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Race to the Top: The Research Base

Susan Notes: Here's a good overview of what's at stake in Race to the Top.

by William Mathis

"What is extraordinary about these regulations is that they have no credible basis in research. They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by those in power."
-- Diane Ravitch,
Assistant Secretary of Education, Bush I
Now, New York University

"The race to the Top is missing a critical component Ă¢€" encouraging states and schools to adopt strategies that have been proven effective through rigorous research."
-- Robert A. Slavin
Director, Center for Research and Reform in education,
Johns Hopkins

With much fanfare about the greatest amount of discretionary money ever available, RttT will distribute about $4 billion. This sounds like a lot of money but is actually about three-fourths of one percent of education spending. Vermont is in the lowest funding tier and our opportunity for being successful is remote given we do not have a charter school law.

So the question is do we want to change our policies from our current directions for a small chance at a small amount of money? More importantly, are these policies conducive to better education?

There are 19 areas in the RttT criteria, grouped into four categories. Few, if any, of the nineteen criteria have any proven history of success. Some, we simply donĂ¢€™t know anything about. Others, we have sobering evidence that they are harmful.

Teachers and Leaders

1. Alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and leaders

Is there a legitimate peer reviewed literature that tells us that non-trained teachers and leaders do a better job than trained teachers and leaders?

No. There is no evidence to this effect.
The most cited examples are KIPP and Troops to Teachers. There is little evidence that tells us these work. KIPP has seen some success but this has been attributed to the after school and extra programs provided these children. Teacher burn-out and turn-over is high in KIPP. Most troublesome is the extraordinary student drop-out rates for KIPP.

Certainly teacher preparation needs review and new experimentation but we are not in a place to come to such conclusions.

2. Performance pay

"One theory of action seems to be that holding teachers more accountable for the gain in their students' test scores will induce them to become better teachers. At this point, I am not aware of any credible evidence in support of that proposition."
-- Helen F. Ladd
Duke University

There were a number of experiments in this area in the 1980s and 1990s, the most famous being Lamar Alexander and Tennessee. With one exception, these programs have faded away. The reason is that the programs were not financially supported by states and districts. Using hedonic models, the amount of incentives needed for these programs to be successful is so large that the programs cannot be sustained. Underfunded, they simply fall apart.

There's a new experiment in Denver but test scores are only a small part of the equation. It's too soon to know. Randi Weingarten has said AFT is interested in experimenting. To date, there is no evidence that says this avenue is promising.

3. Equitable distribution of teachers and principals

This would be a very good thing, indeed! The very few places where incentive models have been put in place have yet to show sufficient inducement to make this redistribution possible (WY). Without serious funding, transportation and social support, it is difficult to see this getting off the ground.

For example, how much money would it take to convince a Scarsdale teacher that they should either move or commute to Harlem? Are we going to pay teachers in Milton equal or more than they are paid in South Burlington? When we do, we can seriously talk about this approach.

4. Report effectiveness of teacher and principal prep programs

The lack of consensus on what is a good program is problematic. Witness the disputes between NCATE and AACTE. They have dramatically different perspectives. This also presupposes some form of one best model for teacher prep for all grades, student populations, etc. This is a hard concept to sustain.

How would you measure program effectiveness?

School districts should report to higher education institutions and this is far easier in field based programs. As any administrator will tell you, failed teachers usually do so for lack of personal skills rather than pedagogical training.

What would be the most effective way to attract good teachers?

5. Provide Effective Support to Teachers and Principals

The Center on Education Policy reports that states do not have this capacity Ă¢€" and that was pre-recession. SUs typically have a curriculum coordinator that holds meetings. Budgetarily sustaining support personnel is difficult.

Certainly effective support is vital. How do we do this in sufficient scale to provide for 6000 teachers?

Data Systems

6. Statewide longitudinal data system

"[Bush and Obama] have supported the use of data to determine what works . . . the proposed rules take the exact opposite approach."

  • Sean Corcoran

  • Joydeep Roy

  • Economic Policy Institute

  • This is everybody's favorite sound bite. However, it gets foggy when we start asking what data would we collect and how would we use it. If it is to identify groups that are not doing so well or characteristics of successful students, we actually know a great deal without collecting more information. The trouble is we donĂ¢€™t use what we know. For example, what systemic program does Vermont have for students in poverty?

    Nothing wrong with the idea but how does it improve education? Without a clear vision, the danger of amassing too much private information is problematic. We tend to go around and collect what we can rather than what we need.

    As a data cruncher, I love data bases. We have national data that shows charter schools segregate by poverty, handicap, race, and language. But will this change Duncan's policy? Doubtful.

    7. Accessing and using state data

    Certainly no harm in this (with privacy protections). What evidence do we have that that helps improve instruction? How? One trouble is that the level of data we collect is not valid (focused) enough. FRL as a proxy measure is good but we need to know if Mom supports her kids. Again, we measure what we can rather than what's important.

    Standardized tests, by design, do not have sufficient power to give useful diagnostic information.That relegates us to a lot of correlational (not causative) studies. Yet, there are all kinds of interesting questions that can be raised with a sufficient data base. Differences in sped classifications, for example.

    8. Using data to improve instruction

    This has been promised since programmed instruction in the early 1960s. (To my chagrin, I published such a paper in 1967. I still hope to be proven right some day). The evidence on data improving instruction is weak and largely anecdotal. Our data does not have predictive validity and we inaccurately measure vital factors. In instructional use, the inability to resolve linearity assumptions has yet to result in a demonstrable set of packages or prescriptions. Knowledge and learning is far more fluid and plastic than our data systems.

    Standards and Assessments

    9. Adopt Common Standards

    "To wholeheartedly embrace this suggestion, states have to overlook the damages national standards can do to education, and not take into consideration the fact that having national standards neither improves education for students nor narrows the achievement gap." Yong Zhao, Michigan State

    See the fall, 2009 Bracey Report which reviews the fallacy of increasing standards. The call for "higher standards" as a means to improve education has been a rallying cry for over 100 years.
    See Alfie Kohn, Education Week, January 2010.

    Saying students that previously had to jump four feet now have to jump five doesn't do a thing to get them over the bar.

    Without too much detail, the international economic rationale is not supported, nor is comparability, nor the needs of society. Stay tuned. I have a paper coming out on this in April.

    10. Common high-quality assessments

    How does this improve instruction? I have yet to see any legitimate rationale or research that makes this case. Perhaps we can argue that this makes education uniform. We have unassailable evidence that it narrows curriculum.

    Examples from the legitimate peer-reviewed literature, please. OK, just give me one legitimate source that supports this.

    11. Transition to enhanced standards and Assessment

    Answer the two above questions positively and this becomes relevant.

    Supporting Struggling Schools

    12. Intervening in the lowest performing schools

    States simply do not have the capacity (see Center on Education Policy) and it is doubtful that they will in this economic climate. Interventions have been "drive-by" and non-substantive.

    Look at my ultimate sanctions paper at epicpolicy.org where I reviewed the research literature on the four NCLB required interventions.

    13. Increase the supply of high quality charter schools

    See Stanford CREDO study. The states that expanded charter schools the fastest showed the worst performance. CREDO also shows that charters have more negative than positive results. Bifulco and Ladd show they segregate and cause the achievement gap to get larger. Miron, et. al in a national study show they segregate (I'm a co-author). The research evidence simply does not support this notion.

    14. Turn around struggling schools

    The methods proposed by the federal government have no research foundation or history of working. See Jack Jennings, Center on Education Policy, discussed in Education Week and Mathis at Education and Public Interest Center (EPIC) and/or the District Administrator.


    15. Demonstrating significant progress

    What does this mean? I presume that means you get points for rapidly implementing the foregoing ideas.

    16. Making education funding a priority

    It's been 40 years since Serrano. We win 70% of the court cases but seldom win the funding. What does making a priority mean? How does this insure adequacy for all children? Poor children and children of color still receive less money than white and affluent kids. In these economic times how much of a priority will education funding be in Vermont or any other state?

    17. Enlisting statewide support and commitment

    I'm all for it. What's this mean? Hold a pep rally? Have the Lake Champlain Chamber say something positive? Without funding, this is a PR sound bite.

    18. Raising achievement and closing gaps

    I'm all for it. It's just that we have not made the right kinds of commitments in the right places to make this happen. From what we know, EE, summer school, after school, health programs, parent support, etc. will have the best effects. I don't see expansions this budget cycle.

    19. Build strong state capacity

    I'm all for it! However, the Commissioner reportedly said cutting 40 positions at the State Department of Education is an efficiency measure. What state capability do we currently have? We' ve spent the last 20 years stripping state capacity.

    William Mathis is managing director of Education in the Public Interest Center.

    — William Mathis



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