missed opportunities

A new report argues that students are suffering through bad teaching and simplistic classwork. Is that true?

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

America’s public school classrooms are full of students who aren’t being challenged.

That’s the claim of a new report by TNTP, the nonprofit advocacy and consulting group, looking at student work and real-life teaching. Students are “planning their futures on the belief that doing well in school creates opportunities — that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will prepare them for what’s next,” it says. “Unfortunately, it’s a myth.”

The study, called The Opportunity Myth, relies on TNTP’s exhaustive effort to get at what students are really doing in class by surveying them in real time, reviewing their work, and observing class instruction — a combination rarely seen in education research. Based on this data, the report argues that low-income students of color in particular are suffering through mediocre instruction and simplistic classwork while their teachers expect little of them.

“Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them,” the report says.

It’s not clear that the study’s methods can support such strong conclusions, though. TNTP’s claims turn on its own subjective way of rating instruction and assignments, and it’s unclear if different approaches would yield different results. And the paper examined just four districts and one charter school network, all anonymous.

That means the study is at once extensive and limited: extensive because it amounts to a massive undertaking to better understand students’ experience, but limited because it only examines a fraction of students in a fraction of classrooms in a handful of districts, none of which were chosen randomly.

Regardless of debates about the methods, the report may draw significant attention. The research of TNTP, previously known as the The New Teacher Project, has a track record of shaping policy, particularly with an influential 2009 report known as The Widget Effect, which focused on perceived flaws of teacher evaluation systems.

The latest study was funded by the Joyce Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Barr Foundation. (Chan Zuckerberg, Joyce, Overdeck, and Walton are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

In contrast with some of the group’s past work, the latest report concludes with few controversial policy recommendations, instead calling for higher expectations and a careful examination of disparities in school resources.

“We believe it’s time to move beyond important but narrow debates — from how to measure teacher performance to charter versus district to the role of standardized testing — and return to the basic guiding principle that brings us to this work: the right of every student to learn what they need to reach their goals,” the report says.

TNTP focuses on three large urban districts, one small rural district, and one charter network with three schools in separate cities. In all but the rural district, a majority of students are black or Latino, as well as low-income.

From there, TNTP got a handful of teachers from certain schools in each district to document their students’ work, collecting and photographing the assignments done by six students during three separate weeks. (Students had to receive parental consent and their names were removed from the work.) TNTP then assigned a rating to each significant piece of work, looking at whether it was on grade level, among other traits.

TNTP also had observers watch and then rate two lessons by each teacher using the group’s rubrics and surveyed teachers to determine their views on whether students could meet their state’s academic standards.

Finally, they surveyed students on their classroom experiences. TNTP used a novel approach for tracking student feelings, asking students whether they were bored or felt excited about learning at various points in a lesson.

In all, TNTP says, it reviewed nearly 1,000 lessons, 20,000 examples of student work, and 30,000 real-time student surveys. And the results, the report said, are grim: only 16 percent of lessons observed had “strong instruction,” and about a quarter of assignments were deemed “grade appropriate.”

This varied from district to district and classroom to classroom. In the most specific example provided in the report, one eighth-grade assignment asked a student to fill in the missing vowels from the word “habitat” after reading a short passage; in contrast, another required students to write a lengthy essay based on a memoir of one of the students to desegregate the all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Student surveys were somewhat more positive: a narrow majority of students, about 55 percent, were generally engaged and interested during class, based on TNTP’s survey.

Students of color and low-income students tended to be in classes with worse instruction, fewer grade-level assignments, and lower expectations for meeting standards. That was correlated with slightly lower rates of test score growth.

All of that, TNTP concludes, amounts to a damning case against most of the classrooms in question and American schools in general. “Students spend most of their time in school without access to four key resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations,” the report says.

“The ‘achievement gap,’ then, isn’t inevitable. It’s baked into the system, resulting from the decisions adults make.”

But TNTP faces steep challenges in using its data to make such strong claims.

In addition to the districts, schools, teachers, and students not being chosen randomly, the report is not able to pin down whether those resources lead to higher achievement or definitively show why some students seem to have less access to the key resources it cites.

One of the report’s central claims, that increasing access to those resources will boost students’ academic performance, rests on relatively small correlations. In fact, the study showed little if any overall relationship between teachers’ observation scores and their effects on test scores.

“We need to be a little careful about asserting that by increasing one or more of the four resources we will necessarily improve outcomes for kids,” said Jim Wyckoff, a professor at the University of Virginia who sat on an advisory panel for the report, while also noting that he thought the basic theory of the report made sense.

The report’s appendix notes that “classrooms with initially higher performing students tended to get better assignments, better instruction, were more engaged, and had teachers with significantly higher expectations.” But other research has shown that observers tend to give unfairly high ratings to classrooms with more high-achieving students, meaning cause and effect could run the other way here.

TNTP’s measure of teacher expectations relies on teachers’ responses to statements like “My students need something different than what is outlined in the standards,” something that may be conflating high expectations with teachers’ views about the quality of their state standards.

Still, one of the main takeaways from the report — that low-income students of color have less access to good teaching — is generally backed by past research.

High-poverty schools have higher rates of teacher turnover and more inexperienced teachers, on average. Other research in a number of states and cities, including Washington state, North Carolina, New York City, and Los Angeles, has shown that teachers of low-income students are less effective at raising test scores.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.