Why E.D. Hirsch Should re-examine his position on parental choice

September 26, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So a few years ago when Sol Stern decided to attack parental choice for reasons that are still largely only known to him, City Journal posted an online debate concerning Sol’s article, which included a full-throated endorsement of Sol’s position by E.D. Hirsch.

I had a hard time making much sense of the Hirsch critique. It seemed to read much more as an indictment of bad state standards than of the parental choice movement.  The parental choice movement’s original sin seemed to be in being a “structural reform” that ignored the vital importance of imposing Core Knowlege on everyone.

Or something to that effect, near as I could tell. I was and still am confused with exactly how this is supposed to happen, but I’m sure someone has a fail-safe plan this time.

My own contribution to the debate attempted to make the point that of course the political constraints facing parental choice programs keep them from being some sort of miracle-drug cure-all, but that was hardly a reason to oppose it. I haven’t seen any other miracle cures either. Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that the parental choice movement and the standards movement need to necessarily be at odds.

In any case, above is a picture of the district middle school in my neighborhood-Shea Middle School in the Paradise Valley School District. Shea is proudly announcing that Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum will begin in August 2013 in a 9000 point font banner you see above. At least one of the elementary schools that feed in to Shea Middle School has also  adopted Core Knowledge.

Shea’s adoption of Core Knowledge might have something to do with the fact that two of the highest performing charter schools in country opened campuses in the area this fall. Arizona homegrown outfits BASIS and Great Hearts both opened new schools within a few miles of Shea Middle School in the Fall of 2012.  Both BASIS and Great Hearts have an impressive record of academic achievement. Some of the Great Hearts schools have generated 1,000 student waiting lists, and both operators have attracted the interest of out-of-state philanthropists.*

Of course it could be the case that these new schools opening in the neighborhood had nothing to do with the decision to adopt Core Knowledge, or to hang a giant banner advertising the adoption for that matter. Other Paradise Valley schools have used the Core Knowledge curriculum for years. It is within the realm of the plausible that Shea Middle School would have been adopting Core Knowledge in 2013 whether facing competition from BASIS and Great Hearts or not. If I were to have the opportunity to ask PV officials about this, they might very well make such a claim with conviction.

And if I hadn’t seen an email from a Parent-Teacher group from one of the feeder elementary schools full of steely determination not to lose students to the new charter schools, I might have even believed them. The email expressed (rational) concern about losing students and listed a number of possible strategies including the adoption of IB, foreign language immersion and (yes) Core Knowledge as reform strategies….and now the banner.

Smoking gun? No. Enough to convince a reasonable person? Certainly.

Parental choice mechanisms have done a great deal to satisfy parental demand for Core Knowledge and CK type schools. If we had more of it, we would also have a higher use of CK and similar curriculum both in district and non-district schools. Hopefully it will prove useful for Shea Middle School. Alternatively, we could dream of a master plan that transforms millions of public school teachers into Allan Bloom in one great non-incremental stroke, but I think we all know how that story ends.

Oh well, back to the old super-genius drawing board…

Personally I am a fan of traditional curriculum and want it to be available to those who desire it. I’m also leery of imposing it on those who don’t. I view American schools as having serious curriculum problems, but plenty of other problems as well. Dirigisme got us into this mess, and some of us are naturally skeptical that a new and improved version is going to get us out of it all by itself.

* Disclosure: I serve on the board of a BASIS school (not the one discussed here) and two of my children very happily attend a Great Hearts Academy (but not the school alluded to here).

Edited for Typos

Rob Pondiscio on Writing

September 25, 2012

Rob Pondiscio has a great piece about how we teach writing in The Atlantic.  It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some tasty bites:

Every decent human impulse we have as teachers shouts in favor of not imposing rules and discipline on students, but liberating them to discover the power of their voice by sharing their stories. Of course children will be become better writers if they write personal narratives instead of book reports. Obviously children will be more engaged and motivated if they can write from the heart about what they know best, rather that trudge through turgid English essays and research papers.

Grammar? Mechanics? Correcting errors? Please. Great writing is discovery. It is the intoxicating power of words and our own stories, writing for an audience and making things happen in the world. We know this works. We all saw the movie Freedom Writers, didn’t we?

Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong. I should know. I used to damage children for a living with that idealism….

Every day, for two hours a day, I led my young students through Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. I was trained not to address my kids as “students” or “class” but as “authors” and “readers.” We gathered “seed ideas” in our Writer’s Notebooks. We crafted “small moment” stories, personal narratives, and memoirs. We peer edited. We “shared out.” Gathered with them on the rug, I explained to my 10-year-olds that “good writers find ideas from things that happened in their lives.” That stories have “big ideas.” That good writers “add detail,” “stretch their words,” and “spell the best they can.”

Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I “modeled” the habits of good readers and “coached” my students. What I called “teaching,” my staff developer from Teacher’s College dismissed as merely “giving directions.” My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors….

“When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship and grammar,” observes Lucy Calkins, probably the workshop model’s premier guru. She is almost certainly correct.

This leaves exactly two options: The first is to de-emphasize spelling and grammar. The other is to teach spelling and grammar. But at too many schools, it’s more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It’s more important to write a “personal response” to literature than engage with the content. This is supposed to be “authentic” writing. There is nothing inherently inauthentic about research papers and English essays.

Earlier this year, David Coleman, the principal architect of the widely adopted Common Core Standards, infamously told a group of educators, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” His bluntness made me wince, but his impulse is correct. We have overvalued personal expression. The unlived life is not worth examining. The pendulum has swung too far.


Odds and Ends

March 12, 2012

In case you missed the 60 Minutes segment on the Khan Academy.  You can watch the video and read the transcript here.

And the New York Times reports on a study conducted in New York City comparing student achievement at 10 schools using a Core Knowledge approach against the achievement at 10 schools using existing (mostly Balanced Literacy).  It find greater gains in the Core Knowledge schools in reading comprehension as well as content knowledge in social studies and science.

Gates, the Bizarro Foundation

January 31, 2012

Comic book geeks are familiar with Bizarro World, a place where everything is the opposite of what it is in the normal world.  In Bizarro World, people would abandon a policy strongly supported by rigorous evidence while embracing an alternative policy for which the evidence showed little promise.

I was thinking about Bizarro World and then it struck me — Perhaps the Gates Foundation has somehow fallen into the Bizarro World.  It’s just about the only thing that makes sense of their Bizarro choices with respect to education reform strategies.

The dominant education reform strategy of the Gates Foundation before 2006 was to break large high schools into smaller ones, often using school choice and charter schools.  As a Business Week profile put it:

The foundation embraced what many social scientists had concluded was the prime solution: Instead of losing kids in large schools like Manual, the new thinking was to divide them into smaller programs with 200 to 600 students each. Doing so, numerous studies showed, would help prevent even hard-to-reach students from falling through the cracks. The foundation didn’t set out to design schools or run them. Its goal was to back some creative experiments and replicate them nationally.

But the Gates Foundation wasn’t patient enough to let the experiments produce results.  Instead, they hired SRI and AIR to do a very weakly-designed non-experimental evaluation that produced disappointing results.  Gates had also commissioned a rigorous random-assignment evaluation by MDRC, but it would take a few more years to see if students graduated and went on to college at higher rates if they were assigned by lottery to a smaller school.

Gates couldn’t wait.  They were convinced that small schools were a flop, so they began to ditch the small school strategy and look for a new Big Idea.  Tom Vander Ark, the education chief who had championed small schools, was out the door and replaced with Vicki Phillips, a superintendent whose claim to fame, such as it was, came from serving as Portland’s superintendent where she consolidated schools (not breaking them into smaller ones) and centralized control over curriculum and instruction.  As one local observer put it:

In her time in the famously progressive, consensus-driven city, she closed six schools, merged nearly two dozen others through K-8 conversions, pushed to standardize the district’s curriculum, and championed new and controversial measures for testing the district’s 46,000 children-all mostly without stopping for long enough to adequately address the concerns her changes generated in the neighborhoods and schools where they played out.  During her three years in Portland, Phillips’ name became synonymous with top-down management, corporate-style reforms, and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

Under Phillips and deputy education director, Harvard professor Tom Kane, the Gates Foundation has pursued a very different strategy: attempting to identify the best standards, curriculum, and pedagogy and then imposing those best practices through a national system of standards and testing.

And here is where we see that Gates must be the Bizarro Foundation.  The previous strategy of backing small schools has now been vindicated by the rigorous random-assignment study Gates couldn’t wait for.  According to the New York Times:

The latest findings show that 67.9 percent of the students who entered small high schools in 2005 and 2006 graduated four years later, compared with 59.3 percent of the students who were not admitted and instead went to larger schools. The higher graduation rate at small schools held across the board for all students, regardless of race, family income or scores on the state’s eighth-grade math and reading tests, according to the data.

This increase was almost entirely accounted for by a rise in Regents diplomas, which are considered more rigorous than a local diploma; 41.5 percent of the students at small schools received one, compared with 34.9 percent of students at other schools. There was little difference between the two groups in the percentage of students who earned a local diploma or the still more rigorous Advanced Regents diploma.

Small-school students also showed more evidence of college readiness, with 37.3 percent of the students earning a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents, compared with 29.7 percent of students at other schools. There was no significant difference, however, in scores on the math Regents.

Meanwhile, as part of their newly embraced top-down strategy, the Gates effort to identify the secret formula for effective teaching has failed to bear fruit.  The Gates -operated Measuring Effective Teachers Project failed to identify any rubric of observing teachers or any components of those rubrics that were strongly predictive of gains in student learning.  And the Gates-backed “research” supporting the federally-orchestrated Common Core push for national standards and testing has been strikingly lacking in scientific rigor and candor.

In short, the Gates Foundation has ditched what rigorous evidence shows worked and is pushing a new strategy completely unsupported by rigorous evidence.  They must be in Bizarro World.  Somebody please get me some blue kryptonite.

SNL Parodies Progressive Ed

January 18, 2012

For a higher quality version that I cannot embed, click here.

The Value-Add Map Is Not the Teaching Territory, But You’ll Still Get Lost without It

January 11, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Since we’re so deep into the subject of value-added testing and the political pressures surrounding it, I thought I’d point out this recently published study tracking two and a half million students from a major urban district all the way to adulthood. (HT Whitney Tilson)

They compare teacher-specific value added on math and English scores with eventual life outcomes, and apply tests to determine whether the results are biased either by student sorting on observable variables (the life outcomes of their parents, obtained from the same life-outcome data) or unobserved variables (they use teacher switches to create a quasi-experimental approach).


Students assigned to high-VA teachers [i.e. teachers who produce high “value added” on test scores] are more likely to attend college, attend higher- ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher SES neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers. Teachers have large impacts in all grades from 4 to 8.

Let’s bring that down to reality:

Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.

But here’s what I want to pay the most attention to. Note the careful wording of the conclusion:

We conclude that good teachers create substantial economic value and that test score impacts are helpful in identifying such teachers.

Note what they don’t say. They don’t say that increasing math and English test scores by itself leads to improved life outcomes. They say good teachers lead to improved life outcomes, and value-add is one relatively good way to identify good teachers.

You’ve heard the saying that the map is not the territory? (If not, that means you haven’t seen Ronin, in which case shame on you.) Well, it’s true. What raises life outcomes is good teaching, and good teaching can’t be reduced to test scores. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

But if you want to find your way around the territory, you need a map. If you want to help those kids stuck with lousy teachers who are out a quarter million, you’re going to need a tool that identifies them. Value added analysis is the best tool we’ve come up with yet – other than parental choice, of course.

And where the tests are freely selected and voluntarily adopted by schools, the tests provide helpful data for parents, so parent choice is strengthened by voluntary testing. That’s why over 90% of private schools use testing in some form. On the other hand, forcing teachers to use a test they don’t believe in is a self-defeating proposal.

But how do you get schools to want to use a test? Parent choice, of course! Choice is what creates the external standard of performance that makes assessment tools seem legitimate rather than illegitimate. So testing and choice are like chocholate and peanut butter – they’re two great tastes that taste great together.

Gates Responds

October 26, 2011

Steve Cantrell, a senior researcher at Gates, sent me an email last night in response to my post from yesterday asking for the MET results to be released.  He said that I was right in suggesting that large, complicated projects sometimes take longer than originally planned.  He said that final scores for coding the videos had just been delivered to the research team and that the full results for the 2009-10 year were now scheduled to be released January 5, 2012.  It’s unclear whether that report will also contain information for the 2010-11 year as well.  The MET web site will be changed to reflect this new schedule.  (Update: According to another email from Steve Cantrell, the January release will only have the full 09-10 results.  The final results including 10-11 and are scheduled for release in early summer of 2012 .)

Steve also clarified information on the cost of the project.  Last year I repeated the New York Times and LA Times description of the project costing $45 million.  More recently I’ve repeated the Wall Street Journal description of the project cost as $335 million.  Steve resolved the confusion by saying that the MET study costs about $50 million and the $335 million figure includes grants to the partner districts.

Let me be clear that I think Gates has a lot of good and smart people working on the MET project.  My concern is not that these are bad people.  My concern is that Gates has a flawed strategy based on centrally identifying what educators should do and then building a system of standards, curriculum, and assessments to impose those practices on the education system.  I don’t think this kind of centralized approach can work and I fear that it creates enormous pressure on good and smart researchers to toe the centralized line — even if it becomes obvious that it is not working.  Everyone at Gates can see what happened to the folks who pushed small schools when the Foundation decided that approach was not working.

And unlike Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss, and the Army of Angry Teachers, I am not criticizing the Gates Foundation because I think Bill Gates is in the “billionaire boys club” and therefore somehow disqualified from using his wealth to try to improve education.  I am critical of recent Gates Foundation efforts because I believe Gates can and should try to improve education by adopting a more fruitful strategy.

(corrected typos)

Gates Foundation — Release the MET Results

October 25, 2011

A sketch of the $500 million new Gates Foundation headquarters

Bill and Melinda Gates mentioned again in the Wall Street Journal the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) project that their foundation is orchestrating.  Bill and Melinda may want to check on the status of the MET research they’ve been touting since full results were promised in the spring of 2011 and have yet to be released.

Just to review… In an earlier interview with the Journal, MET was described as follows:

the Gates Foundation’s five-year, $335-million project examines whether aspects of effective teaching, classroom management, clear objectives, diagnosing and correcting common student errors can be systematically measured. The effort involves collecting and studying videos of more than 13,000 lessons taught by 3,000 elementary school teachers in seven urban school districts.

The motivation, re-iterated in the new piece by Bill and Melinda Gates is to identify  what “works” in classroom teaching to develop systems that train and encourage other teachers to imitate those practices:

It may surprise you—it was certainly surprising to us—but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding….

The intermediate goal of MET is to discover what we are able to measure that is predictive of student success. The end goal is to have a better sense of what makes teaching work so that school districts can start to hire, train and promote based on meaningful standards.

As I’ve argued before, using research to identify “best practices” in teaching only makes sense if the same teaching approaches would be desirable for the vast majority of teachers and students, regardless of the context.  And as I’ve also  suggested before, I don’t believe this effort is likely to yield much in education.  Effective teaching is like effective parenting — it is highly dependent on the circumstances.  Yes, there are some parenting (and teaching) techniques that are generally effective for almost everyone, but those are mostly known and already in use.

This doesn’t mean we are completely unable to measure effective teaching (or parenting).  It just means that we have to judge it by the results and cannot easily make universal statements about the right methods for producing those results.  To make a sports analogy, there is no single “best practice” for hitters in baseball.  There are a variety of stances and swings.  The best way to judge an effective hitter is by the results, not by the stance or swing.  And if we tried to make all hitters stand and swing in the same way, we’d make a lot of them worse hitters.

It is because of this heterogeneity in effective teaching practices that I think the MET project is doomed to disappoint.  And according to inside sources, I’ve heard that results are being delayed because they are failing to produce much of anything.

According to the MET web site, the full results for the 1st year should have been released in the spring:

 In spring 2011, the project will release full results from the first year of the study, including predictors of teaching effectiveness and correlation with value-added assessments.

It is almost November and we have not seen these results.  I understand that in very large and complicated projects, like MET, things can take much longer than originally planned.  If so, it would be nice to hear that explanation.  It would be even nicer if the Gates Foundation released results if they have them, even if those results were not what they had hoped they would find.

Some inquisitive reporters should start asking Gates officials and members of the research team about the status of the MET results.  Reporters should go beyond talking to the media flacks at Gates HQ and actually talk to individual members of the team confidentially.  If they do that, they may confirm what I have been hearing: MET results have been delayed because they aren’t panning out.

(UPDATE:  Gates responds.

Sen. Rubio Letter to Sec. Duncan on National Standards

September 14, 2011

Barriers to Digital Learning

August 30, 2011

Digital learning has significant potential but it also faces significant political barriers.  Existing regulations, such as seat-time requirements, teacher certification requirements, and the immobility of student funding, all stand in the way of rapid expansion of digital learning in K-12 education.

Notice that I did not include the lack of a national set of standards as a significant barrier to the expansion of digital learning.  I understand that a number of backers of digital learning support the national standards movement because they believe it will allow digital learning providers to achieve scale and offer products in all 50 states without having to contend with 50 different sets of state standards.

But at the recent Harvard conference, Shantanu Prakash, the head of Educomp Solutions, one of the largest digital learning providers in the world, was asked whether different sets of standards were a major obstacle to his company’s operations.  He conceded that the markets in which they operate, principally India, have numerous different standards.  But he also said that this was a trivial barrier because one of the strengths of digital learning is that it typically consists of many small modules that can easily be added or dropped to fit every set of standards.

If backers of digital learning think we need to streamline state regulation to achieve scale, they should be focusing on teacher certification and seat-time requirements rather than standards.  But would any of them really support the idea of having teacher certification and time requirements decided at the national level?  Wouldn’t the opponents of digital learning be able to seize a national regulatory regime to block the expansion of digital learning everywhere?  If so, why is the same concern not true for national standards?

The reality is that the biggest opponent of digital learning will be the teacher unions, who must recognize that digital learning allows cost-savings by replacing labor with capital.  Digital learning backers will have to fight the unions in each state to ease teacher certification, seat-time, and the immobility of funding.  At least now they have beach-heads in states that have a more accommodating regulatory environment.  But if digital learning folks support the construction of a national regulatory regime, they may be marginalized everywhere.