Weekly PEN Newsletter

Zeroing in on a critical benchmark
  According to a new report from the Annie E. Casey foundation, “the time is now to build a consensus” around the urgent fact that millions of American children get to the fourth grade without learning to read proficiently, putting them on the path to dropping out. By the beginning of the fourth grade, the ability to read is a “make-or-break” benchmark in a child’s education, since until this point the curriculum is centered on learning to read, and after this point a certain literacy is assumed. Compounding the crisis is the fact that the definition of “proficiency” varies from state to state, leading to an underreporting via state testing data. The study therefore recommends that extensive efforts are made to address a “readiness gap” — disparities between high-income and low-income children in readiness to learn — that in turn develops into the “achievement gap.” Current national policies and funding streams are too fragmented to yield widespread positive results. A coherent system of early care and education must be implemented; parents, caregivers, and families must be enlisted as “co-producers” of good outcomes for children; low-performing schools must be transformed; and practical and scalable solutions must be found to address chronic absence from school and summer learning loss.
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More research showing early years to be crucial
  New results from a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development show that low-quality care in the first few years of life can have a small but persistent impact on a child’s learning and behavior, The Washington Post reports. The study is the largest assessment of child rearing in the United States to date and has been tracking more than 1,300 children of various ethnicities, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds since 1991. Researchers found that obedience and academic problems among those who received low-quality care in their first 4 1/2 years of life continued through their 15th birthdays, unimpacted by the influence of other factors such as peers, teachers, and maturation. Teenagers who had received higher-quality childcare were less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as arguing, being mean to others, and getting into fights. Those who spent more hours in childcare of any kind were more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behaviors, and those who received moderately high- or high-quality care scored higher on tests gauging cognitive and academic achievement. “What was the surprise for us was that the effects at age 15 were the same size as we had seen in elementary school and just prior to school entry,” said Deborah Lowe Vandell of the University of California at Irvine, who led the analysis.
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They’re back — if they so choose
  The Central Falls, R.I. school district has announced an agreement with its teacher union to return all current Central Falls High School staffers to their jobs, the Associated Press reports. The two sides said a transformation plan for the coming school year would allow the 87 teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, and others to return without having to reapply. The agreement also imposes a longer school day, more after-school tutoring, and other changes. “Both the school district and the union agree that while this has been a difficult process for everyone involved, the negotiations resulted in a newfound appreciation for shared responsibility, and a solid commitment to bring lasting solutions that will improve teaching and learning at Central Falls High School,” said a joint statement from the union and the district. Under the deal, teachers will need to recommit to their jobs and interview with the new principal. Other changes aimed at increasing student achievement include a new evaluation system designed to inform teaching and learning, and targeted and embedded professional development. “From the start, my principal concern was not who would be working at the high school, but whether the new school leadership team would have the flexibility it needed to improve student achievement,” said Central Falls Superintendent Fran Gallo.
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Unless you’re counting teacher impact, you’re not counting much
  Randomized experiments are a frequent way to conduct education research, but since in many cases selection of students is randomized but not selection of teachers, the outcomes of some experimental programs are misinterpreted, according to a new report from MDRC. While it’s widely understood that it’s difficult to disentangle the various effects of components in a studied program, author Michael Weiss writes that the implications of nonrandom teacher selection are significantly different from the implications of the packaging of other program components such as home manuals, classroom work, or teaching software.

Teachers come to participate in a study through a variety of ways. They volunteer (perhaps indicating a high level of motivation), are selected by a principal/administrator (indicating any number of things), or are “volunteered” (i.e. coerced, perhaps indicating low interest). An example shows the ramifications of this.

Suppose the effect of a program is neutral, neither better nor worse than business-as-usual services. Also suppose the teachers selected to deliver the program are ineffective, accounting for a loss of 10 points on an end-of-year standardized test. Yet suppose the teachers in the control group are effective, accounting for a student gain of 10 points on the same test. Based on student end-of-year outcomes, since teacher effects are not accounted for, the inference is that the program’s net effect is a loss of 20 points (from +10 to -10). So the program is deemed worse than business as usual, even though it actually is no better or worse.

In a slightly different hypothetical situation, say in fact the program is effective and accounts for an extra 10 points on an end-of-year test. With the same teachers and students, teacher impact still confounds the results. Students in the treatment both gain 10 points (program effect) and lose 10 points (ineffective teachers), yielding an overall gain of zero. Control students with effective teachers will still gain 10 points, but had they been taught by effective teachers and been in the program, they would have gained an additional 10 points, yielding a gain of 20. A researcher looking at the data without regard to teacher effects would conclude that the experimental program was again worse than business as usual (net yield negative 10), even though it was actually beneficial.

What, therefore, to do about the challenges that this presents for education research? The ideal solution, Weiss writes, is to conduct random assignment at the classroom or school level, either of which would have the effect of randomizing the selection of teachers. Famously, this was achieved in the Tennessee STAR study, where both students and teachers were randomly assigned to different class sizes in order to measure the impact of class size on student learning. A second solution is to evaluate interventions that are uniformly delivered at the student level — performance-based scholarships, online tutoring programs, or free laptops for economically disadvantaged students. A third (less effective) solution may be to have study teachers teach in both the program and the control group. Finally, if a study is designed such that teacher selection and the teacher effect may influence impact estimates, researchers can use non-experimental methods to attempt to control for teacher effects, such as incorporating teachers’ value-added scores (from the year prior to the experiment) into the impact model.
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On realizing, and then saying, you’re wrong
  In a question-and-answer in Slate magazine, education historian Diane Ravitch articulates some of the mechanics for her drastic reversal on ideas around education reform. She explains that “When you’re engaged in the political realm, you say, ‘This set of ideas is right and that set of ideas is wrong’ — right, wrong, right, wrong. And I sometimes wonder whether you might be attracted to the things that you say are wrong — if you’re kind of guarding yourself against something that secretly appeals to you.” Ravitch relates her own reversal was gradual: “What happens is that over time, you get to know all the arguments — all the arguments on your side, all the arguments on the other side — and you just say ‘Nah, they’re wrong.’ And then at some point you think, well, are they really wrong? What about this? Or well, they’re right about that. Or maybe this thing I’ve been advocating for is wrong in this one situation. You start feeling the certainty begin to dissipate.” Ravitch says that the hardest thing is to say you’ve made a mistake: “If you can reach that juncture, which is very hard, then you can begin to understand how you got there.”
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The tenure wars
  Whither lifelong tenure for teachers and teacher union collective bargaining? In a New York Times Magazine analysis of the battle over teacher contracts, Steve Brill (who also penned the notorious “Rubber Room” article for The New Yorker) writes that the convergence of several key forces has changed the game for education reform in the past year, invigorating those who would do away with collective-bargaining job protections for teachers, and alarming those who see teacher unions as a bulwark against capricious administrators. Brill enumerates the factors: the rise of a certain class of reformers, whom he admits can come off as somewhat “snobbish” and “self-righteous”; a new crop of Democratic politicians across the country who seem willing to challenge the teachers’ unions; the support of high-powered foundations that have financed research along with pilot reform projects, and wealthy entrepreneurs who have poured seed money into charter schools; and the charter-school movement itself, which has an increasingly large and vocal constituency of parents. In Brill’s view, the teachers’ unions up to this point have ignored the “rhetorical noise” and stuck to the work of negotiating protectionist contracts with the politicians who run school systems and depend on their political support. A new era seems to have dawned, however — one in which unions must contend with new conditions.
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Who attends charters? A recommendation for finding out
  Using three recent years of data from the New York State School Report Cards, and analyzing the charter population at the school level, a study from New York University finds that English language learners are consistently under-represented in charter school populations in New York City. While the study doesn’t provide answers for this disparity, it demonstrates the merits of disaggregating data to see more nuanced differences between charter and traditional district public school enrollments. The authors recommend that similar analyses be carried out in other school districts, particularly in areas in which there are greater disparities in per pupil allocations between charter schools and traditional public schools. In addition, little is known about the experiences and perspectives of immigrant and limited English proficient students and parents with regard to charters. Future research should investigate what families of English language learner students understand about charter schools, inquire about the reasons they do or do not participate in charter school lotteries, and identify barriers that may contribute to their under-enrollment in charter schools. Finally, research in this area should focus on the practices of charter schools themselves, both in terms of outreach and recruitment of new applicants and regarding pedagogical practices, professional development, and hiring.
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One in 10 Hispanic dropouts gets a GE
  A new study from the Pew Hispanic Center finds that Hispanic high school dropouts are much less likely to earn General Educational Development (GED) credentials than their white or black counterparts, especially if they are immigrants, The Washington Post reports. The GED is accepted by community colleges and the military in place of a high school diploma, and dropouts who earn it are much more likely to pursue postsecondary education and training. The study found that only one in 10 Hispanic high school dropouts has a GED, compared with two in 10 African American dropouts and three in 10 white dropouts. Hispanics also have a much higher dropout rate: 41 percent of Hispanics 20 or older, compared with 23 percent of blacks and 14 percent of whites. One reason for the differences is that a large percentage of immigrant Hispanics often are unaware of the opportunity to earn a GED credential, said Richard Fry, a senior research associate at Pew and the report’s author. Many Hispanic immigrants arrive in the United States as adults, dropped out of high school abroad, he said. Native-born Hispanics have a dropout and GED attainment rate similar to those of blacks, according to the report.
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Four years? What for?
  The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life “has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents, and educators,” writes The New York Times. Yet no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education. A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing an alternative: for some students, no college at all. Instead, develop credible options for students unlikely to successfully pursue a higher degree. “It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Professor Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need.” Much of their training, he added, might be feasible outside the college setting. Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives, and store clerks. None of these require a bachelor’s degree, but all would benefit from applicants who had been trained in “work readiness” — the ability to solve problems, make decisions, resolve conflict, and communicate effectively.
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Literacy Collaborative yields significant attainment
  A $3 million, four-year value-added study on the effects of the Literacy Collaborative K-2 program on teaching and student learning shows a large positive effect. The primary findings of the study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science (IES), were that on average, students’ rates of learning in grades K-2 increased by 16 percent in the first implementation year, 28 percent in the second, and 32 percent in the third. Teacher expertise increased substantially, and the rate of improvement was predicted by the amount of coaching a teacher received. Professional communication among teachers in the schools also increased over the three years of implementation, and the literacy coordinators became more central in their schools’ communication networks. The teachers taught students with the Literacy Collaborative instructional framework, and the literacy coordinators provided professional development and coaching to support effective classroom instruction. After four years, the research team had data on 8,500 children who had passed through grades K-3 in the 17 schools, and 240 teachers. This is currently the largest data set about coaching and student learning in the education field, and the only one to include data on student achievement, teacher expertise, and frequency and quality of coaching.
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  No show? No apartment
Under a complicated plan aimed at reducing truancy among its residents, the Omaha Housing Authority could, in a worst-case scenario, evict a family whose child chronically failed to attend school.
Related: http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2010-05-13-truancy-parents_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

Not so fast, pardner
The California legislature may take a stand against proposed changes to social studies textbooks ordered by the Texas school board, in reaction to complaints that the changes will be historically inaccurate and dismissive of the contributions of minorities.

Idaho out
Idaho won’t apply for the next round of federal “Race to the Top” funding after all, the state superintendent of schools has announced.

Minnesota, too
Governor Tim Pawlenty said that Minnesota will not apply for up to $175 million in Race to the Top money.

Startling data in Motor City
More than half of the students tested in Detroit Public Schools have a history of lead poisoning, which affects brain function for life, according to data compiled by city health and education officials.


Partnership for 21st Century Skills: 21st Century Readiness Grant
Teachers are invited to submit their response to the question, “What does 21st-century readiness mean to you, and how are you making it a reality for students?” All entrants will then be invited to send a short video that shows their project, idea, or thought in action. Maximum award: an iPod Nano with video or a free trip for two to attend the National Summit on 21st Century Readiness in Washington, D.C. on October 4 and 5, 2010. Eligibility: teachers K-12. Deadline: May 25, 2010.

Save-the-Redwoods League: Grants for Education on Forest Stewardship
The Save-the-Redwoods League, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the ancient redwood forest from destruction, will grant funds to schools, interpretive associations, and other qualified nonprofits engaged in quality redwood education. Grants are designed to foster and encourage public awareness of redwoods, redwood ecology, and forest stewardship. Maximum award: $3,000. Eligibility: schools and 501(c)3 organizations. Deadline: June 30, 2010.

Bridgestone Firestone: Driving Safety Film Contest for Teens
The Bridgestone Firestone 2010 Safety Scholars Video Contest will award college scholarships for the most compelling and effective videos that drive home life-saving messages on auto and tire safety, and includes a chance for young filmmakers to have their auto safety videos broadcast as a public service commercial. Maximum award: $5,000 scholarship; new set of Bridgestone tires. Eligibility: high school students. Deadline: July 1, 2010.

Ezra Jack Keats Foundation: Minigrants
The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation offers Minigrants to public and school libraries for programs that encourage literacy and creativity in children. Programs relating to the work of Ezra Jack Keats are welcome, but not required. Maximum award: $500.
Eligibility: public and school libraries. Deadline: September 15, 2010.

For more grants, see http://www.publiceducation.org/newsblast_grants.asp


“History is what it is, whether it’s fair or unfair. Those personalities and events that developed our nation are part of our history and should be explained.” – Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, protesting proposed changes to the Texas social studies curriculum, May 19, 2010

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