Are Children Learning

Researchers explore what’s missing from debate on standards, testing

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Panelists from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education discuss the current public debate around standards and testing in Tennessee.

While most public opposition to the Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has come from political conservatives wary about losing local control of schools, there’s also concern that the academic standards are inextricably tied to a larger system of high-stakes standardized testing.

It doesn’t have to be that way, concluded a panel of researchers from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education on Monday during a forum on K-12 education in Tennessee.

Panelists suggested that uniform standards such as the Common Core can lead to more creative teaching, deeper learning and even better tests – if educators and policymakers can reach a consensus on the purpose of tests.

“I think it’s a good idea that we have a statement on what we think every kid in the country should know and be able to do,” said Barbara Stengel, a Peabody professor.

“We have a tendency to think, ‘Yeah, what I’m doing here is the right way to do it.’ We need some way of checking that, and standards are a good way to do that,” Stengel said. “Stated standards take me out of my corner, my community, even my state, and remind me what kids out there in the wide world are doing.”

In Tennessee, the Common Core and the impending arrival of a new standards-aligned assessment have dominated much of the debate about public education during the last year, including a handful of bills filed this year in the Tennessee General Assembly that would scrap the state’s current standards.

Panelists said Common Core standards and Next Generation – the national science standards developed by 26 states, including Tennessee – provide a springboard for students to “receive” math and science knowledge through passive lectures, but also to generate the knowledge themselves through hands-on classroom activities.

However, once-a-year tests mandated by the federal government can’t assess that kind of nuanced learning and don’t help teachers improve instruction, said Rich Lehrer, another Peabody professor

“If we want to engage children and older students in the production of mathematics and science knowledge, then there are very severe limitations of one-time tests to do that,” he said. “We’re going to have to broaden what we think of assessments.” As an example of a high-quality assessment, he cited a classroom experiment on silkworms, complete with open-ended, qualitative answers.

Marcy Singer-Gabella, the chief academic officer for Project GRAD, a partnership between Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, said such an assessment is more helpful to teachers because it gives insight into students’ ability to reason. “If we are unable to see what is happening inside the minds of students, it’s very difficult to know what I should be doing differently tomorrow,” she said.

The conversation around assessments changes, however, when the primary function of tests is to to make decisions about teacher hiring and firing or school closures —  an idea that all of the panelists were wary of.

“We don’t understand the impacts of high-stakes testing,” Singer-Gabella said. “In fact, there is so much noise in the system around testing that it is at our peril that we make consequential decisions based only on test scores.”

Singer-Garbella added that research shows that pegging teachers through test scores is especially problematic – since an individual teacher’s impact on student learning is probably only around 10 percent.

Carol Johnson, who led the former Memphis City Schools and Boston Public Schools, is now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt. She said the focus on individual teachers’ scores undermines teamwork – a key ingredient to teacher success. She also said that the increasing use of test scores to make decisions about teachers and schools can discourage teachers from going to the schools that are most in need.

“Teachers are much more reluctant to work in a school with high poverty in an environment where the accountability consequences are so severe that you might lose your job or you might not be rewarded if you happen to be teaching at a school where you can predict the outcomes for kids will be lower,” she said.

Stengel said public discussion around standards and tests should be aligned with the overall purpose of education.

“I think we want graduates who are both good and smart. We want them to be smart enough to think through the problems of the day, but we also want them to be . . . good at whatever the universe is calling them to do to contribute to our shared community,” she said.

Stengel said the most important question is whether standards are advancing the overall educational purpose. “Does the current regime of high-stakes testing contribute to making our students both good and smart?” she asked.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.