Is firing bad instructors the only way to improve schools?

The conversation about how to improve American education has taken on an increasingly confrontational tone. The caricature often presented in the press depicts hard-driving, data-obsessed reformers—who believe the solution is getting rid of low-performing teachers—standing off against unions—who don’t trust any teaching metric and care more about their jobs than the children they’re supposed to be educating.

But in some ways the focus on jobs misses the point. As New York State Education Commissioner John King has pointed out, with the exception of urban hubs like New York and L.A., few school districts have the luxury of firing low-performing teachers with the knowledge that new recruits will line up to take their places.

If we take firing off the table, what else can be done to resolve America’s education crisis? The findings of several recent studies by psychologists, economists, and educators show that—despite many reformers’ claims to the contrary—it may be possible to make low-performing teachers better, instead of firing them. If these studies can be replicated throughout entire school systems and across the country, we may be at the beginning of a revolution that will build a better educational system for America.
Yet there is growing evidence that you may not need to hand out stacks of pink slips—or have a very tall stack of greenbacks—to improve teacher quality. When I asked education scholar Doug Staiger where the most promising evidence lay, he referred me to an assessment of the Teacher Evaluation System that was implemented in Cincinnati public schools in 2000-01.

Cincinnati’s approach combines evaluation by expert teachers—who observe classroom performance and also critique lesson plans and other written materials—with feedback based on those evaluations, to help teachers figure out how to improve. The study that professor Staiger described, by Eric Taylor of Stanford and John Tyler of Brown, focused on teachers in grades 4-8 who were already in the school system in 2000, which allowed the researchers to examine, for a given teacher, the test scores of their pupils before, during, and after evaluation was performed and feedback received. And because the TES was phased in gradually, the researchers could compare the performance of teachers who had already been evaluated and received feedback to those who were still awaiting their TES treatment. This ensured that any change in test scores wasn’t just the result of a general improvement in Cincinnati’s schools concurrent with the implementation of TES.

The results of the study suggest that TES-style feedback and coaching holds promise—Taylor and Tyler estimate that participating in TES has an effect on students’ standardized math test scores that is equivalent to taking a teacher that is worse than three-quarters of his peers and making him about average. The effects of participation only get stronger with time: If teachers were simply performing better because they saw their evaluator sitting at the back of the classroom, you’d expect only a onetime improvement in student outcomes during the evaluation year. Instead, TES participants’ performance is even greater in subsequent years. And the expense of creating, if not a great teacher, at least a decent one, is fairly modest—the cost of TES was about $7,000 per teacher. (Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s approach to evaluation and feedback has yet to catch on—a 2009 survey by the New Teacher Project found that school districts rarely use evaluation for any purpose other than remediation and dismissal.)

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Education News for 06-13-2012

Statewide Stories of the Day

  • Strickland appointee resigns from state school board; one left (Dispatch)
  • One of two remaining appointees of the former Democratic governor has resigned from the Ohio Board of Education. Dennis Reardon, former executive director of the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, stepped down about six months before his four-year term on the 19-member board was to expire. “Due to scheduling conflicts with other activities in which I am involved, I must resign from the state Board of Education,” the 69-year-old Pickerington resident wrote in a letter to Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who will appoint a replacement. Read more...

  • Ohio lawmakers approve Mayor Jackson's Cleveland schools plan after weeks of tense negotiations (Plain Dealer)
  • COLUMBUS - Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, after weeks of tense negotiations, finally gained the legislative approval he needed on Tuesday to carry out his plan to reform the city’s troubled schools. The mayor’s proposal was debated at length, with several Democrats from outside Cleveland opposing the plan because it allows the city to share local tax dollars with charter schools. But the ongoing dismal performance of Cleveland schools proved too much for the majority of lawmakers to ignore. Read more...

  • Lawmakers approve Cleveland school plan (Dispatch)
  • The Ohio House and Senate today overwhelmingly passed Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s plan for improving ailing school district. Republican and Democratic supporters hailed the legislation as a model of collaboration and local control. “We should help the mayor do what he believes he needs to do,” said Rep. Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation. “I am a product of the Cleveland Municipal School District. I believe when I was in school, I got a great education,” she said. “I don’t think those kids that are there now are getting a great education.” Read more...

  • Local school districts face deficits next 5 years (News-Sun)
  • SPRINGFIELD — Most local school districts face grim financial forecasts in the next five years, with several staring down multimillion dollar deficits, according to a Springfield News-Sun analysis of Ohio Department of Education documents. Flat or falling state aid and the expiration of federal stimulus funds meant to close the gap combined with rising costs of doing business has many districts eyeing large deficits in the future, according to the five-year forecasts. Districts are legally required to file the projections every October and May. Read more...

  • Education Bills Top Ohio Statehouse Agenda (ONN)
  • COLUMBUS - The Ohio Legislature is slated to return Tuesday after a Memorial Day break and lawmakers hope to finish work on a handful of bills before recessing for the summer. Education-related bills are at the top of their agenda this week, including a wide-ranging measure being pushed by Gov. John Kasich as part of his midterm budget review. The Legislature also is expected to take up a proposed compromise to a Cleveland school improvement bill that's aimed to help the city's struggling public schools and high-performing charter schools co-exist. Read more...

  • Bill gives Cleveland mayor stronger control over schools (Dispatch)
  • Ohio legislators yesterday overwhelmingly approved Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s plan to improve his ailing school district. Republican and Democratic supporters hailed the legislation as a model of collaboration and local control. Though the Cleveland district was once a national model, today two-thirds of students attend failing schools. It’s also the only district in the state under mayoral control, a decision made by district voters more than a decade ago. Read more...

  • Gov. John Kasich, Ohio House and Senate Republicans reach deal on education policy (Plain Dealer)
  • COLUMBUS - Gov. John Kasich and Republican state lawmakers from both chambers brokered a deal on a third-grade reading guarantee and quickly sent the measure through the House Education Committee Tuesday. The deal tasks the state Board of Education with developing a phased-in standard that third-graders must meet on a state reading test to be promoted to the fourth grade. The standard would start off holding back third-graders who score "limited" in reading next school year. Read more...

  • School-funding advocates seek to inform the public (Vindicator)
  • BOARDMAN - Organizers of a meeting last month regarding public-school funding are planning to establish subcommittees this summer aimed at informing the public. Hundreds of people filled the Boardman Performing Arts Center last month for the forum that included local, state and national speakers about the issue. “We want to form subcommittees out of people who did respond,” said Ron Iarussi, superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center. Read more...

Local Issues

  • Columbus district could offer $12 million in grants for charters, private schools (Dispatch)
  • Columbus City Schools could pay up to $12 million in local tax dollars to high-performing charter and private schools under a plan detailed by the district yesterday. Three-year grants could go to charter schools, private schools or even other district schools that score an A or B on their state report cards. The district envisions that grants could range from $380,000 to $2 million a year. The effort would link the high-performing schools with perhaps 17 or so low-performing district schools, Columbus school Superintendent Gene Harris said yesterday. Read more...

  • Austintown parents panel vows to fight busing plan (Vindicator)
  • A committee of concerned parents says its Tuesday news conference is only the opening salvo in a fight against Austintown’s proposal to offer public-transit vouchers to private-school students instead of using district vehicles. “Stick with us and fight this fight. ... We cannot let them win because if they win, who’s next? Canfield? Boardman?” said David Gerchak, a member of the Austintown Parents for the Safe Transportation of Students Committee. He was one of several speakers who addressed a crowd of more than 80 people at St. Christine School. Read more...

  • Orange Schools teacher contract talks at a standstill (Sun News)
  • PEPPER PIKE - Negotiations between the Orange school board and the Orange Teachers’ Association have reached an impasse, according to Superintendent Dr. Nancy Wingenbach. Further action will await assignment of a federal mediator to oversee the process. Negotiations to replace the OTA’s three-year contract began early this year, and the contract expires July 31. So by the time a mediator is assigned, late this month, all those involved will have just a month to make progress. Read more...

  • 15 teaching positions eliminated in Niles (Vindicator)
  • NILES - The city board of education, which last month deadlocked on a proposal to eliminate 15 teaching positions, approved the issue Tuesday by a 3-2 vote. Without the layoffs, the board faced a deficit in excess of $1.3 million and could eventually have been forced into fiscal emergency and a state takeover, according to Superintendent Mark Robinson. The decision will cost 11 teachers, one of them a part-time employee, their jobs. The remaining four positions, which became vacant due to retirements, will not be filled. Read more...


  • Bend rules for dropout recovery (Tribune Chronicle)
  • Among the toughest challenges in education is keeping at-risk youngsters from dropping out of school. That does not mean institutions specializing in the task should not be required to meet some state requirements, however. More than 18,000 Ohio children attend special ''dropout recovery'' charter schools, which are private institutions receiving government funding. Perhaps in recognition of the difficulty of coaching such youngsters through graduation, state officials exempted such schools from some rules governing other institutions, both public and private. Read more...

NEA and AFT reaction to NCLB Waiver proposals

We brought news of the Administrations proposals to waive NCLB requirements in the face of a broken congresses inability to rauthorize it. Here's the official response from NEA

Obama, Duncan to provide relief from many NCLB restrictions
Van Roekel: Flexibility from rigid rules welcomed by educators

WASHINGTON - September 22, 2011 - President Obama announced a plan today to provide relief to states from many of NCLB’s more onerous provisions, such as meeting Adequate Yearly Progress requirements and other deadlines. “President Obama has taken a welcome step forward with this plan. It sets much more realistic goals for schools, while maintaining ESEA’s original commitment to civil rights, high academic standards and success for every student,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

“Teachers have been sounding the alarm on NCLB’s test-label-punish approach for more than 10 years. Now, there is an opportunity to move forward with real reform, especially for the most disadvantaged students,” said Van Roekel.

“Educators want commonsense measures of student progress, freedom to implement local ideas, respect for their judgment and the right to be a part of critical decisions,” said Van Roekel. “This plan delivers.”

Van Roekel notes that the waiver plan provisions get away from labeling schools as failures. “Instead, the Department of Education has adopted a term NEA also uses for low performing schools: Priority Schools. The waivers recognize the Title I schools that need the most help—and the students they serve—as a federal priority.”

Last week, Van Roekel completed a back-to-school tour for a first-hand view of how teachers are collaborating with key education stakeholders to significantly improvement student learning and success. “I’ve been visiting schools across the country and I know that teachers and education support professionals care deeply about their students and they want policies that work to benefit students,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “President Obama and Secretary Duncan have crafted a path that breaks through the logjam of bad NCLB policy and opened the way to better ideas that will work for students and schools.”

“NEA will continue to work with Congress and push for comprehensive NCLB reauthorization,” said Van Roekel.

See NEA’s letter to Sec. Duncan requesting regulatory relief for K-12 schools here.

Here's the response from AFT

Statement by Randi Weingarten,
President, American Federation of Teachers,
On Waivers for NCLB Requirements

WASHINGTON—No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed. Reauthorization, which is Congress' responsibility, is the appropriate avenue to do so. We applaud Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) for their efforts to move that process forward, and we share their frustration that reauthorization is long overdue. In the absence of congressional reauthorization, we understand why the Obama administration is taking this action; we are keenly aware of the calls from parents, teachers and administrators for change—sooner rather than later. Waivers are an imperfect answer to the stalemate in Congress and, at best, can provide only a temporary salve.

Some of what the administration proposes is promising, some is cause for concern, and there are missed opportunities that could have enhanced both teaching and learning.

We are pleased that the administration's proposal includes more options prospectively for improving low-performing schools, recognizing that many of the remedies prescribed in NCLB were not flexible enough. The proposal also acknowledges the importance of adopting higher college- and career-ready standards, which could include the Common Core State Standards, to prepare kids for a 21st-century knowledge economy.

However, after all we've learned about how to construct and implement meaningful teacher evaluation and development systems since Race to the Top was announced two years ago, we're disappointed that the lessons learned are not evident in this package. Evaluation needs to be more teaching-focused, not more testing-focused. Successful school districts in the United States and in the top-performing nations understand that teacher evaluation systems should be based on continuous improvement and support, not on simply sorting, and it's a missed opportunity not to follow their lead.

Are radical school funding changes ahead?

We will have to wait to see the actual details, but if this report from NPR StateImpact is any guide, the Governor's proposed school funding formula is going to look a lot more like a public school defunding effort.

A new school-funding model being developed by Governor John Kasich’s administration could allow local property tax dollars to follow students to charter schools or be used to fund vouchers for private-school tuition. Right now, only state tax money can do that.
other key changes under serious consideration:

  • Changing how the state calculates the amount of money local school districts must raise. Currently, this calculation is based on property values. The new funding model could take into account student poverty levels, local income levels and other factors;
  • Creating financial incentives for school districts to shift some instruction online; and
  • Simplifying the way that school districts collect taxes to make it more understandable to taxpayers.

Other possible changes include providing increased funding to districts with high-performing schools and structuring funding to encourage regional collaboration in areas like transportation, Mattei Smith said. While a separate study of school district consolidation is underway, consolidation is not part of discussions on a new school funding model, Mattei Smith said.

The Board of Education has expressed a strong desire for significant public input, which is to be applauded, because these proposals, albeit with limited detail, appear quite radical.

Common Standards to Play Pivotal Role in NCLB Waivers?

Unless you've been in the wild without an Internet signal, or on a vacation where you really, um, don't check your SmartPhone, you've heard by now that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given states the formal go-ahead to apply for waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements. As was made clear in a White House press briefing on Monday, this direction comes from President Obama.

Details of what states must do to get the waivers won't emerge until next month, but at the briefing, Duncan listed the elements in the all-or-nothing package of reforms states have to embrace (and you've heard this mantra before): teacher and principal effectiveness, turning around low-performing schools, growth-based accountability systems, and yes, college- and career-ready standards.

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Is Gifted Education a Bright Idea?

I keep getting struck wondering wether it's the measurements that are the problem, rather than the measured outcomes. Maybe it's harder to measure progress than looking at some test results. Either way, this interesting report adds another question mark to the idea of using high stakes testing to make high stakes decisions with teaching careers. If we can't adequately measure progress with the brightest students, taught by the best teachers, that doesn't say a lot about the whole ill-concieved enterprise.

A new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in Cambridge, Mass., evaluated the effectiveness of both in-class gifted programs and magnet schools for more than 8,000 middle school students in an unnamed Southwestern school district of more than 200,000 students.

The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.

"You're getting these better teachers; you're getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you," said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor and a study coauthor. "To our surprise, what happened was very little."

Here's the paper.

Is Gifted Education a Bright Idea?