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Tuition skyrockets because that’s what we want

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Just as markets experience bubbles, so too do policy trends. Right now the tulip/tech stock/real estate bubble of wonkdom is the idea that, as a recent New York Magazine cover screamed, “college is a scam.”

The argument goes something like this: Sky high tuition has resulted in skyrocketing debt, all for a product that everyone thinks he or she needs even though many of us could and should do without. (For a more thorough and eloquent description of this argument, see this recent Education News Colorado blog post.)

To quote billionaire Peter Thiel and the New York Magazine article: “Not only is it [college] a scam, but the college presidents know it. That’s why they keep raising tuition.”

Students are paying for a higher portion of their own educations because we, collectively, as taxpayers, want them to.

Really? College presidents are sitting in their offices conjuring plots to imprison hard-working Americans with Wall Street-style Ponzi schemes?

I’ll set aside for now questions related to the inherent value of a college education. Instead, piggybacking on a recent Ed News blog post, I would like to offer some context about college costs and debt.

Despite the copious national media attention devoted to getting into and paying for private colleges, three quarters of America’s 17.5 million undergraduates attend public four and two-year institutions. These institutions are not gleefully jacking up their rates a la Madoff in order to line their coffers. They have instead been weathering a double whammy: Public financial support for higher education has eroded in the past 25 years even as enrollment has increased by 55 percent, according to the most recent annual financial analysis of the Boulder-based State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO). Per pupil appropriations to public colleges were lower in 2010 (in constant dollars) than in any year since 1980.

So who picks up the tab? The consumer. Students are not just paying higher tuition. They are paying for a higher portion of their own educations because we, collectively, as taxpayers, want them to. According to the SHEEO report:

  • In 1985, government funding contributed 77 percent of the annual per pupil expenditures on public higher education.
  • In 2010, the government contributed 60 percent of the annual per pupil expenditures on public higher education.
  • Colorado has the third lowest public, per pupil postsecondary educational appropriation in the nation. We allocate $3,781 per pupil—about half what we spend on K-12. This is nothing new. We have been at the bottom of that barrel now for the past 25 years.

True, the cost of educating a student at a public college has increased in recent years. But nowhere in the SHEEO report could I find the “tenfold” increases that are bandied about by anti-college crusaders. Rather, in constant dollars, the annual per pupil expenditure of the public education experienced by the majority of Americans has increased 10 percent in the past 25 years to $10,775. Ten percent. We should definitely look into that. But I believe it is much more urgent to look into this:

  • In 1985, tuition contributed 23 percent of the annual per pupil expenditures on public higher education.
  • In 2010, that percentage had nearly doubled—to 40 percent or $4,321.
  • In Colorado, tuition contributes 60 percent of the annual per pupil expenditures on public higher education.  Only seven states were more dependent on tuition. For every $1,000 of personal income, we spend $4.21 on higher education. Only four other states spend less. The national average is $7.35.

As tuition has increased both overall and as a portion of the cost of higher education, students have become more likely to borrow money. For instance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students borrowing money through the federal Stafford loan program increased from 25 percent in 1994 to 33 percent in 2004. The biggest increases occurred for Stafford loans that were federally guaranteed but not federally subsidized—i.e. loans to those whose incomes were too high to qualify for subsidized loans. During that time, the average total Stafford loan amount increased by 20 percent, from $3,900 to $4,900.

One would think that free-marketeers like Thiel would be pleased about the way in which higher education finance has developed in the past generation: The burden is shifting from the government to the individual consumer. Individual students are taking on more debt in large part because we, collectively, as taxpayers, have refused to foot the bill.

Whether you consider this to be a good thing or a bad thing will depend upon your beliefs about the role of government and education in society. But let’s be clear: Your family college fund is not looking smaller and less adequate every day because public college presidents are financing a lifestyle of Palm Beach mansions and  Ferrari Spyders.

It is shrinking before your very eyes because that it how you, your neighbors and/or your elected officials want it to be.

Popularity: 14% [?]

Remediation rates misused, misunderstood

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

College remediation rates are the school accountability measure du jour. Once relegated to the dusty realms higher education, a topic largely ignored unless it involves athletics or scandals (or athletic scandals), remediation rates took center court when Colorado and other states linked K-12 and postsecondary databases.

All of a sudden, we could evaluate individual districts and schools by examining what percentages of their graduates were assigned to remedial college courses.

Like too many educational measures, college remediation rates are often misused and misunderstood. Specifically, I have noticed that they are often mentioned in the same breath as high school graduation rates. By this I mean that they are treated as if they are alternatives to standardized exams—i.e. as holistic assessments of the ultimate outcome of 12-plus years of education.

Students often walk onto college campuses completely unaware that they will be required to take a test that day, much less a high stakes test that will have a profound effect on their chances of postsecondary success.

They are not.

At least not in Colorado and many other states. According to Colorado’s remedial education policy, students are referred to remedial courses based upon their math, reading and/ or writing scores on ACT, SAT or ACCUPLACER exams. For instance, first-time undergraduates are referred to math remediation if they earn less than a 19 on the ACT math section, less than a 470 on the SAT math section or less than 85 on the ACCUPLACER Elementary Algebra test.

So unless you believe that these tests are holistic indicators of a student’s past performance and future potential (and some do), remediation rates are not alternative measures that prove or disprove the success or failure of the standardized testing movement or add a new, non-test-related dimension to the test score data already supplied by the state. At least not in Colorado. In Colorado, remediation rates ARE standardized exams.

There are certainly advantages to using a single, statewide cutoff score to assign students to remedial courses: It is quick. It is consistent. It is cost-efficient.

But is it valid? Questions were raised for me by a February Gates Foundation-funded report that Katherine L. Hughes and Judith Scott-Clayton wrote for the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. In their working paper, Hughes and Scott-Clayton describe the results of a 2009 meta-analysis (a quantitative summary of multiple studies) by the College Board, which administers the ACCUPLACER: When it comes to community college students whose test scores are high enough to exempt them from remediation, the correlation between the ACCUPLACER score and receiving a C in the relevant course ranges from .25 for the algebra exam to .10 for the reading comprehension test. (Correlations range from 0, meaning no relationship between the test and the course grade to 1, meaning the test score perfectly predicts the course grade).

Hughes and Scott-Clayton do conclude that ACCUPLACER and its ACT counterpart COMPASS are “reasonably valid predictors” at least for the students who place out of remediation. (The meta-analysis did not account for students who were assigned to remediation based upon their test scores.)

But they note that the tests are better at predicting results in math than in literacy and better at discerning which students will receive a B than which students will fail. Further, the tests do not take into account many factors that are important for college success (e.g. study skills, the presence of a strong support person). The test vendors themselves recommend using multiple measures to more accurately assign students to remediation.

An eye-opening session I attended at the recent Education Writers Association’s conference in New Orleans raised more questions for me about remediation rates based on test scores. During a panel discussion, Bruce Vandal of the non-profit, non-partisan Education Commission of the States noted that students often walk onto college campuses completely unaware that they will be required to take a test that day, much less a high stakes test that will have a profound effect on their chances of postsecondary success. Math is the most commonly flunked exam. Is it possible that a recent high school graduate has perhaps forgotten what he learned three or four years earlier in high school algebra?

For these reasons and others it is perhaps unsurprising that half of the students assigned to remediation have this reaction: They never even sign up for their remedial course.

Popularity: 52% [?]

Who takes advantage of open enrollment?

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Most of Colorado’s open enrollment students are transferring from school districts with high test scores to districts with even higher scores. This is one of several interesting findings reported in a new study by political scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Deven Carlson, Lesley Lavery and John F. Witte examined open enrollment in Colorado and Minnesota by analyzing data from the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years. Their test-score related findings are consistent with research conducted over the past 20 years, which suggest that districts with high test scores attract more open enrollers. What’s new and different about this study (published in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis) is that researchers more closely examined the characteristics of the students’ home districts in two different states.

Also new: Using Geographic Information System software, researchers found that distance matters: Students in both states are more likely to transfer to districts closer to home. (The researchers state that “Virtual schools are undoubtedly an important topic of study, but are beyond the scope of this analysis.”)

Other results were mixed. Students in both states were less likely to leave high-spending districts. However, transfer students tended to move to districts that spent slightly less. Past studies suggest students are more likely to transfer to higher-spending districts but that test scores may be more strongly associated with student transfers. In Colorado, size also mattered: Students tended to transfer from smaller to bigger districts.

Past research indicates that demographics also play an important role. This can increase segregation because students tend to leave districts with higher percentages of low-income students and minorities.

The Wisconsin authors concluded that demographics were not a primary force driving interdistrict open enrollment:

“Any increase in segregation stemming from open enrollment is likely attributable to a desire by parents to increase the academic opportunities available to their children.”

However, they did find that “open enrollment may be causing greater segregation among social classes and racial groups in Colorado, but there is less evidence of such effects in Minnesota.”

This is consistent with the results of a 2009 study of the Denver metropolitan area published in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education. In that study, which actually uses more recent data from 2006-07, University of Texas researchers Jennifer Jennifer Jellison Holme and Meredith P. Richards found that “higher income students were far more likely to take advantage of interdistrict choice and to transfer to higher income school districts.” Additionally: “ On the whole, White students were more likely to transfer out of racially diverse districts into districts with higher proportions of White students.”

The impact of open enrollment is significant and growing because open enrollment is the most common form of choice in our country and our state. According to EdNews, 66,296 Colorado students  (8 percent of all students) open enrolled this school year. The pool of open enrollers is now larger than all but two Colorado school districts.

The authors of the Wisconsin and Texas studies suggest several policy implications. The authors of both studies found that the most disadvantaged students were less likely to benefit from open enrollment in Colorado. Further, the Wisconsin authors noted that districts with low test scores were losing per-pupil funding as students transferred out, which potentially contributed to a downward spiral in which these districts would increasingly lack the resources needed to improve.

Popularity: 22% [?]

Is there a subtext to public union critiques?

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The recent push to weaken public sector unions is making me uneasy. Part of the reason I am uneasy is that I am not even sure that this subtext is real. From day to day, my opinion shifts, to the point that I wonder whether I should even be writing this post. The object of this discomfort: The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

There, I dropped the F bomb. But first let me explain why I hesitated to do so.  It is because I can think of many other reasons why teachers and teachers’ unions are the focus of the rhetoric surrounding initiatives. These reasons range from the credulous (There are more teachers than policemen and firemen and so reducing teacher pension benefits will make a bigger dint in state budget deficits.) to the cynical (The governors supporting the cuts are Republicans and conservatives are more likely to be sympathetic to the law and order functions of government.)

The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

Now here’s what made me uneasy: As national attention has turned to the protests surrounding the Wisconsin capital, it has been focused almost entirely on the teachers and teachers unions that would be affected by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to weaken or eliminate collective bargaining.  Nationwide, more than 80% of K-12 teachers are female. If other affected employees were mentioned at all, they were referred to as social workers (69% female) or nurses (92% female for registered nurses). Exempt from Walker’s proposals (although supportive of the affected unions) are police and fire unions. Nationwide, 16% of patrol officers are female, and 3% of firefighters.

Then, in a profile in this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, reporter Matt Bai zeroed in on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s antagonistic relationship with public employees’ unions.  Yet the only union members interviewed for the article were leaders of teachers unions.  On the first page of the article, Bai writes:

“Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town hall meetings, like the one in which he takes a part a teacher for her histrionics. (‘If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.’)”

Personally, I cannot ever recall hearing a man referred to as “histrionic. “When I viewed the clip in question, I certainly did not find the teacher to be “deliberately affected or self-consciously emotional; overly dramatic, in behavior or speech.” I could not help but think that if the questioner had been a man, he would have been described as “persistent” or “insistent.”   As for Christie’s response, I also cannot think of the last time I heard a grown man’s laughter described as a giggle except perhaps in jest. Yet it remains acceptable to subtly denigrate a grown woman by describing her like a child.

Anti-union sentiment and initiatives are nothing new in this nation. Union membership has been shrinking now for decades in the private sector as the percentage of the general public that supports unionization. As Bai writes, public sector unions are in a sense, “the final frontier” for those who oppose unions.  There are many, many potential reasons why teachers’ unions appear to be viewed as both the primary target and the weakest link in this battle. I can’t help but wonder if the “f” word is one of them.  Further, it is not uncommon these days to hear complaints about “anti-teacher rhetoric.” (The crafters of such rhetoric generally deny that they are anti-teacher, as does Christie.)For those who believe that such rhetoric does exist, I can’t help but wonder if some it may also be anti-female.

Popularity: 16% [?]

Why is policing more alluring than teaching?

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

An offhand comment by an education professor at a diverse, urban university got me thinking about minority teacher recruitment. As he strolled past the department of criminal justice and criminology, this professor often noticed that the students he saw were very diverse—much more so, in fact, than those who had selected his teacher preparation program. Given the often troubled, violent and repressive relationships between law enforcement and minorities, he marveled that more minority students appeared to be choosing policing over teaching.

My knowledge of law enforcement comes largely from the Wire, Law and Order and NYPD Blue. So I had no idea whether his observation was based on an isolated anecdote or symbolic of a broader trend.

It turns out that, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, in 2008, American colleges and universities granted whites 25,359 bachelor’s degrees in “security and protective services” (the category that most closely matched criminal justice). Whites earned more than three times as many degrees (86,545) in education.  By contrast, blacks actually earned 15 percent FEWER degrees in education (6,595) than in security and protective services (7,599). Hispanics earned only slightly more education degrees (3 percent or 5,436) than security and protective services degrees (5,269).

This comparison, is of course, very problematic not in the least because teachers often do not or cannot (as in Colorado) major in education. Also, the “security and protective services” category likely only partially matches up with the criminology major, which could also be classified under, say, social sciences. More importantly, according to the US Department of Justice, virtually no US police departments require a bachelor’s degree.

That said, it does appear that the professor’s casual observation contained a seed of truth. Between 1987 and 2007, the percentage of minority police officers increased from 14.6 percent to 25 percent or about 10 percentage points.  Writing in The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology in 2006, University of California, Berkeley law professor David Alan Sklansky referred to the “dramatic shift in the demographics of police departments,” adding that:

“Today’s Los Angeles Police Department is not the homogeneous workplace celebrated on Dragnet—and neither is the police force of any other large American city.”

In the education realm, 17 percent of K-12 public school teachers were minorities in 2007-08, up just 4.5 percentage points since 1987-88. In contrast to the steady rise in minority police hiring, minority teacher hiring flatlined in the 80s and 90s. Mwangaza Michael-Bandele bemoaned in a 1993 ERIC Clearninghouse report the  “simultaneous decline in the number of African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American teachers and increase in the number of students among these same groups of people.”

Why is this occurring? Considering my limited knowledge, I can only guess at why law enforcement is attracting greater percentages of minorities. (Discrimination-related lawsuits? The CSI effect?) Nor would I want to suggest that teaching and policing are equivalent or that they should be. (Patrol officers, after all, make more money, with median salaries of $51,410 vs. $47,100-$51,180 for K-12 teachers!) Finally, despite the successes with minority hiring, law enforcement continues to experience ongoing and well-publicized instances of racial profiling and discrimination, making it in many ways a less-than-desirable role model for schools.

This issue hits home for me. My baby brother is a biracial kid on an almost all white college campus. He is a good student and a principled person.  I worry that he could be erroneously singled out by the cops because of the color of his skin.

Those caveats and concerns about law enforcement aside, when it comes to schools, our population is growing more diverse at a faster rate than our communities as a whole. About a fourth of our nation’s kindergartners are now Hispanic and “minorities” are expected to become the majority among children in the next decade and a half.

What message are we sending if the teaching force remains 80 percent white? Can we wonder that some of those with a bent for public sector jobs may be choosing policing over teaching? Additionally, achievement indicators appear to be at the very least associated with pairing minority teachers with minority students. (See, for instance, “Minority Teachers, Minority Students, and College Matriculation: A New Look at the role-modeling Hypothesis” by Rick Hess and David Leal, 1997,  Policy Studies Journal.)

How can the teaching profession attract more minority teachers? Maybe it’s time for educators to play detective.

Popularity: 26% [?]

NCLB tutoring expensive, ineffective

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

How much achievement does $6 million-worth of tutoring buy? Not as much as you might think.

A report submitted to the Colorado Department of Education in June received little attention at the time but is now relevant as Obama pushes for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. In the report, contract evaluators for the Colorado Department of Education concluded:  “Across all analyses, few significant differences were found” between the achievement of Colorado students who received “supplemental educational services” (tutoring mandated by No Child Left Behind) and a comparable group of students who did not.

Other highlights of the report:

  • Depending on which group provided the tutoring, costs varied widely, from $20 to $89 per hour. (The average cost was $42 per hour or $1,123 per child in federal Title 1 funds.)
  • Success records also varied widely, but the majority of tutors were basically placebos in that their students performed almost identically to a comparison group of peers who were not tutored.
  • Tutoring disproportionately benefitted those with fewer challenges. Native English speakers made greater gains in math than a comparison group of similar students who did not receive tutoring. English learners did not. Students who were not in special education made greater reading gains than a comparison group that received no tutoring. Special needs students did not.

“Supplemental educational services” are available to low-income students attending schools that miss making “Adequate Yearly Progress” for three years in a row. These optional sessions take place outside of school hours. Although the students who received the tutoring were enrolled in 15 different Colorado districts, more than three quarters came from Denver Public Schools.  These services cost about $6 million in Colorado. Nationwide, the program serves half a million students and costs about $2 billion per year.

Nationwide, supplemental educational services are provided by a range of groups including for-profit companies, non-profits and school districts themselves. One thing that surprised me given the cost of the tutoring is that tutors are apparently not required to have four-year college degrees.

In Colorado, more than half of the 4,858 students served in 2008-09 (the most recent year for which data is available) got tutored by three for-profit companies: Tutor Train, (25%) Club Z! (20%) and Learn it Systems (10%). Yet a 2010 research synthesis conducted by The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University found that tutoring provided by school districts cost less than commercial tutoring and produced better results.

While certainly discouraging, Colorado’s tutoring results are not unique. The Old Dominion research synthesis found that supplemental educational services had very small effects on reading and math achievement. By contrast, the Comprehensive School Reform program that has mainly been eliminated by recent reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB’s official name) produced much stronger results at a much lower cost.

Considering NCLB’s emphasis on accountability for schools, it is also disturbing that the Old Dominion researchers concluded that:

Despite mounting evidence that SES is far less effective than previous Title I policies, we are not aware of a single instance in which a provider has been removed from an approved state list on the basis of failing to demonstrate positive effects on student achievement.

Under Obama’s blueprint for reauthorizing NCLB, supplemental educational services would be optional. Based on the research, I think that this is a good idea. If a specific tutoring provider is getting results, by all means, keep it on. But mandated tutoring was a good idea that just did not demonstrate good results.

Popularity: 47% [?]

A testing industry whistleblower speaks

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Editor’s note: Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

I am not a test basher. Although I have many, many concerns about standardized testing and the way in which it is interpreted and used in our country today, you will not hear me say that it is the scourge of the earth or that test results are entirely without meaning or value.

Part of the reason is that I learned a lot about the contemplation and care that can go into the development and scoring of tests during the two summers I interned at the Educational Testing Service, whose employees include some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. Another part is that even those who believe that standardized exams are discriminatory would probably have to admit that human judgment is even more so.

A standardized exam does not know that Ava’s father is in jail and her mother is on the street and thus treat her, if unintentionally, like she is already a lost cause. A standardized exam does not cut Jacob slack because he is the school’s star quarterback. At least with a standardized exam, whatever discrimination is going on is, well, standard and, as such, can be pinned down, studied and, hopefully, corrected.

Well, maybe. A book that I read over break made me question the very foundations of that idea. Frankly, I found it shocking and I am surprised that it has not gotten more attention—as in I think the author is someone who should be on Oprah.

The book is Making the grades: My misadventures in the standardized testing industry. The author is Todd Farley. During his 15 years as a test scorer, supervisor and develop,  Farley worked on important tests (National Assessment of  Educational Progress or NAEP, high stakes exit exams for states). He worked for major companies Pearson, ETS—the only one he describes sympathetically—he says he’d trust the education of his new son to them.

Maybe his book has failed to attract much attention because its small publisher, PoliPoint Press is so obviously partisan, with other titles including Why I’m a Democrat and The Eliminationists: How hate talk radicalized the American right. But this press is in many ways a poor fit: Farley himself is not overtly political and neither is his book.

He got into testing because he was an aspiring writer and self-described slacker who needed some way to support himself. He did it for the money—he wasn’t out to make any sort of ideological point. His specialty was scoring and supervising the scoring of essay questions and word problems that could not be scored by machines. These types of questions have grown increasingly popular in recent years. NAEP is full of them as is CSAP and just about any other state exam.  Here are just a few of Farley’s revelations:

  • When the numbers didn’t add up, scoring supervisors routinely made them up. All the time. On every project: When dozens of people are reading responses from thousands of children, it is important that there is a certain level of agreement among the scores. This agreement is measured by reliability statistics. The level of reliability requested by the client or promised by the company was virtually never attainable—not even close. So supervisors simply made up numbers. Even quality control measured instituted to ensure this did not occur could be easily thwarted: Farley and his co-workers would simply pull Mr. Smith’s scoring decision from the system if it was too different from the score given by Mrs. Jones. Numbers were also routinely changed so that reliability statistics from, say, 2004, would not differ significantly to those from 2005.

Given the economic downtown, a temporary job that pays $10 an hour to college graduates will probably attract some excellent candidates. But Farley worked in the industry during both economic booms and busts and, even during the busts, he despaired at the idea that his motley crews were making important decisions about people’s fates. These employees included non-native speakers who had trouble reading English, retirees who were battling senility and misfits and zealots of all types who would give the same score to every question while they read a book under the desk or refuse the follow the scoring guidelines or fail to understand the guidelines in the first place.

So why not fire them, then? They’re not, after all, unionized. This rarely happened because scoring happens on a tight deadline: If you took the time to recruit the train yet another group of scorers, that deadline would be missed. Of course, after a training period, scorers are supposed to be “qualified” by passing a test that demonstrates that their scores are in line with the scoring guidelines. In Farley’s experience, upwards of 50 percent of recruited scorers would be fired after flunking this test. Yet deadlines had to be met. The flunkies were routinely hired back the day after being shown the door.

4 points: The response is clear, focused, and developed for the purpose specified in the prompt.

3 points: The response is clear and focused.

2 points: The response does not maintain focus or organization throughout.

1 point: The response does not maintain focus or organization throughout.

This is, of course, just an excerpt from a much more detailed explanation. But imagine trying to get agreement from several dozen individuals on interpreting “focused” or “clear” or “organization”. Often, as scoring progressed, scoring rules progressed as well. (Should a child get credit for responding to a question about a favorite food that rocks was her favorite food? What about dirt? Water?)  From one year to the next, the committees of teachers convened annually to review scoring would demand to know who, exactly, had made up these crazy rubrics only to be told, “The rubric was written by last year’s range-finding committee of your state’s teachers in this very hotel.”

Interestingly, the testing industry has not responded to Farley’s claims. But I believe that taxpayers should. I’m not sure what we should do. Given what Farley has exposed, should for-profit companies be scoring tests? Should teachers be paid to score essay exams, perhaps from schools other than their own? Should all essay exams be machine-scored, especially as technology develops? Should we even attempt to assess large groups of students with such an ambiguous format?  What do you think?

Popularity: 21% [?]

Living (too) large in summer

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The summertime achievement gap has long been a topic of conversation among educators, as demonstrated by Paul Teske’s excellent recent blog entry. We may now we have something else to blame on summer: childhood obesity. In a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers analyzed the body mass indices of 5,380 American kindergarten and first-graders.

They found that, on average, body mass index grew more than twice as fast during summer vacation than during the school year.  Black and Hispanic children started out with higher body mass indices than whites. This “fat gap” widened during summer vacation but not during the school year. The effect was also particularly pronounced for kids of all races who were overweight when they began kindergarten.

Summers are already a lost opportunity when it comes to the achievement gap. Now it appears they may also be contributing to a different and potentially more deadly gap that can directly affect a child’s life expectancy. (For a whole variety of reasons that probably include weight differentials, black children born in 2005, for instance, have a life expectancy of 5 years less than whites born in the same year.)

If we are serious about closing both life and learning gaps, we need to provide all low-income and/or minority kids with high quality summer educational programs that emphasize both academics and healthy practices such as physical activity and good nutrition. This emphasis on physical activity might go a long way toward satisfying those who (very reasonably) say that summer is a time for kids to relax and play.

By targeting only those kids who most need these programs, we would also save money in this era of fiscal belt-tightening.

Popularity: 4% [?]

When business concepts don’t translate

Friday, January 8th, 2010

A new book about motivation raises interesting questions about how we translate (and in my opinion often mis-translate) business concepts into educational policy.

The book is “Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” by Dan Pink. Pink’s Twitter-length summary: Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st-century work we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose. By carrots and sticks, he means short-term punishments and rewards (e.g. cash bonuses) doled out in a tightly-controlled environment. Elaborating, he adds:

There is 40 years of science that says that for complex, conceptual, creative tasks—the sort of things that most white-collar workers are doing now that the more simple routine work can be offshore or automated—carrot and stick motivators don’t work. Or I should say they rarely work, and they often do harm. And this is not even close in the field of science.

Pink’s book is not about education. It is about business. But in this interview, he discusses the implications for school. His ideas interest me because, for more than a century, educators have been applying business models to schools. But it often seems to me that much is lost in translation.

Those in the education realm apply antiquated and discounted business models. Or they behave as if these models have been a silver bullet in the business realm when, in reality, they have worked imperfectly, or only under certain conditions.

Especially interesting is Pink’s take on performance pay for teachers. Before researching and writing his book, Pink supported the idea of teacher performance pay. His new take?

If you raise their base salaries and give them some autonomy, they’ll do that. If you also give either building principals or superintendents the ability to get rid of—and I am just estimating here—the 10% or 15% of teachers, like the 10% or 15% of any profession, who are duds, I think that is a simpler solution. It is not perfect, but it has far less collateral damage than tying [pay] to standardized test scores or doing these elaborate performance measurements.

Popularity: 5% [?]

The Hechinger Report is coming

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

EdNews Colorado should soon have some good company at the national level with the launch of The Hechinger Report, a new foundation-supported outlet for in-depth reporting on education issues. As a former education reporter for daily newspaper, I have watched with sadness in recent years as this industry has (in my opinion belatedly and in a reactionary manner) dealt with the effects of the Internet. To me, the Internet always seemed like it should have been a boost for journalism.

One thing I can say for sure: its existence certainly made many aspects of reporting easier and better. Like EdNews, the Hechinger Report will, I am sure, be taking advantage of the benefits of this medium, which has the potential to provide lengthier stories in greater depth. I look forward to reading it.

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Colorado Health Foundation Walton Family Foundation Daniels fund Pitton Foundations Donnell-Kay Foundation