Author Archives: Chad Aldeman

Should We Strive for More Generalists and Fewer Specialists in Education?

I’ve been thinking about generalists and specialists lately, and I’m beginning to think that the education field has fetishized specialists and forgotten about the value of generalists.

My thinking on this question has been prodded by a few articles on health care. In January, Atul Gawande published a moving article in The New Yorker about the “herosim of incremental care.” Gawande, a surgeon by training, explains a debate he had with his friend Asaf, an internist, about the relative merits of generalists versus specialists:

[Asaf] showed me studies demonstrating that states with higher ratios of primary-care physicians have lower rates of general mortality, infant mortality, and mortality from specific conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Other studies found that people with a primary-care physician as their usual source of care had lower subsequent five-year mortality rates than others, regardless of their initial health. In the United Kingdom, where family physicians are paid to practice in deprived areas, a ten-per-cent increase in the primary-care supply was shown to improve people’s health so much that you could add ten years to everyone’s life and still not match the benefit…. Further, the more complex a person’s medical needs are the greater the benefit of primary care.

Gawande spends the rest of the article trying to figure out how this works, and he spends time visiting his friend’s clinic:

“It’s the relationship,” they’d say. I began to understand only after I noticed that the doctors, the nurses, and the front-desk staff knew by name almost every patient who came through the door. Often, they had known the patient for years and would know him for years to come. In a single, isolated moment of care for, say, a man who came in with abdominal pain, Asaf looked like nothing special. But once I took in the fact that patient and doctor really knew each other—that the man had visited three months earlier, for back pain, and six months before that, for a flu—I started to realize the significance of their familiarity.

For one thing, it made the man willing to seek medical attention for potentially serious symptoms far sooner, instead of putting it off until it was too late. There is solid evidence behind this. Studies have established that having a regular source of medical care, from a doctor who knows you, has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek care for severe symptoms. This alone appears to be a significant contributor to lower death rates.

Observing the care, I began to grasp how the commitment to seeing people over time leads primary-care clinicians to take an approach to problem-solving that is very different from that of doctors, like me, who provide mainly episodic care.

The summer issue of The Washington Monthly gave more evidence in the case for generalists through Samuel Jay Keyser’s personal story: a sophisticated surgical procedure saved his life, but a team of generalists really helped him take steps toward a productive life.

I find these arguments compelling.

Both Keyser and Gawande point to the growing body of research that health care patients are often better off with a close relationship to one generalist than they are to a poorly coordinated network of specialists. We see this especially in end-of-life care. Patients with hospice and palliative care live longer and cost less to keep alive than those who receive the usual cocktail of specialists and hospitalizations.

Education, however, keeps trending in the opposite direction. There’s been an ever-increasing push to ensure teachers are given specialized training and licenses to fill specialty roles within schools. As a field, we’ve been operating as if more and more specialization will be a good thing, but hardly any of this is linked to actual outcomes for kids. Still, that hasn’t stopped us.

There’s very little evidence behind the specialist trend, and one study I’m aware of points in the opposite direction. When Houston experimented with creating specialized teacher roles in elementary schools, the generalist elementary school teachers who spent all day with their students helped their students learn more than their peers who specialized in only one subject. The author of the study theorized that the generalist teachers who spent more time with their students could better tailor their instruction. We also see this in other studies of teacher credentials, where deeper content knowledge is far from a guarantee of more effective teaching.

To be sure, there are some elements of schooling where having a specialist is clearly better. If one of my children was being tested for a hearing or learning disability, I’d want a specialist to perform the test. But from my conversations in the education space, I’m worried we’ve taken this concept too far and applied it to everything a school does. Whether that’s a good thing or not is worth further investigation.

Our New Reviews of California and New York’s Draft ESSA Plans

Last spring, Bellwether partnered with the Collaborative for Student Success to convene an independent peer review of the first round of ESSA state plans. We brought together a bipartisan, nationally esteemed group of education policy experts to review the plans from 16 states and the District of Columbia.

We will do full reviews of the remaining 34 state plans after they’re submitted to the U.S. Department of Education next month. In the meantime, we decided to review the draft plans put out for public comment by California and New York, given the outsized importance of these two states in education policy and politics.

You can read our interim reviews of the California and New York plans here. Given the size of California and New York’s diverse student populations, as well as their geographic diversity, we believe feedback on their draft plans is important in not only strengthening these state’s final submissions, but also in providing information for other states still writing their plans.

This interim project was intended as a quick-turnaround, rapid-response analysis, and we did not use the full quality peer review process we used in round one — and which we will use again in round two. We recently received some feedback from California policymakers working on the plan about a few mistakes that were made in haste. We’ve made some edits as a result, and the reviews you’ll see on our website now incorporate these edits.

As one example, we wrote that, “at the indicator level… California has not yet specified definitions for chronic absenteeism…” While California has adopted a definition of chronic absenteeism for data collection purposes, their plan states they won’t know how they’re going to turn it into an indicator for accountability purposes until fall 2018. Our review could have been clearer about this distinction, and we’ve since updated it. As another example, we wrote “December 2018” where we should have written “January 2018,” and have since fixed this. In another place, we rephrased our comments about California’s exit criteria for low-performing schools. We had initially understood California’s proposed exit criteria to be normative, implying a school could exit simply if it improved its relative standing in the rankings. After taking another look, we have removed that language from our review. These revisions are now reflected in the online versions.

At the same time, there are also places where state policymakers may simply disagree with our goals behind this project, and hence our reviews of their plans. In comments to EdSource about our review, David Sapp, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for California State Board of Education, referred to the state’s ESSA plan as “an application for federal funding.” While this is literally true — the plans are required to unlock each state’s share of federal Title I funding — this comment downplays the importance of these plans. We’re not just talking about a a small grant program; Title I is a $15 billion program nationwide and California alone receives about $2 billion a year from it. Title I traces its roots back more than 50 years, and Congress has stated that Title I’s purpose is to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.’’

Those are the reasons we committed to this project in the first place, and it’s why we intend to once again conduct full reviews of all second-round states, including California and New York, following their final submissions in September. We’ll be fully transparent about that process, as we were in round one, and you can look for the results of that work later this fall.

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.