Education News Digest - 9/1/10Posted on: 9/1/2010
Award-winning teachers’ advice on fixing public schools
What if students attended school all year? One Wisconsin teacher thinks that could be a way to improve student grades and fix the nation's public school system.
Almost every teacher has thoughts on how to improve schools. So this month, as students began to trickle into classrooms, CNN listened to the ideas of award-winning teachers at public schools across the country.
From encouraging more investment in quality teachers to improving student access to technology, these passionate teachers had plenty to say, despite the difficulties of budget reductions and teacher cuts.
Almost all the teachers warned that there is no quick fix. But for now, here are some of their top suggestions:
Quality teachers in the classroom
English teacher Sarah Wessling wants schools to have more teachers who can make a difference in students' lives.
There should be more investment in good teachers, says Sarah Wessling, who received the National Teacher of the Year award from President Obama in April.
Wessling, who teaches high school English in Iowa, is known for keeping her classroom exciting. Instead of having her students write traditional papers for homework, their assignments include writing songs, public service announcements and grant proposals.
"I remember the teacher who made a difference to me," Wessling said. "And it reminds me how important it is to have that person in the classroom."
Stop the testing obsession
Tests are a routine method of assessing school performance, but Gloria Allen, an elementary school science teacher in Washington, D.C., said some educators and parents put too much weight on a child's test scores.
Instead of focusing solely on test performance, which may represent only one day of a student's achievements, more attention should be placed on how a student performs the entire year, said Allen, who received a science teaching award this summer.
"There needs to be a better way of quantifying what we are doing," she said.
Promote digital literacy
We may be in the internet age, but many school districts across the country still have inadequate access to computers, said Bruce Penniman, a former high school English teacher in Massachusetts who won several teaching awards in his 30-plus-year career.
Access to technology may be especially limited in a bad economy, but many teachers agree that computers in the classroom can be a vital learning tool.
"The whole question of resources is always a big one," said Penniman, who now works as a writing consultant. "We are still in an educational system where the kind of resources available depends on the ZIP code, and that's really a tragedy."
More teacher collaboration
Two minds together can be more successful than one, says Zanetta Robinson, a Florida middle school English teacher. Workshops and online training programs that allow teachers to collaborate can be useful for sharing effective teaching methods and not-so-successful classroom experiences.
"Unfortunately, you get a great foundation in school," said Robinson, who won an early career teaching award. "But I think everyone understands theory and practice can be two different things."
Find alternate sources of funding
The economic crisis is bad news for public schools. Even though schools across the country are tightening their budgets, schools should develop other ways to get money, said Bonnie Embry, who has garnered multiple awards for teaching elementary school science in Kentucky.
"While funding is vital to existing and expanding programs, schools need more initiatives that capitalize on the time, resources and knowledge of members of the community," she said.
Improve parent-teacher relationships
Schools should take the time to develop relationships with parents, said Sally Hunter, a fourth-grade teacher at an elementary school in Texas. Parents are essential to a child's success at school. Moms and dads should get involved inside and outside the classroom, she said.
"Schools should be a partner, not the sole proprietor of education," said Hunter, who was honored with a social studies teaching award this year.
This proposal might make some students gripe, but year-round schooling could help them succeed academically, suggests Michael Koren, a Wisconsin instructor who has earned accolades for teaching middle school social studies. Koren says that over the three-month summer break, students lose a lot of information they learned during the school year.
Another of Koren's ideas: shifting school hours to accommodate parents' work schedules so they can spend more time with their children.
"We need to change those paradigms," he said.
Embrace creativity and risks
Byron Ernest, a high school agriculture science teacher, recommends placing an emphasis on schools becoming "learning organizations." That means constantly trying new ideas and open inquiry, says Ernest, who received the 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year award.
"Risk-taking must be commonplace and encouraged if this reform is to be successful," he said.
Meet basic needs
Many families have been affected by the economic downturn, and schools should try to help families in need, says Debra Calvino, a math teacher who won the 2010 New York State Teacher of the Year award. She has noticed more homeless children entering the classroom.
"Until their basic needs are met and they are developmentally ready, all the best teachers, all the best programs and all the best techniques will not be able to help them learn," she said.
Documentary Draws Praise, Controversy
Well in advance of its official release, the education film “Waiting For ‘Superman’” has attracted a level of attention that could make it one of the year’s most-watched documentaries—and one of the most controversial among educators, some of whom question its depictions of the American school system and how to improve it.
Made by director Davis Guggenheim, who won a 2006 Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” and producer Lesley Chilcott, it follows five students and their families on a quest for a better education.
“Waiting For ‘Superman’” has built up an extraordinary buzz since its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was the first film to be picked up by a distributor, Paramount Vantage, and won the festival’s Audience Award for a documentary.
After months of special screenings that have stoked anticipation and sparked advance commentary, the film is scheduled to open in limited release in Los Angeles and New York City on Sept. 24 and expand to selected cities through Oct. 15.
Mr. Guggenheim is forthright in saying he wants the film to have an impact on the national discussion of education comparable to that of “An Inconvenient Truth” on the issue of climate change.
“I’ve had the experience of seeing a documentary changing the conversation around an issue—global warming,” Mr. Guggenheim said in an interview last week, referring to his film chronicling former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to raise public awareness about that subject.
“I’m hoping that will happen with this,” he added of his education documentary. “It’s less about advocating a specific policy, but [more about] bringing people to the table.”
But others see the film as cheerleading for charter schools and putting teachers’ unions in an unfairly negative light. Its descriptions of teacher tenure have been criticized by teacher bloggers and others, as has the fact the students featured are looking toward nontraditional public schools as the cure for their education ills.
“This is an emotional film, and it paints an urgency that we embrace, but what I’m concerned about is it doesn’t tell the real story about public schools or offer real long-term solutions,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who appears in the film.
“It leaves people with a sense of despair, rather than a sense of hope,” she added.
Mr. Guggenheim rejects any notion that his film is anti-union or promotes charters as a silver bullet. He said he believes that unions are “essential,” and that there are many great mainstream public schools.
The students featured in “Waiting For ‘Superman’” live in the District of Columbia, New York City’s Bronx and Harlem sections, Los Angeles, and Redwood City, Calif., and come from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. For each of the five students, the opportunity to get launched on a new, potentially better educational trajectory comes in the form of chance: Each student has entered a lottery to get a spot in a charter or other nontraditional school.
Many stars of the education world appear in the film discussing the challenges of the nation’s schools, including District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the model for President Barack Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
To Mr. Guggenheim, the film shows not only the pitfalls of American public education, but also its promise.
“It affects everyone, not just the kids on the other side of the tracks,” he said of the state of the education system. Its failings are “not only morally wrong, but economically unsustainable,” he said.
“I also want people to know there is a glimmer of hope,” he said. “There are people now who have cracked the code—not that the formula for success is easy. It is possible to go into even the toughest neighborhoods and move the needle and give kids a great education.”
John I. Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, said that “when you give the impression that charter schools are the panacea for allowing kids to escape from public schools, I think that’s unfair.”
Mr. Wilson said he was “inspired,” though, by the movie’s potential as a call to arms for people to help make schools better for all children. “It is time to stop waiting for someone else to do it,” he said. “There is not going to be a Superman for us in public schools. We are who we have been waiting for.”
The buzz that “Waiting For ‘Superman’” has generated in education and mainstream circles is no accident. Participant Media, a film and entertainment company which financed and produced the film with Mr. Guggenheim and Ms. Chilcott, has launched a social-action campaign so that viewers have a tangible way to become personally and politically engaged.
“We offer resources and tools that allow people to engage at whatever level they’re comfortable, from simply getting information about the issue, to personal actions such as volunteering, donating, and mentoring, to advocating for political and policy changes,” said Jim Berk, the chief executive officer of Participant Media, based in Beverly Hills, Calif. As of last week, more than 45,000 people had taken an online pledge to see the film, which has been promoted using social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and through text-message alerts to those who signed up for updates on the film’s release.
Companies such as Office Depot and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and organizations like Donors Choose and First Book, are donating products and services to education-related causes with each milestone reached. The online pledge meter’s top goal is 250,000 pledges.
Some education advocates hope to use the visibility the film brings to education issues to emphasize their own messages.
The Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Education Reform Now, in New York City, are teaming up to build a parallel campaign called “We Are Superman.”
In addition to building a website to house their efforts, the two groups are mobilizing teams of education activists in several cities to arm people with information on how they can improve education in their communities.
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, looks on as students tackle math problems in one of his charter schools, which have been praised for their efforts to close achievement gaps.
The Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a leading proponent of charters and other forms of school choice, is also launching an education effort tied to the film, with plans to release a guide explaining how to get involved.
Education activists and analysts are intrigued—and, in some cases, skeptical—about the film’s potential for engaging a wider public in school issues.
Jonathan Schorr, a San Francisco-based partner of the NewSchools Venture Fund, said the documentary’s approach will draw people into the education reform conversation in a way a seminar wouldn’t.
“‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was an achievement in itself because climate change is really hard to touch and feel,” he said. “The experience of kids who are denied a good educational option is something anybody who has been a parent, or anyone who has gone to school, can directly relate to. I think this [film] will get a much wider viewership.”
Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, agreed. “I think it has the huge potential to communicate with a huge crop of people who don’t know there’s an issue or problem,” she said.
Others, however, are not so convinced the film, and others on education due to be released this year, will make a big impact.
“I think it’s naive to imagine a single movie or book is going to change permanently what the public is concerned about or how it thinks about an issue,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
“People are busy. They have jobs and kids,” he said. “They are supposed to be worried about national security and highway safety and Internet stalkers and any number of things. Even if they walk out of the movie fired up, there’s lots of other causes and demands.”
Any lasting effects of “Waiting For ‘Superman’” will be determined by the success of the engagement activities connected to it, said Mr. Hess, who has been part of the running online discussion of the film in the blog he writes for Education Week’s website. “What happens next is what matters. Is there a strategy to linking those people into the issue in an ongoing way?”
As for Mr. Guggenheim, he sought last week to dispel perceptions that he is claiming to have a few clear remedies for troubled schools, even as he acknowledged his desire to stir others to action.
“I’m very careful not to present myself as an expert,” he said. “My point of view is as an observer and a parent who has kids. I don’t want to come off as someone who himself offers answers.”
“I want people to start to care about other people’s children and fight for other people’s children as much as they fight for their own,” he said.
Source: Education Week
Method to Grade Teachers Provokes Battles
How good is one teacher compared with another?
A growing number of school districts have adopted a system called value-added modeling to answer that question, provoking battles from Washington to Los Angeles — with some saying it is an effective method for increasing teacher accountability, and others arguing that it can give an inaccurate picture of teachers’ work.
The system calculates the value teachers add to their students’ achievement, based on changes in test scores from year to year and how the students perform compared with others in their grade.
People who analyze the data, making a few statistical assumptions, can produce a list ranking teachers from best to worst.
Use of value-added modeling is exploding nationwide. Hundreds of school systems, including those in Chicago, New York and Washington, are already using it to measure the performance of schools or teachers. Many more are expected to join them, partly because the Obama administration has prodded states and districts to develop more effective teacher-evaluation systems than traditional classroom observation by administrators.
Though the value-added method is often used to help educators improve their classroom teaching, it has also been a factor in deciding who receives bonuses, how much they are and even who gets fired.
Michelle A. Rhee, the schools chancellor in Washington, fired about 25 teachers this summer after they rated poorly in evaluations based in part on a value-added analysis of scores.
And 6,000 elementary school teachers in Los Angeles have found themselves under scrutiny this summer after The Los Angeles Times published a series of articles about their performance, including a searchable database on its Web site that rates them from least effective to most effective. The teachers’ union has protested, urging a boycott of the paper.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in to support the newspaper’s work, calling it an exercise in healthy transparency. In a speech last week, though, he qualified that support, noting that he had never released to news media similar information on teachers when he was the Chicago schools superintendent.
“There are real issues and competing priorities and values that we must work through together — balancing transparency, privacy, fairness and respect for teachers,” Mr. Duncan said. On The Los Angeles Times’s publication of the teacher data, he added, “I don’t advocate that approach for other districts.”
A report released this month by several education researchers warned that the value-added methodology can be unreliable.
“If these teachers were measured in a different year, or a different model were used, the rankings might bounce around quite a bit,” said Edward Haertel, a Stanford professor who was a co-author of the report.
“People are going to treat these scores as if they were reflections on the effectiveness of the teachers without any appreciation of how unstable they are.”
Other experts disagree.
William L. Sanders, a senior research manager for a North Carolina company, SAS, that does value-added estimates for districts in North Carolina, Tennessee and other states, said that “if you use rigorous, robust methods and surround them with safeguards, you can reliably distinguish highly effective teachers from average teachers and from ineffective teachers.”
Dr. Sanders helped develop value-added methods to evaluate teachers in Tennessee in the 1990s. Their use spread after the 2002 No Child Left Behind law required states to test in third to eighth grades every year, giving school districts mountains of test data that are the raw material for value-added analysis.
In value-added modeling, researchers use students’ scores on state tests administered at the end of third grade, for instance, to predict how they are likely to score on state tests at the end of fourth grade.
A student whose third-grade scores were higher than 60 percent of peers statewide is predicted to score higher than 60 percent of fourth graders a year later.
If, when actually taking the state tests at the end of fourth grade, the student scores higher than 70 percent of fourth graders, the leap in achievement represents the value the fourth-grade teacher added.
Even critics acknowledge that the method can be more accurate for rating schools than the system now required by federal law, which compares test scores of succeeding classes, for instance this year’s fifth graders with last year’s fifth graders.
But when the method is used to evaluate individual teachers, many factors can lead to inaccuracies. Different people crunching the numbers can get different results, said Douglas N. Harris, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. For example, two analysts might rank teachers in a district differently if one analyst took into account certain student characteristics, like which students were eligible for free lunch, and the other did not.
Millions of students change classes or schools each year, so teachers can be evaluated on the performance of students they have taught only briefly, after students’ records were linked to them in the fall.
In many schools, students receive instruction from multiple teachers, or from after-school tutors, making it difficult to attribute learning gains to a specific instructor. Another problem is known as the ceiling effect. Advanced students can score so highly one year that standardized state tests are not sensitive enough to measure their learning gains a year later.
In Houston, a district that uses value-added methods to allocate teacher bonuses, Darilyn Krieger said she had seen the ceiling effect as a physics teacher at Carnegie Vanguard High School.
“My kids come in at a very high level of competence,” Ms. Krieger said.
After she teaches them for a year, most score highly on a state science test but show little gains, so her bonus is often small compared with those of other teachers, she said.
The Houston Chronicle reports teacher bonuses each year in a database, and readers view the size of the bonus as an indicator of teacher effectiveness, Ms. Krieger said.
“I have students in class ask me why I didn’t earn a higher bonus,” Ms. Krieger said. “I say: ‘Because the system decided I wasn’t doing a good enough job. But the system is flawed.’ ”
This year, the federal Department of Education’s own research arm warned in a study that value-added estimates “are subject to a considerable degree of random error.”
And last October, the Board on Testing and Assessments of the National Academies, a panel of 13 researchers led by Dr. Haertel, wrote to Mr. Duncan warning of “significant concerns” that the Race to the Top grant competition was placing “too much emphasis on measures of growth in student achievement that have not yet been adequately studied for the purposes of evaluating teachers and principals.”
“Value-added methodologies should be used only after careful consideration of their appropriateness for the data that are available, and if used, should be subjected to rigorous evaluation,” the panel wrote. “At present, the best use of VAM techniques is in closely studied pilot projects.”
Despite those warnings, the Department of Education made states with laws prohibiting linkages between student data and teachers ineligible to compete in Race to the Top, and it designed its scoring system to reward states that use value-added calculations in teacher evaluations.
“I’m uncomfortable with how fast a number of states are moving to develop teacher-evaluation systems that will make important decisions about teachers based on value-added results,” said Robert L. Linn, a testing expert who is an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“They haven’t taken caution into account as much as they need to,” Professor Linn said.
Source: New York Times
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