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Education Policy

  • The Theory And Practice Of School Closures

    Written on September 13, 2017

    The idea of closing “low performing schools” has undeniable appeal, at least in theory. The basic notion is that some schools are so dysfunctional that they cannot be saved and may be doing irreparable harm to their students every day they are open. Thus, it is argued, closing such schools and sending their students elsewhere is the best option – even if students end up in “average” schools, proponents argue, they will be better off.

    Such closures are very controversial, however, and for good reason. For one thing, given adequate time and resources, schools may improve – i.e., there are less drastic interventions that might be equally (or more) effective as a way to help students. Moreover, closing a school represents a disruption in students’ lives (and often, by the way, to the larger community). In this sense, any closure must offer cumulative positive effects sufficient to offset an initial negative effect. Much depends on how and why schools are identified for closure, and the quality of the schools that displaced students attend. In practice, then, closure is a fairly risky policy, both educationally and (perhaps especially) politically. This disconnect between the appeal of theoretical school closures and the actual risks, in practice, may help explain why U.S. educational policy has been designed such that many schools operate at some risk of closure, but relatively few ever end up shutting their doors.

    Despite the always contentious debates about the risks and merits of closing “low performing schools,” there has not been a tremendous amount of strong evidence about effects (in part because such closures have been somewhat rare). A new report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) helps fill the gap, using a very large dataset to examine the test-based impact of school closures (among other things). The results speak directly to the closure debate, in both specific and general terms, but interpreting them is complicated by the fact that this analysis evaluates what is at best a policy done poorly.

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  • Where Do Achievement Gaps Come From?

    Written on August 10, 2017

    For almost two decades now, educational accountability policy in the U.S. has included a focus on the performance of student subgroups, such as those defined by race and ethnicity, income, or special education status. The (very sensible) logic behind this focus is the simple fact that aggregate performance measures, whether at the state-, district-, or school levels, often mask large gaps between subgroups.

    Yet one of the unintended consequences of this subgroup focus has been confusion among both policymakers and the public as to how to interpret and use subgroup indicators in formal school accountability systems, particularly when those indicators are expressed as simple “achievement gaps” or “gap closing” measures. This is not only because achievement gaps can narrow for undesirable reasons and widen for desirable reasons, but also because many gaps exist prior to entry into the school (or district). If, for instance, a large Hispanic/White achievement gap for a given cohort exists at the start of kindergarten, it is misleading and potentially damaging to hold a school accountable for the persistence of that gap in later grades – particularly in cases where public policy has failed to provide the extra resources and supports that might help lower-performing students make accelerated achievement gains every year. In addition, the coarseness of current educational variables, particularly those usually used as income proxies, limits the detail and utility of some subgroup measures.

    A helpful and timely little analysis by David Figlio and Krzystof Karbownik, published by the Brookings Institution, addresses some of these issues, and the findings have clear policy implications.

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  • For Florida's School Grading System, A Smart Change With Unexpected Effects

    Written on July 13, 2017

    Last year, we discussed a small but potentially meaningful change that Florida made to its school grading system, one that might have attenuated a long-standing tendency of its student “gains” measures, by design, to favor schools that serve more advantaged students. Unfortunately, this result doesn’t seem to have been achieved.

    Prior to 2014-15, one of the criteria by which Florida students could be counted as having “made gains” was scoring as proficient or better in two consecutive years, without having dropped a level (e.g., from advanced to proficient). Put simply, this meant that students scoring above the proficiency threshold would be counted as making “gains,” even if they in fact made only average or even below average progress, so long as they stayed above the line. As a result of this somewhat crude “growth” measure, schools serving large proportions of students scoring above the proficiency line (i.e., schools in affluent neighborhoods) were virtually guaranteed to receive strong “gains” scores. Such “double counting” in the “gains” measures likely contributed to a very strong relationship between schools’ grades and their students’ socio-economic status (as gauged, albeit roughly, by subsidized lunch eligibility rates).

    Florida, to its credit, changed this “double counting” rule effective in 2014-15. Students who score as proficient in two consecutive years are no longer automatically counted as making “gains.” They must also exhibit some score growth in order to receive the designation.

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  • ESSA: An Opportunity For Research-Practice Partnerships To Support Districts And States

    Written on July 5, 2017

    Our guest authors today are Bill Penuel, professor of learning sciences and human development in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Caitlin C. Farrell, director of the National Center of Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) at the University of Colorado Boulder. This piece is adapted from the authors’ chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform, edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

    Many parts of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) call on schools, districts, and states to select “evidence-based programs.” Many state plans now being developed include strategies for meeting these provisions of the law. These state plans in development vary widely. Some mainly pass through responsibilities for selecting evidence-based programs to districts. Other states are considering ways to integrate continuous improvement research that would focus on studying the implementation of evidence-based programs.

    Our book chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Reform presents a number of scenarios where long-term research-practice partnerships (RPPs) have helped districts select, adapt, and design evidence-based programs. RPPs are long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between practitioners and researchers around problems of practice. This promising strategy has been growing in popularity in recent years, and there is now even a network of RPPs to support exchange among them.

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  • Improving Accountability Measurement Under ESSA

    Written on May 25, 2017

    Despite the recent repeal of federal guidelines for states’ compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are steadily submitting their proposals, and they are rightfully receiving some attention. The policies in these proposals will have far-reaching consequences for the future of school accountability (among many other types of policies), as well as, of course, for educators and students in U.S. public schools.

    There are plenty of positive signs in these proposals, which are indicative of progress in the role of proper measurement in school accountability policy. It is important to recognize this progress, but impossible not to see that ESSA perpetuates long-standing measurement problems that were institutionalized under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). These issues, particularly the ongoing failure to distinguish between student and school performance, continue to dominate accountability policy to this day. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that school and student performance are not independent of each other. For example, a test score, by itself, gauges student performance, but it also reflects, at least in part, school effectiveness (i.e., the score might have been higher or lower had the student attended a different school).

    Both student and school performance measures have an important role to play in accountability, but distinguishing between them is crucial. States’ ESSA proposals make the distinction in some respects but not in others. The result may end up being accountability systems that, while better than those under NCLB, are still severely hampered by improper inference and misaligned incentives. Let’s take a look at some of the key areas where we find these issues manifested.

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  • Organizing For Adaptive Change Management

    Written on May 3, 2017

    Our guest author today is Joshua P. Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International. This piece was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan, and it is adapted from his chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform, edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

    One day, when I was a district superintendent, I visited two high schools we had identified as “needing improvement.” I was there to share our strategy to help them boost student achievement and also give teachers and staff a chance to air their thoughts and concerns. The schools faced similar challenges, and they served similar student populations, but the comments I heard on my visits were totally different.

    At one school, faculty complained that students lacked respect for authority, had been poorly prepared by their middle schools, and were being raised by parents who didn’t value education. In short, they pointed to problems beyond their control. They wanted me to remove the kids who were giving them the most trouble, and they also wanted more money.

    At the other school, teachers and staff told me about their collective struggle to improve instruction, talked about their desire for more professional learning, and described how they were challenging and changing their own beliefs about student abilities. That is, they found specific problems lurking in their own teaching practices and believed they had to learn and grow so they could serve students better.

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  • Preparing Future Leaders For Building Relationships

    Written on April 27, 2017

    Our guest author today is Corrie Stone-Johnson, Associate Professor of Educational Administration at the University at Buffalo. She is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools published by Taylor & Francis. Her research in educational change and leadership examines the social contexts and organizational cultures within which teachers, leaders, and school support staff experience and enact change. 

    While many “types” of leadership models, such as instructional leadership, transformative leadership, or moral leadership, have demonstrated positive effects on student learning, one common feature of high-quality leadership is that principals lead not by themselves but “with and through others” (Hargreaves and Harris 2010, p. 36), taking responsibility not just for success and failure but for developing the relationships needed to foster such success. Robust empirical evidence indicates that strong relationships between teachers are a key lever for a variety of important outcomes, including successful and sustainable change, teacher commitment, and student achievement. Relationships matter because they help to create social capital, which Leana and Pil define as the “glue that holds a school together.” The noted benefits of teacher social capital include student achievement gains above and beyond those attributable to teacher experience and instructional ability (see here). In schools where teachers collaborate, students do better in math and reading (see here) and teachers both stay and improve at greater rates (see here).

    Social capital, or the value that inheres in the relationships among people (as opposed to the attributes of individuals), is developed in networks. Networks are important for the exchange of resources and they can be influenced by intentional strategies that build upon the existing relationships (or lack thereof) between and among district and school leaders —see here. There is no doubt that strong networks—to the extent that they generate trust and facilitate professional and organizational learning – can be a successful vehicle for student achievement and teacher retention. But—and this is very important—networks do not just happen; rather, they are the result of deliberate efforts undertaken by school administrators. Starratt (2004, 2005) argues that not only is a leader responsible to multiple stakeholders in the building, the district level and the community, he or she is also responsible for developing relationships with each of these stakeholders.

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  • How Relationships Drive School Improvement—And Actionable Data Foster Strong Relationships

    Written on April 20, 2017

    Our guest authors today are Elaine Allensworth, Molly Gordon and Lucinda Fickel. Allensworth is Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Gordon is Senior Research Analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; and Fickel is Associate Director of Policy at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. Elaine Allensworth explores this topic further in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press: 2017). 

    As researchers at the UChicago Consortium on School Research, we believe in using data to support school improvement, such as data on students’ performance in school (attendance, grades, behavior, test scores), surveys of students and teachers on their school experiences. But data does nothing on its own. In the quarter-century that our organization has been conducting research on Chicago Public Schools, one factor has emerged time and time again as vital both for making good use of data, and the key element in school improvement: relationships.

    Squishy and amorphous as it might initially sound, there is actually solid empirical grounding not only about the importance of relationships for student learning, but also about the organizational factors that foster strong relationships. In 2010, the Consortium published Organizing Schools for Improvement, which drew on a decade of administrative and survey data to examine a framework called the 5Essentials (Bryk et al. 2010). The book details findings that elementary/middle schools strong on the 5Essentials—strong leaders, professional capacity, parent-community ties, instructional guidance, and a student-centered learning climate—were highly likely to improve, while others showed little change or fell behind.

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  • Fix Schools, Not Teachers

    Written on April 18, 2017

    This post was originally published at the Harvard Education Press blog.

    Both John and Jasmine are fifth-grade teachers. Jasmine has a lot of experience under her belt, has been recognized as an excellent educator and, as a content expert in math and science, her colleagues seek her out as a major resource at her school. John has been teaching math and science for two years. His job evaluations show room for improvement but he isn’t always sure how to get there. Due to life circumstances, they both switch schools the following year. John starts working at a school where faculty routinely work collaboratively, which is a rather new experience for him. In Jasmine’s new school, teachers are friendly but they work independently and don’t function as a learning community like in her old school.

    After a year John’s practice has improved considerably; he attributes much of it to the culture of his new school, which is clearly oriented toward professional learning. Jasmine’s instruction continues to be strong but she misses her old school, being sought out by her colleagues for advice, and the mutual learning that she felt resulted from those frequent professional exchanges.

    This story helps to illustrate the limitations of how teachers’ knowledge and skills are often viewed: as rather static and existing in a vacuum, unaffected by the contexts where teachers work. Increasing evidence suggests that understanding teaching and supporting its improvement requires a recognition that the context of teachers’ work, particularly its interpersonal dimension, matters a great deal. Teachers’ professional relations and interactions with colleagues and supervisors can constrain or support their learning and, consequently, that of their students.

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  • Subgroup-Specific Accountability, Teacher Job Assignments, And Teacher Attrition: Lessons For States

    Written on April 5, 2017

    Our guest author today is Matthew Shirrell, assistant professor of educational leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.

    Racial/ethnic gaps in student achievement persist, despite a wide variety of interventions designed to address them (see Reardon, Robinson-Cimpian, & Weathers, 2015). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) took a novel approach to closing these achievement gaps, requiring that schools make yearly improvements not only in overall student achievement, but also in the achievement of students of various subgroups, including racial/ethnic minority subgroups and students from economically disadvantaged families.

    Evidence is mixed on whether NCLB’s “subgroup-specific accountability” accomplished its goal of narrowing racial/ethnic and other achievement gaps. Research on the impacts of the policy, however, has largely neglected the effects of this policy on teachers. Understanding any effects on teachers is important to gaining a more complete picture of the policy’s overall impact; if the policy increased student achievement but resulted in the turnover or attrition of large numbers of teachers, for example, these benefits and costs should be weighed together when assessing the policy’s overall effects.

    In a study just published online in Education Finance and Policy (and supported by funding from the Albert Shanker Institute), I explore the effects of NCLB’s subgroup-specific accountability on teachers. Specifically, I examine whether teaching in a school that was held accountable for a particular subgroup’s performance in the first year of NCLB affected teachers’ job assignments, turnover, and attrition.

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