Sunday, February 26, 2012

Can't Blame Teacher Tenure For Failing Schools


By JASON COURTMANCHE The Hartford Courant

February 26, 2012

Diane Ravitch, an education expert, points out that today's school reformers know nothing about what works in education, and so they try to make schools look more like businesses.

They propose to test students, evaluate teachers according to those tests and then reward or punish teachers consequently. Their proposals make little to no mention of curriculum or instruction. These reforms, as with those proposed by Gov.Dannel P. Malloyand state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, rest upon the premise that teachers know exactly what needs to be done to improve education, but they simply aren't doing it. They assume that if we remove tenure and threaten teachers with reprisal, then teachers will do their jobs. In truth, the challenges in education are much more complex, and tenure is not to blame.

The biggest problem in Connecticut is the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students, which largely correlates with the gap between white and minority students. The fact of the matter is that the gap has everything to do with poverty and not a whole lot of anything to do with tenure

Students in wealthy, educated towns such as New Canaan, Fairfield, Glastonbury or Mansfield succeed despite their teachers' tenure, yet we are supposed to believe that the struggles of students in neighboring towns such as Norwalk, Bridgeport, Hartford and Windham are the fault of teachers' collectively bargained rights to due process.

In 2005, Windham Center School was awarded a federal Blue Ribbon for excellence, but in 2008 Windham Center School was labeled a failing school, despite nearly identical staffing.

Windham has two elementary schools that serve impoverished neighborhoods and two that serve relatively affluent neighborhoods. Windham Center School served a neighborhood of teachers, professors, lawyers and doctors. But demographic changes and the state's response to certain provisions in federal education law caused dramatic shifts throughout the town. Between 1999 and 2009, Windham dropped from the seventh to the third poorest town in the state.

Many of the newly arrived poor were English language learners. At one time, most of these students would have attended either Natchaug or Sweeney elementary schools. But the new federal law not only required that schools be labeled as failures if their students did not excel on standardized tests, it also required that towns give students the choice to attend a different, non-failing school.

As you might expect, many students elected to attend the so-called good school. The result was that the teachers at Windham Center were suddenly handed a large number of impoverished English language learners who they were unprepared to teach. Did the town, state or federal government provide the professional development necessary to help the teachers teach these kids? No. The feds just gave the school a failing grade.

I do not blame the students or their families for this predicament. Most of our ancestors were poor immigrants who faced similar challenges. And I do not fault the choice program in and of itself. If anything, it helped desegregate the schools. But I do fault the federal government and the state government for issuing unfunded mandates and for failing schools whose teachers have been set up for failure.

And now I worry that the teachers are being scapegoated even further.

One problem with the school choice program was that it was predicated upon the false conclusion that the teachers at Natchaug and Sweeney were not doing their jobs, and the teachers at Windham Center were. Now that the poor and the non-English speaking students have been distributed throughout the town, Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Pryor are going to implement reforms that will make it look like all the teachers in Windham — and other like towns — are failures. And without tenure, they will all be at risk of losing their jobs.

The problem here is not tenure. Tenure didn't fail these kids, impoverish their families, or underfund their schools. What teachers and their students need is not blame, reprisal, failure and sanction. They need funding and professional development.

Jason Courtmanche is the director of the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut. He was a high school English teacher for 12 years.

The 1% Revolution



Friday, February 24, 2012

Joey Pinckney Interview

Parent Accountability! Please answer question!

I need some valid responses from the world community in reference to this question!

Education Reform:
Teacher's are being held to higher standards of accountability in the classroom for student learning. What is a proper method for involving parents?
How can parents share in the accountability for their child's learning while in school?

Be sure to like Battlegrounds: America's War in Education and Finance and stay current about our educational system. Thanks for your support!!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Teacher Tenure Refrom Plans Stir Debate

Linda Conner Lambeck

Published 01:00 a.m., Sunday, February 19th

Of the more than 53,000 public school educators in Connecticut, about 40 with tenure were dismissed during the last two years, according to data from the state Department of Education obtained by Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.

That termination rate ­-- less than one-tenth of 1 percent -- is evidence to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and critics of the teacher tenure system that it's too easy to get and almost impossible to take away. No other occupation in today's hyper-competitive economy enjoys such impregnable job security, they say.

"And to earn that tenure -- that job security -- in today's system, basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years," Malloy said in his speech to the Legislature on the session's opening day. "Do that, and tenure is yours."

Malloy, as part of his multi-pronged effort to improve public education and erase the state's highest-in-the nation achievement gap, wants to change that. Noting that 31 other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have enacted tenure reform laws in the past three years, Malloy wants teachers to earn tenure -- not just once but every five years by proving themselves effective in the classroom.

His call to strip veteran teachers of "job security" if their performance slips has caused an uproar. Some teachers said they were flabbergasted and appalled at the governor's remark that earning tenure simply requires showing up for work.

"Why didn't someone tell me that," said Kristen Record when she heard the comment. A physics teacher at Bunnell High School, in Stratford, and 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, Record said she was shocked to hear the governor imply tenure could be earned so easily.

"Being a beginning teacher is incredibly hard work and prior to achieving tenure, I was constantly evaluated by my administrators to make sure I was effective in the classroom," she said. "If someone isn't being effective during those first years, then they simply aren't hired back. Unfortunately, the governor's speech only added to the misunderstandings the general public has about teacher tenure."

Others argue that teachers should have no more job security than anyone in the private sector has -- perhaps less, considering children are involved.

"All workers -- not just those who work in the world of education -- need to understand that their continued employment with any firm or organization must have some link to their performance on the job," said Kathy Bonetti, president of the Milford PTA Council. Bonetti said she supports a plan that would include a combination of parental, administrative, and student input regarding a teacher's work, as well as some connection to the performance of students.

Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parent Union, a parent advocacy group, agreed. "Good teaching has to trump seniority," she said. "I can say the majority of teachers in my children's schools have been good, but a couple, it's like why are you even here."

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

Under current Connecticut tenure laws, a district superintendent has the discretion to decline to renew the contracts of beginning teachers. After four years, teachers have tenure, which means they can be dismissed if they are deemed inefficient or incompetent based on evaluations; break school board rules; are no longer able to do their job; are guilty of moral misconduct; or their position is eliminated. Tenured teachers can appeal dismissal, which triggers a series of hearings that can take up to 120 days, a time frame all seem to agree is too long.

Local school boards report data to the State Department of Education when an educator leaves his or her position, and provide a reason for the separation of service.

In the 2009-10 school year, 4,330 educators (teachers and administrators) left their positions, out of a total active workforce of 52,300. Of these, only 53 educators statewide were terminated, representing about 1 percent of all separations from service and 0.1 percent of the total workforce.

Although districts do not report which of these terminations are of tenured staff, 27 of the 53 terminated educators had more than four years of experience. Typically, educators with more than four full years of consecutive satisfactory experience for the same district are tenured.

In the 2010-11 school year, 4,230 educators left their position, for a variety of reasons, out of a total active staff count of 53,200. Twenty-two educators were terminated, representing about 0.5 percent of all separations from service and 0.04 percent of the total workforce. Of these 22 educators, 12 had more than four years of experience, or tenure.

Malloy's plan, as outlined in the middle of his 163-page education reform bill, would shorten the probationary period for teachers then renew tenure when a teacher had no fewer than three proficient or exemplary evaluations during a five year period. For teachers who struggle, the plan calls for districts to provide additional support and training.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

USDE declares a disproportionate percentage of white students in AP classes is evidence of racial discrimination. http://t.co/ItkwpbDV -- teachermant (@teachermant)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

the teacher matters - curriculum and standards, less so. http://t.co/nkAlR4ba you can't legislate good teaching. #iaedfuture -- teachermant (@teachermant)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Jason Richwine, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation, and Andrew G. Biggs, Ph.D., is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

I have to preface this news article from the Heritage Foundation.  I want to say that I disagree with the data that Mr. Richwine uses to assess teacher duties and hours spend outside of the classroom.



Issue: Teachers work at home and on weekends, not just at the school building during classroom hours. How did you measure teacher work hours?

Perhaps the most common misconception is that we somehow undercounted the number of hours that teachers work. For example, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond claimed that we generated our conclusions only “by underestimating the actual hours that teachers work—using ‘contract hours’ rather than the 50-plus hours a week teachers actually spend preparing for classes, grading papers, and communicating with students and parents outside of school hours.”[3]

Where Darling-Hammond got the idea that we used “contract hours” is not clear, but it could not have come from reading our study. We relied on teachers’ self-reports of the hours they work, not on contract hours.

The Current Population Survey (CPS) asks the following question: “In the weeks that [you] worked, how many hours did [you] usually work per week?”[4] The median number of work hours per week reported by teachers was 40, which is the same as reported by non-teachers.[5] Some teachers in the CPS work more than 40 hours, and some work fewer, but overall their hours are not dramatically different from those of other professionals. If a teacher did report working, say, 60 hours per week, we accepted that number.

Could teachers have misunderstood the CPS question as referring only to hours worked while physically in the school building? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) took an even more detailed look into teacher hours using a time-use survey, in which individuals create detailed logs of what they are doing over the course of an entire day.[6] The BLS noted that teachers do, in fact, put in more work time at home and on weekends than other professionals. But do teachers work longer hours overall? According to the BLS, the answer is no. The average workweek for teachers is a little under 40 hours, similar to what teachers reported in the CPS.

Though she did not cite a source, Darling-Hammond’s claim of “50-plus hours” worked by teachers echoes a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA). According to the NEA, teachers report an average of 50 hours per week “spent on all duties.”[7]

There are two major problems with interpreting this NEA number. First, only 37.8 percent of teachers to whom the NEA sent its survey completed it.[8] (The minority of teachers who filled out the eight-page, 64-question survey could plausibly work longer hours during the school year than the average teacher.)

Second, the NEA survey specifically probes for extra work time outside normal work hours. Using the NEA data to compare work hours between teachers and non-teachers would require asking non-teachers the same set of detailed questions about hours worked both at the office and at home. Otherwise, only teachers (not workers in general) would be nudged to report more hours than their initial intuition tells them.

Do some teachers work long hours? Yes—and when they do our study accounts for it. But do teachers as a whole work longer hours than workers in other occupations? The reliable data say no.

Issue: Shouldn’t teachers receive a premium for how hard they work in general?

Related to the work-hours issue is the difficulty of teaching in general. Teaching certainly does require hard work and dedication, but many people work hard who are not teachers. One of the ways to assess whether teaching requires a compensating differential for work difficulty is by comparing public-school-teacher salaries to private-school-teacher salaries. Since both sets of workers are teachers, the daily demands they face will be more similar to each other’s than to the non-teaching experience. But teachers in public schools receive average salaries that are 10 percent higher than salaries of teachers in private schools, and the disparity persists even after controlling for school and student characteristics.[9]

Issue: Teachers pay for classroom materials out of their own pockets. How does that affect your analysis?

In a press release responding to our report, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) cited “hundreds of dollars” per year in personal funds that teachers spend on their classrooms.[10] Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality made the same point, putting the number at $356.[11] Other data support an even higher amount: the Schools and Staffing Survey reports that in 2007–2008, 92 percent of public-school teachers reported spending their own funds on school supplies or other needs, with average spending at $415 per year.[12]

This follows an argumentative pattern similar to the first two objections we have listed: Teacher advocates make a point about the difficulty of being a teacher and then assume, without evidence, that this difficulty must be greater than that of other professions. We know of no systematic data on personal funds spent by non-teachers. Even if one assumed, however, that non-teachers suffered zero out-of-pocket expenses, the amounts spent by teachers on classroom supplies would have little effect on our analysis. Average teacher salaries and benefits total well over $100,000 per year, and our measured teacher compensation premium over the private sector exceeds $30,000.[13]

In addition, teachers enjoy a special federal tax deduction of up to $250 for work expenses. The deduction is above-the-line, meaning that teachers are eligible even if they have high-earning spouses or do not itemize their other deductions. According to IRS data, 3.8 million individuals filed for the educator-expense deduction in 2009.[14]

Finally, we note that rising costs for teacher compensation, in particular pensions and retiree health benefits, may constrain or reduce the funding available for classroom materials.

Issue: Teachers with long tenures accrue greater retirement benefits than younger teachers. Did you overestimate the value of retirement benefits by looking only at veteran teachers?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan claimed that we “exaggerated the value of teacher compensation by comparing the retirement benefits of the small minority of teachers who stay in the classroom for 30 years, rather than comparing the pension benefits for the typical teacher to their peers in other professions.”[15] Similarly, Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality claimed that we “didn’t consider” the fact that some teachers leave the profession before collecting benefits.[16]

These claims are false. While we used a 30-year veteran teacher as part of a simple example to begin our pension discussion, our study makes clear that teachers with less tenure receive lower benefits than veteran teachers. For that reason, we valued pension compensation based on the “normal cost” of providing benefits, which is the average value of benefits accruing to all employees in a given year.[17] This value takes into account many factors, including the fact that some teachers do not stay in the profession long enough to collect benefits. So our estimate accurately reflects the value of pension benefits for the average teacher.

Issue: Did you account for the fact that some teachers do not collect Social Security benefits?

Roughly one-quarter of public workers at the state and local level, many of whom are teachers, do not participate in the Social Security system.[18] Our report accounts for this by assigning public-school teachers a lower average value of employer contributions toward Social Security than private-sector workers.

Teachers often suggest that not participating in Social Security is a disadvantage. However, Social Security pays middle-income and upper-income workers a below-market rate of return, generating only about two-thirds of the benefits that workers could receive by investing in safe government bonds.[19] In contrast, public pensions pay employees guaranteed implicit returns more than double those available through government bonds.

Put another way, Social Security imposes an “implicit tax” on participants by collecting more in contributions than it will return to them in benefits. Teachers who do not participate in Social Security are naturally exempt from this implicit tax. By and large, teachers and other public employees benefit from not participating in Social Security.



[3]Linda Darling-Hammond, “Teachers Paid Much Less Than Their Peers,” U.S. News and World Report, November 9, 2011, at http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/are-teachers-overpaid/teachers-paid-much-less-than-their-peers (December 29, 2011).

[4]Current Population Survey, “2009 Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement,” 2009, pp. 8–24, at http://cps.ipums.org/cps/resources/codebooks/cpsmar09.pdf (December 29, 2011).

[5]These numbers are based on full-time workers (35 or more hours per week) between 2001 and 2010. The mean (as opposed to median) hours per week for teachers and non-teachers are greater than 40, due to some workers reporting very long workweeks. For all non-teachers, mean hours were 43.2. Non-teachers with at least a college degree reported mean hours of 44.8. Mean hours for teachers were 43.7.

[6]Rachel Krantz-Kent, “Teachers’ Work Patterns: When, Where, and How Much Do U.S. Teachers Work?” Monthly Labor Review (March 2008), at http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2008/03/art4full.pdf (December 29, 2011).

[7]National Education Association, “Status of the American Public School Teacher 2005–2006,” March 2010, p. 9, at http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/2005-06StatusTextandAppendixA.pdf (December 29, 2011).

[8]As noted in the survey’s methodology, “one must assume that nonrespondents (62.2% of the sample in this survey) have the same characteristics and attitudes as respondents.” (Emphasis and parenthetical note in original.); ibid., p. 2.

[9]Richwine and Biggs, “Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers,” pp. 9–10.

[10]Press release, “AFT President Randi Weingarten Responds to American Enterprise Institute Report on Teacher Compensation,” American Federation of Teachers, November 1, 2011, at http://www.aft.org/newspubs/press/2011/110111.cfm (December 29, 2011).

[11]Barnett Berry, “Time to Pay Teachers What They Are Worth,” U.S. News and World Report, November, 9, 2011, at http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/are-teachers-overpaid/time-to-pay-teachers-what-they-are-worth (December 29, 2011).

[12]National Center on Education Statistics, “Schools and Staffing Survey: Percentage of Public School Teachers Who Spent Their Own Unreimbursed Money on Classroom Supplies and Average Amount Spent During the 2006–07 School Year, by State: 2007–08,” at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass0708_004_t1s.asp (January 3, 2012). The $415 figure is the product of 92.4 percent of teachers reporting spending their own funds and $450 in average annual spending for those who spend out-of-pocket.

[13]Richwine and Biggs, “Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers,” p. 23.

[14]The average expense claimed was $212. Assuming an average marginal income tax rate of 25 percent, this deduction reduces average out-of-pocket costs by $53. Internal Revenue Service, “2009 Estimated Data Line Counts. Individual Income Tax Returns,” August 2011, at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/09inlinecount.pdf (December 29, 2011).

[15]Arne Duncan, “Teacher Pay Study Asks the Wrong Question, Ignores Facts, Insults Teachers,” The Huffington Post, November 9, 2011, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arne-duncan/teacher-pay-study-asks-th_b_1084881.html (December 29, 2011).

[16]Berry, “Time to Pay Teachers What They Are Worth.”

[17]For an introduction to what a normal cost is, see American Academy of Actuaries, “Fundamentals of Current Pension Funding and Accounting for Private Sector Pension Plans,” July 2004, at http://www.actuary.org/pdf/pension/fundamentals_0704.pdf (December 29, 2011).

[18]The actual figure is 27.5 percent. Dawn Nuschler, Alison M. Shelton, and John J. Topoleski, “Social Security: Mandatory Coverage of New State and Local Government Employees,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. R41936, July 25, 2011, Table 1, at http://www.nasra.org/resources/CRS%202011%20Report.pdf (December 29, 2011).

[19]Office of the Chief Actuary, Social Security Administration, “Moneys Worth Ratios Under the OASDI Program for Hypothetical Workers,” July 2010.

10 states freed from some 'No Child Left Behind' requirements



Washington (CNN) -- Ten states are being granted waivers to free them from some requirements of the No Child Left Behind education reform law, with President Barack Obama explaining Thursday that the move aims to "combine greater freedom with greater accountability."

Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are the first of what could be many more states that will no longer have to meet 2014 targets set by the law.

In exchange for that flexibility, those states "have agreed to raise standards, improve accountability, and undertake essential reforms to improve teacher effectiveness," the White House said in a statement Thursday morning.

Obama elaborated on the rationale for the decision later in the day, speaking at a White House event attended by teachers and school superintendents.

He stressed that his administration remains committed to the overarching goals of raising standards and closing the achievement gap in the nation's public schools. At the same time, "We determined we need a different approach" than what was prescribed by the landmark legislation.

"We've offered every state the same deal: We've said, if you're willing to set higher, more honest standards then we're going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards," Obama said.

Each of those states granted waivers Thursday offered different approaches. Massachusetts, for instance, set a goal to slash its number of underperforming students by half within six years; Colorado is setting up a comprehensive online database of assessment measures, among other steps; and New Jersey is developing an "early warning" system in an effort to prevent students from dropping out of school.

New Mexico also requested such flexibility from the No Child Left Behind law, and the Obama administration is working closely with that state. Another 28 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia also have indicated plans to seek such flexibility, according to the White House.

"This is good news for our kids, its good news for our country," the president said of the waivers, adding that one approach may work well in one part of the country while another may better suit another place. "If we're serious about seeing our children reach their full potential, the best ideas aren't just going to come from here in Washington."

John Kline, R-Minnesota, and Duncan Hunter, R-California, sent a joint letter last summer to Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling the then prospect of allowing waivers a "cause for concern."

"Issuing new demands in exchange for relief could result in greater regulations and confusion for schools and less transparency for parents," the two House Education and the Workforce Committee members wrote. "Additionally, the proposal raises questions about the department's legal authority to grant constitutional waivers in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress."

And last month, Kline again criticized Obama for having "the audacity to circumvent the people's elected representatives by granting No Child Left Behind waivers with special strings attached," according to a press release from his office.

Still, the decision was cheered by leaders from several states -- many of them led by Republican governors -- who successfully obtained waivers, as well as the country's largest teacher's union.

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, for instance, said the change was needed, because having federal accountability measures "overlaying" state ones was "confusing."

Georgia State School Superintendent John Barge described the waiver for his state as "wonderful news for Georgia's students, educators and parents. No longer will we be bound by the narrow definitions of success found in No Child Left Behind."

And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who was President George W. Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget when the law was passed, described No Child Left Behind as "an important step forward, but it needed additional flexibility that Congress hasn't yet provided."

"The waiver will make for a fairer system and one that focuses on what matters most: getting the whole system to perform better in terms of student learning," he said in a statement.

The president of the National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million teachers and administrators and has endorsed Obama's re-election bid, lauded those states granted waivers who "have committed to working with teachers, parents and other community stakeholders to implement changes designed to better support students."

At the same time, union President Dennis Van Roekel described the waivers as a temporary move as he pushed for passage of more "comprehensive" reform.

Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in 2001. One of the bipartisan bill's sponsors was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts. The law included a focus on measuring student outcomes, largely based on standardized test results.

Some supporters say it has helped close an achievement gap between disadvantaged students and others.

But the law is a source of controversy, with opponents arguing it is turning classrooms into test preparation centers, taking time away from subjects that aren't tested, and potentially contributing to cheating scandals.

Secretary Duncan says the law drives down standards, weakens accountability, causes narrowing of the curriculum and labels too many schools as failing, the White House said in its news release. "Moreover, the law mandates unworkable remedies at the federal level instead of allowing local educators to make spending decisions," it said.

The law has been in need of reauthorization since 2007, and the president has been critical of the lack of congressional action on the matter in recent years.

Last September, the Obama administration announced that states could apply for waivers from some provisions of the law if they meet other federal mandates.

To get the waivers, states had to adopt and have a plan to implement "college and career-ready standards," the White House said. "They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback."

Based on standards set by the existing law, more schools were listed as failing last year than in any previous year since the law's passage. About 48% of schools did not make what's called "adequate yearly progress" in 2011, up from 39% in 2010, according to the nonprofit Center on Education Policy.

In his remarks Thursday, Obama expressed confidence that the academic performance of the nation's students would improve using a more flexible approach -- though he also emphasized that any change won't be instantaneous.

"This is not a one-year project, this isn't a two-year project," he said. "This is going to take some time, but we can get it done."

CNN's Alex Mooney, Donna Krache and Josh Levs contributed to this report.

New Review

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Perilous Conflation Of Student And School Performance


Unlike many of my colleagues and friends, I personally support the use of standardized testing results in education policy, even, with caution and in a limited role, in high-stakes decisions. That said, I also think that the focus on test scores has gone way too far and their use is being implemented unwisely, in many cases to a degree at which I believe the policies will not only fail to generate improvement, but may even risk harm.

In addition, of course, tests have a very productive low-stakes role to play on the ground – for example, when teachers and administrators use the results for diagnosis and to inform instruction.

Frankly, I would be a lot more comfortable with the role of testing data – whether in policy, on the ground, or in our public discourse – but for the relentless flow of misinterpretation from both supporters and opponents. In my experience (which I acknowledge may not be representative of reality), by far the most common mistake is the conflation of student and school performance, as measured by testing results.

Consider the following three stylized arguments, which you can hear in some form almost every week:

1.     Only one-third of our students are reading at grade level; our schools are failing;

2.     95 percent of the teachers in this district receive satisfactory ratings, but that can’t be accurate, because only half the students are proficient in math and reading;

3.     These reforms are working – state test scores have risen steadily.

All three of these inferences are inappropriate for one primary reason: they fail to acknowledge that raw, unadjusted testing results – whether actual scores/proficiency rates or changes in those scores/rates – are not, by themselves, credible measures of school performance. They are largely (imperfect) measures of student performance. There is a difference.

Everyone involved in education knows that most of the variation in testing outcomes is “between students” – i.e., has to do with factors, most unmeasured/unobserved, that are attributes of the students themselves and their upbringing and environment (such as English proficiency, oral language development, background knowledge, family situation, etc.).

This well-established finding is sometimes interpreted to mean that schools (or teachers) can only exert minimal influence on student performance. That is false. Not only are schooling factors among the only targets within the purview of education policy, they can also be very influential. Improvements in the quality of schooling/instruction can have substantial effects on student outcomes (though I sometimes think we need to be more realistic about the pace of change).

Nevertheless, learning is complex and much (if not most) of it occurs outside of schools and/or before children reach schooling age. Test scores – and changes in those scores – are subject to these influences. A school with low test scores is not necessarily a “failing school,” just as a school with very high scores is not necessarily successful.

Similarly, one should not assume that a school’s slow score growth is necessarily caused by a problem in that school. The reason why the research on school (and teacher) effects is so complex is that much of it is geared toward controlling for all of the external factors that can be measured and are known to affect outcomes. In other words, the analysis is trying to isolate that portion of student performance that can reasonably be attributed to school performance. A great deal of the raw variation is also simple random error.

Yes, when a group of students’ test scores rise over a few years, that’s a pretty good tentative indication that the school is doing something correctly. But it’s all a matter of degree. The gains (assuming they’re even measured with longitudinal data, which they often are not) will also reflect factors (e.g., prior achievement levels) that have nothing to do with the school, to an extent that can vary widely. If you rely solely on unadjusted testing results, you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you risk making decisions based on erroneous assumptions.

The worst part is that this distinction – between tests as measures of student performance versus school performance – is ignored by policymakers just as frequently as it is in our public discourse.

States are closing schools, handing out ratings and awarding grant money based on horribly flawed misinterpretations of raw testing data. It’s one thing for journalists and the public to make this mistake; it’s something else entirely for the people we rely on to decide education policy to make it too.

In short, I would be a lot more optimistic about “data-driven decision making” if so many of the decision makers weren’t such erratic drivers.