Category Archives: Education Policy

Donald Trump’s Election is a “Sputnik Moment” for Civics Education

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event discussing the failings of civics education in America. The panelists referred to the dismal state of civics literacy as a “Sputnik moment” – a reference to when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, stirring the United States to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dramatically increase its space exploration efforts.

Nothing illustrates this comparison better than the election of Donald Trump. As Trump has demonstrated time and time again, he knows little about governing or policy – instead relying on divisive rhetoric and petulant Twitter tantrums. His most recent gaffe: at a White House convening of the nation’s governors, Trump said that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” As it turns out, many people knew.

However, if Trump can name all three branches of government, that alone would put him ahead of nearly three quarters of Americans. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches, and 31 percent could not name a single one.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also show poor results. In 2014 – the most recent NAEP civics assessment – only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. The same is true of older students getting ready to vote. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level. Neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998.

At the same time, faith in many of America’s institutions are at historic lows – even before Trump’s election. And it’s likely that his constant attacks on various institutions will only serve to worsen these numbers. This crisis of confidence only feeds into the growing level of polarization, making it nearly impossible to govern effectively. It’s no wonder that recent congresses have been arguably some of the least productive ever.

Confidence in Institutions

Despite these difficulties, the American people seem well aware of the problem at hand. According to the 2016 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, 82 percent of Americans believe preparing students to be good citizens is very or extremely important. At the same time, only 33 percent think the public schools in their communities are doing that job very or extremely well.

So what is to be done? Continue reading

Ignore the Headlines and Dig into the Results: The Real Impact of Teacher Evaluation Reform

FL StoryThe headline “Florida teacher evaluations: Most everyone good or very good” in last week’s Orlando Sentinel felt like déjà vu. Similar headlines have graced the pages of local newspapers across the country, leading readers to assume that recent reforms of teacher evaluation systems weren’t worth the effort because teachers continue to receive high ratings. But that first impression is incomplete.

My colleague Sara Mead and I grappled with this idea in a recent report. At first blush, it’s true that reformed teacher evaluation systems haven’t substantially changed the distribution of teacher evaluation ratings. And there are logical explanations for those results.

But focusing purely on the final evaluation ratings misses important progress underneath the overall results. For example, my colleague Chad Aldeman highlighted a few specific places where teacher evaluation reforms served broader school improvement efforts. The progress does not stop there. The following studies point to other positive outcomes from teacher evaluation reform:

  • Greater job satisfaction among effective teachers. A new study of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system released earlier this month found that when teachers receive higher ratings under the state’s reformed teacher evaluation system, the perceptions of their work improve relative to teachers who received lower ratings.
  • Higher turnover of less effective teachers. A 2016 report on the state of the teaching profession in North Carolina found that, for teachers at every experience level, those who left the profession had lower overall evaluation ratings and lower effects on student growth than teachers who stayed. The graph below shows the picture for student growth. The blue line shows the growth scores for teachers who remained as teachers in North Carolina, and the red line shows those who left. We don’t know if this is a story of correlation or causation, but at least North Carolina can now point to data showing that they’re retaining the best teachers.
NC Chart

Click to enlarge

  • Higher turnover of less effective probationary teachers. Similar to the outcomes in North Carolina, a 2014 study of New York City public schools found that teachers who had their probationary periods extended — that is, who were told they weren’t effective enough at that time to earn tenure — voluntarily left their teaching positions at higher rates. Although New York wasn’t actively dismissing low-performers, this notice was enough to “nudge” them to consider other professions.
  • Improvement of overall teacher quality. A study of DC Public Schools’ (DCPS) teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, shows that the evaluation system encouraged the voluntary turnover of low-performing teachers. When the lower performing teachers left the district, leaders in the district filled the open teaching positions with new teachers who were more effective than the ones who left. The result has been a rise in overall teacher quality in DCPS.

These and other teacher evaluation studies are complicated. They are not prone to eye-catching headlines. But nonetheless, teacher evaluation systems may be quietly having an effect on which teachers stay in the profession and, ultimately, whether students are learning.

Rural Communities Don’t All Agree on the End Goal of Public Education

Should schools push all students to go to college or are alternatives like career and technical education (CTE) appropriate? The debate is far from settled. As the “college for all” mantra has taken hold over the last decade, CTE has gotten a bad rap as a dumping ground for underachieving kids. But critics of “college for all” point out that, done well, CTE can motivate students and help them build skills needed in the labor market. Nowhere is this debate more salient than in America’s rural schools.

For a recent report, Voices from Rural Oklahoma, Juliet Squire and I spent two weeks traveling throughout Oklahoma, conducting focus groups with members of rScreen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.12.57 PMural communities across the state. We covered a lot of ground in these conversations, touching on issues like education funding, high school students’ course options, post-high school opportunities, and school consolidation. In each and every focus group, participants conveyed uncertainty and disagreement about what Oklahoma’s rural schools ought to be preparing students to do once they graduate.

In some cases, aversion to “college for all” was rooted in fear — fear that sending kids away to school would mean they wouldn’t return home, thus hurting their communities. There is evidence that suggests this does happen, that it is often the best and brightest that leave rural areas, leaving behind those with less education who are less prepared to help their communities prosper. A participant in one of our focus groups explained it this way: “If you drive them to college, they may have to go to Kansas City…You know, you’re setting them up to go away [rather than] return and develop our economy.”

Other participants’ views about about the necessity of higher education were shaped by the realities of their communities. We heard many stories about families who needed a welder or a plumber or an electrician — but none exist in their communities. In others, high school graduates working in the oil fields or wind farms were able to make a real, living wage without higher education. One participant told us: “A large percentage of our kids need to have a trade — be it carpentry, welding, plumbing, heat and air — ‘cause I know in our area, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

But these stories were far from universal. We also heard from parents desperate to send their kids to college, a desire stemming from their own struggle securing employment. One participant told us his story:

Just from my experience, I’ve been a welder for 16 years. I’m currently unemployed because of the market falling, bottom falling plum out of it. My boy, since he was big enough to follow me around, was putting my welding hood on. And I tell him, “You better get an education.” […] My dad grew up doing construction. I grew up doing welding. That’s no longer — not going to be available for very much longer. So education is very high and especially with us, you know, I’m telling my kids, “You got to get an education. You got to go to college.”

The economic realities of rural communities have changed significantly in recent decades, and in Oklahoma they fluctuate with the volatility in oil and gas markets. Community members may know well what skills and education credentials are necessary to get a job in their small town. But they have less information about what is needed to be employable in a different city or state, and even less understanding of the skills and knowledge that will be needed ten years from now.

Thankfully, rural communities don’t need to choose between “college for all” and high-quality CTE. Instead, state policymakers, business leaders, and education leaders can work together to help students and families understand and navigate their options. This includes listening to and accounting for the perspectives of students and parents, as we sought to do in our report. But it also involves a broader understanding of where the economy is, where it’s headed, and what skills and education will be necessary for students to thrive. With thoughtful coordination among the various actors and decision-makers in rural communities, students and families can be better positioned to make informed decisions about their educations and careers.

Four Problems With Betsy DeVos’ Possible Vision of School Accountability

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

During her Senate hearing, now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeatedly stated that she supports school accountability. But what does accountability actually mean to her? For clues, I looked into the model school choice legislation proposed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization DeVos formerly chaired. If that bill reflects DeVos’ priorities, it suggests she supports accountability measures that are significantly weaker than the ones currently applied to public schools in all 50 states.

There are at least four key accountability problems with the AFC’s voucher program:

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Student Learning Should Matter for Teacher Evaluation Ratings, But It Still Doesn’t

Students are not learning, but teachers are told they’re doing their jobs effectively. This oxymoron is not new in American education, but recent teacher evaluation laws were supposed to demolish it by better aligning teacher evaluation scores and student learning outcomes.

NCTQ Report PicThe problem is: the laws aren’t working as intended. Even with new laws in place, the vast majority of teachers across the country continue to receive a rating equivalent to effective or higher. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) provides a new explanation for the phenomenon.

The report reveals that in almost all states, there are teachers who receive an overall evaluation score of “effective” or “highly effective” despite receiving a low score for leading students to academic achievement. This is possible because these teachers receive high scores on other parts of the evaluation such as principal and peer observations, student and parent surveys, and other district and state measures. As NCTQ’s new report details, the guidance and rules that structure states’ evaluation laws allow teachers who receive uneven scores throughout their evaluation to still be rated as effective practitioners — even when data show their students are not learning.

NCTQ’s report provides a new opportunity to discuss the negative consequences of misalignment between teacher evaluation and student learning outcomes. The following are a few damaging outcomes of such misalignment: Continue reading