Education News Digest: 5/13/11Posted on: 5/13/2011
Improving the Science of Teaching Science
Over the past few years, scientists have been working to transform education from the inside out, by applying findings from learning and memory research where they could do the most good, in the classroom. A study appearing in the journal Science on Thursday illustrates how promising this work can be — and how treacherous.
The research comes from a closely watched group led by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics at the University of British Columbia who leads a $12 million initiative to improve science instruction using research-backed methods for both testing students’ understanding and improving how science is taught.
In one of the initiative’s most visible studies, Dr. Wieman’s team reports that students in an introductory college physics course did especially well on an exam after attending experimental, collaborative classes during the 12th week of the course. By contrast, students taking the same course from another instructor — who did not use the experimental approach and continued with lectures as usual — scored much lower on the same exam.
In teleconference on Wednesday, Dr. Wieman and his co-authors said that some instructors at the university were already eager to adopt the new approach and that it should improve classroom learning broadly, in other sciences and at many levels.
Yet experts who reviewed the new report cautioned that it was not convincing enough to change teaching. The study has a variety of limitations, they said, some because of the difficulty of doing research in the dude-I-slept-through-class world of the freshman year of college, and others because of the study’s design. “The whole issue of how to draw on basic science and apply it in classrooms is a whole lot more complicated than they’re letting on,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Willingham said that, among other concerns, the study was not controlled enough to tell which of the changes in teaching might have accounted for the difference in students’ scores.
In the study, Dr. Wieman had two advanced students take over one of the two introductory physics classes during the 12th week of the term, teaching the material in a radically different way from the usual lectures. Both this class and the comparison one were large, lecture-hall courses, each with more than 260 students enrolled. Instead of delivering lectures, the new co-instructors conducted collaborative classes, in which students worked in teams to answer questions about electromagnetic waves. The new teachers circulated among the students, picking up on common questions and points of confusion, and gave immediate feedback on study teams’ answers.
The techniques are rooted in an approach to learning known as deliberate practice, which previous research suggests is what leads to the acquisition of real expertise.
“As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into mental model,” said Louis Deslauriers, a postdoctoral researcher who, with Ellen Schelew, a graduate student, taught the experimental classes. “When they can incorporate thing into a mental model, we find much better retention.”
At the end of the study, students in the experimental class who took a test on the material scored 74 percent, on average, more than twice the average of students in the comparison course who took the test. On midterm exams the two classes had scored almost exactly the same.
Yet this being college — and the end of the term, at that — not everyone showed up with their calculators. More than 150 of the students were absent from the test, most of them from the comparison class. The researchers had no way to know how those students, if they’d come, would have changed the overall findings.
Experts said, too, that it was problematic for authors of a study to also be delivering the intervention — in this case, as enthusiastic teachers. “This is not a good idea, since they know exactly what the hypotheses are that guide the study, and, more importantly, exactly what the measures are that will be used to evaluate the effects,” said James W. Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an e-mail. “They might, therefore, be tailoring their instruction to the assessment — i.e., teaching to the test.”
Dr. Wieman said he strongly doubted that the new instructors had this kind of effect on the students. As a rule, he said in an e-mail, students in such large classes “are remarkably removed from any sense of personal connection with the instructor. That does change with a more interactive class, but not enough and not fast enough to have any significant impact on learning in a week.”
Either way, Dr. Stigler said, the study is an important step in a journey that is long overdue, given the vast shortcomings of education as usual. “I think that the authors are pioneers in exploring and testing ways we can improve undergraduate teaching and learning,” he said. “As a psychologist, I’m ashamed that it is physicists who are leading this effort, and not learning scientists.”
New York Times
State House Sends School Reform Bill to Governor’s Desk
The Illinois House Thursday overwhelmingly approved and sent to Gov. Quinn a major education-reform package that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan heralded as “truly remarkable.”
The measure, which passed the House 112-1 with one member voting present, could lengthen the school year and school day in Chicago, give school districts new powers to oust poorly performing teachers and impose new obstacles to teachers strikes.
“Illinois has done something truly remarkable, and every state committed to education reform should take notice,” said Duncan, Chicago’s former Schools CEO.
“Business, unions, educators, advocates and elected officials all came together around a plan that puts children ahead of adults and paves the way for meaningful education reform. For some time now I have been saying that tough-minded collaboration is more productive than confrontation, and this is the proof,” said Duncan, who called on the governor to sign the “landmark reforms.”
Thursday’s vote came despite last-minute opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union, which balked at language that increased the voting threshold needed for city teachers to strike to 75 percent and did an end run around a pending CTU dispute involving layoffs before a state education panel.
“Of course it isn’t going to solve all the problems of public school students across the state of Illinois, but I think it makes an important step forward when we say, ‘Yes, there will be a connection between the quality of a teacher’s performance and the ability of that teacher to stand in front of that classroom of children,’” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), a House co-sponsor of the bill.
The bill’s lone opponent was Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), a CTU ally who argued that it was unfair to make it more difficult for city teachers to strike than their suburban and Downstate counterparts.
“I’ve read this bill and know what’s in it. The intentions are good, but the results will not a change a thing. I’m not going to be a union buster, and especially starting with my own city,” Davis said.
Both Quinn and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel have expressed support for the package, which now heads to the governor’s desk.
Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said the governor intends to review the legislation, which associates predicted he would sign.
“Meaningful education reform has been and is one of Gov. Quinn’s top priorities, which is why he supported and why he worked for the passage of Senate Bill 7,” she said.
On Thursday, Emanuel could barely contain his glee about the one-sided House vote on the school-reform bill that he helped pass.
“Arne Duncan called yesterday. He said, ‘If you get this done, it’s landmark legislation. No other state has ever accomplished this,” Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Chicago kids will no longer be held back by the shortest school day and school year in the country. We finally are going to give the kids school day length and school year length to both achieve academically and have safety,” he said.
The measure continues to allow unions to strike in Chicago and the suburbs, but it imposes a requirement that school boards and unions take longer to negotiate and publicly disclose their bargaining positions before a strike can be launched.
In Chicago, no strikes could occur until as long as 120 days after the dispute goes to a special panel — and then, only if the Chicago Teachers Union has given a 10-day notice of a strike and has 75 percent of its bargaining unit members in agreement. Currently, a strike only requires a simple majority of everyone who votes.
The legislation would let the Chicago Board of Education lengthen the school day or school year unilaterally.
It also would empower Downstate and suburban school districts to use performance, not strictly seniority, in determining teacher layoffs and impose first-ever performance benchmarks for teachers to gain tenure.
Under the legislation, tenure would be granted only if a teacher had attained two “proficient” or “excellent” ratings during the last three years of the four-year period required for tenure.
The timeline for dismissing a tenured teacher would be shortened in both Chicago and elsewhere.
“This is just an unbelievably good day for kids in Illinois. We’re turning a corner in how we make decisions in schools,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a school-reform group that helped push the legislation.
Currie said she is open to passing follow-up legislation to address the CTU’s concerns about who has voting rights in a strike-authorization vote and about language in the bill that takes the pending layoff dispute out of the hands of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
But so far, Currie said, unions, business groups and reform organizations have not coalesced around a compromise.
CTU President Karen Lewis has already gotten heat from union members about the bill. Said former CTU President Debbie Lynch, “In our opinion, this went down without a fight. ... If it was me, I would have never agreed to the 75 percent threshold. Period.’’
Meanwhile, the bill puts Emanuel in the catbird’s seat before he even takes office.
Said Barbara Radner of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, “He’s just been given the tools he needs from the state to be the education mayor ... in a way [Mayor] Daley was never able to.’’
Detroit's Education Rehab: Are Charters A Solution?
n the past two years, Detroit has closed 59 schools and cut 30 percent of the school system's workforce. But the district is still staring at a deficit of more than $300 million, and thousands of students continue to flee every year.
"If you do the math and you look at the numbers, the question is: Do we continue to close schools here in the city of Detroit to have more vacant and burned-out buildings? Or do we take a bold step forward to create DPS as a service provider of education?" asks Anthony Adams,president of the Detroit Board of Education.
The "bold step" Adams wants to see would convert as many as 45 of the district's traditional schools to charters.
Financially, this transition would help the district shed staffing expenses, including costly pension obligations. It would get management fees and lease revenues from charter operators. And it wouldn't have to shoulder the costs associated with shutting schools down, securing them and demolishing them.
Academically, the hope is that charter operators would be able to turn around schools with low achievement. Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, proposed the charter idea.
"Let me be clear," he says. "We will only accept proposals from those that have been successful in terms of student achievement."
Jose Afonso says his company's schools have that track record of success. He's with SABIS Educational Systems, which operates charter schools in nine cities across the U.S.
Afonso attended a bidders' conference the district held recently to answer questions about the plan. He says SABIS is interested in taking over more than one Detroit school. But he says getting a school ready by this fall won't be easy.
"There just is not a whole lot of time to recruit staff, to diagnose the students, to enroll the students," Afonso says. "It's doable, but it's going to be challenging."
So far, 18 companies have submitted bids to take over schools this fall.
Only two of them are national operators, and charter school experts say that's because many of the well-known, high-caliber companies are reluctant to sign on. Partly that's because many of those companies focus on starting schools from scratch.
And partly it's because the school district's leadership is in flux. Robert Bobb's term expires at the end of June. Michigan's governor has appointed a former General Motors executive, Roy Roberts, to take over then.
Critics of converting traditional schools to charters say it's troubling that Bobb put the plan in motion on his way out the door.
"It sounds to me and it looks to me like this is planned liquidation," says Keith Johnson, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
But Johnson also says he's heartened by the fact that Bobb's successor has said he'll look over the restructuring plan, and make changes if they're needed.
As for parents, many aren't sure what to think of the plan. Some say they'd rather see their children's school convert to a charter than close.
Others, like Nicole Chapman, are more skeptical.
Chapman's two boys are each in a school that's targeted for closure or charter conversion. She volunteers five days a week in her older son's special needs classroom.
Chapman says she worries her sons might not get the special education services they need in a charter school. And she also wonders whether they would continue to get bus service.
"I don't have friends that have cars, and family that have cars," she says. "So my kids don't have options. Every school's closed. So walking distance is not an option."
No matter what, though, Chapman's sons will find themselves in new schools this fall. They'll find out by June whether their schools will close or convert to charter.
Obama Calls for Congress to Pass Education Reforms
President Barack Obama called Monday for Congress to pass education reforms by the time students return to school next fall, telling a Virginia middle school that fixing problems in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- more commonly known as "No Child Left Behind" -- should be a top priority.
"In the 21st century, it's not enough to leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead," Obama said, urging Congress "to send me an education reform bill I can sign into law before the next school year begins."
Mindful of the budget debate currently enveloping Washington, Obama insisted that education funding must remain robust because it is vital to the nation's future success.
"We cannot cut education," Obama said, noting that families facing tough times cut back on vacation or movies or eating out, rather than dipping into savings for a child's college tuition. "A budget that sacrifices our children's education will be a budget that sacrifices our country's future," he said.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally passed in 1965 and requires periodic reauthorization. The current version of the law, which was passed on a bipartisan basis in 2002, requires states to set higher standards and to have greater accountability through standardized testing.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a dire prediction Sunday afternoon during a conference call with reporters, saying that if "No Child Left Behind" isn't reformed, four out of five schools won't meet the law's standards.
"Under the current law, it's one size fits all," Duncan said. "We need to fix this law now so we can close the achievement gap."
The administration, which has been meeting with congressional leaders to hash out changes before any reauthorization vote, believes current law is too punitive and has led to a too-narrow curriculum and lower standards.
A pair of House Republicans agree.
"Although we have our different approaches, everyone agrees the current law is broken and in need of repair. The status quo is failing both students and taxpayers," Reps. John Kline, R-Minnesota, and Duncan Hunter, R-California, said in a joint statement last week.
"No one disagrees on the importance of education," Duncan said Sunday. "For the most part, we've been largely aligned with leaders on both sides of the aisle, but we need to come together and do the right thing for our children."
For Obama, that means increasing the incentive-based concept of his "Race to the Top" program that offers extra funding for states that show home-grown education reforms are improving performance.
He proposed expanding "Race to the Top" to let local school districts apply, and said reforming "No Child Left Behind" should build on the program's goals.
The president made a point of promoting the importance of teachers, calling for them to get more pay and respect as valued assets in the nation's future success. He made no mention of the new Wisconsin law that stripped some collective bargaining benefits from teachers and other public employees, but his enthusiastic promotion of teachers prompted applause and cheers of support.
Obama spoke at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia. The arts and communications magnet school has incorporated technology in many areas of its curriculum.
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