Author Archives: Chad Aldeman

Can We Learn to Learn Better? An Interview with Author Ulrich Boser

Not only does Ulrich Boser hold down a steady job as an education policy wonk at the Center for American Progress, he also somehow has time to write books. They’re not wonky policy books, either; they’re about interesting topics like art heists and the science of trust. In his most recent book, Learn Better, Boser tackles the science of learning.

It’s a fascinating book, and Boser does an expert job of weaving together complex science with compelling stories about people learning all sorts of skills, including darts, foreign languages, math, medicine, and Scrabble. At one point, Boser turns his critical eye inward and writes about his experience of hiring his own personal basketball coach while in his mid-forties.

I spoke with Boser about the book, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

CHAD ALDEMAN: Learn Better talks a lot about the value of practice, and you give a number of lively examples of both “good” and “bad” forms of practice. Based on your research, what would you say are the key elements of good practice?

ULRICH BOSER: The key element is making it difficult, not making it enjoyable. A lot of times we practice things without really getting better. For example, I drive a lot and have been driving a car since I was 18, but I haven’t gotten better at driving because I don’t really engage in it in a deliberate way, I don’t make it harder for myself, I don’t focus, I don’t monitor.

So, when it comes to practice, making it more difficult for yourself, and monitoring the results, are really key. One easy way to make practice better is this idea called “interweaving.” There’s just a tremendous amount of research on interweaving, and the idea, in some ways, is quite basic.

Chad, I’m going to ask you this question: If you want to get better at practicing the piano, should you practice all of your Beethoven one day, and then, in your next practice session, all of your Chopin, and then the day after that, all of your Bach? Or in each practice session, should you mix it up a little bit? Which way would you go?

ALDEMAN: Based on what you just said, I’m going to guess that I should mix it up. Continue reading

Georgia Addressed Its Teacher Shortages With This One Trick

Despite drops in the number of students pursuing teaching degrees, there’s no such thing as a national “teacher” shortage. That’s because districts don’t need to hire generic “teachers.” Instead, they need to hire teachers with specific licenses to fit specific roles in their schools, like elementary bilingual and dual language instruction, or middle school social studies, or high school biology.

Each of these areas has a different balance between supply and demand. For example, in Illinois we found that the state is licensing about 12 social studies teachers for every one that gets hired in the state. In contrast, for every three special education teachers the state produces, two find jobs.

In short, we have chronic teacher shortages in some fields, and a huge over-supply in others. And addressing specific shortage areas calls for targeted policy solutions.

That’s exactly what Georgia did. Their math and science teachers were leaving the state’s classrooms at higher rates than other teachers, so in 2010 they began paying them more money. Any math and science teacher in grades K-5 qualified for an annual $1,000 stipend, and new math and science teachers in grades 6-12 were paid as if they were six-year veteran teachers (that qualified them for bonuses worth $2,500 to $4,500, or 7-14 percent of their base salary).

The extra money paid off. According to a new working study* by Carycruz Bueno and Tim R. Sass, the pay incentives cut math and science teacher turnover rates by 35 percent. The graph below shows what this looks like. The blue line represents the cumulative retention rates of math and science teachers who were not eligible for the bonuses (they may not have had full certification or entered the profession before the program began). The red line represents teachers who did qualify for the bonuses. As the graph shows, teachers who received the extra financial support were much more likely to stay as teachers. The gaps did not close even when the bonuses ended after five years, which suggests that the money had both short- and long-term benefits in terms of retaining math and science teachers.

Georgia supplemental pay_teacher retention

Other states and school districts could easily replicate Georgia’s success. But first, they’d have to acknowledge there are unique challenges in attracting and retaining different types of teachers and that there’s no generic national teacher shortage.

*Sass and Bueno also presented their findings at a recent CALDER conference. Their presentation can be downloaded here.

We Have to Say More About Teacher Evaluation Reforms Than Just “They Didn’t Work”

In a piece for Education Next released last month, I looked at the Obama-era push for better teacher evaluation systems. As states and cities turn the page on that particular set of reforms, I wanted to pause and reflect on what we can learn from the last eight years. In the piece, I nodded toward some of the successes of that effort but spent more time reflecting on what could have gone better. I focused on four major policy mistakes:

  1. A universal approach of trying to get all states and cities to pursue teacher evaluation reform efforts;
  2. A narrow definition that focused too much on the specific elements of evaluation systems without leaving room to accomplish the same goals in different ways;
  3. An emphasis on process over purpose, which paid too much attention to the evaluation systems themselves and not enough on the actual use of those systems;
  4. A collision in timing with the rollout of Common Core that proved politically and logistically challenging.

These failures do not invalidate the entire theory of action that teachers matter and that improving the policies around how school districts hire, evaluate, compensate, and train teachers could lead to better outcomes for students. Encouraging school districts to evaluate teachers and principals at least in part on student growth, and to make consequential decisions based on those determinations, was never going to be an easy shift. It required new policies, new systems, and better tools, not to mention changing a culture that treated teachers as interchangeable widgets. For all these reasons and more, we haven’t seen the widespread changes President Obama or his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, might have hoped for when they made teacher evaluation one of their signature policies.

Still, failing to change everything doesn’t mean we’ve learned nothing. There’s a growing body of evidence that evaluation reform can be a viable school improvement strategy for places that want to pursue it. In my piece I cited a randomized controlled trial of the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), which provided competitive grants for districts to revamp their evaluation and compensation systems. The study found that TIF led to gains equivalent to 10 percent of a year’s worth of learning in math and 11 percent in reading. There are other positive examples as well. Studies on evaluation reform efforts in Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, New York City, and Washington, D.C. have found that comprehensive evaluation systems can help identify teachers who need to improve their practice, nudge low-performing teachers out of the profession, and, ultimately, boost student achievement. To be sure, these cities all pursued different sets of reforms, but they had the common thread that they were all trying to identify and act on differences in teacher performance.

In total, these positive examples provide evidence in support of the underlying theory of action on teacher evaluation reforms. Rather than discarding this era and moving on, as states and advocates seem wont to do, we should learn from this massive effort: what worked and what didn’t work and why.

Should Public Charter Schools Be Allowed to Opt Out of State-run Teacher Pension Plans?

This post originally appeared on our sister site, TeacherPensions.org.

Should public charter schools be allowed to opt out of state-run teacher pension plans?

question-mark-1924516_1280There are strong arguments in favor of letting charter schools opt out. Most charter school teachers would be better off in more portable retirement plans. And charter schools tend to be new, so it might be unfair to ask them to pay off the debts of the old system.

Still, if charters are allowed to opt out, that puts added pressure on traditional school district budgets as they’re forced to take on proportionately larger shares of state pension legacy costs. As the charter sector has grown over time, and as pension debts eat up a larger and larger share of school spending, the charter school pension question has been bubbling up. It’s even played a small role in the debate over the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

As my colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, and Sara Mead noted earlier this week in their slide deck analyzing the education landscape in Michigan, DeVos’ home state of Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with more than 40 charter school authorizers and 10 percent of its students attending charter schools. Michigan’s charter school sector is also unique in that 71 percent of its charters are run by an Education Management Organization (EMO), which is a for-profit operator of public schools.

Although DeVos has been personally maligned for Michigan’s large for-profit charter sector, one thing that’s been missing from the debate is that Michigan’s EMOs are exempt from the state teacher pension fund. That means Michigan’s EMOs get to avoid paying a share of the state’s pension legacy costs, and in the process, they’re playing a small part in exacerbating the pension debt problem for all other Michigan public schools.

How big of a problem is this? In order to separate fact from fiction, here are six things to know about charter schools and teacher pensions nationwide, with Michigan as an example: Continue reading

Donald Trump Won. What Does That Mean for Education Policy?

Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. What does that mean for federal education policy? Here are my 11 reflections on what this
donald-j-trump-1342298_960_720means and predictions for what might happen:

  1. Expert opinion didn’t have a very good night. The polls were wrong, the political experts were wrong, and elite newspaper endorsements didn’t seem to affect the outcome. In some cases, voters outright rejected elite consensus. For an education example, the research on Boston charter schools is overwhelmingly positive, and yet Massachusetts voted down a ballot initiative that would have allowed them to expand. This isn’t just an education problem per se, but it does have troubling implications for the sector going forward.
  2. Our country has never been this politically divided across education levels. Donald Trump won non-college-educated voters by huge numbers even as Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win college-educated voters in 50 years. If these trends continue, or even accelerate, and political party becomes further associated with education levels, that will turn education itself into a political exercise.
  3. Now that Trump is President-Elect, a lot of Democrats will wish we were still under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Even though many states were operating under waivers from NCLB, and a Trump Administration could have authored their own waivers, NCLB as an underlying law provided stronger protection for minorities and other subgroups of students than what’s now in place under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
  4. As I’ve written before, the Trump transition team has tons of work to do. Given ESSA’s timelines, the new administration faces huge policy and logistical hurdles in their first six to eight months in office. They’ll need to review and approve every state’s accountability plan in that time.
  5. The Obama Administration’s regulations implementing ESSA are in trouble. Again given the timeline here, I don’t expect outright revocation for all of the draft rules, which would take time and formal processes, but I do expect informal “dear colleague” letters weakening the Obama proposals.
  6. In particular, the “supplement not supplant” rule was already on shaky political ground before the election. A Trump Administration is not likely to support it going forward.
  7. The Obama Administration’s legacy on higher education would take time to dismantle. Rules on gainful employment and teacher preparation are now final. For the Trump Administration to revoke either of those, it would take years of formal regulatory processes. If Republicans really want those gone, they’ll go after them through Congress.
  8. Existing grant awards (like the Teacher Incentive Fund or the Charter School Program) are safe. Congressional members will have an interest in funding continuation awards for those existing grants.
  9. Trump can’t do much unilaterally on #CommonCore or school choice. ESSA makes the federal role relatively impotent, no matter the president.
  10. We’re not getting any new money for education anytime soon. That means no federal expansion of pre-k and certainly not “free college.”
  11. I don’t expect a Republican-dominated Congress to take up any large education bills. Their focus will be on policy objectives like the Supreme Court vacancy, immigration, or Obamacare. I don’t think we’ll see a Perkins or Higher Education Act reauthorization, for example. There just isn’t political oxygen for those types of negotiations. Still, we may see some smaller things, like the DC voucher program perhaps, slipped into random must-pass bills.

For more on the Trump victory and the implications for education policy, check out posts from Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess.