Saturday, January 19, 2013

How Safe Are America's Schools?

Rob Bligh, a retired lawyer and school board member with enough energy to argue tirelessly on behalf of public education, recently sent me these facts about the safety of America's public schools.
America's K-12 schools are among the very safest places for a child to be. A child is more likely to die from parental abuse or neglect than to die from all violent causes at school by a ratio of 66-to-1. Parental abuse and neglect kills 1,760 children in a typical year. On average, 26.5 children die each year from all school-associated violent causes. A school-associated violent death is any homicide, suicide, or weapons-related violent death in the United States in which the fatal injury occurred:
  1. on the property of a functioning public, private or parochial elementary or secondary school, Kindergarten through grade 12, (including alternative schools);
  2. on the way to or from regular sessions at such a school;
  3. while person was attending or was on the way to or from an official school-sponsored event;
  4. as an obvious direct result of school incidents, functions or activities, whether on or off school bus or vehicle or school property.
In 2005, for example, a total of 53,501 American children died from all causes. The average 26.5 annual school-associated child deaths amount to slightly less than 5 one hundredths of one percent of that total. If we really want to do something about child safety, we should not be telling school officials how to conduct themselves. Instead, we should ask everyone else in our society who is responsible for children to act more like school officials. The result would be a stunning increase in child safety.
The most authoritative study on this topic reported that between 1994 and 1999, there were a total of 172 homicides at schools. Oh, yeah, that was during the Clinton Administration ban on assault rifles, wasn't it.

Reference: Anderson, M. et al. (2001, December 5) School-Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1994-1999. JAMA, Vol. 286, No. 21.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

Sandy Hook & Cyberschools

Yesterday I received these questions from a newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania.
  • "It occurred to me that one way to protect children as they learn is to teach them at home. Do you expect cyber schools will become more popular because of the massacre in Newtown, Conn.?"
  • "You have charted the growth of cyber schools and mentioned that Florida and perhaps other states turn to them to save money in writings at the NEPC. To what extent do you think concern for safety has fed the growth of cyber schools?"
  • "After the shootings in Columbine, I assume cyber schools nascent entities if they existed at all, but did those shootings lead to an increase in home schooling?"
I assumed immediately that I was not dealing with Walter Lippmann here. But I did wonder who might have put such questions in this poor man’s head. Pennsylvania is home to the Agora cyber-charter-school, one of the largest in the nation and a huge cash cow for K12 Inc. And on several occasions I have been contacted by reporters asking questions after they were visited by a K12 Inc. public relations flack with a parent and cyber-educated student in tow.

There are few places on earth at which a child is safer than at an American public school. More than 90% of public school parents express no concern for their child’s safety while at school, according to repeated Gallup surveys.

My nephew’s son was in the weight room adjacent to the cafeteria on April 20, 1999, when Harris and Kliebold committed that heinous act of mayhem at Columbine. My nephew didn’t start searching for a charter school or bring his son home to educate him.

These tragedies of mass killings – virtually always by males between the ages of 18 and 40 – are completely unpredictable. They happen in Colorado, they happen in Oregon, they happen in Scotland, they happen in Norway. The attempt to twist the narrative of gun control into a debate about mental illness is an obscenity. These acts are almost always the actions of paranoid schizophrenics; and that condition – presenting in the late teens or early 20s – is known to exist in every culture across every decade at a rate of 1 in 100 persons. There are 60,000,000 males in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 40. One percent of that number is 60,000 males. Approximately that number of young men live, work, and suffer from a tragic biochemical illness in the United States. What does the NRA propose to do with them? Incarcerate them all? Appoint an armed companion to follow them around 24/7?

Back to our reporter in Pennsylvania.

  • “Dr. Glass, do you expect cyber schools will become more popular because of the massacre in Newtown, Conn.?”
No! Nor do I think people will stop going to the movies because of the unspeakable tragedy at the theater in Aurora, Colorado.

And will the next reporter’s question be about buying stock in Netflix?

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gates Foundation Wastes More Money Pushing VAM

Any attempt to evaluate teachers that is spoken of repeatedly as being "scientific" is naturally going to provoke rebuttals that verge on technical geek-speak. The MET Project's "Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching" brief does just that. MET was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

At the center of the brief's claims are a couple of figures (“scatter diagrams” in statistical lingo) that show remarkable agreement in VAM scores for teachers in Language Arts and Math for two consecutive years. The dots form virtual straight lines. A teacher with a high VAM score one year can be relied on to have an equally high VAM score the next, so Figure 2 seems to say.

Not so. The scatter diagrams are not dots of teachers' VAM scores but of averages of groups of VAM scores. For some unexplained reason, the statisticians who analyzed the data for the MET Project report divided the 3,000 teachers into 20 groups of about 150 teachers each and plotted the average VAM scores for each group. Why?

And whatever the reason might be, why would one do such a thing when it has been known for more than 60 years now that correlating averages of groups grossly overstates the strength of the relationship between two variables? W.S. Robinson in 1950 named this the "ecological correlation fallacy." Please look it up in Wikipedia. The fallacy was used decades ago to argue that African-Americans were illiterate because the correlation of %-African-American and %-illiterate was extremely high when measured at the level of the 50 states. In truth, at the level of persons, the correlation is very much lower; we’re talking about differences as great as .90 for aggregates vs .20 for persons.

Just because the average of VAM scores for 150 teachers will agree with next year's VAM score average for the same 150 teachers gives us no confidence that an individual teacher's VAM score is reliable across years. In fact, such scores are not — a fact shown repeatedly in several studies.

So we aren't going to fire groups of 150 teachers arbitrarily lumped together who might have low VAM scores, nor pay big bonuses to the high VAM group. Nor are we going to fire those teachers whose Language Arts VAM score is low, because the odds are substantial that the same teachers' Math VAM score might be average or even above. We would see that such teachers are hardly the exception if the authors of the MET Project brief had simply shown us scatter plots of individual teachers' VAM scores instead of having tripped up on Robinson's ecological correlation fallacy.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When Methuselah Was Young

John Merrow’s documentary “The Education of Michelle Rhee" aired on many PBS stations on January 8, 2013. There was little in it that educated actual professional educators about the short, eventful, and turbulent career of Michelle Rhee as superintendent of the Washington, D.C. public schools. Diane Ravitch found the show to be disappointing, as would almost any perceptive and concerned fighter to save public education in America. Sometimes journalistic balance is mere pusillanimity.

One might naturally ask what Michelle Rhee learned from her unhappy attempt to bring her brief background as a Teach for America teacher and her managerial acumen to the job of reforming one of the toughest school districts in the nation – one of the very many toughest school districts I must add. Among other things, she undoubtedly learned that public institutions like schools cannot be run like businesses, and had she been a little older and wiser – than age 37 when she took on the job – she should have known that even businesses themselves do not run like the organizations of her fantasies. The number of brutal firings in the business world of employees who fail to make targets on single quantitative measures of “productivity” is far fewer than naive dilettantes like Rhee would imagine.

But what the viewer may have learned from watching “The Education of Michelle Rhee" is more profound. The centerpiece of Rhee’s reform of the D.C. schools was the IMPACT program. Teachers and principals were to negotiate with Rhee on targets for gains on the D.C. CAS test from beginning to end of the year. Based on hitting or missing those goals, teachers and principals were either rewarded generously with cash – as much as $10,000 for principals and $5,000 for teachers – or they were fired. Rhee christened this new program IMPACT – an acronym, perhaps, but I cannot bear to unravel its possible ugliness. Although legions of states and school districts have talked such talk, Rhee walked it. In two years, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of teachers and principals lost their jobs or were put on notice because their CAS test gains were not up to snuff, while others lined their pockets with cash for having topped their targeted gains. Apparently Rhee’s compensation was not tied to the overall district’s performance on CAS. (CAS was built by CTB McGraw-Hill; let’s get everybody’s name out in the open here. CAS is a basic skills achievement test in the one-hundred-year-old mold of "fill in the bubble.")

So far this is little more than the story of the madness of high-stakes testing that has been the stuff of school reform rhetoric for decades, and that story having been swallowed hook-line-and-sinker by a dewy-eyed outsider. But something more significant happened on the screen in John Merrow’s documentary.

In her first year on the job, Rhee met individually with each principal in the district to negotiate the CAS test gain score goal for that principal’s school. This exchange took place on screen – slightly paraphrased:

Rhee: So, what is your goal going to be? How many more kids are you going to raise from BASIC to PROFICIENT.

Principal: Well, I’m going to tell my teachers 10%, but put me down for 5%.

Rhee and the principal exchanged knowing smiles.

IMPACT blew up in two years. Allegations of cheating abounded. It was well-known that teachers and principals in certain places took over the completed answer sheets, erased incorrect answers, and marked the correct answers. One school elevated 40% of its students from BASIC to PROFICIENT in one year and walked off with a ton of cash. A year later when the principal departed under a cloud of suspicion, the scores dropped back to status two years ante. The newspapers got on the story. Two outside firms were hired to examine the situation. They white-washed it.

“The Education of Michelle Rhee” has taught us one thing above all. Actions that begin in duplicity will end in duplicity; and duplicity will eventually be found out. It is a lesson older than high-stakes testing, older than schools themselves, indeed, as old as Methuselah.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University