April 25, 2010

An academic's brief iPad review comment

I'm going to skip all the technical stuff you can read in other reviews of the device, so here's the bottom line: the iPad is useful for anyone who needs to read a lot of PDFs without significant effort, comment on some of them, and otherwise carry around significant electronic documents. For a faculty member, this is the immediate point of the iPad (at least to justify the credit charges to one's family). Please forgive me my technoskeptic sins, but I don't give a hoot what undergraduates might do with it for now, nor do I think any university should distribute iPads in some reverie for the coming Technirvana. It's good enough for me, now.

In the three weeks I've had the iPad, I've used it to review dissertation proposals, read several technical documents on impulse, catch up with some recently published reports and articles, keep up with e-mail, triage my online reading effectively, finish light writing (such as this blog entry), read enough book samples on the Kindle app to decide I don't have intention of buying the books, etc., all without the several-minute boot-up every time I use my year-old university laptop. The iPad is not a laptop/desktop replacement for intensive tasks such as editing, writing a paper that requires considerable formatting, or number-crunching, but it doesn't have to be.

For those who are curious: it took a few hours for me to figure out how to get PDFs and other documents onto my iPad in different ways. I can use an inexpensive program ("app") called GoodReader to read documents in a variety of formats, but editing them is different. iAnnotate lets me mark up PDFs. Right now, iAnnotate can pull PDF files from a mail-account inbox, and there's a way to setup a local network to transfer files in a slightly more awkward way. (You can't do it through the USB cable.) I suspect iAnnotate will eventually allow me to pull files from the iPad's browser (Safari). Word documents will go from almost any program into the (simplified) Pages word-processor. Pages will let me e-mail edited documents from the iPad, and iAnnotate's developers promise that's coming in the next major update. Pages has some frustrating limits--it strips incoming documents of all footnotes, for example, and I can't figure out how to change the fonts (the default is an ugly san-serif). But it's workable.

Since I have accounts with Dropbox (a cloud file service) and Evernote, I can use their apps to access what I have there. Memeo Connect Reader can grab my Google Docs and store them on the device when I'm not connected to the internet (and then serve them to other programs such as iAnnotate). These six programs cost me less than $20 altogether (the three mentioned in this paragraph are free). There are all sorts of other fun/convenient apps that I suppose you could justify for academic purposes (Instapaper, yes; NPR and BBC, questionable; NBA playoff app, definitely not), but these grab, read, and comment on file uses are what I bought the iPad for.

That "I don't give a hoot" comment above does not mean the iPad won't be useful for students, but like all other technologies touted as The One to Make All Learning Effortless, the iPad is a tool whose use will be shaped by all sorts of existing habits, student ingenuity, etc. Let's just say that while I expect there to be specific iPad programs that may be of some use for students, the more likely impact will be in how it might make interacting with websites different, and how websites might subtly change for everyone as a result (less Flash, for example). In a few fields, such as medicine, the iPad and other tablets will quickly become an obvious study device for students. And for students with low vision, the ability to zoom into a page as far as one wants may be very useful.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:08 PM (Permalink) |

Veritas? Caveat!

There's a new paper by Harvard researchers Matthew Chingos and Martin West on what ex-Florida teachers make, and relationships between post-teaching income and during-teaching value-added measures that I'm sure some will tout as proof that SB 6 and any like performance-pay plans are desperately needed. Err, no. Fortunately, Chingos and West do not make that argument, but they also don't tell the reader how many student scores were excluded from their rules that would tend to eliminate special education service recipients, nor how they justified combining value-added measures across multiple grade levels... nor why they used a linear measure of age in both the labor-participation propensity measure and income when the labor-participation (and thus income) effects of age for reproductive-aged women are not going to be linear.

Then there's R2 for the key non-public-school labor market equation: .06 (see the last column in Tables 4-6 on pp. 39-41 of the MS). This is an underwhelming amount of variance the models explain.

Unfortunately, the breathless reporting of this study by Joanne Jacobs does not pay attention to these details.

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Posted in Education policy at 5:03 PM (Permalink) |

April 22, 2010

Dorn reviews Ravitch

My review of Diane Ravitch's new book is now up at the Education Review website. I should have finished it a few weeks ago, but the fragmentation of my time this spring has interrupted all sorts of usually-short-term projects, such as book reviews.

If there is one benefit to the delay, it was my ability to watch the sales keep racking up while the book climbed several bestseller lists. At one level, I think, "I wish my book on the topic had sold a tenth as many copies!" But that's silly; I'm glad someone was able to meet the clear need for this book in a way that's been rewarded.

Bottom line of the review: read the book. In writing the review, I made the choice to skip much of the contemporary discussions around the book and focus on Ravitch's historical arguments. As usual (with Ravitch), she writes a highly appealing argument, and it's important to look at the claims dispassionately. I should say that I dearly wish she were correct in her claim that Lynne Cheney's attack on the voluntary national history standards in the 1990s was a primary cause of mediocre curriculum standards and our current policy obsession with high stakes testing. At the time (as a new scholar in the field) I was very upset with Cheney's distortions of the record, and at one level it is attractive to see her in the villain's role. But I think it's more complicated.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:44 AM (Permalink) |

April 15, 2010

Misinterpretations of Crist's veto, and where to go next

I suspect that a number of observers will spin Charlie Crist's veto of Senate Bill 6 to the point where the representation doesn't come close to reality. By a quirk of timing, I was in Tallahassee today talking with legislators and staffers in the morning. In other words, I was at Ground Veto. Yep: I came, and Charlie caved. No, that would be a post hoc fallacy, even if his veto message used the same word (overreach) that I used to describe the bill. Wait: he used a hyphen (over-reach). Or maybe I don't own the term, and the idea had been floating around the state for the last few weeks, including in newspaper editorials, and it was one of the options available for a governor vetoing the bill. So I can't claim credit as being the person who killed the bill, though I was one of thousands who contacted Crist in the last week.

In the meantime people are spinning this as the Event that Destroyed Florida Education, or the Victory of the Union(s), or the Resuscitation of Crist's Senate Campaign. Maybe one or all of those labels is true, but I doubt more than one is. (To calculate the probabilities, we need to use quantum spin dynamics, a new field that melds political science with nuclear physics.) Whoa, friends, and maybe you should take a step back. Here are the reasons why Crist vetoed the bill:

  • Thousands of Floridians from both major parties contacted Crist to urge a veto.
  • His sisters who teach probably told him they hated the bill.
  • The Republican legislators and former Governor Bush who were pushing the bill had largely sided against him in the primary against Marco Rubio.
  • Crist prefers consensual processes.

Crist's veto kills this particular bill, in this form. It does not signal a victory of teachers unions over performance pay, and it does not mean that the Florida Education Association will oppose either performance pay or alternations in the process leading to due-process protections. In fact, if you're on Facebook and "friends" with Andy Ford (he's a nice guy, and the ironic quotation marks are about FB, not Andy), go ahead and see what anti-SB 6 groups he joined... and which he didn't. If you're a reporter, go ahead and talk with Commissioner Smith and ask him to repeat the first thing Ford said at discussions about Race to the Top.

Where do we go from here? It depends largely on whether the FEA executive cabinet will support Andy Ford in negotiating with other stakeholders and politicians, on what the administrator and school board associations push for, and whether the business groups or the Republican sponsors of SB 6 are willing to negotiate in good faith. Here are some obvious questions that don't correspond with any hypothesized litmus tests:

  • Can the key parties agree that a performance-pay framework can exist?
  • Can the parties agree that a performance-pay framework cannot force budget cuts to current operations?
  • Can the parties agree on a performance-pay framework that addresses student outcomes on a "pass a smell test" basis but does not depend on blue-sky assumptions about assessment for students with disabilities, English language learners, and every subject in the curriculum?
  • Can the parties agree that teachers should not automatically receive continuing-contract status (with due process protections) without a more serious evaluation than usually exists (i.e., by default after three years regardless of the scope of evaluation)?
  • Can the parties agree on the scope of personnel contracts that can be negotiated at the local level?
  • Can the parties agree on what due process protections are workable for experienced teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom?
  • Can the parties agree on what must be part of teacher evaluations and the range of options for those evaluations?
  • Can the parties agree on what constitutes a proof of concept for their pet ideas?

Disclosure: I am a 14-year member of the United Faculty of Florida and thus a member of FEA. I am firmly convinced that if you are a Florida teacher and want a future with no performance pay, and if you somehow persuade your local and state leaders to agree with you, you will be at the policy table... as the meal. I am equally convinced that if you are Jeb Bush or one of his close friends and want a future with no job security for teachers beyond a single year, you will succeed... in turning a great number of people who would otherwise agree with you into political enemies. And if you think that there can either be a future in state education policy with no high-stakes tests or a future in state education policy where there is a quantified high-stakes test for every subject and grade level... well, I'm not legally licensed to give my opinion of that response.

In other words, many of the questions above have yes as an answer, but only if people who would otherwise hold extreme positions are willing to work on problems rather than positions.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:54 PM (Permalink) |

April 14, 2010

Concern trolling about union democracy

Over at Jay Greene's blog, Greg Forster points out that the majority of weighted votes in the last United Federation of Teachers election were not from current classroom teachers. This is corruption! is the implication. Er, no. It's called following the legal bylaws of an organization. I haven't heard Forster call for the reweighting of general-election balloting so that all ages are represented in proportion to their actual population, nor have I heard his call for the abolition of the U.S. Senate, which gives small-population states such as Arkansas power far beyond their relative size, nor any concern from him that in some cities, a single voter controls all of the ballots for school board elections (some people call that mayoral control).

There are potential problems when retirees form the majority of a union's membership, but it's also a problem if retirees who depend on the fulfillment of their pensions have no voice whatsoever in the running of the primary organization defending their pension rights. The weighting in UFT is one of many plausible ways to address the dilemma. From someone who received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University, one might expect an analysis based on the existing literature on power in different voting systems, and it is disappointing not to see any evidence of such a perspective in what is essentially catcalling.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:36 PM (Permalink) |

How not to reform K-12 teacher tenure, and how to do it right

The blog management system here tells me that I started this entry on April 2, which tells you something about the intervening 12 days. We're on the edge of a potential governor's veto of Senate Bill 6 in Florida. As I've written before, SB 6 takes several issues and marches several bridges too far. Most of the concerns with the bill have been covered extensively in print media, and the protests have been covered in both print and broadcast media. I'm going to poke away at a few quirks below as an illustration of the type of problems that are both important and also ignored in the larger discussion and then discuss an example of an alternative policy that would accomplish the bill sponsors' goals more effectively than what the bill says.

Quirk the first: Senate Bill 6 could threaten Florida's eligibility for federal aid on the maintenance-of-effort (MOE) requirement for ESEA. The bill forces districts to sequester 5% of the state financial package of operating revenues for two years in a way that is explicitly not in the classroom. The federal government granted a waiver from MOE for stimulus funds, but there are still requirements, and though the ARRA funds disappear the day before the 5% sequestration rule exists, there are still MOE requirements in ESEA.

Quirk the second: Senate Bill 6 forces districts to spend money to develop end of course exams that Senate Bill 4 refused to schedule because ... er ... the state doesn't have money. If you've been following Paul Cottle's blog, you'll know he's not happy that the Senate removed a provision from SB 4 that would have set a date certain for EOC exams in chemistry and physics. The explanation given in the senate is that the creation of state-level EOC exams should wait until there's money. But ... a provision of SB 6 forces districts to spend money developing appropriate assessments in every single grade and subject for which there is not currently a test, such as ... high school chemistry and physics. By the same deadline that was removed in SB 4. So the state doesn't have money certain for a state assessment, but districts do? And 67 school districts will be more efficient in creating 67 different EOC exams than the state?

These issues don't touch on the larger questions about the constitutionality of SB 6, but they still boggle the mind a bit, since failure to pay attention to MOE requirements could threaten hundreds of millions of dollars for education Florida receives from the federal government.

Now, let me answer the obvious question in response to my argument that SB 6 overreaches, starting with the question of due process for experienced teachers. How else could a state address the question of job security and due process? Let's take the issue of probationary status (i.e., can be fired at any time), one-year contracts (where a teacher can be released without cause at the end of any year), and permanent status (where the burden shifts to the employer to show cause for termination). A number of states have taken different approaches, from extending the probationary period to requiring a certain number of strong evaluations before a teacher shifts from probationary to permanent status. One could also imagine a hybrid of a year or two of probationary status and then a shift to one-year contracts until a teacher has met certain benchmarks of effectiveness.

But why is it in the public interest for teachers to have some job security beyond a one-year contract (the maximum that would be allowed under SB 6)? Consider high school biology teachers first: Do you want biology teachers willing to talk about evolution in a district that is socially conservative and where the school board majority often is opposed to teaching evolution? Do you want teachers willing to give poor grades to students who don't do the work, including if the students are children of school board members (as the father of St. Pete Times columnist Robyn Blumner was able to do with job security)?

Due-process protections provide protection against capricious or malicious disciplinary and termination decisions. There is nothing in Florida law or union contracts that provide for "employment for life," which is what Senator John Thrasher claimed on a public radio program. Florida provides for a 90-day correction period for teachers found to be ineffective, after which a school board can fire the teacher. Neither Florida's collective bargaining agreements nor state law require months and months of legal proceedings to fire an ineffective experienced teacher. 

But let's assume that there is something inside the black box of administrative decision-making that somehow doesn't work with the 90-day correction period for teachers with professional service contracts. There are a number of other options that's far removed from SB 6, including a rolling multi-year contract... say a three-year contract where a satisfactory rating in the first year of the contract means that a teacher has a fresh three-year contract in the following year... or an effective teacher is essentially always in the first year of a three-year contract.

All of these are options that address either the probationary period or the question of job security after a probationary period. It seems that SB 6 could lead to less honest evaluations by administrators than the options I have laid out, because administrators would want most of their teachers to feel secure in their jobs, especially in a school where jobs are hard to fill. This would undermine the claimed intent of SB 6's sponsors.

If Governor Crist vetoes SB 6, I will be relieved, and there will be a chance for a more inclusive discussion that solves existing problems rather than creates new ones.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:10 PM (Permalink) |

April 4, 2010

Brief note on iPad: bye, Flash!

The iPad is definitely awkward in some respects. I am currently typing this entry on a software keyboard, which is a bit clunky in large part because I am a touch typist. But this will definitely take off, and the primary result is that all of the educational sites built on Flash are inaccessible. So-called standards-compliant web design will have its revenge! (This refers to XHMTL standards, not curriculum standards.)

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Posted in Education policy at 8:29 AM (Permalink) |

April 2, 2010

Florida House budget wants public employees to delay retirement

This one's an odd cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver: the budget that the Florida House passed yesterday cuts health subsidies to retirees because legislative leaders are desperate to balance the budget without raising taxes, but the House budget maintains complete state support of premiums for about 27,000 state employees, including state legislators. (Disclosure: I'm not among those who get premiums completely paid.)  

Let's think this through a bit: suppose you're 65 and are thinking about retiring. Before this year, if you retired you'd be eligible to have a health-care subsidy. If the House budget provision on those items remain, you'd probably think twice about retiring, because by staying at work you're covered for what Medicare doesn't help with, and your salary pays the premium, but if you retire you don't have a health-care subsidy.

Now let's suppose you're also one of the 27,000 employees whose premiums come out of your employer. If you stay at work you don't pay for health care premiums. If you quit, you don't get any health-care subsidy.

This reverse the usual incentives that pensions set up to encourage retirement: you lose some income, but you gain some security. The health-care subsidy is not a significant amount of money over one's entire lifetime, but it's something that older public employees had been counting on, and the loss of the anticipated benefit might tip the balance for some to staying in their for a few extra years. Is this what Florida legislative leaders want? Have they asked anyone to estimate the long-term costs of delaying retirement for those who might change their mind based on the health-care subsidy?

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Posted in Education policy at 10:13 AM (Permalink) |

April 1, 2010

Hilda Turner and why teachers are skeptical of John Thrasher's motives

In Tampa, there is a five-year-old elementary school named after the late Hilda Turner. The students attending Turner Elementary may not know why it's named after her, or who she was. Most legislators in the capitol probably don't know about her case against the all-white Hillsborough school board in the early 1940s and why the long history of politicized teacher evaluations give Florida teachers reasons to believe that Senator John Thrasher's bill is an attack on them.

But my friend and colleague Barbara Shircliffe knows, and she reminded me of the case today. She published a history of Tampa's desegregation case a few years ago (The Best of That World), and she's currently researching the history of teacher desegregation in the South. In the early 1940s, teachers across the South faced a split between what the federal courts had decreed and what the reality on the ground was. In 1940, Melvin Alston had won a lawsuit against the Norfolk, Virginia, schools for having separate salary schedules for white and black teachers, because the (federal 4th Circuit) court had ruled that unequal salaries were wrong. (In the decision linked above is the salary schedule that shows high school teachers were paid more than elementary teachers, men in high schools were paid more than women teaching in high school, and white teachers were paid more than black teachers.)

But most school systems didn't change anything until they were sued, and it took quite a spine for a teacher to take on her or his employer. Maybe the teaching shortage of WW2 made a difference. Certainly the fact that black soldiers were bleeding for their country played a role in growing militance (including the "Double V" campaign of the Pittsburgh Courier). Or maybe this sham of an evaluation for Hilda Turner in 1942 kicked her into action (Turner v. Board of Public Instruction, reference exhibit 3). The case quickly became messy and ugly, and I'm going to leave the story of that for my colleague's next book. But this wasn't isolated. Black teachers in Florida were treated unfairly and unequally for decades, often by their white colleagues. It probably wasn't until the mid- and late-1960s that teachers of all races in Florida started working together to address teaching conditions in the schools.

Nor were the types of spurious judgments in that evaluation uncommon. The fact that an annual evaluation was one of the lawsuit exhibits may be a legal quirk (since it was damning evidence of how the system treated black educators). But it also illustrates the controlling way that systems treated all teachers, and that continued for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were subject to attacks by the state's anticommunist legislative committee, run by Horace Johns, which eventually turned to outing gay teachers. (If I remember correctly, current U.S. Rep. Bill Young was a member of that committee when he was a state legislator starting out in politics.) Teachers in general were attacked in 1968 for striking, but gay teachers were the target of another attack in the 1970s by Anita Bryant. In the following decade the state imposed a generic evaluation instrument (the Florida Performance Measurement System), designed before the recognition that there was subject-specific expertise in teaching. And all of that came before the Sunshine State Standards in the mid-1990s, Jeb Bush's A+ accountability program, vouchers, No Child Left Behind, the Bush Recession of 2008, and finally John Thrasher's bill. I can point to a number of events or policies that supported teachers, but the background has always been a recent history of blaming and judging teachers.

Because there has never been a sufficiently well-grounded system of teacher evaluation, the experience of teachers on the ground has been ineffective, useless evaluations... or worse. And what teachers see in Senator Thrasher's bill is the "worse" category. Combined with the elimination of tenure (a topic for another entry), the mandate of a formulaic approach to teacher evaluation is too much for many teachers to swallow. This is not the result of hyperbole on the part of the Florida Education Association. This is the result of Florida's history of education.

(For more on the local context of Turner's actions, see Doris Weatherford's history of women in Tampa, pp. 287-288.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:29 PM (Permalink) |