Author Archives: Chad Aldeman and Kaitlin Pennington

The NBA Playoffs, Match-Ups, and Teacher Fit: An Interview with Steve Glazerman

The NBA Finals wrapped up on Friday, but they offered a nice reminder about the importance of how employees fit within an organization and context. Players who looked like All-Stars in one round of the playoffs became unplayable in the next due to match-up problems. In other cases, players who washed out in other contexts were suddenly relevant again.

Victor Oladipo

photo of Victor Oladipo via Flickr user Keith Allison

On a recent podcast, Malcolm Gladwell used the NBA playoffs as an entry point to talk about worker fit. Gladwell gave the example of NBA player Victor Oladipo. Oladipo was the second pick in the 2013 draft, made the All-Rookie team his first year, and then…didn’t quite live up to his perceived potential. He was traded once but didn’t mesh well with his new teammates, and then he was traded again, this time to the Indiana Pacers. Suddenly he looked like a different player. He made the All-Star team this year and almost took down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.

Gladwell’s point is that we should think much more carefully about employee fit. A successful worker somewhere may not be successful everywhere. Individuals are dependent on their teammates and organizational supports; context matters.

Steve Glazerman

How much does fit matter for teachers? Is it as important in schools as it seems to be in basketball? To learn more, we reached out to Steve Glazerman, a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research. We talked to him at the end of last month, just as the NBA Finals were starting. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.  

Chad Aldeman: You helped lead an evaluation of a federal program called the Talent Transfer Initiative. Can you tell us about what the program tried to do, whether it was successful, and what we can learn from it? Continue reading

Two Graphs on Teacher Turnover Rates

I have a new piece up at The 74 this morning arguing that, contrary to popular perception within the education field, we do not have a generic teacher turnover crisis. Why do I say that? Two graphs help illustrate my point.

First, consider this graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows job openings rates by industry from 2002 to 2017. I’ve added a red arrow pointing to the line for state local government employees who work in education (this group is predominantly public school teachers). As the graph shows, public education has consistently lower job openings rates than all other industries in our economy.

As I write in my piece today, “public schools have much lower rates of job openings, hire rates, quit rates, and voluntary and involuntary separations than every industry except the federal government. Across all these measures, public schools have employee mobility rates that are roughly half the national averages.”

Instead of having some sort of generic turnover problem that applies to all teachers nationally, we actually have problems that are unique to certain schools, districts, and subject areas. To illustrate this point, take a look at the graph below from the annual “Facts and Figures” report from BEST NC. It maps teacher turnover rates by district in North Carolina. Overall, the state has a teacher turnover rate that’s lower than the national average. But some districts have turnover rates about half of the state average, while others are twice as high as the average.

For more, go read the full piece in The 74 for my thoughts on what this means for the education field.

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