First Person

Commentary: Using research correctly

Kristin Klopfenstein is executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado and a self-proclaimed data geek.

I find it tremendously exciting that high-quality research is cited more and more as the basis for education policy decisions. And I notice that researchers are responding by trying to provide concrete examples of what their results mean, and particularly to show how big their numbers are. It is also becoming apparent that the examples used to explain the size of numbers can have a disproportionate, and often inappropriate, effect on how a particular finding is applied in the policy context.

I’m struck by how dramatically this has happened with the “consecutive great teachers” argument. Over the years, several teams of researchers (Hanushek and Rivkin, Gordon, Kane, and Staiger among them) have reported variations on the theme that achievement gaps could be closed if black or low-income students were assigned several extraordinary teachers in a row. This statement has now been repeated enough in the popular press and education policy circles to become conventional wisdom, with a particularly succinct (and inaccurate) version being: “we now know that three years with a great teacher is enough to close the achievement gap.”

The problem is that when researchers made such statements, they never actually observed a disadvantaged student being exposed to multiple extraordinary teachers over time and reaching the academic level of their more advantaged peers. Rather, researchers calculated the “teacher effect” number by crunching data on a group of students exposed to a variety of good and bad teachers, from a few grades and in a particular subject, and extrapolated this result to other students, grades, and subjects. In other words, for fellow data geeks out there, the consecutive great teacher conclusion is based on an “out of sample” extrapolation.

Suppose the data crunching reveals that a fourth grade math teacher from the top ten percent of all math teachers is shown to increase the average student’s math growth score by some number, let’s say 5. Is 5 big? Small? Somewhere in between? The researcher proceeds to make the case that 5 is big because if a disadvantaged kid gained 5 points every year for 3 years, that would be enough to bring them up to the level of more advantaged students. Readers with research experience tend to take this extrapolation with a grain of salt knowing its limitations. But readers without such experience don’t necessarily have the instincts to realize that this example can’t be taken at face value. And the myth is born.

The question I’m raising today isn’t whether great teachers make a difference. There is credible evidence that they do. The question is whether a student’s gain in one teacher’s classroom can be extrapolated over time to predict a cumulative effect when there were no students in the original research who actually exhibited this result. Kids learn at different rates as they mature and their scores can be affected by many external factors including the type of curriculum used and the motivation levels of other students in the classroom. How likely is it that a student will experience uniform gains year after year working under different teachers? And there’s the issue of basing teacher ratings solely on tests of basic skills, often in just one subject, as many studies do. Can a teacher who improves math scores produce equally large gains in other subjects and, perhaps even more importantly, in the soft skills that employers are crying out for?

Misunderstanding the relationship between teacher quality and other factors influencing the achievement gap can lead to the misallocation of time and money. The consecutive great teacher argument has been used to buttress policy arguments for greater accountability, higher teacher pay, merit pay, and charter schools with liberal hiring and firing practices. None of these policies are inherently good or bad in my view, but in a world of limited resources, a policy focus in one area can limit resources for other areas that might actually be bigger levers for reducing the achievement gap. For example, robust urban planning, housing, and health policies have the potential to significantly decrease student mobility and help kids manage asthma and other health conditions that lead to chronic school absences, other key factors in the achievement gap.

I’m not the first to bring up this issue. Plenty of prominent scholars have raised such questions. Diane Ravitch devotes much of her popular book The Death and Life of the Great American School System to warnings against giving standardized tests too much power. On the issue of gap-closing claims, she quotes Richard Rothstein as noting that “good teachers can raise student achievement, and teachers are defined as good if they raise student achievement” (page 182). A circular argument if there ever was one. So why do the myths survive despite such critiques?

I think one reason magic bullet solutions gain currency is that there is no incentive in academia to write clearly for a general audience and to follow up and make sure research is being applied appropriately.  Tenure and promotion are earned by being cited, not by being cited correctly. Moreover, too few researchers who understand the complex statistics behind the magic bullet solutions publicize their objections broadly, as Ravitch and Rothstein did. It is heady stuff when one’s research enters the public conversation. Correcting misunderstandings in these situations takes courage, especially when truisms are embraced by powerful politicians and policy makers.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.