Tuesday, July 15, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, the website Vox.com published an article entitled, “11 facts about U.S. teachers and schools that put the education reform debate in context.” The article, in the wake of the Vergara decision, is supposed to provide readers with the “basic facts” about the current education reform environment, with a particular emphasis on teachers. Most of the 11 facts are based on descriptive statistics.
Vox advertises itself as a source of accessible, essential, summary information — what you “need to know” — for people interested in a topic but not necessarily well-versed in it. Right off the bat, let me say that this is an extraordinarily difficult task, and in constructing lists such as this one, there’s no way to please everyone (I’ve read a couple of Vox’s education articles and they were okay).
That said, someone sent me this particular list, and it’s pretty good overall, especially since it does not reflect overt advocacy for given policy positions, as so many of these types of lists do. But I was compelled to comment on it. I want to say that I did this to make some lofty point about the strengths and weaknesses of data and statistics packaged for consumption by the general public. It would, however, be more accurate to say that I started doing it and just couldn’t stop. In any case, here’s a little supplemental discussion of each of the 11 items:
1. Teachers earn a bit more than the average American. This fact presents a simple comparison, using BLS data, of median elementary and secondary school (public and private) teacher earnings with those of the median U.S. household. There are a few issues here (most are mentioned in the article). First, I have no idea why, but this is comparing an occupation-level figure (for teachers) with a household-level figure. Second, it is comparing teachers’ earnings with those of all workers (households), rather than workers with similar education and experience. Third, the comparison omits non-salary compensation (i.e., benefits), which are an important part of this picture. These caveats, the first two in particular, make for a less-than-meaningful contrast. Overall, this illustrates how seemingly basic comparisons, such as earnings between occupations, can be painfully complicated - even using more sophisticated methods, it depends on how compensation is measured and the choice of comparison groups. It also bears mentioning that, for some advocates, the big issue in education today is as much about how teachers are paid as about how much they are paid.
2. Americans say teaching is a prestigious career. This item uses polling data to compare how people perceive the prestige of the teaching profession (quite highly) with that of a selection of other occupations. I think this is a good one, especially given all the heated rhetoric (from both sides, ironically) about “reprofessionalizing” or “deprofessionalizing” teaching, or about how young people avoid teaching due to its reputation. In reality, most people hold the profession in high regard. Also, as a side note, if you go to theoriginal report from Harris Interactive (the data source link in the article seems to be incorrect), it’s very interesting to see that the proportion of respondents saying teaching has “very great prestige” almost doubled between 1977 and 2009 (from 29 to 51 percent).
3. Elite students tend to avoid teaching. Using data from a widely-cited McKinsey report, this one points out that incoming teachers’ SAT/ACT scores are lower than those of graduates who pursue other careers (in terms of the common “top/bottom third” figures, which we discuss here), and that this is not the case in a few other nations that receive attention for their high test scores. On the substance, as is discussed in the post linked above, SAT/ACT scores are among the only measurable pre-service characteristics that has a record of being associated with value-added scores once graduates start teaching (which is, of course, just one measure of effectiveness), but the association is not particularly strong. Overall, predicting who will be a good teacher before they enter the classroom remains remarkably elusive, and I think that generalization, while not a “fact” in the same sense as are descriptive statistics, is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when talking about attracting the “best candidates” to the profession.
4. Absolute teacher salaries are high. Here, based on OECD data, we see that teacher salaries throughout their careers (the graph shows salaries after 10 years on the job) are a bit lower than they are in other OECD nations. As was the case with the U.S. figures, this comparison fails to account for differences in the cost of health and pension benefits, but that’s just a quibble (and tough to compare between nations). Note, though, that the evidence that salaries have an impact on the quality of candidates or whether they remain is not entirely consistent – it varies by context and other factors (see the papers cited in this post).
5. Relative teacher salaries are low in the U.S. This compares teacher salaries to OECD nations as a proportion of college graduates’ salaries. I like the idea of at least trying to compare teachers with similarly-educated workers (which was not done in #1), although I would reiterate that the role of salary in who pursues and remains in teaching, at least in the U.S., is not as clear as one might think.
6. Some teachers are much more effective than others. The flagship piece of evidence here is a graph from a published article by economist Eric Hanushek, one that is based on a rough, illustrative calculation that expresses teacher effects in terms of classroom-level lifetime earnings (thus making for huge numbers as one moves toward the right of the [unlabeled] class size horizontal axis). In my view, there are better ways to express this important finding about the variation in teacher effects that also would have been accessible to people not accustomed to thinking in terms of standard deviations. That said, this is probably the most important point among the 11 presented in this article, if for no other reason than the sheer magnitude of its impact on the debate and policymaking.
7. Class sizes have fallen substantially. This item presents declining student/teachers ratios alongside the number of teachers in the U.S. since 1960, using NCES data. These ratios are a crude measure of class size (more teachers per student doesn’t translate directly into smaller classes, particularly given the sharp increase in special education teachers that occurred within this time period). The size and scope of the trend, however, are sufficient to make the point that class sizes have decreased over the long-term, even if the decline may be more moderate than is suggested by the graph. This is an important point in the context of contemporary education reform in the U.S. (but it might have been helpful to discuss briefly some of the research on this topic).
8. The teaching workforce is disproportionately unionized. Here, BLS data are used to show that unionization rates for the occupational group “Education, library and training workers” are higher than the rates for local government, public sector workers , and private sector workers. As the article notes, the BLS website does not offer teacher-specific unionization rates, but there are reputable resources that produce such estimates (using BLS data). They show that between 45-55 percent of teachers are union members and/or covered by a contract. Note, however, that these figures, like the category-wide statistic presented in the article (Education, library and training workers), include both public and private schools teachers (and thus understate unionization rates, since the latter group is largely non-union). Still, all of these sources make roughly the same point– teachers are more heavily unionized than most other U.S. occupations, particularly those in the private sector. Of course, the big issue in education is not really whether teachers are unionized, but rather whether unions, and collective bargaining in particular, have a large impact on school performance. This issue is (predictably) complicated and largely unresolved.
9. Per pupil funding varies widely. A simple color-coded U.S. map is used to illustrate funding disparities between states. As was the case with the class size, I think this (i.e., funding) is an important general topic, even if raw per pupil figures, though easy to understand, aren’t necessarily the best measure in this context, given that student characteristics vary quite widely between states, and they play a major role in determining funding at the federal, state and local levels. Perhaps including a funding fairness or similar measure, or at least mentioning them, would have been better. Nevertheless, funding does matter, and the article’s point — that it varies between states — is certainly important.
10. Dropout rates are falling. The chart in the article shows dropout rates falling since 1970 for different student subgroups. Again, this is a tough outcome to measure nationally. More importantly, it seems redundant with #11.
11. Students are broadly doing better. This is a simple graph of trends in Long-Term NAEP scale scores by age and subject (math/reading) since 1971. The scores are clearly increasing. This is an important point to make in any list of this type, and these are good data with which to make it. The only thing I would add — and it’s no less important — is that the degree to which these trends are due to improvements in schooling, to say nothing of teacher quality, rather than the dozens of other factors that affect testing performance (including change in the sample of test takers), is unclear. No question, though – this one is “need to know.”
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Posted by Todney Harris at 6:16 PM
Delegates to the National Education Association's annual convention passed a new business item July 4 calling for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign.
The surprising move comes on the heels of union anger over moves across the United States to revise due-process protections, tenure, and seniority—some of which have been supported by Democrats, including the Obama administration.
Proposed by the union's powerful California affiliate, the item cites "the Department's failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores" as its rationale for demanding the secretary's resignation.
Similarly themed items were introduced at the 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 meetings, but have never before passed. (The union did, in 2011, approve an NBI severely chastising Duncan.)
In addition, the California Teachers Association has had an ax to grind with the secretary since he commented on the Vergara v. California ruling, which found that the state's tenure law violated student rights.
Duncan seemed to support the decision, though his statement on it was not a hearty endorsement. Instead, he said that the groups should work together to rewrite the laws. After backlash from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the secretary went out of his way to flesh out his opinion on Vergara in a blog post.
UPDATE: Dean Vogel, the president of the CTA, said in an interview that his members have made clear their opposition to the Department of Education's support for expanding charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. "Vergara was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "The Secretary's response to the Vergara verdict—it was just shameful. And it underscored his lack of understanding."
NEA has had a tense relationship with the Obama administration, and it's unclear how exactly this aggressive move will affect the union.
For years, as Education Week has reported, the NEA has vented its frustration with President Obama by essentially redirecting it towards Duncan. This strategy has allowed the union to criticize the administration without looking foolish, especially during the 2012 re-election season—after all, the union has never once endorsed a Republican presidential candidate, and had no choice but to throw its weight behind Obama.
But it's also important to note that California is one of the most populous of the state affiliates, and each year submits a large number of the NBIs that are debated. Last year, sources say, the CTA submitted 36 of the 92 total NBIs.
NEA put out its official response to the California item yesterday. President Dennis Van Roekel stated: "NEA members are understandably frustrated with Secretary Duncan and many of the Department of Education's policies in recent years. We will continue to push the Department of Education to drive student-centered policy changes that are influenced by those who know best—educators working in our classrooms and in our schools—rather than profiteers."
UPDATE: When asked whether the AFT joined the NEA in calling for Duncan's resignation, Weingarten said, "I understand the sentiment." She pointed to the letter she sent to the Secretary immediately after his commentary on the Vergara decision.
Dorie Nolt, press secretary for the Department of Education, wrote in an email, "Secretary Duncan looks forward to continuing to work with NEA and its new leadership."
Posted by Todney Harris at 6:07 PM
The biggest problem with American democracy is one that hardly gets any attention. The United States doesn’t have enough political parties. Two is not enough.
Most modern democracies are multiparty systems. They use fair electoral methods like proportional representation (for multimember legislative districts) or ranked choice voting, sometimes called the alternative vote (for single-member districts) to ensure that the full spectrum of political opinion in the society is represented among elected representatives.
The U.S. does not. Along with Britain and some of its former colonies, including India, the U.S. is stuck with single-member districts in state legislature and the House of Representatives and an archaic voting system called “plurality voting.” This means that the candidate who wins the most votes — even if the number falls short of a majority of 50 percent — wins the race.
The candidate with the most votes wins — that’s fair, isn’t it? But plurality voting can lead to perverse results. In a race among three candidates, a candidate opposed by a majority of voters can win, because the majority splits its vote among two other candidates.
This is why countries like the U.S. with plurality voting tend to have two dominant parties. If you vote for a third party, you may end up electing the one of the two main parties you like the least. Progressives who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 took away votes from Al Gore and may have helped to elect George W. Bush.
But what if your society is not naturally divided into two parties? If your country has plurality voting rules, you will still tend to get two national parties; but they will be incoherent coalitions of what, in a system with other electoral rules, would be independent parties.
Under a different, more fair electoral system, the Tea Party would be a real political party. It would not be stuck in a loveless marriage bickering about “crony capitalism” with Wall Street kleptocrats.
If the U.S. had a fair voting system, the Democratic Party might fission into more independent caucuses or even different parties. Why should upscale environmentalists who want to eliminate hydropower dams, nuclear power plants, natural gas pipelines and automobiles be in the same party as unionized workers who want to build all of these things? In a fair voting system, they wouldn’t be.
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Posted by Todney Harris at 6:03 PM