First Person

“Sharp Focus” On Teacher Prep Programs Falls Flat

Last week, the New York City Department of Education issued its first-ever Teacher Preparation Program Reports. The department was judicious in not describing the reports as an evaluation of the quality or effectiveness of the dozen teacher-preparation programs in the New York City area that collectively produce more than 50 percent of the 10,000 traditional-pathway teachers hired by the city over the past five years.

Others were not so careful. Writing in The New York Times, Javier Hernandez described the PowerPoint slides comparing the 12 programs as “scorecards,” and stated that these ed schools were being “evaluated,” a term repeated in his article’s headline. Politico also used the term “scorecard.” The Wall Street Journal described the data as “rankings,” although teacher-preparation programs were not ranked. The Associated Press described the data as “grading” the colleges and universities, and looked for “winners or losers.” The New York Post and the New York Daily News both referred to “grading” the programs. Even my own institution, Teachers College, which appears in the data, fell into this trap: the headline on the college’s webpage reads, “TC Rated in City Evaluation of Teacher Prep Programs.”

What’s the big deal? Report, description, analysis, comparison, ratings, rankings, evaluation — aren’t these all pretty much the same thing?

No, they are not, for several reasons.

First of all, we cannot view the descriptive information about New York City teachers emerging from each program as an evaluation of the program, because we have no idea if the teachers who start their careers in the Big Apple are typical or representative of all of the new teachers produced by each program. Do NYC schools attract the best or the worst of each program’s graduates? We have no idea.

Michael Jordan (Photo courtesy of Steve Lipofski,

If you will forgive a sports analogy  —drawn from basketball, in honor of our Hoopster-in-Chief, Arne Duncan — consider the players from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who’ve entered the National Basketball Association over the past three decades. Would it be fair to evaluate UNC’s performance as a training-ground for the NBA based only on how its players perform for the Los Angeles Lakers? What about that Michael Jordan fellow, who played only for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards? Should his performance be ignored? When a preparation program sends its graduates to many different destinations, we cannot evaluate its quality based on how those graduates perform in just a single destination.

Now, when Michael Jordan entered the NBA, he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls — after the Houston Rockets picked Hakeem Olajuwon and the Portland Trail Blazers chose Sam Bowie. The nature of the NBA draft is that these teams had exclusive rights to these players, who couldn’t choose to sign with any NBA team, even if they thought that other teams had more talented players, or had a better coach, or would pay them more money. Does playing on a stable team with experienced teammates and an excellent coach improve a player’s performance? It’s hard to know, for most of the time we only see how a player performs with the team that drafted him.

Public education doesn’t use a “draft” to match new teachers with schools, but in both teaching and basketball, there’s a labor market with a supply of, and demand for, new talent. Where teachers wind up and how they perform on the job aren’t entirely up to them; a teacher with specialized training and credentials may only be interviewed and hired by a school seeking a teacher with such specialized expertise. Conversely, one can scarcely fault a teacher for choosing among multiple job offers on the basis of the one that pays the best, or that has the best facilities, or that is in a desirable location. As Kata Mihaly and her colleagues and Bruce Baker of Rutgers have demonstrated, when labor markets result in a non-random distribution of teachers across schools and districts, it’s very difficult to disentangle the effects of the teacher-preparation program on teaching outcomes from the effects of school context.

For this reason, the descriptions of how the graduates of the dozen metro-area teacher-preparation programs are distributed throughout the system are hard to interpret. It’s interesting to see that the graduates of a particular program are more likely to teach in what the Department of Education refers to as highest-need schools, or that the teachers from a particular program are more likely to leave the district than those from other programs, but what do such things mean?

In fact, the comparisons across programs revealed far more similarities than differences, which very likely is reassuring to the education department, which inevitably must rely on diverse providers to supply the teachers it hires each year.

The data receiving the most attention were the ratings that graduates of the 12 programs received via the New York Student Growth Percentiles methodology developed by the State Education Department for the Annual Professional Performance Reviews. The 2011-12 methodology unfairly penalized some teachers and rewarded others, in my professional opinion, and the ratings were only assigned to the 15 percent of educators teaching either English Language Arts or mathematics in grades four through eight — scarcely a representative subset of the teachers prepared in any of the dozen programs. (And then there’s the pesky question of whether the state’s tests in 2011 and 2012 were good indicators of the most important things we want students to learn.) But some observers continue to view them as the most “objective” sources of information about teacher performance. Duncan, for example, said that the project “puts the record of preparation programs — including their impact on student learning — into sharp focus.”

The distribution of performance among teachers in New York City looks a lot like that across the state: 7 percent of teachers rated highly effective, and 6 percent rated ineffective, with the vast majority rated effective, based on the Student Growth Percentiles. And, although the Department of Education didn’t come out and say this, the distributions look very similar across the 12 teacher-preparation programs as well. A simple measure of association known as the chi-square test indicates that we cannot rule out the possibility that the teacher ratings are the same from one program to the next.

If the numbers in these Teacher Preparation Program Reports lead to deeper inquiries into what the data mean, and constructive conversations among the Department of Education and the leadership of the teacher-preparation programs, I’ll be pleased.

But let’s not mistake this for an evaluation. Or sharp focus.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.