First Person

Randomness is Not a Fluke

“I think there’s nothing wrong with anything.”  So spoke Chancellor Joel Klein at yesterday’s release of the 2009 elementary and middle school progress reports.  As Anna Phillips reported, 84% of the schools received a letter grade of A, and an additional 13% received a B.  Only two schools out of 1,058 received an F, and just five more were awarded a D.

The letter grades were driven by the remarkable/suspicious gains in 2009 on the state’s ELA and math tests.  Schools weren’t actually compared to one another on their performance this year to derive the letter grades.  Rather, they were compared to last year’s peer and citywide benchmarks.  To use a football metaphor, because test scores rose across the board, virtually all schools moved up the field, but the goalposts didn’t move.  I wasn’t sure that the progress report letter grades could actually be less useful this year than last, but Chancellor Klein’s administration has achieved that dubious feat.  When 84% of the schools receive an A—the top grade, which everyone understands to signify excellence—what useful information about the school’s relative performance is being conveyed to parents, students, educators, and others with a stake in our schools?  Not much, in my view.

Last year, my blogging partner Jennifer Jennings (who, for those keeping score at home, is now Dr. J) and I were sharply critical of the 2008 school progress reports.  Writing on Jennifer’s eduwonkette site, we demonstrated that student achievement growth over the past year—which makes up 60% of the overall progress report letter grade—was highly unreliable.  Schools that demonstrated high gains in student achievement from 2006 to 2007 were no more likely to show gains from 2007 to 2008 than schools that showed low gains in 2006 to 2007.  We concluded that the measure of student progress making up 60% of the overall progress report grade was picking up chance fluctuations from year to year.  And if 60% of the score is random, there’s not much genuine information about school performance in the progress report grade.

It wasn’t a fluke.

I’ve now replicated our analysis using the 2009 progress report grades.  Many measures of school performance—its environment, based on parent and teacher surveys, its attendance, even the percentage of students achieving Level 3 or Level 4 on the state ELA and math tests—are fairly stable from year to year.  But once again, the student progress measure is wholly unpredictable.  The schools that showed big gains in student achievement from 2007 to 2008 were no more likely to show big gains from 2008 to 2009 than those schools that had small gains from 2007 to 2008. 

Here are some simple graphical representations, using the roughly 600 elementary schools in New York City that received progress report grades in 2008 and 2009.  The first graph plots a school’s academic expectations in 2009, based on surveys, with that school’s academic expectations in 2008.  There is a strong positive correlation of .75, which indicates a great deal of stability from 2008 to 2009 in the relative position of a school compared to other schools.


The second graph plots a school’s attendance rate in 2009 with that school’s attendance rate in 2008.  Attendance is highly stable from year to year:  the correlation between 2008 attendance and 2009 attendance is .95.  There’s almost as much consistency in the percentage of students scoring at levels 3 or 4 on the state ELA test over these two years.  The correlation between the 2008 percentage and the 2009 percentage is .94, which is a very strong association indicating that schools that are relatively high in 2008 are likely to be relatively high in 2009.    


As you look at the three graphs above, you can see a clear pattern in the data:  elementary schools that are relatively low compared to other schools in 2008 are also relatively low compared to their peers in 2009.  Similarly, elementary schools that are relatively high compared to other schools in 2008 are likely to be relatively high in comparison to other schools in 2009.  Now, look at the graph below, which plots each school’s student progress from 2008 to 2009 by that school’s progress from 2007 to 2008.  Do you see a pattern?


 If you do, there’s probably a psychologist somewhere salivating at the idea of administering a Rohrschach inkblot test to you.  The correlation between student progress from 2007 to 2008 and student progress from 2008 to 2009 is -.02, which is indistinguishable from zero.  This means that there really is no pattern to the results, and certainly not a pattern that demonstrates consistency or stability from one year to the next.

It’s no surprise to see this, since it follows from what we know about the instability of test score gains from one year to the next in schools across the country.  As was true last year, there’s a bit more consistency in progress in math, but the state ELA and math tests on which these scores are based are coming under increasing scrutiny for their predictability, easiness, and poor content coverage.  The New York City Department of Education has hitched its accountability wagon to a runaway horse.

When it comes to annual test score gains, randomness is not a fluke.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.