PDK poll, teacher effectiveness, Friedman on ‘what works’

Results of Bloomington-based Phi Delta Kappa’s annual Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools were released this week, and they were, as usual, interesting.

Much of the news coverage focused on the fact that only 34 percent of the public gave President Obama a grade of A or B for his education policies, compared with 45 percent last year. But there wasn’t a lot of evidence that the public knows what the president’s education policies are.

In fact, only 20 percent of respondents were aware that any federal stimulus money went for education when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $100 billion for schools.

The public claimed teacher effectiveness is the No. 1 issue facing the schools, putting it in synch with the Obama administration. The poll also found increasing support for charter schools, an administration priority.

But respondents did seem to disagree with the administration’s “school turnaround” approach, which prescribes closing failing schools or removing principals and/or teachers. While the public supported rigorous evaluation of teachers, 60 percent said the purpose should be to help teachers improve, while only 26 percent said evaluations should be used to fire ineffective teachers and 13 percent to set teacher salaries.

As usual, the survey found that people gave much higher grades to schools in their own communities – and especially to their children’s schools – than to the “nation’s schools.” But all the schools, like all the children, can’t be above average. “The great challenge is that Americans like the schools they know, even if they’re not all terrific schools,” PDK executive director William Bushaw told the Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required).

You can also read about the poll in stories by Education Week, Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio.

How do we know when teachers are effective?

Speaking of Phi Delta Kappa, former PDK officials Phil Harris and Bruce Smith published a thoughtful commentary in Education Week recently.

Citing the case of Jackie Macal, the teacher at Bloomington’s Batchelor Middle School who won state recognition for her accomplishments but was (temporarily) on a layoff list, they wade into the question of whether teacher retention should be based on effectiveness rather than seniority.

“But the correct answer to what makes a teacher effective or what constitutes effective teaching is, ‘We don’t really know,’” Harris and Smith write. “But we do know that teaching is complicated, involves interactive relationships, and can’t be well described by a single number, not even when that number derives from two administrations of a test and the subsequent mathematical legerdemain associated with the various value-added models of judging teacher effectiveness.”

Duncan: disclose more information

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, meanwhile, called for disclosing more information from whatever measures we do have of teacher effectiveness. Speaking at an event hosted by the University of Arkansas, he said making public teacher-specific data on student performance would be valuable to both teachers and parents.

Duncan “said his remarks were prompted by a Los Angeles Times series analyzing teacher performance,” according to Education Week. “The newspaper took seven years of student test data from Los Angeles and developed a ‘value-added’ analysis to show which third through fifth grade teachers were making the most gains.”

Duncan added, according to Education Week, “If it was up to me and the law allowed it, I would put out student attendance data and hold parents accountable.” That would apparently require repealing, or at least seriously amending, FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which generally prohibits disclosing most information about individual students.

Friedman on charter schools

This item was almost titled “Tom Friedman drinks the Kool-Aid.” But this is a serious blog, right? So let’s try to tell the story straight.

Friedman, the New York Times columnist and best-selling author (The World is Flat, etc.), wrote this week about the bottom-up movement that is transforming education in the U.S. “From the explosion of new charter schools to the new teachers’ union contract in D.C., which will richly reward public school teachers who get their students to improve faster and weed out those who don’t, Americans are finally taking their education crisis seriously,” he says.

The focus of his column is Waiting for Superman, a film by Davis Guggenheim, the director of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which profiles the highly regarded Harlem Children’s Zone and other school-reform efforts. Guggenheim confesses guilt at driving his children past three public schools to attend a private school because of “my fear of sending them to a failing school.” One wonders how much time he spent in those public schools to determine they were “failing.”

Friedman, who will speak this fall at Indiana University, writes that “we know what works” and points to Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP charter schools and the in-your-face leadership style of the New York and Washington, D.C., school chancellors. He also praises “quiet heroism of millions of public and charter school teachers and parents who do put kids first by implementing the best ideas, and in so doing make their schools just a little bit better and more accountable every day.”


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