­ledge of our nation’s education history, have fallen into the trap of believing that once there was a golden age of public schooling and that NCLB has “ruined” our schools. They need to be reminded that before NCLB there was neither mandatory state stand­ards nor account­abil­ity at the school level (let alone at the level of in­di­vi­dual ed­u­ca­tors), that American students fared even worse in in­ter­na­tional assessments of skills and know­ledge than they do today and that very few of our schools were providing students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills required in a highly competitive and technologically advanced glo­bal economy.

When viewed from a vantage point a decade in the future, these initial reforms will be seen as crude, but necessary first steps in overhauling our school systems. New rigorous national stand­ards and in­ter­na­tion­ally bench­marked assessments adopted voluntarily by the states that address higher-order thinking will vastly improve our testing and reverse the “race-to-the-bottom” inadvertently set in motion by NCLB.

Our systems of ed­u­ca­tor evaluation will be more nuanced and sophisticated, but still steadfastly focused on student learning outcomes rather than solely on ed­u­ca­tor inputs.

We don’t just need stronger accountability, we also need to provide educators with requisite supports to improve their instruction. Our session in Denver this morning included a brief overview of our school reform frame­work, with special emphasis on an important and very timely component (chapter 9 in A Grand Bargain) that will turn the unavoidable shift to larger class sizes driven by fiscal austerity into an opportunity to boost student learning and raise ed­u­ca­tor morale.

Developed by Joel Giffin, a long-time principal in Tennessee, now retired, we explained how his Maryville Middle School became by far the most successful in the state in promoting student growth.

When students are grouped homogeneously by achievement levels, large classes are much easier to teach because instruction does not have to be differentiated. When these larger classes are taught by teachers assigned based on their ef­fec­tiveness with different groups of students (previously low-, average- or high achieving), the result is sig­nif­i­cant increases in student growth. We described how new software developed by John Schacter, working with Giffin, helps prin­ci­pals build layered cur­ri­cu­la and student IEPs.

Our systems of ed­u­ca­tor evaluation will be more nuanced and sophisticated, but still steadfastly focused on student learning outcomes rather than solely on ed­u­ca­tor inputs.

Finally, we addressed the importance of helping ed­u­ca­tors understand how to use data – both formative and summative – to improve their instruction and enable students to become more active agents in their own process of learning and how to establish and sustain pro­fes­sional learning com­mu­ni­ties where on a regular basis ed­u­ca­tors can interact with each other as adults and reflect on the efficacy of the application of theory and practice in their class­rooms.

The recent study of bonus pay in Nashville – that found little positive impact of pay-for-per­form­ance – made clear that teachers have not been withholding their expertise waiting for more money. The best reform efforts, ours included, are designed to align new rewards and supports with our nation’s goal of all students achieving at high levels, to provide a fairer way to evaluate and compensate teachers, to attract and retain more of the best and the brightest and to provide all ed­u­ca­tors with the necessary know­ledge and skills required to help our students meet the education challenges of the 21st century.

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3 Responses to “Ted Hershberg: A comprehensive framework for reform”

  1. jeff buck says:

    Now here’s an example of what I mentioned in my response to the policy/research thread.

    Yesterday, tracking was bad and differentiation was in. Now the wind has shifted and we learn that “When students are grouped homogeneously by achievement levels, large classes are much easier to teach because instruction does not have to be differentiated.” What is a teacher supposed to do with this information?

    And I am expecting someone to pipe up and mention that statements like “large classes are much easier to teach” sounds an awful lot like focusing on the needs of adults, a decidedly out of fashion move in reform circles today.

    So what is it – track or not, differentiate or not, talk about the interests of adults or not?

    I should add that my frustration is not at all directed at Hershberg et. al. I’m sure their work is good and I would probably find it interesting if I ever carve out the time to read it. I’m reacting as a practitioner to the steady diet of recommendations that are all over the place in a context that’s already pretty stressful to stay on top of.

    • brian rogers says:

      Jeff –

      I’m responding as one who has a 40-year interest in education sparked by three things: My own experience, especially in what was considered an experimental high school in the 1970′s; a book entitled Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and several books by the late John Caldwell Holt. Supplement that with a Master’s degree in Educational Mathematics and Ph.D. work in Educational Psychology.

      I understand your frustration with the “theory of the day” that has been promoted from one direction or another. The simple fact is, research proceeds in small steps, and policy makers at least believe they need a “giant leap” to get behind. So it seems that it is often the easist-to-read or most-human-feeling articles that get selected by policy makers as the foundation for their “great leap.” That statement is based on years of observation and my own experience.

      But what’s actually being promoted is something less, even, than half-baked from a policy point of view, even if the research provides a sort of closure on one line of inquiry.

      It would seem to me that any reasonable policy would have to address students first, but also the needs of teachers and administrators. It would have to talk about both differentiated instruction and homogenously-tracked students, as either might be appropriate in a given district. Yes, nearly every day I learn things that can be applied to the classroom, but they are all at the level of teacher/classroom (or class). Nothing I have learned, with the exception of some general principles of assessment, are even applicable at the “policy level.” To reiterate, they are not appropriate as policy statements, or as bases for such!

      I, for my part, will keep on doing research that tells us more about how children and adults learn, and maybe especially about better ways for them to learn mathematics, teaching my classes to the best of my ability, and, in the future, guiding new students to contribute their best. If there is more I can do, I will certainly consider it. That’s all I can do.

  2. Skipper North says:

    Hershberg’s final paragraph is laughable. The Nashville study showed that offering to pay people extra for increasing only math test scores without actual direction for improvement, didn’t work.

    A few things about incentives: It isn’t a one way street. Positive reinforcement only works in conjunction with its opposite. If you just offer to pay people more, they aren’t going to turn down the extra money, but it also doesn’t give them the “or else”. The “or else” is what really gets people moving. I would be interested to see if there is a study out there that incorporates both (which I am guessing doesn’t exist because teachers unions wouldn’t allow people to get paid less than current salary, or lose tenure as the “or else”).

    Being outside of education for my career has showed me that paying people an average salary for average performance does work. But it is the way you position that salary that matters. Just offering to pay more is not incentive enough. Positioning that pay as $50,000 for average performance, $60,000 for good performance, but $40,000 for under performing, works much better. It also works better for a younger demographic of teachers.

    Older demographics for teachers are more concerned with their ability to keep doing what they’re doing. Which leads us to tenure. Losing the guarantee of your position (even more so than money) is what will ultimately will change the minds of an older generation of teachers. Not only will I pay you less for poor performance, but you ay also lose your job if it continues.

    BTW – as outrageous as losing tenure may seem to the current teaching community (understandably so I might add) any logical person would agree that it will certainly make you work harder. That is the theory behind almost every Fortune 500 company in the world. It is the reasoning behind the disciplinary process…the closer somebody gets to being let go, the harder they work. If they don’t work harder, they go find something else to do. If they aren’t successful at their profession, then that’s exactly what should happen.

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