Monthly Archives: January 2010

Parents in affluent Dallas suburb angered over school rezoning

The Wall Street Journal reports:

This Dallas suburb [Plano, Texas], a wealthy enclave known for its top-notch schools, is struggling to integrate a flood of poor, minority students.

In a battle mirrored in other districts across the U.S., parents here have been fighting for months over which public high school their kids will attend: one under construction in an affluent corner of the Plano Independent School District, or an older school several miles away in the city’s more diverse downtown…

Plano’s situation evokes the fights decades ago in cities around the nation, when school integration often resulted in the flight of whites to suburbs.

This time, the disputes often are set in the suburbs themselves, driven by a flood of new arrivals—many from Latin America—who have rapidly reshaped school populations in districts across the country. The influx is making the country more diverse, with white children expected to be a minority by the next decade. That has meant more such conflicts in the most exclusive public-school districts.

“It’s going to be harder and harder to find a community that’s all white,” said Matthew Hall, a doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University who studies diversity in the suburbs. “The tensions that are happening in places like Plano are going to play out across all communities eventually.”

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Tracking and detracking: Findings from a study of Massachusetts middle schools

The Fordham Institute announces a new study by Tom Loveless:

What are the implications of “tracking,” or grouping students into separate classes based on their achievement? Many schools have moved away from this practice and reduced the number of subject-area courses offered in a given grade. In this new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report, Brookings scholar Tom Loveless examines tracking and detracking in Massachusetts middle schools, with particular focus on changes that have occurred over time and their implications for high-achieving students. Among the report’s key findings: detracked schools have fewer advanced students in mathematics than tracked schools. The report also finds that detracking is more popular in schools serving disadvantaged populations.

The report is available online here (PDF).

UPDATE: Dr. Kevin Welner, a professor at the U. of Colorado at Boulder, has published this critique (PDF) of Loveless’s detracking study in the journal Teachers College Record.  Welner’s piece  states:

A new report authored by Tom Loveless and published by the Fordham Institute misleads in an attempt to convince policymakers to maintain tracking policies. The report combines weak data with questionable analyses to manufacture a flawed argument against detracking.

Full disclosure: I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the U. of Colorado, where Dr. Welner is a Professor of Education.

When principals are empowered to fire untenured teachers, teacher absenteeism declines, study finds

Education Week reports:

In Chicago, principals were given the ability to dismiss the probationary teachers—those with five years of experience or less—without completing elaborate documentation or attending a dismissal hearing, under a 2004 collective bargaining agreement between the 409,000-student school district and the Chicago Teachers Union.

In return for the flexibility, the district expanded the pool of teachers who were placed on a tenure track. The policy change went into effect for the 2004-05 school year.

The study [Prof. Brian Jacob of U. of Michigan] examines the effects of the policy from that year through the 2006-07 school year, and compares teacher-absence rates from before and after the policy was implemented for probationary vs. tenured teachers. Mr. Jacob used payroll records to review the teacher-absence data, and the academic years 2001-02 through 2003-04 were used as the pre-policy period for comparison purposes.

In the two years before the policy change, the study found, the average teacher was absent about eight times a year, a figure that declined starting in 2005, especially among nontenured teachers. By 2007, that number for probationary teachers was just above six times a year.

Prof. Jacob’s report is available online here (subscription required).

Seeking a new synthesis of teaching and brain science

The NY Times reports:

The teaching of basic academic skills, until now largely the realm of tradition and guesswork, is giving way to approaches based on cognitive science. In several cities, including Boston, Washington and Nashville, schools have been experimenting with new curriculums to improve math skills in preschoolers. In others, teachers have used techniques developed by brain scientists to help children overcome dyslexia.

And schools in about a dozen states have begun to use a program intended to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class.

“Teaching is an ancient craft, and yet we really have had no idea how it affected the developing brain,” said Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard. “Well, that is beginning to change, and for the first time we are seeing the fields of brain science and education work together.”

This relationship is new and still awkward, experts say, and there is more hyperbole than evidence surrounding many “brain-based” commercial products on the market. But there are others, like an early math program taught in Buffalo schools, that have a track record. If these and similar efforts find traction in schools, experts say, they could transform teaching from the bottom up — giving the ancient craft a modern scientific compass.

(Cross-posted with my Cognitive Science Blog.)

Teach for America on great teaching

The Atlantic Monthly reports:

One outfit in America has been systematically pursuing this mystery [What makes a teacher effective?] for more than a decade—tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and analyzing why some teachers can move those kids three grade levels ahead in one year and others can’t. That organization, interestingly, is not a school district.

Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, began outside the educational establishment and has largely remained there. For years, it has been whittling away at its own assumptions, testing its hypotheses, and refining its hiring and training. Over time, it has built an unusual laboratory: almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids. Almost all of those students are poor and African American or Latino. And Teach for America keeps an unusual amount of data about its 7,300 teachers—a pool almost twice the size of the D.C. system’s teacher corps.

Until now, Teach for America has kept its investigation largely to itself. But for this story, the organization allowed me access to 20 years of experimentation, studded by trial and error. The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

Female teachers can influence their female students’ math anxiety levels, study finds

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Women teachers’ anxiety about math may undermine girls’ confidence in learning the subject and decrease their performance in fields that depend on a grasp of math fundamentals, such as science and engineering, research at the University of Chicago shows.

The findings are the product of a year-long study of 17 first- and second-grade teachers and 65 girls and 52 boys who were their students. The researchers found that boys’ math performance was not related to their teacher’s math anxiety while girls’ math achievement was affected.

The study can be viewed at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Web site here.

Classic article: “Taking learning seriously” by Lee Shulman

Recently, I launched a new feature on my Cognitive Science Blog – periodically, I will post a publicly-available research article that I consider to be a classic in the field. I’ve decided to do the same with the Education Blog.

Education in the U. S., both K-12 and post-secondary, faces many challenges (as, indeed, it always has). As an educational psychologist, I naturally gravitate towards issues of learning and instruction to help me untangle the complex web that is contemporary schooling. “Taking learning seriously” by Lee Shulman provides a compelling take on both learning and teaching:

I have argued in this article that if we are to take learning seriously, we must profess teaching, and take our profession as teachers seriously. At the heart of the concept of a profession is a public and moral commitment to learning from pedagogical experience and exchanging that learning in acts of scholarship that contribute to the wisdom of practice across the profession.

A contradiction lies at the very heart of the notion of profession. Once appreciated, the contradiction helps us further understand the educational challenge we face. As I said earlier, when we take something seriously, we profess it–our faith, our love, our understanding. But notice how fundamentally different those kinds of professing are from one another.

When I profess my understanding, I am urged by my teachers to use critical reasoning, to demand evidence, and to make my arguments clear–to always ask, How do you really know? Skepticism, questioning, the demand for proof are at the heart of professing one’s understanding.

The full article is available here.

About Lee Shulman:

Lee Shulman was born and raised in Chicago… Educated at a yeshiva high school, Shulman won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he studied philosophy and psychology. He entered the department of education and studied with Benjamin Bloom and Joseph Schwab, among others..

He is best known for his work on the knowledge base of teaching, including the construct of pedagogical content knowledge, for his efforts to promote the scholarship of teaching in higher education, and for his studies of professional education.