Monday Reading List: Turning the Heat Up, Gaming Graduation, and Teacher Bonuses

While the cold weather was unrelenting throughout much of the country over the weekend, officials in Baltimore played the blame game for fixing the heat in city schools. Here's Talia Richman in The Baltimore Sun:

Politicians urged immediate repairs to burst pipes and broken boilers, and questioned how the millions of dollars poured into city schools by the state are spent. Mayor Catherine Pugh called Thursday on city schools CEO Sonja Santelises and the school board to “to assess and account for how appropriated maintenance funds are being spent” ... City schools’ CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement that she shares the mayor’s sense of urgency and the district’s facilities staff have been “working tirelessly” to make repairs in schools across the city ... “The challenges we are facing with these sustained frigid temperatures are not maintenance issues, but infrastructure,” Santelises said.

The point about infrastructure is both technical and political. The education system is responsible for running the schools, but the facilities themselves are maintained with a hodgepodge of federal, state, and local resources. Baltimore's schools are set to reopen today, but the blame game for the failing heating systems persists.

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As I mentioned last week, the unclear, diffuse lines of accountability in schooling exacerbate both the difficulty of educating kids, and the complexity of problem solving. It's not so much that the education system is failing; it's that we don't have anything like a coherent education system in this country.

In other news, Moriah Balingit and Ba Tran of The Washington Post continue to investigate the graduation rate fiasco at Ballou High School in Washington, DC:

In June, a day after graduates from Ballou High received their diplomas, a group of teachers met with D.C. Public Schools officials to share an alarming allegation: Students who missed dozens of classes had been able to earn passing grades and graduate ... Emails and a labor grievance filed in August that were shared with The Washington Post show that [Monica] Brokenborough, who was the teachers union representative at Ballou, tried time and again to reach district officials about her concerns ... The accusations regarding Ballou arise as schools across the nation face scrutiny over efforts to lift graduation rates, with allegations of inflated grades, doctored records and flimsy makeup classes, known as credit-recovery courses, for failing students.

This story isn't going away any time soon, and my hunch is that similar gamesmanship of graduation data is happening all over the country. Unlike standardized testing, which - love it or hate  it - is administered with some level of rigorous oversight, there is very little coherence to the measurement of graduation rates.

You heard it here first: don't be surprised when someone in your hometown is caught fudging the data!

Finally today, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat breaks down some new research on teacher incentive pay:

A new study, released by the federal government, suggests that merit-based bonuses are the way to go, as they help raise student test scores without making a significant dent in teacher morale. It offers the latest evidence that programs of this sort can help schools and students, despite the common perception that they are ineffective. The research focuses on a federal program known as the Teacher Incentive Fund, and compares schools that gave all teachers an automatic 1 percent bonus to those schools that gave bonuses based on classroom observations and student test scores ... The schools that gave performance bonuses boosted student test scores throughout the four years of the study, between 2011 and 2015.
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Barnum notes that the experimental "effect size" of the program was low, but there are almost no educational interventions that deliver larger effect sizes. In addition, it seems that merit-based bonuses are a much more cost effective way to boost performance than class size reduction.

To that point, class size is one of those issues wherein the politics and conventional wisdom consistently line up against what research and data tell us. While "everyone knows" that small classes are better for kids, guess what? It's just not true. Because class size reduction efforts only shrink a class by one or two students, these adjustments do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of teaching in a classroom. Meanwhile, these efforts cost an extravagant amount of money, because reducing class size means adding lots of overhead costs and new teachers.

Here is a rough example, based on round numbers and national averages: consider a school with 500 students. If the class size in that school went from 23 to 20 overnight, you would suddenly need 25 teachers instead of 22, for an added expense of at least $170,000 per year for JUST ONE SCHOOL.

In In a district with ten schools, that's almost $2MM annually in new costs.

In New York City, where teacher salaries are higher, and the system is enormous, you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Now, I love the idea of spending billions of more dollars on schools. There are lots of great things we could do with that money! Large scale class size reduction, however, is among the least responsible things we could do with that money.

Have a great week!