Vanderbilt study: Merit pay for teachers improves student performance

A new study from Vanderbilt University concludes, as Education Week puts it, that “merit pay for teachers can lead to higher test scores for students.”

Vandy’s study points to an interesting policy idea for merit pay. Click the “Read more” link to learn about that.

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Ex Jefferson County school board member offers troubling predictions

Outgoing chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, David Jones, who lost his bid for reelection to the board in November, made his assessment of what is coming to the Jefferson County Public School System (JCPS) very clear in his December 16, 2016 Op-Ed in the Courier-Journal.

Says Jones of November’s school board races:

“Union candidates won all three board seats in November. When the new board convenes in January, five of the seven members will have expressed solidarity with, and owe their election to, the teachers’ union.

With JCPS employee surrogates in charge of the board, there is no chance that the needed restructuring of non-teacher salaries will occur – and no chance that meaningful new resources will go into JCPS classrooms, where they are desperately needed.”

Jones also wasn’t pulling punches when he talked to Courier reporter Allison Ross for a companion article about his departure. After calling for action to deal with what a recent study says are excessively high salaries for many non-school jobs at the Jefferson County School District’s central office, he said:

“This won’t be easy because it will require moving money to support kids who need it rather than looking out for the wants of adults who band together for the biggest piece of the pie they can grab.”

So, it remains to be seen if the union, which seems to be clearly in total control, will surprise Jones and do the professional thing for students or just “band together for the biggest piece of the pie they can grab.”

Unfortunately, the teachers’ union in Louisville doesn’t have much of a track record of doing the right things for students, so Jones’ grim predictions may well prove true.

And, one more Jones prediction seems very likely if Louisville cannot get its act together on its own. Jones also writes in his Op-Ed:

“If Louisville won’t solve JCPS’ problems, Frankfort will try.”

Because Louisville fills such an important area in the overall Kentucky economy, continued failure of its school system is simply something Frankfort cannot afford to ignore.

In addition, the district faces lots of criticism regarding civil rights issues related to its chronic minority achievement gaps and now from a major bullying lawsuit. So, it’s not totally unlikely that some federal attention could be headed Louisville’s way if the teachers’ union, which Jones has now pronounced fully in charge, doesn’t clean up this troubled school district’s act.

So, JCTA, let’s see what you can do. I think a lot of folks will be watching.

Kentucky education’s “tooth to tail” ratio: still wrong

One of our long-time, major concerns with public education in Kentucky has always been the very low proportion of teachers compared to the total number of staff members in the state’s public school system (See one old example in our original Bang for the Buck report on school efficiency which I authored a decade ago in 2006).

In fact, I was writing about the staffing issue even before the Bluegrass Institute was on anyone’s “radar screen.” Way back in April 2003, months before I knew anything about the institute, I put out “KERA Update #67” which includes comments about the staffing issue.

The truth is that data adding to our concerns has been available for years in the annually released Digest of Education Statistics stretching back beyond the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA).

Now, Table 213.40 in the new, 2015 edition of the digest updates school staffing information through 2013, and Kentucky continues to have an obviously out of proportion staffing issue in its schools.

Figure 1 shows how Kentucky’s very low teacher to total staff ratio has ranked over time against the other 49 states and the District of Columbia’s school systems.

Figure 1

teacher-to-staff-ratio-rank-to-2013-for-kentucky

As you can see, shortly after KERA was enacted, Kentucky’s already low ranking for teachers in schools sank ever more. Ever since, the state’s teacher manning statistic has pretty much hovered around the very bottom of the stack. Very simply, Kentucky has one of the worst staff manning ratios where it counts the most – front line classroom teachers – of any state in the nation.

It is interesting that back in 1989, the year before KERA came along, just over half the staff membership in each Kentucky public school was comprised of teachers. Now, as Figure 2 shows, that ratio has decayed to the most recently reported situation for 2013 where only 42.8 percent of the staff in each school is composed of teachers.

Figure 2

teacher-to-staff-ratio-to-2013-for-kentucky

Much of the low teacher staffing ratio in Kentucky’s schools is reported to be due to more teachers’ aides on site. But, research raises questions about the education value of those aides compared to having more teachers around.

A report prepared for the Kentucky Department of Education in 2003 titled, “A State-Of-The-Art Approach To School Finance Adequacy In Kentucky,” discusses the educational contribution of aides on Page 21, saying “research generally shows they do not add value.” The report suggests not using aides in its recommendations for a comprehensive school reform model.

For sure, if we didn’t have so many non-teacher staffers on our school payrolls, we could afford to hire more teachers and pay those teachers more, too.

Because of the economic issues and the potentially adverse impact this is having on actual education in Kentucky’s public education system, it is time for the legislature to ask some pretty sharp questions about why this picture is so different for Kentucky compared to the vast majority of states in this country. We might find answers that could help us make our education system far stronger if legislators do that.

Superintendent tells how Kentucky’s School Based Decision Making Council (SBDM) laws tie elected board members’ hands

Discussion shows how SBDM laws render parents and school boards powerless

Parents in the Boone County Public School District are getting an interesting education these days. They are learning that their locally elected school board and their school superintendent have absolutely no authority regarding what may be some very bad curriculum choices recently made in one of the district’s middle schools.

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Teachers taking professional development into their own hands in Jefferson County

FINALLY!

WDRB just ran a short article, “Teachers create, attend inaugural ‘EdCampJCPS’” that really caught my attention. It talks about teachers in Jefferson County taking professional development into their own hands, running their own seminar program where teachers can share success and failure programs with their colleagues.

Now, this is encouraging. Teachers acting as real professionals do!

I hope this effort is expanded across Kentucky and that the JCPS effort is opened to teachers from other districts, too.

In fact, this could be a great way for the JCPS to spend some of its own professional development dollars.

Also, I didn’t see any mention of teachers’ union involvement. That needs to happen, too, if it hasn’t already started and was just overlooked by the WDRB report. There needs to be more to a real professional organization than just wage and benefits bargaining.

Anyway, I have been pushing for this professional activity to start within our educator community (see here and here for several examples), and it looks like this idea might finally be catching on in Kentucky.

Kentucky’s TELL Surveys and Common Core

The Kentucky Board of Education will meet on June 8, 2016, and their online agenda already includes a discussion item for the final report of the 2015 Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) survey of teachers.

According to the TELL Web site for Kentucky, the survey provides educators with data, tools and direct support to facilitate school improvement. The web site says stakeholder groups representing teachers, superintendents, community and business (known as the TELL Kentucky Partners) collaboratively work with the New Teacher Center (NTSC) to conduct the TELL survey.

Participation rates in the past two TELL Surveys (for 2013 and 2015) have been very high, so there is essentially no sampling error in the responses.

That could make TELL a great place to find out what teachers really think about the Common Core State Standards, which were renamed several years ago – without any changes being made to the actual standards – as Kentucky Core Academic Standards.

However, TELL never has asked Kentucky teachers important questions such as “what do you like/dislike about Common Core” and “do you have changes to recommend.” As such, while TELL remains useful, it also fails to survey some of the most important teacher opinions of all – namely, are these the best standards for Kentucky or do they need work?

Surprisingly, while TELL fails to ask the key questions mentioned above, it is not entirely silent about Common Core. In both 2013 and 2015, there were a few questions regarding the standards, and the teachers’ responses are interesting.

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And, JCPS teachers are fussing about their pay??

This table ranks the average classroom teacher salaries in Kentucky’s 173 school districts. Of Note: the Jefferson County Public Schools teachers get even higher average pay than the enormously funded Anchorage Independent School District provides.

2015-16 Teacher Salaries in KY Districts

Also of note is the enormous pay gap. While JCPS pays an average teacher $61,944, the tiny Augusta school system is only paying $41,743 on average. That’s a difference of more than $20,200!

However, in the latest available 2015 testing results for 11th grade students in Kentucky with the ACT college entrance test, Augusta Independent posted a composite score of 20.2. Jefferson County only posted an ACT Composite Score of 18.8. The “bang for the buck” differential is amazing.

By the way, more information in the 2014-15 Kentucky School Report Cards databases shows that the combined free and reduced cost lunch eligibility in Augusta is 69.3 percent. The lunch eligibility rate in Jefferson County is 65.1 percent.

Oh, Yeah, the same report cards show per pupil spending in Jefferson County was $12,739 in 2014-15 while Augusta only got $10,956 per student.

NOW, who’s REALLY getting better bang for the buck?

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Are teachers using “The Right Stuff” to teach our children?

We hear a lot today about how student-centered instructional approaches are get primary emphasis in our classrooms today as a result of Common Core State Standards. Things like problem solving group work and higher order thinking skills development are all the rage.

But, do all those current education ideas really work well? For all kids?

Education watchers searching for answers to that question just surfaced an interesting, two-year old research paper published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in 2014 titled, “Which Instructional Practices Most Help First-Grade Students With and Without Mathematics Difficulties?

This AERA paper looks at the effectiveness of various math instructional approaches with first-grade students, especially including those students with “Mathematics Difficulties” (MD).

The research team concluded:

“Only teacher-directed instruction was significantly associated with the achievement of students with MD.”

The paper also says:

“A higher percentage of MD students in the first-grade classrooms were associated with greater use by teachers of manipulatives/calculators and movement/music to teach mathematics.”

So, thanks to the one-size-must-fit-all approach that Common Core has triggered, kids who have problems learning math tend to be subjected to ineffective instructional approaches more often in their classrooms even though things like using manipulatives and calculators with these troubled early math learners is not effective. For these MD students, Common Core has resulted in the wrong stuff coming into their classrooms.

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New study: teaching changing under Common Core but student results not evident

Education Week reports that a new study from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University shows Common Core State Standards are definitely driving changes in the way teachers teach, but results for students remain “elusive.” In other words, there isn’t evidence so far that all these classroom changes make a difference for students.

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Even Kentucky shows great public school innovation can come from outside of the public school community

NSCW-Stacked-Logo-Unit4-150x150 (1)
The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank, joins with hundreds of groups nationwide to celebrate the fifth annual National School Choice Week (Jan. 24-30). Since its beginning more than 12 years ago, the Bluegrass Institute has been the leading voice to give Kentucky parents effective alternatives to ensure that each child receives a quality education. As part of National School Choice Week, the Bluegrass Institute will publish a series of blogs offering information on school choice. This series will be one of 16,000 events nationwide taking place as part of this year’s National School Choice Week.

For our second blog of this series, we are going to discuss how great ideas for education don’t necessarily come from within the traditional public education establishment. In fact, some within the establishment will fight programs that really work well for kids when those programs run counter to “adult interests.”

Let’s begin with another look at the Kentucky State of Education report from Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt.

In his new report on “The State of K-12 Education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Pruitt discusses a very exciting program that dramatically improved our public school students’ opportunity to take and succeed in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

On Page 8 the State of Education includes this graphic, which shows both the numbers of AP test takers and the numbers of AP tests taken have notably grown in Kentucky since 2011.

AP Test Data 2015 in Kentucky

Furthermore, Pruitt’s report candidly admits that a specific program is largely responsible for this, saying:

“For the past eight years, AdvanceKentucky, a statewide math and science initiative, has had a significant impact on the growth of Advanced Placement in the state, especially among those who are traditionally underserved and underrepresented in AP courses.”

In fact, the vast majority of increased AP participation in math, science and English subjects in Kentucky over the past decade is found in AdvanceKentucky’s partner high schools.

AdvanceKentucky is a proven program, something the Bluegrass Institute has recognized for many years.

For example, in just the second year of the program, we blogged about this AdvanceKentucky graph that showed the first two groups of Kentucky high schools to join the program produced proportionately far more AP qualifying scores (QS) in math, science and English (MSE) than either the nation or the overall Kentucky public school system.

AdvanceKentucky 2009 to 2010 Graph

But, there is still more to the story that the State of Education report didn’t cover. A key message is that ideas that really work for education can, and do, come from outside of the traditional education establishment. And, sometimes, the traditional school culture will actually fight innovation that works for kids.

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