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The unions make public schools bad, right? Actually, that’s not what the data shows.

Michael Marder is physics prof at the University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Director of UTeach (“We prepare teachers.  They change the world.”).  He’s a scientist who has found communicative ways to visualize his research data.  Sometimes he applies that skill to education issues to see what’s really going on.  Here is his look at the role unions play in student achievement (taken from page 8, here).

The view that unions are an obstacle to educational progress is the almost universally shared premise among education reform proponents in the U.S., whether the proposed reform is punitive teacher evaluations, the charterization of public education or state-funded private school vouchers.  Prof. Marder lets Steve Jobs (2007) serve as the voice of conventional wisdom on this issue:

I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way….This unionization
and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

But then he displays simple data that tells a different story.  Each disk is a state.  The red disks are “right to work” states, which he characterizes as “weaker union” states.  The blue disks are “stronger union” states.

Marder union graphs 1

Here’s what Prof. Marder observes in his dispassionate way:

States with and without strong unions are intermingled. Well-off students in wealthy states with strong unions have the highest outcomes. For low-income students the states with highest outcomes have weak unions. Differences in state performance that might be attributed to unions are small compared with effects of poverty.

As an additional note, here is an interesting study by the conservative Fordham Institute that ranks the states by the strength of their teachers’ unions.

What if Finland’s great teachers taught in New Hampshire?

Valerie Strauss (The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post) had widely respected Finnish education strategist Pasi Sahlberg write a guest column.  It’s great fun to get these thoughts unconstrained by the limits of our current American education debate.  Key points:


In the United States, for example, there are more than 1,500 different teacher-preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Singapore and Finland only one academically rigorous teacher education program is available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor South Korea has fast-track options into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach First in Europe. Teacher quality in high-performing countries is a result of careful quality control at entry into teaching rather than measuring teacher effectiveness in service.


In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being. Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.


The fantasies driving school reform: A primer for education graduates – graduation address by Richard Rothstein

Valerie Strauss has provided (here on her blog, The Answer Sheet) a transcript of a graduation speech by Richard Rothstein,  a deeply knowledgeable and trustworthy education commentator.  Here are some key quotes, but you should read the whole thing here:

Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children. Past efforts at improvement, and vast increases in spending, have accomplished little or nothing, they say. Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle class students have narrowed little, so as the proportion of white children declines, this failure of our schools weakens our nation, rendering it unable to compete internationally.

In truth, this conventional view relies upon imaginary facts.


Rifts Deepen Over Direction of US Education Policy – EdWeek

Our debates about public education in New Hampshire are part of a national debate on the future of American public education.  We need to understand this debate as context for our discussions about public education in New Hampshire.

Sometimes we see these positions reflected in legislative and policy proposals.  But we also need to realize that we are something of an island of sanity in the turbulent national education debate.  Our voucher program is new, tiny, has little public or business support and may just die on the vine.  Our charters are focused primarily on special situations that complement our public school systems.  Student testing, teacher evaluations and implementation of Common Core State Standards have all been subject to sensible long term management and are not generating the level of public debate here that you see in other states.  Perhaps most importantly, have not had the kind of top-to-bottom single party political leadership that has led to the most damaging education proposals in other states.


What are the real lessons from international comparisons of education systems?

The testing of 15 year olds done every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is at the heart of the critique of American education, usually cited as the basis for privatization proposals like replacing lower performing public schools with charters and private school vouchers.  If you want to get beyond the cherry picked statistics about “the US is 17th in….etc.,” here is a thoughtful discussion of what it all means with Andreas Schleicher, Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division (Directorate for Education) of the OECD.

A couple of quotes:

“Canada does very well, not just in terms of the average outcomes but in its capacity to moderate socio-economic inequalities, which is a quite big issue in the United States.”

“…a generation ago, the United States was far ahead of everyone.  At the age of 15, you would have in the United States more people taking part in education than elsewhere, but this has changed quite a bit, not because the United States got worse, but because progress in schooling has been so much steeper in other countries.”

“…the impact of social background on the success of children is stronger in the United States than in many of the best performing systems….Many of the best performing systems really expect every student to succeed.  They set universal, very ambitious standards for all their children.  They support their children well.  They expect teachers to support their children well.  They expect that students learn differently and differently at some times.  You can see a high degree of personalized approaches to learning.”

…and lots more, here:

The Secret To Fixing Bad Schools (NYT OpEd)

Statewide, our New Hampshire schools are great.  But some, in a number of our cities and rural areas, face great challenges.  The great improvements in Hillsboro provide an inspiring example of how to meet those challenges in the old fashioned way, with strong leadership and good teaching.

An oped in today’s New York Times tells the story of a 25 year improvement under tough conditions in Union City, NJ.

Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.

As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I’ve never seen the likes of this. After spending a year in Union City working on a book, I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.

via The Secret To Fixing Bad Schools –

Union City, Hillsboro and other New Hampshire communities provide a practical and inspiring alternative to the corporate education reform and privatization proposals we see around us.  We should tell more of those stories.

Education reform in Colorado – not such a clear result

Our last post highlighted apparently successful reform efforts in Cincinnati, achieved by making demands of the teachers, giving them the training the need and tracking everything with meaningful data.  Here, from Gary Rubenstein’s blog, is a discussion of the results achieved the other way, by corporate-style education reform.  Gary is a reliable observer.  He compares Bill Gates’ statement in the Wall Street Journal about the achievements in Eagle County, Colorado with what he finds by looking at publicly available data about the school.  Here is an excerpt from Gates’ Wall Street Journal statement.

In October, Melinda and I sat among two dozen 12th-graders at Eagle Valley High School near Vail, Colo. Mary Ann Stavney, a language-arts teacher, was leading a lesson on how to write narrative nonfiction pieces. She engaged her students, walking among them and eliciting great participation. We could see why Mary Ann is a master teacher, a distinction given to the school’s best teachers and an important component of a teacher-evaluation system in Eagle County.

Ms. Stavney’s work as a master teacher is informed by a three-year project our foundation funded to better understand how to build an evaluation and feedback system for educators. Drawing input from 3,000 classroom teachers, the project highlighted several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators. Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County’s 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.


Veteran educator turns around Cincinnati schools the old fashioned way (EdWeek)

We’ve talked before about how “corporate” the style of the current education reform movement is.  It’s all about the numbers….”don’t tell me how, just do it” Michelle Rhee says …reward the good, fire the bad, etc.  This article is about the old fashioned approach – leadership, training and improved teaching.  Notice that there is still a heavy reliance on data, but it is used to support a detailed approach to teaching rather than merely for top-down, reward-and-punishment management. (more…)

Why Gloomy Pundits and Politicians Are Wrong About America’s Education System (The Atlantic)

A eye-opening new paper comparing U.S. students to their international peers by social class finds that the richest Americans are world-class readers, and in math, our disadvantaged kids have improved more than almost any other country

Here’s what everybody knows about education in the United States. It’s broken. It’s failing our poorest students and codding the richest. Americans are falling desperately behind the rest of the developed world.

But here’s what a new study from the Economic Policy Institute tells us about America’s education system: Every one of those common assumptions is simplistic, misguided, or downright wrong.

When you break down student performance by social class, a more complicated, yet more hopeful, picture emerges, highlighted by two pieces of good news. First, our most disadvantaged students have improved their math scores faster than most comparable countries. Second, our most advantaged students are world-class readers.

Why break down international test scores by social class? In just about every country, poor students do worse than rich students. America’s yawning income inequality means our international test sample has a higher share of low-income students, and their scores depress our national average. An apples-to-apples comparison of Americans students to their international peers requires us to control for social class and compare the performances of kids from similarly advantaged and disadvantaged homes.


New Hampshire’s approach to teacher evaluation

Thinking about teacher evaluation

Teachers should not be subjected to the corporate numbers game advocated by StudentsFirst and the corporate education reformers.  But, still, we do know that some teachers are better than others.  And in a rough way we know how to identify, say, the better 4th grade teachers: ask the 5th grade teachers.

That’s not an evaluation system, though.  It’s too subjective.  And there is a lot to consider.  The kids have different backgrounds and levels of readiness to learn.  They have different styles of learning.  Also,  many teachers may have helped any one student, so we don’t always know who is responsible for a student’s progress.

So the question is how to distinguish the better teachers from those who need improvement.  The number of years a teacher has taught and the number of courses taken probably isn’t it.  Classroom observation is a component of it – if the observer is very good at it.  But there’s got to be more to it than that.

Corporate-stye education reform

That’s why education reformers propose measuring teacher performance based on student test scores.  The trouble is, when deployed by radical advocates of corporate-style education reform,high stakes testing can become a club for beating up teachers and their unions, shutting down schools and privatizing public education.