What Doesn’t Work In Education Reporting

School House1

Rather than asking what works in education, NPR asked “education researcher John Hattie” about ideas that don’t work. His answers are not based on his own work but on a review of “more than 1,000 ‘meta-analyses’”, whatever that is.

Anyway, I wish the writer had started by asking Mr. Hattie what he means by “works”. Of course, I know the answer. Works means improving scores on standardized tests, even though his number two non-working solution is standardized testing.

High-performing schools, and countries, don’t necessarily give more standardized tests than low performers. They often give fewer.

The alternative: testing that emphasizes giving teachers immediate, actionable feedback to improve teaching.

Having said that, his final item, in which he says the US spends too much money on public education, is based on the fact that other countries spend much less while their students score higher than American kids on an international standardized test (the PISA).

He also says that smaller class sizes don’t work because countries like Japan and Korea have relatively large classes and are “high performing”, again on those standardized tests.

It’s too bad NPR just transcribed the executive summary of Hattie’s paper, instead doing some research of their own and asking some informed questions.

The worst part about stories like this is the failure to recognize that there are major differences between American society and our approach to education with those of other countries. Start with the fact that, instead of national education goals, we have 51 educational policies, plus around 31,000 local school boards.

Then review the level of public support for public education in the US compared to Finland, Japan, and the rest. How many of their government leaders are working hard to demonize teachers and privatize schools?

Finally, look at the societal support systems for children in each country, especially rankings of child poverty rates (anywhere from 20% to 33% of all children, depending on the definition of “poverty”). I’ll bet “making America great again” has nothing to do with improving those dismal statistics.

And anyone who says poverty has nothing to do with learning, has never tried to teach math to a class of hungry middle school students.

The Leadership Squash

Thanks to @science_goddess for pointing me to this NPR piece on The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent in which they report on a study showing no correlation between student achievement and who is leading their school district.

However, I think their conclusion is far too simple. It’s foolish to say that the leaders of a school system don’t matter. As in any other field, it all depends on their leadership style.

“A good superintendent empowers leading visionary principals and teacher leaders at the school,” she [education writer and author Dana Goldstein] says. But what actually happens too often is that superintendents “squash interesting ideas, so you’d have principals afraid to try something new, afraid to try something innovative.”

Unfortunately, with the many layers of super-level leadership we have here in the overly-large school district, there’s a lot of that squashing going on.

A Musical Economics Lesson

This song, produced by NPR’s outstanding podcast Planet Money, explains in under two minutes one huge part of the crap financial firms were pulling in 2006, 07, and 08 that crashed the economy.

And there’s a very good reason it sounds like something Mel Brooks might have written for the shysters in The Producers to sing.

If you want a more detailed explanation of how one big company plotted to screw things up, listen to the first segment from a recent edition of This American Life.

I don’t claim to completely understand all the economic concepts involved, but the report makes it very clear that someone (probably many someones) should be in jail.

Creating Your Life Archive

In catching up on some podcasts over the break, I found a wonderful segment called Life Archive from the weekly NPR program On The Media that should be required listening for every high school student (and more than a few adults).

The focus of the story is a 25 year old man who is holding a “funeral” for his old name.

He’s changing his name because of a somewhat risque article he wrote for his college newspaper, one which still pops to the top of a Google search, and which he feels may hinder his new career as an elementary school teacher.

I picture a kid saying, I googled you last night and I found a really funny article or a really weird article. I picture losing my authority, in some ways, you know. I feel like I would have made a joke of myself in front of my students. There’s parents googling. I mean, I guess that’s another huge fear.

And even if I were hired by a school that was really understanding and might take the position of, well, you know, he was in college and things happen, I don’t really want to put any of my future employers in that position, of having to defend that. I don’t want to be a problem or a liability for anyone.

The larger story, of course, is that the web is a very persistent place.  Anything you post, or even something you thought was only intended for print, will be sucked up into some archive somewhere on the net waiting to be retrieved with just a few keywords.

While that’s a lesson we should be teaching our kids everyday, we need to go beyond that.  We should also be helping them understand how to be proactive about crafting their public perception on the web.

Those “youthful indiscretions” on the web are not going away.

However, a portfolio of thoughtful, interesting, creative work built over their student career could go a long way to balancing those negative images.

We should be teaching kids how to build a positive life archive.

Image: archive_w_7295 by Aureusbay, used under a Creative Commons license.


The Economics of Merit Pay

On Monday’s edition of the outstanding NPR podcast Planet Money, the hosts looked at the issue of teacher pay.

During the program they reviewed the many factors that might go into differentiating salaries and spoke with an economist about how the system under which most K12 teachers in the US are paid compares to employee compensation in the real world.


This short discussion is one of the best overviews of the subject I’ve ever heard, possibly because it’s coming from people who are not teachers (although the mother of one of the hosts is), politicians, or education “experts”.

It’s well worth spending 20-minutes of your time to listen.

And if you’re at all interested in an approach to understanding the economy and personal finance that’s very different from what is produced by the talking heads channels, subscribe to this podcast.