Category Archives: Research

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

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.

Starting Earlier than Pre-K Provides More Benefits For Disadvantaged Kids

Earlier this week there were a flurry of news articles covering Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman’s latest report“The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.” The report presents compelling evidence that offering high-quality intensive early childhood education experiences to children living in poverty dramatically improves their long-term health, education and earnings.

Some in the education community were surprised by the amount of press coverage the report received and interpreted the study as simply reinforcing the existing body of pre-k research. While the study does build on Heckman’s previous analysis of the health benefits of the same two programs, what many people don’t understand is that Heckman is examining intensive early childhood programs which served children from eight weeks old through age five, not one or two years of pre-k programs. This misunderstanding reinforces Heckman’s argument that public discussion has ossified around the idea that public pre-k for four year olds is the best solution to ameliorate the effects of childhood poverty. In fact, that is not true. Heckman’s reseach shows more intensive early childhood programs produce even more dramatic impacts which persist into adulthood.

Heckman’s latest study analyzes the lifetime impact of two early childhood programs from the 1970s: the Carolina Abecedarian Study (ABC) and Carolina Approach to Responsive Education (CARE), which served disadvantaged children from 8 weeks to age five. Heckman and his co-authors examined the long-term impacts of the programs across multiple dimensions, including education level, personal earnings, parental earnings, crime, and health effects. The study finds that the program produced a 13% rate of return (or $6.30 for every $1 spent). This return includes reduced crime, better health effects (lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.) higher education levels and higher incomes for the participants and their parents. Previously, Heckman found that the Perry Preschool program (which served disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds) produced a 7-10% return. Along with a higher return on investment, the new ABC and CARE analysis finds graduates had higher IQs at age 21 than control group counterparts. In comparison, the participants in the Perry pre-k program did not display lasting IQ effects in adulthood. No pre-k studies have shown lasting IQ effects without fadeout. Therefore, this new research reveals that early childhood programs that start early have a greater impact than pre-k programs. 

This is not a particularly surprising finding. More intensive interventions are more likely to positively impact a child. This explains why children who spend two years in pre-k make greater gains than those who attend for only one year and why children in full-day programs make greater gains than those in half-day programs. Additionally, we know life cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature and that skill begets skill.

Heckman’s previous research on the Perry Preschool program played an important role in convincing policymakers across the spectrum that public pre-k pays for itself long term. As a result, we’ve seen growing political support for universal pre-k and the adoption of new state and local pre-k programs. Even with this growing support, only 29% of four year olds across the country are enrolled in public pre-k. The number of three year olds is even smaller, at 5%.

While it’s unlikely that any local communities will suddenly decide to start public school for infants, as some misleading headlines have tried to suggest, Heckman’s research should encourage policymakers to consider a more comprehensive approach to early childhood education which includes coordinated interventions from birth to age five. Currently, few states or local communities allocate enough resources to provide universal pre-k, so its hard to imagine them suddenly adopting comprehensive programs that start at birth, especially since programs like ABC and CARE are more expensive – at least $18,514 per year. Heckman is adamant that policymakers should make calculations based on benefits instead of costs. Looking through the benefits lens, more comprehensive approaches to early childhood education that start at infancy would produce huge dividends for society.

In a world where minimal funding is allocated to early childhood education, one might ask: does Heckman’s research mean states and municipalities should move away from expanding pre-k programs and instead adopt programs for infants and toddlers? As my colleague Sara Mead has argued, this is a false choice. A robust early childhood system should include universal pre-k, high-quality programs for infants and toddlers, and targeted interventions for disadvantaged children. But communities with truly limited funding that are serious about curbing childhood poverty should allocate funding to children with the greatest need. For that money to truly provide the greatest return, it should fund a more comprehensive program that starts in infancy.

As Homeschooling Continues to Grow, Here Are 4 Things You Should Know

With ESSA largely pushing accountability back to the states, the continued growth of the charter sector, increasing backlash against standardized testing, and the recent announcement that school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos is President-Elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, it is clear that education policy is trending towards local control and school choice. One overlooked aspect of this shift is the growth of homeschooling.

Earlier this month, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report analyzing homeschooling trends in the United States from 1999 to 2012. The practice has become much more popular over the past decade, as the homeschooling rate doubled from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 3.4 percent in 2012. That means there are now roughly 1.8 million students being schooled at home. By comparison, charter schools — which receive much of the education sector’s attention — enroll just under three million students.

So, as the homeschooling sector continues to grow, here are four things you should know: Continue reading