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Education Reform

Just the Facts, Please!

Time to get real about education reform.


It isn’t what we don’t know that hurts, it’s what we know that ain’t so,” said Will Rogers. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things about public schools that many pundits and politicians “know” that aren’t so. Here’s the truth about key areas of contention.




    Pay for
    Test Scores



Extreme Test Prep

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High-stakes testing

America has been conducting a massive experiment on the impact of high-stakes testing ever since the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law (NCLB) was signed nine years ago. And the results are in: This enormous, expensive, painful venture has had little or no effect on achievement.

How do we know? Because the U.S. Department of Education tests samples of students in every state in a program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), nicknamed the Nation’s Report Card. And if you look at NAEP trends over the last two decades, you can’t see when NCLB kicked in.


Where's the impact? If you don't know when "No Child Left Behind" was signed, you'll never guess from looking at this graph of reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Programs (The answer is January 8, 2002.)

National Assessment of Educational Progress

Here are links to the NAEP reading results for grades four, eight, and 12.

Source: National Assessment of Education Progress (“The Nation’s Report Card”)

The great high-stakes testing experiment has failed.

But scores on many state tests have gone up! say testing proponents. That’s because of teaching to the test. Under pressure from NCLB, many educators have focused on the particular types of questions and the areas of the curriculum their state tests usually cover. Ask questions in a different way, or on a different part of the same subject matter, as often happens on the NAEP, and students don’t look so good.

Don’t you hate it when your kids ask, “Will this be on the test?”

These days, aren’t you asking that question yourself?

In human terms…

Gayle HoffmanHigh-stakes testing was supposed to have a positive impact on how schools serve kids whose low achievement used to be taken for granted, especially low-income and minority students. Unfortunately, that extra attention too often takes the form of shallow test prep rather than learning that will last. And there’s less time for music, art, social studies, languages, and anything else that’s not tested.

For Gayle Hoffman, an elementary school teacher in Utah, high-stakes testing brought an end to projects that fascinated her second graders, like the unit in which they read about Helen Keller and learned the manual alphabet. After her school failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB, Hoffman says, “We were told to cut out all the fluff and only teach to the test. How sad.”

Read more about evidence that No Child Left Behind has failed

A Better Way

How should educators be evaluated? Take a look at the thoughtful paper, “Getting Teacher Assessment Right,” from the National Education Policy Center. And tell us what you think.

“Value-added” measures

“Value-added” measurement aims to project a student’s test score growth over time, after attempting to adjust for poverty and other factors known to affect achievement. Look at all of a teacher’s student scores and you’ll see how effective that teacher is, the theory goes.

But life is more complicated than a value-added algorithm. In real life, some teachers get students who are harder to reach for all sorts of reasons. They may have an extra share of problems with language, motivation, disabilities, or classroom discipline. And each year, the students change. So let’s ask the research. Can you tell a star teacher from an ineffective one by looking at their value-added scores?

In a word, no.

For one thing, value-added scores swing wildly from year to year. If your score puts you near the bottom this year, chances are you’ll be a lot higher next year. This year’s value-added score predicts next year’s score only moderately better than a roll of the dice.

The Gates Foundation is a major backer of using value-added scores to evaluate teachers, but an independent analysis of data from Gates-funded research casts doubts on the validity of those scores. That research found that 40 percent of teachers who landed in the bottom quartile based on their students’ state test scores placed in the top half when a different test was used.

Another inconvenient finding: Although value-added scores are supposed to adjust for factors like poverty, they apparently don’t. One study found the same teachers got better value-added scores when they taught more academically advanced students, fewer English-language learners, and fewer low-income students.

So what are value-added scores good for? Sadly, they became a prime teacher-bashing weapon last summer when the Los Angeles Times published teachers’ names and their value-added scores as calculated by the newspaper.

There was less media buzz about the parade of eminent test experts who warned that these scores don’t come close to describing a teacher’s effectiveness.

Ten of the most prominent leaders of the scientific community reviewed all the evidence and concluded that nobody should make important decisions on the basis of value-added scores because they “do not adequately take into account the extra challenges of teaching at-risk students, even though they are intended to do that.” The experts specifically criticized plans by some states to give value-added scores up to 50 percent weight in evaluating teachers. Relying so heavily on these scores, they said, “could create disincentives for teachers to take on the neediest students.”

That’s no way to close achievement gaps.

In human terms…

Angie JordanTennessee is the birthplace of “value-added” scores. The system has been in use there since 1993. How is it working?

After years of excellent value-added scores, middle school math teacher Angie Jordan got the bad news last fall that her scores were in the lowest category. She had a lot of company: Value-added scores slumped all across the state. But that

wasn’t much consolation. “I was in tears,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘Why did I work so hard? I couldn’t have done worse if I had just shown videos.’”

Why did her scores take a dive? New curriculum? New standards? A glitch in the scoring? She can’t find out because both the test and the value-added calculations are secret.

So how are these scores helping Jordan improve her skills or educate the children of Tennessee?

Read more about the evidence on value-added scores:

Pay for Test Scores

Does your district pay you more for higher test scores? If so, has it made you a better teacher? Tell us about it.

Pay for Test Scores

Basing teacher pay on student test scores has got to be one of the worst ideas yet. Ask a teacher. Or ask a researcher. Both of them will tell you that it just doesn’t work.

The most recent blow to proponents of pay for test scores came from a study in Nashville, released in September by Vanderbilt University researchers. They tracked nearly 300 teachers for three years. Half of them could get bonuses of up to $15,000 for raising scores. The other half got no bonuses.

“We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for students’ test scores, will test scores go up?” said Matthew Springer, executive director of Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives. “We found the answer to that question is no.”

In human terms…

Tanya CarusoThe results of the Nashville experiment were no surprise to Tanya Caruso, president of the Eagle County (Colorado) Education Association, which has had a merit-pay program for the past decade. “All teachers want kids to do well,” she says. “More money isn’t a better incentive than watching your kids succeed. We’re all doing everything we possibly can—we can’t work any harder!”

Eagle County now rewards teachers partly on the basis of scores of all the kids at their school and partly on scores of all the kids in the district.

But the pay scheme started out with an attempt to link teachers’ pay to their own students’ individual test scores. “It was crazy,” Caruso says. “You start with 20 kids and end up with 15 different kids, and some of them are going somewhere else for reading, plus there are the art and music people, who don’t have test scores…

“I see other school districts trying to attach pay to individual test scores, and I think, ‘Good luck with that!’ Been there, done that. You should look at those scores, of course, but not attach them to pay.”

More on the evidence about pay for test scores:

Classroom Superheroes

Who's your favorite classroom superhero?

Who goes the extra mile to help students succeed? Nominate that person on NEA's new Classroom Superheroes Web site, and help them get the recognition they deserve!

Charter schools

Students at most charter schools score the same or lower than comparable students in regular public schools.

That’s the conclusion of the most comprehensive national study of charter schools, conducted in 2009 by researchers at Stanford University. They compared charter and district schools in 16 states that educate most of America’s school children, and discovered that one-third of the charters did worse than the average public school, one-sixth did better, and the rest were about even.

The Stanford group wasn’t the first. Researchers with the federal Department of Education did their own study in 2004 and came to similar conclusions.

These studies rarely find their way into media reports or politicians’ speeches on charter schools, which mostly tell about students from tough backgrounds who go to charter schools and do great.

There are plenty of students like that in district schools, too, but you’re less likely to read about them.

Sometimes, promoters of the charter school path to closing achievement gaps admit that many of these schools are weak. They say they don’t support all charters, just the good ones. But the schools they most often hold up as shining examples leave a lot of children behind.

Take the Knowledge Is Power Program—KIPP—probably the most praised chain of charters. The KIPP model includes extended hours, Saturday lessons, strict discipline, and parent contracts that screen out students without strong family support. KIPP boasts that 85 percent of its alumni go on to college. But KIPP has very high attrition rates, and unlike at most district schools, KIPP students who leave are usually not replaced. Those who stay, research says, tend to be the most motivated.

That doesn’t make KIPP a bad program. It’s just a bad yardstick for judging schools that take—and keep—all comers.

In human terms…

Ana SegedincevMany district schools do wonders with highly motivated students from poor backgrounds, too. Take the students in the AVID program that’s in thousands of schools across the country. The name says it all: “Advancement Via Individual Determination.”

They get up early, stay late, and work furiously to reach their goal of college graduation and the professional careers that a college degree can open up. These students and their teachers spare no effort.

Ana Segedincev was an English-language learner in San Diego taking non-college prep classes when a teacher steered her into AVID. It changed her life. “The AVID program was the pillar that helped me reach my goals by teaching me the organizational and study skills that helped me survive the rigorous world of college,” she says.

Segedincev became a teacher herself and worked for several years in AVID, helping students like her—students who had the motivation but needed guidance.

She’s still in touch with one of her former students, an English-language learner who became the first in her family to finish high school. “It’s so rewarding to see where she’s headed!” says Segedincev. “She’ll graduate this year from UCLA and she’s going for a Master’s next.”

More on the evidence comparing charter and regular district schools:

Due process  for unfair treatment

Have you ever had to rely on the protections of due process to protect you from unfair treatment at the hands of school officials? Do you know of someone who has? Send us your story.

We may contact you about using your story to defend due process—we guarantee we won't use it without your explicit, written okay.


Tenure doesn’t guarantee anyone a job. It guarantees due process: Teachers are told why they are being terminated and given an opportunity to challenge that reason. During the two, three, four, or even more years that a teacher must work before earning tenure, that teacher can be fired for no reason at all. Eliminating tenure would be like a never-ending probationary period.

Tenure laws were created to keep school officials from axing teachers out of prejudice or anger, or just to make room for a politician’s relative. Those who want to get rid of tenure often say it was needed in the olden days, but times have changed. How so? Have we banished prejudice, anger, and politicians’ relatives? Do we really want to jeopardize teachers’ willingness to speak up regarding instructional, curricular, safety, or other issues that affect students and school staff?

If someone doesn’t have what it takes to teach, there’s plenty of time for a principal to tell that person to find a new career before tenure applies. Principals need the skills and the time to evaluate and work with teachers in those first years before tenure. Let’s end “drive-by” evaluations. But eliminating due process is not the way to attract and retain the best and brightest. Stronger professional development, better mentoring, and more useful teacher evaluation—all of which NEA locals are working to strengthen—are better ideas.

In human terms…

Jane Jackson (not her real name) is a special education teacher who received a harsh letter of reprimand charging her with insubordination and threatening “further action.” Why? She told the truth when a child advocate asked whether a student’s individual education plan was being carried out.

Jackson had tenure. She kept her job and her union got the reprimand erased. But what if she had not had due process? She might well have been fired for doing the right thing.

Educators without tenure have been terminated or non-renewed for reporting unsafe conditions to the superintendent, complaining about the mishandling of funds, criticizing the district’s dress code in public, filing a grievance, or being married to a union organizer.

Most administrators are fair-minded. Tenure is to protect you if you run into one who isn’t.

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