Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

Making better use of data on free school lunches

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

A student carries her lunch tray at Salusbury Primary School

Feeding hungry children is the primary purpose of America’s free (or reduced price) lunch program. Just over half of public school students are eligible for the program, ranging from nearly three-quarters of Mississippi students to just over one-quarter of students in New Hampshire. However, there is also a secondary use of the free lunch program: eligibility for free lunch is often the only way for states, school districts, and education researchers to identify low-income students.

Schools don’t generally have records of exact family income—it being mostly none of their business—so eligibility for free lunch status is usually the best proxy measurement anyone has to identify low-income students. But the real educational issue is less whether a family is having a bad financial year right at the moment and more what the family’s finances look like over the long run. So it makes sense to look at more than current-year free lunch eligibility. Katherine Michelmore and Susan Dynarski, in a paper titled “The Gap within the Gap,” demonstrate that using multiple year measures of free lunch status better identifies long-term, low-income students. Bottom line: students who are on free lunch status for several years come from lower income families than students who just happen to be eligible for free lunch this year. I’ll explain here the intuition of what’s going on (having benefitted from hearing Sue talk about the paper) in a rather wonky way. Below, I’ll explain why this should be a real action item for those who distribute money and resources among schools.

In the figure below I show (in blue) a pattern of fluctuating income that might be representative of a particular student’s family over the course of primary school. The shape is the same in the left and right panels. The red line shows the cutoff for free lunch. So in the years in which the blue line dips below the red, the student gets subsidized lunch. You will see that the student depicted on the left is eligible for free lunch only once. In contrast, the student on the right is eligible in most years. (In the real world, thecutoffs are 130 percent of the federal poverty line for free lunch and 185 percent of the poverty line to be eligible for a reduced price. The exact numbers depend on family size and are slightly different for Alaska and Hawaii, but for a mother with one child free lunch kicks in at a yearly income of about $21,000 and the reduced-price line is about $30,000.)

Fluctuating income under two scenarios

As a guess, the fact that the student at the right has more years eligible for free lunch was probably the second thing you saw in the figure. You likely noticed first that the wiggly blue line on the right is lower than the wiggly blue line on the left. And these two observations exactly explain the intuition of why students who are more frequently eligible for free lunch generally come from families with lower long-term income. If a high income family has a one-year dip in income, the odds are their income is still too high to qualify for free lunch. In contrast a family of more modest means is often near the eligibility border, so a dip down makes their child eligible. And a very low income family’s child is probably always eligible.

Michelmore and Dynarski look at a massive administrative data set from Michigan and show that the pattern described above is what we see in the real world. (Michelmore and Dynarski then go on to show that the number of years eligible for free lunch is a better predictor of educational outcomes than you can get using a single year.) In the next figure, I’ll show you what the relation between income and years eligible for free lunch looks like in nationally representative data taken from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.Fraction of students on free lunch vs income

Students and their families were surveyed five times from kindergarten through eighth grade, and one of the items surveyed was whether their children were eligible for free (or reduced-price) lunches. About half of students were never eligible. Other students were eligible between once and every year of the survey. The big income drop-off is, unsurprisingly, between the “never eligible” and everyone else (where income is measured as average income for a family over all surveyed years). But—just as in the first picture above—there is a large difference in average incomes between those eligible one year and those eligible every year. The gap is close to a factor of two. So if you want to identify students who come from very low-income backgrounds, look for those who are regularly on the free lunch program.

I promised an action-item suggestion above. There are, in fact, two.

Very frequently the only income data available to education researchers is whether a student is eligible for subsidized lunch. Researchers who are looking for a proxy for low socio-economic status should use all years, not just the current year. (Wonk side note: Matt Chingos points out that Congress has changed the technical requirements for establishing free lunch eligibility in ways that are good for kids but which may make FRPL eligibility much less useful for researchers in the future.)

The more important action item is for state and school district administrators who direct money in part toward low-income districts or low-income schools. You should strongly consider adjusting your formulas to put heavier weight on those districts and schools in which many students have a long history of being on free lunch. That’s a more effective way of getting money to the lowest of the low income.

Garrison Schlauch provided research assistance for this post.

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  1. Making better use of data on free school lunches | Profit of Education https://t.co/pNucTuLxwC

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The Kathleen Dunn Show

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Teacher cognitive ability around the world

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

If you think the skills of American teachers don’t stack up to those of teachers in other countries, you’re wrong—American teachers are perfectly mediocre. Well, in fairness, American teachers seem to be a touch above average in literacy skills and noticeably below average in numeracy. They shine in neither area. “Mediocre” means middling. I guess some country has to be in the middle, but that’s not how we Americans like to picture ourselves. For me, American teachers being middle-of-the-pack isn’t good enough. I expect—at least if you’re an American reader of Chalkboard—that you too want the U.S. to be a world leader in education.

If this reads like a knock against American teachers, that’s not quite the intention. It isintended as a knock against American policymakers. We in fact get much better teachers than we pay for. More on this below.

Before we turn to the evidence, a few caveats are in order. Obviously many teachers have extraordinary cognitive ability. The data we’ll talk about looks at averages. And there are two “limits” on the data. First, teachers certainly need noncognitive and emotional skills as well as cognitive abilities, and we’ll only be talking about the cognitive side. Second, the data I’ll show you use measures of the kind of problem-solving skills we’d expect of a high school graduate. The questions asked are not about college-level work. “Limits” notwithstanding, the findings are shocking.

Today’s pictures all come from a paper that Rick Hanushek was nice enough to send me. Hanushek and coauthors Marc Piopiunik and Simon Wiederhold used data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which administered cognitive ability tests to 160,000 adults across 24 countries. The tests focused on real-world problems that someone who had completed high school (or the local equivalent) would be expected to be able to solve. The authors identified university graduates in the sample and then pulled out the data points for all the teachers. This allowed them to compare data for teachers to other university graduates within a country.

The first question is “How do the literacy and numeracy skills of American teachers compared to other American college graduates stack up to the skill of teachers in other countries compared to college graduates in those other countries?” Hanushek and coauthors offer a striking picture, following up on a chart originally done by Andreas Schleicher.

Position of teacher cognitive skills in the skill distribution of college graduates

The gray bars span the 25th to 75th percentiles in skill level among college graduates in each country. The red lines mark the skill of the median teacher. For literacy skills, American teachers look about like the average college graduate, and their median score is slightly better than in the average country studied, but nowhere near the top. Numeracy skills of American teachers are below average both in comparison to other American college graduates and in comparison to teachers in other countries.

Here is possibly the most surprising result of the research: despite the average skill level, American teachers are underpaid relative to the skills they have. Hanushek and coauthors estimated the differential in pay within each country controlling for experience, gender, and—importantly—for cognitive skills. They write

“The estimates…indicate that teachers are paid some 20 percent less than a comparable college graduate elsewhere in the U.S. economy after adjusting for observable characteristics.”

American teacher pay is lower than would be expected given the skills teachers have. Or put the other way around, American teachers have better skills than one would expect given their pay.

You could argue that as public employees, American teachers do get good benefits in terms of pensions and health insurance when compared to other workers. And that is probably more true in the U.S. than it is in other countries, especially where health care is provided to everyone. However, the value of these extra benefits is likely small compared to the compensation gap. Remember that the relevant comparison is to other professional workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95 percent of teachers are offered retirement benefits. So, however, are 85 percent of management, business, and financial workers. The BLS reports similarly that 97 percent of teachers have access to medical benefits, but that’s compared to 94 percent in the management, business, and financial worker category. In fairness, teacher pensions for long-time teachers have historically been very generous. To some extent that has changed recently. Moreover, pension benefits for the many teachers who teach only for part of their career are much less generous. Chad Alderman and Andrew Rotherham have estimated that about half of teachers will receive no pension at all. In other words, while there is some truth to the notion that teachers get higher than average benefits, the reality of extraordinary teacher benefits is often exaggerated.

Nonetheless, the combination of slightly better health and retirement benefits means that 20 percent American teacher underpayment number likely is somewhat exaggerated in comparison to other countries. It’s possible that international comparisons fail to fully capture the other ways we compensate our teachers in the form of extra benefits to government employees.

But it’s not like the U.S. number is close to what happens elsewhere. Here’s the picture.

Teacher wage premiums around the world

There’s the U.S….dead last.

American teachers don’t have the great basic skills we’d like them to have, not compared to the rest of the world they don’t. But, we way underpay them for the skills they do have. Both ought to get fixed.

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Teacher pay around the world

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

American teachers are underpaid.

More specifically, American teachers are underpaid when compared to teachers in the nations we compete with. Let me begin with a picture showing how we compare to Finland—everyone’s favorite educational success story and a country not noted for paying its teachers especially well. Then we’ll talk some about the right way to make international teacher salary comparisons. After that, some more data.

Teacher salaries relative to similarly educated workers

Even against modest-paying Finland, American teachers are underpaid. If we wanted to raise the relative salaries of American teachers to the level seen in Finland, we’d require a 10 percent raise for primary school teachers, an 18 percent raise in lower secondary, and a 28 percent raise for upper secondary school teachers.

What is the right way to make international comparisons of teacher salaries? The answer depends on why you think salaries are important. Is it because someone with a particular set of qualifications deserves a certain level of pay? Or perhaps some general level of fairness or equity? To an economist, the answer is rather different: you want to pay enough to attract really good people to become teachers in the first place and to remain in teaching rather than bailing out for a more lucrative career. That means that the right way to compare across countries is to look at how teacher pay within the country compares to pay in alternative careers that a person might consider when deciding whether to become a teacher.

The OECD has put together a set of comparisons of teacher pay to earnings of all college graduates. These are the numbers shown in the chart above, and the numbers used throughout this post. You can see in the chart that both Finland and the United States pay teachers less than they pay other college graduates, but Finland gets notably closer than we do.

I picked Finland for the comparison in the chart above because, well because lots of countries aspire to be Finland when it comes to education. While paying better than the U.S., Finland is pretty much an average player when it comes to teacher pay. Most of the developed countries with which we compete pay much better. Here’s the relevant picture taken directly from the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2015.

Teachers' salaries relative to earnings for similarly educated workers (2013)

The quick lesson is that in most industrialized countries relative teacher pay is higher than in the United States. To see the gap in a different way, the next chart tells how much the U.S. would have to raise upper secondary salaries to match relative salaries in a variety of other countries. Just as we saw for the example of Finland in the opening graphic, the gaps are even larger for upper secondary than for lower secondary.

Percentage increase in U.S. upper secondary salaries required to reach relative salaries in other countries

While American salaries aren’t the lowest, many other countries not only pay better, but the gap is really, really big.

The simple summary: Other countries make teaching a more financially attractive career for college graduates than we do.

The facts are the facts. But allow me to predict one response to these facts: “Teachers aren’t motivated by money, they teach because they love it.” Often true. And I’ve noticed that the people who say that teachers teach for love are quite often themselves very good teachers. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine someone who teaches well who doesn’t like their students. However, it’s very easy to imagine many, many potential teachers—who would also love their students just as much—who have made the decision to forego a teaching career in order to better provide for their family.

Dollars aren’t the only thing that determines career choice. Prestige and working conditions matter too. (Finland pays a fair amount better than the U.S. The prestige attached to being a teacher is enormously higher.) My guess is that being a teacher has both more prestige and better working conditions in other industrialized countries than here at home. (How do administrators treat teachers? How do parents treat teachers? Heck even, how do students treat teachers?) No data though, so either facts or anecdotes from those who know more about teaching in other countries are in order.

Last word: Making teaching a financially more attractive career isn’t the only thing that matters for who teaches. It does matter though, and probably it matters a lot.

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What do teachers do when they leave teaching?

Monday’s post appeared on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

When teachers leave teaching, where do they go next? Are they getting good jobs outside of education? Or are subsequent jobs more of a lateral move? Or do teachers who quit teaching also quit working?

School districts that lose teachers lose their investment in training those teachers, whether the teachers quit teaching or whether the teachers move to another district. To a significant extent, districts to which teachers transfer in get a benefit at the expense of the sending districts. In contrast, when teachers move to another profession, public schools as a whole lose out. (At least to the extent that it’s the better teachers leaving.)

Chalkboard reader Dr. Joe O’Reilly, of the Mesa, Arizona school district, asked if I could put together any data to help sort this all out. I have put together a few such numbers. To set the stage, here’s a chart taken from data from the “Teacher Follow-up Survey” (TFS) of the School and Staffing Survey, which is administered to school teachers nationwide every four years by the U.S. Department of Education.

Fraction of teachers moving or leaving teaching

We see in the chart that about 16 percent of teachers exited a school in recent years, combining both exits represented here. Roughly half of that 16 percent move to another school. (Some of these “movers” end up in a different school in the same district.) This fraction of teachers switching schools hasn’t changed much over time.

If that eight percent represented equal-sized back-and-forth trades between districts, it might not be of great concern. I suspect, however, that some districts regularly lose more than their share of experienced teachers while others (wealthier? “easier” to teach students) are net gainers. (Boyd, et. al. wrote “…schools with better working conditions and higher salaries bid away the better qualified teachers from difficult-to-staff schools.”[1]

The other eight percent leave teaching. The fraction of teachers leaving the profession entirely has noticeably risen. Unless one thinks that we’ve seen a major increase in the tendency of weak teachers to move onward—and I can’t imagine that such a major increase is likely—then this trend is a matter of some concern.

TFS also offers us some information about what teachers who left teaching did next, as shown in the next chart.

Where do teachers who leave teaching go?

Basically, two-thirds of leavers either take a non-teaching job in K-12 or move into retirement. Neither of these “destinations” raises a concern about teachers finding more attractive careers on the outside. (Although there probably is something wrong when the only way a master teacher can get a significant raise while staying in education is to quit teaching.) Another nine percent leave to care for a family member and a small number go back to school—also probably not of great concern.

We’re left with a relatively small number of teachers who leave education for alternative work. This number is on the order of two percent per year. While the number is small, if you’re running a school district you still might want to have a better idea of where the leavers are leaving to. To get a bit of a handle on this I turned to the Current Population Survey, putting together data for 2010-2015, and asked where leavers went who were working and not in some kind of K-12 position. With the caution that the sample was pretty small—I found only 332 respondents—the next table gives the breakdown of the “larger” categories.

Destination occupations of teachers who left education

DESTINATION OCCUPATION PERCENT
Lawyers, Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers 6.93
Physicians and surgeons 6.63
Postsecondary teachers 4.22
Retail salespersons 3.61
Secretaries and administrative assistants 3.01
Social Workers 2.71
Managers, all other 2.41
Customer service representatives 2.11
Other education, training, and library workers 1.81
Personal and home care aides 1.81
Child care workers 1.51
First-line supervisors/managers of retail sales workers 1.51
Cashiers 1.51
Receptionists and information clerks 1.51
Human resource workers 1.2
Artists and related workers 1.2
Cooks 1.2
Janitors and building cleaners 1.2
Marketing and sales managers 0.9
Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers 0.9
Construction managers 0.9
Business operations specialists, all other 0.9
Counselors 0.9
Social and human service assistants 0.9
Religious workers, all other 0.9
Miscellaneous legal support workers 0.9
Speech-language pathologists 0.9
Registered nurses 0.9
Recreation and fitness workers 0.9
Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing 0.9
Door-to-door sales workers, news and street vendors, and related workers 0.9
Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks 0.9
Interviewers, except eligibility and loan 0.9
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating 0.9

You will see why I put “larger” categories in quotes. Those who leave teaching go to an incredibly wide variety of different jobs. It is notable that the first three destinations—lawyers, doctors, and professors—are all lucrative or prestigious jobs. Past that point, the destination jobs are all over the map.

Pulling this all together, we have a four-point answer to Dr. O’Reilly’s query.

  1. Schools lose about one teacher out of six each year. If you’re a principal or an HR director that’s a huge burden, without respect for where the teachers may be going.
  2. A fair number of teachers, about one out of 12, do leave the profession each year. The bulk of moves might be characterized as “about what we would expect,” i.e. teachers retire, take other education positions, or are taking care of a family member.
  3. Among the modest number of real career changers, there isn’t much of a pattern as to what sort of jobs teachers move to. But…the data isn’t great. The sample is small and we observe teachers for only a single year after leaving teaching. Leading to…
  4. Chalkboard readers might well chime in here. Do you have anecdotal evidence about where teachers go next? Does your district do exit interviews? Are you a teacher…or former teacher…with friends who’ve made the jump? Share what you know in the comments section and we can all enlighten each other.

Data sources:

Teacher Follow-up Survey: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), “Current and Former Teacher Data Files,” 2012-13; Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results from the 2008-09 Teacher Follow-up Survey, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2010-353).https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/TFS1213_2014077_cf1n_001.asp ; http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/TFS1213_2014XXX_f1n_006.asp

Current Population Survey 2010-2015, “Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015.”



[1] Boyd, Grossman, Lankford, Loeb, and Wycoff, “How Changes in entry and requirements alter the teacher workforce an affect student achievement,” Education Finance and Policy,Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006.

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Careers of ed students: Yesterday and today

Today’s post appeared on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

Roughly 100,000 students a year earn a bachelor’s degree in education, a number that has been steady for decades. How do ed students spend their careers? Do they teach or do they follow an alternative career? At what point do they quit working entirely? And are times changing for the newest graduates?

No one tracks career paths of individual college graduates, of course. But we can get a good ballpark answer to these sorts of questions by looking at what sort of work individuals do today and then retrospectively asking when they earned a college degree. I’ve taken the 2014 American Community Survey,* which reports both work status and undergraduate major and computed an “imputed degree year” using as an approximation the assumption that the typical student receives her BA at age 22. I then look at folks who reported that their BA was in education. So we begin by asking, how many people who earned an education BA in the past were still working in 2014?

People with education BAs by labor force status


* The sample is limited to people between 22 and 70 years old with four or more years of college with an undergraduate degree in “Education Administration and Teaching”. Data source: “Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015.”

Unsurprisingly many of those who graduated college 40 years ago are no longer in the labor force, presumably having retired. Looking back more than 40 years, retirement rates rise rapidly. But for more recent graduates, only 10 to 15 percent are out of the labor force (and remember that “out of the labor force” includes taking a break from teaching to raise children). In other words, most folks with education BAs keep working until around retirement age.

What about unemployment, that is how many people are trying unsuccessfully to find work? The answer is “very few.” Unemployment rates for people with education BAs are generally between one and three percent.

“What about unemployment, that is how many people are trying unsuccessfully to find work? The answer is ‘very few.’ Unemployment rates for people with education BAs are generally between one and three percent.”

For exceptions to these general findings take a look at recent graduates, those at the very right end on the graph. You can see a bit of an uptick there in “out of the labor force,” although this is no doubt due in part to recent graduates who are now in graduate school. The unemployment rate is also noticeably higher for recent graduates. The last couple of years of graduates in particular have high unemployment rates, although even the worst unemployment rate is noticeably lower than that for other young people. (For 2014 graduates, the unemployment rate with an ed BA was over 7 percent. In comparison, 2014 graduates with other BAs had an unemployment rate at the time of the survey of 12 percent. It takes a while to find a job after getting a degree.) Further, one might speculate that some part of these higher unemployment rates may be a hangover from low school hiring rates following the Great Recession. (Remember that the most recent data in the figure is from 2014.)

Basically, folks with undergraduate education degrees are working. Are they working in education? To help answer this, I’ve used the American Community Survey responses to plot out the fraction of education BAs who keep working in education. (The data defines working in education as “Education Administration and Teaching.” That means that some graduates working at the college level will be picked up as working in education and some school librarians, phys ed teachers, and others may be missed.)

Fraction of people with education BAs working in education

The first answer is that people who graduated decades ago are mostly not working in education. Presumably many are in second careers. Perhaps some are working to supplement teacher pensions.

The second answer is that for most cohorts, except the most recent, 55 to 65 percent of those employed are working in education. Are 55 to 65 percent numbers higher or lower than would seem desirable? The answer isn’t obvious. On the one hand, most college graduates don’t work exactly in the area of their major. Economics majors, for example, get good jobs, but few of those jobs are “economist.” On the other hand, an education degree is very much intended to be specific professional training. Some part of the effort that goes into training teachers is arguably wasted when graduates take non-education jobs.

The picture for the most recent graduates is more puzzling. Remembering that we are looking only at those who are employed, it’s surprising that the majority in the final year of the data are employed somewhere other than in education. Maybe some of this has to do with how the data was collected. (A respondent might have been interviewed after graduating while waiting for a teaching job that started in the fall, and may be temporarily employed in another industry.) However, the penultimate year’s data only had 54 percent of those employed, employed in education. It appears that there may be something of an increasing disconnect between training and employment in education.

It’s hard to know whether something odd is going on for those with recent education degrees, but I have a little bit of evidence that if something has changed, whatever it is isn’t unique to ed BAs. I’ve redrawn below the first figure with two changes. The new version adds in labor force status for BAs from non-education fields. And I’ve restricted the data to the last ten years to magnify the most recent evidence.

People with education or other BAs by labor force status last ten years

The figure shows that both out-of-the-labor-force and unemployment status for people with education BAs is noticeably higher for recent cohorts. However, the same increase shows up even more strongly for other BAs. So to the extent that recent BAs are not being quickly matched with jobs, the underlying cause does not seem to be special to the field of education.

Is employment for recent ed BAs different from the past? The unemployment rate for recent ed BAs is higher than the rate for those out five years or more. On the other hand, the same thing is true for recent grads in other fields. My guess—but it is just a guess—is that we are still seeing something of a roiled labor market in the aftermath of the Great Recession and that in the longer run careers of recent grads will look a lot like those of earlier cohorts.

Everyone knows that there is a great deal of turnover among teachers. Still, it appears that most education majors do end up in education, and what’s more, the majority of education majors do spend most of their career working in schools. The data here gives something of a different picture from the commonly held view of enormous attrition rates in teaching. (For related evidence, see this Washington Post story.) My suspicion is that the difference comes from how the data is collected. The charts here track education BAs, while many other studies track beginning teachers. Teachers move between schools and even between states. What’s more, teachers do drop out of teaching for childcare and other reasons and then return later. It’s likely that teachers who make such changes sometimes get lost in teacher-tracking data.

To help think about teacher attrition look at what the charts says for education BAs who received their degrees in 2004, so they would be 10 years into a career when we observe them. About 13 percent are out-of-the-labor-force or unemployed. Of those who are working, 65 percent are working in education. So a majority—about 56 percent—are working in education. Whether somewhat over half of education BAs working in education a decade after graduation is seen as a high attrition rate or a low one probably depends on the view from the eye of the beholder.

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Teacher perceptions and race

Today’s post appeared on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

Freshman students Laurah Pollonais (L) and Dalicia Barker listen during a class at Spelman College in AtlantaWhen it comes to student behavior, what’s polite or rude—what counts as acting out versus what’s seen as healthy youthful exuberance—depends not only on actual behavior but on how teachers read behavior. Black and white American cultures are still sufficiently different in that how teachers read behavior depends in part on the teacher’s race. New research shows that black and white teachers give very different evaluations of behavior of black students. When a black student has a black teacher that teacher is much, much less likely to see behavioral problems than when the same black student has a white teacher.

New research by Adam Wright, “Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Disruptive Behavior: The Effect of Racial Congruence and Consequences for School Suspension,” documents that black teachers have much less negative views of black student behavior than do white teachers. (Conflict of interest notice…hmmm no, braggin’ notice: Wright is one of my PhD students.) Wright looks first at teacher evaluations of behavior, and then at data on school suspensions. Let’s begin with the teacher evaluations.

Wright uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to follow the experience of more than 20,000 students in kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grade. During the elementary school years, teachers were asked to assess a number of noncognitive skills. The measure of interest here is “externalizing problem behaviors,” which asks how often the student “argues, fights, gets angry, acts impulsively, and disrupts ongoing activities.” Notice that we see a measure of teacher perception, rather than counts of disciplinary events. Wright focuses on externalizing behavior because this measure is highly correlated with school suspensions.

On a scale in which the average measure of externalizing behavior is normalized to zero, white and Hispanic students average -0.07, while black students average +0.37. (Asian students average -0.38.) So on average, black students are viewed as having much worse behavior—which presumably reflects some combination of objectively worse behavior and perceived worse behavior.

Wright does something very clever, taking advantage of the fact that students are observed several times and that we know which students are in which classes with which teachers. Wright asks how black students are rated by black teachers, controlling for both the average rating of an individual student by all his teachers and for the average rating a particular teacher of all of her students in a given class. What this means is that Wright can identify how a black student’s behavior is perceived by a black teacher as compared to how the same student is perceived by white teachers. The procedure also adjusts for the possibility that black teachers are just more “easy going,” because the average rating given in a class is effectively subtracted off. So Wright is arguably identifying a causal effect of black students being matched with black teachers.

Being race matched matters a lot for black students but not for others

Bottom line: black teachers are much less likely to find problems with black students than white teachers are with the same students. The difference is enormous, accounting for about half the black/white externalizing behavior gap. (Remember that the data does not tell us whether black teachers have different perceptions of black students or whether student/teacher race matching leads to objectively different behavior.) For black students, being matched with a black teacher matters.

Bottom line: black teachers are much less likely to find problems with black students than white teachers are with the same students.

How about white or Hispanic students being matched with white or Hispanic teachers, respectively? Nope, no discernable differences in externalizing behavior. (To be clear, black teachers rate white students about the same as do white teachers.) In other words, being race matched matters a lot for black students but not for others.

Wright drills down further. First—and this is probably unsurprising—the effect of race matching is entirely due to the evaluations given to black boys. There isn’t a noticeable difference for black girls. Second, the effect of matching is limited to the year of the match. When Wright checked reports of black students when they were assigned to white teachers following a year with a black teacher he found no lingering effects of that year of being race-matched. This suggests that the findings reflect teacher perceptions rather than real behavioral differences since we might expect improvements in behavior to persist the following year—and that’s not what happens.

How suspension rates between black and white students play into race matching

Wright then turns to the question of suspension. As is well known, black students are much more likely to be suspended than are white students. Wright shows that the more times a black student is matched with a black teacher, the less likely that student is to be suspended. Unfortunately, the data does not note the grade in which a suspension happened. It is reasonable to speculate that most suspensions come in later grades and that the finding is due in part to the effect of student-teacher race matching in earlier grades. We can’t be sure of this however, and some part of the finding may also be due to fewer suspensions of black students during years they have black teachers.

The difference in suspension rates is large. Taking these findings at face value, Wright estimates that if we doubled exposure of black students to black teachers, the black-white suspension gap would fall in half. Because of data limitations, it’s not possible to test whether black students’ likelihood of suspension changes when they move from a black teacher to a white teacher. Instead, Wright looks at black students who enter the same school at kindergarten but are exposed to different percentages of black teachers through eighth grade. So the causal interpretations about suspensions are less certain than are the interpretations about behavior reports.

In summary, black teacher perceptions about the behavior of black boys is very different than the perceptions of white teachers. This doesn’t happen for other racial groups. None of this necessarily suggests malice or prejudice or favoritism on anyone’s part. It does suggest one more way that race still matters in our schools.

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Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

Today’s post appeared on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution. A story on the post appears in the Washington Post.

As we approach the annual celebration of Dr. King’s life, it is worth examining the difference in how our schools discipline black and white children. In public schools in the United States, black children are twice as likely as white children to be subject to corporal punishment. Figure 1 shows the comparison, derived from nationwide data reported by schools to the Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education.[1] (All data is for the 2011-2012 school year, the latest year available.) The continuing disproportionate corporal punishment of black children is a reminder that some aspects of the “bad old days” are not fully behind us.

Incidence of corporal punishment per 100 students, annual rate

Figure 1

The 42,000 reported incidents of black boys being beaten, and 15,000 incidents for black girls, by educators in their school reflects two facts. First, black students are more likely to be located in states that use corporal punishment extensively. Second, in many states black students are disproportionately likely to be singled out for corporal punishment. Figure 2 shows the annual incidence of corporal punishment by state, with states where the incidence is less than once per ten thousand students greyed out.

Annual incidents of corporal punishment per 100 students

Figure 2

While corporal punishment is used in almost every state, seven states account for 80 percent of school corporal punishment in the United States: Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. [2] For black students, six of these states (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee) plus Louisiana account for 90 percent of corporal punishment. One reason that black students are subject to more corporal punishment is that they live in those states responsible for most of the corporal punishment of all children.

Where is corporal punishment racially disproportionate? Essentially, and sadly unsurprisingly, the first answer is that black students are disproportionately beaten in parts of the Deep South. Black students are twice as likely to be struck as white students in North Carolina and Georgia, 70 percent more likely in Mississippi, 40 percent more likely in Louisiana, and 40 percent more likely in Arkansas. Figure 3 shows the ratio of the frequency of corporal punishment for black students compared to the frequency for white students, with states where the incidence is less than once per ten thousand students or where the rate is equal or lower for black students greyed out.

States with disproportionate corporal punishment relative probability of punishment black vs white students

Figure 3

Some high corporal punishment states are not particularly racially disproportionate. Texas, notably, uses corporal punishment on black students and white with equal likelihood. Texas shows up on the lists of where black students are hit because it is a large state that administers corporal punishment at a moderately high rate. Alabama—where the rate of corporal punishment is 10 times the national average—also shows equal rates of black and white children experiencing physical violence from educators. In North Carolina, black students are twice as likely to be struck as white students, but North Carolina uses corporal punishment relatively infrequently and so accounts for a small proportion of punishment of black students. Notably, in South Carolina the rate of corporal punishment is below the national average and is not racially disproportionate.

While heavy use of corporal punishment is more common in states of the former Confederacy, racially disproportionate application happens in northern states as well. Schools in Pennsylvania and Michigan are nearly twice as likely to beat black children as white, although both have low overall rates of corporal punishment.

Perhaps most surprisingly, corporal punishment in Maine is wildly disproportionate—with black children being eight times as likely to be hurt as white children. Colorado, Ohio, and California also have rates of corporal punishment for black children that are 70 percent or more higher than for white children.

In Figure 4, I show rates of corporal punishment for white students on the horizontal axis and for black students on the vertical axis. States above the 45° line in Figure 2 have racially disproportionate corporal punishments. The states clustered at the lower left of the graph have relatively lower rates of corporal punishment, sometimes disproportionate and sometimes not.

Mississippi stands alone.

Corporal punishment per 100 students

Figure 4

While the symbolism of continued physical violence against black children is inescapable, the disproportionate application of other forms of discipline may be of even greater concern. Except in Mississippi and Arkansas, the typical black student will probably not be subjected to corporal punishment during his school career. In contrast, school suspensions are much more common. Figure 5 shows rates of suspension by race.

Suspensions per 100 students

Figure 5

Note that an astounding 15 percent of black students receive an out-of-school suspension in a given year, a rate nearly 4 times that of white students; in-school suspensions are more than twice as likely among black students. Figure 5 shows out-of-school suspension rates for black and white students by state.

Out-of-school suspensions per 100 students

Figure 6

Out-of-school suspensions are applied disproportionately in every state—all points are above the red line. And these discipline patterns do not line up with old geographic patterns. The highest suspension rates for black students are in Wisconsin. And the greatest disparities (measured as the ratio of black-to-white suspension rates) are in the District of Columbia.

Every time a child is beaten in school and every time one is suspended and thus loses learning time, something or someone has failed that child along the way, regardless of the “reason” for the punishment. So long as these failures fall disproportionately on black children, we are not yet living up to the dream that “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Appendix

Discipline per 100 students
Corporal punishment Out-of-school suspension
Black White Black White
Alabama 3.583033 3.869057 17.90929 5.468595
Alaska NA 0.103160 8.592955 3.645956
Arizona 0.029171 0.050941 12.32562 4.555046
Arkansas 5.897032 4.205989 18.15124 4.832772
California 0.051100 0.029146 14.44344 4.803916
Colorado 0.057981 0.022656 11.12507 3.413624
Connecticut 0.030811 0.025587 12.19697 2.117891
Delaware 0.000000 0.000000 18.50083 5.836653
District of Columbia 0.059520 0.000000 16.31737 0.872663
Florida 0.197324 0.239999 19.85793 8.790211
Georgia 1.125453 0.577535 16.07318 4.434872
Hawaii 0.000000 0.000000 1.538462 1.145156
Idaho NA 0.036444 5.891822 2.945636
Illinois 0.031373 0.038082 15.35005 3.406990
Indiana 0.063847 0.062103 20.57063 5.230889
Iowa 0.022850 0.061744 15.22203 2.656221
Kansas 0.011166 0.013882 12.80741 2.792517
Kentucky 0.048563 0.190368 13.02577 4.424482
Louisiana 0.759494 0.537434 13.41064 5.476110
Maine 0.432043 0.057917 8.010801 3.839565
Maryland 0.000000 NA 8.901257 3.729914
Massachusetts 0.004890 0.015254 10.63718 3.376658
Michigan 0.179947 0.090549 20.77535 5.397792
Minnesota 0.030967 0.028806 13.56956 2.204543
Mississippi 8.059325 4.747161 15.36107 5.419384
Missouri 0.683648 0.553408 20.52077 4.393734
Montana 0.000000 0.043081 5.335968 3.311940
Nebraska 0.019723 0.028463 18.29791 3.194068
Nevada 0.000000 NA 12.38813 4.214409
New Hampshire 0.000000 0.051235 13.11094 5.099147
New Jersey 0.018340 0.016058 11.39809 2.773110
New Mexico 0.088313 0.007161 10.81837 4.902616
New York 0.022768 0.031960 6.698778 3.031192
North Carolina 0.045919 0.022889 16.71766 5.230456
North Dakota NA 0.043300 2.846739 1.343501
Ohio 0.054495 0.028990 18.37799 4.323960
Oklahoma 0.937784 1.650464 15.15327 4.706784
Oregon 0.000000 0.006020 11.93396 4.788382
Pennsylvania 0.199160 0.099676 17.13759 3.469501
Rhode Island NA NA 16.29604 6.434000
South Carolina 0.021752 0.020802 17.06215 6.371353
South Dakota 0.116550 0.121998 8.071096 2.184158
Tennessee 1.020022 1.148149 19.35562 4.376236
Texas 0.825640 0.843602 12.84153 2.717089
Utah NA 0.004343 6.567593 1.978244
Vermont 0.000000 0.030065 6.702997 4.289775
Virginia 0.020342 0.017897 14.10793 4.615755
Washington NA 0.001729 11.65880 4.614335
West Virginia 0.143052 0.133395 17.50681 7.994511
Wisconsin 0.010465 0.027360 25.60784 2.697800
Wyoming 0.000000 0.016005 8.499234 3.295765

Discipline per 100 students is 100 times the ratio of discipline of a particular type reported for all students of a given race to the corresponding overall enrollment figures given by the Office of Civil Rights, for 2011-2012.

 


[1] The Office of Civil Rights collected data from all U.S. public schools. The data used here is aggregated to the state and national level by the Office of Civil Rights and can be found at http://ocrdata.ed.gov/StateNationalEstimations/Estimations_2011_12. Data is reported either directly by school districts or by states’ education agencies on behalf of the districts. Data on corporal punishment may count multiple incidents for a single student as multiple occurrences. According to the Office of Civil Rights, “Corporal punishment is paddling, spanking, or other forms of physical punishment imposed on a student.” Data for suspensions reports counts of students with multiple out-of-school suspensions as a single incident. Because all data is self-reported, it is not known whether all districts use the same standards in reporting.

[2] According to the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center corporal punishment in schools is banned in most states. While most states do not permit corporal punishment in schools, they nonetheless report that schools beat children. Only Delaware and Hawaii report no corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is also rare in Maryland and Nevada, with fewer than three instances reported.

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Brown Center Chalkboard

Dear reader: As you may have surmised from recent posts, I’ve moved my writing to the Brown Center Chalkboard of the Brookings Institution. Hope to see you there!

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Professional non-development: Do teacher development programs work?

Today’s post appeared on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

Do professional development programs for teachers actually develop better teachers? Should the large amount of money spent on teacher development be re-directed to better uses? “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development,” released this summer by TNTP (aka “The New Teacher Project”), raises serious questions about whether the entire teacher development enterprise should be abandoned.

“The Mirage” raises three issues based on an in-depth exploration of teacher development programs in three large, public school districts and one charter management organization. The report begins by looking for evidence on whether professional development works; i.e., Do teachers become better as a consequence? The second question examined is whether teachers think development works. Then finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, “The Mirage” looks at the dollars spent on professional development and finds that the costs are shockingly high.

Does professional development for teachers work?

Since the districts studied engage in large-scale teacher development programs, one might expect the result to be that teachers to improve over time. Using overall evaluation scores according to each district’s own metric, the study finds no evidence that teachers improve. It’s worth pointing out this is not the first study to come to this conclusion.[1] To state these a little more carefully, teachers typically improve substantially for their first few years in the classroom, with a flat trajectory thereafter—despite spending time in development activities. You can see what happens in this figure taken from The Mirage.

Average teacher performance by experience

Source: Figure 5, “The Mirage”

In order to drill down into the data, the authors of “The Mirage” labelled teachers as “improvers” or “non-improvers.” They ran the classifications a number of different ways, but always relying on each district’s teacher evaluation metric . Notably, the authors did not rely on value-added scores alone.

While overall performance is flat, might we be seeing a mix between improving teachers who received a lot of development support and non-improvers who didn’t? Apparently not. Improvers and non-improvers look pretty much the same when it comes to teacher development. “The Mirage” compared the frequency of a variety of development activities for improving teachers and others. Teachers who didn’t improve spent pretty much the same time being developed as those who did improve.

Frequency of Development Activities
Improvers Non-improvers
Number of times observed over two years 8 7
Hours of coaching over two years 12 13
Hours of formal collaboration over two years 69 64
Hours spent per month in professional development 17 18

Source: Figure 7, “The Mirage”

As the saying goes, absence of correlation does not prove absence of causation. Maybe teachers need ongoing training just to keep from getting worse, although I’m not aware that anyone has made such an argument.

Is it even true that teachers think that professional development activities work? Basically, not so much, according to TNTP. Only half of teachers agreed with the statement that professional development “drives lasting improvements to my instructional practice.” What’s more, nearly half of teachers whose performance did not improve also thought that development “drives [apparently nonexistent] lasting improvements.” In fact, fewer than 45 percent of teachers thought professional development “is a good use of my time.”

How much money is spent on teacher development?

You may—or may not—be surprised at evidence that teacher development basically doesn’t work. What I think you will be shocked by, as I was, is how much is actually spent on teacher development. The headline number from The Mirage is that the three districts they studied spend on average $18,000 a year per teacher on professional development. To give context to $18,000 a year, average teacher salaries are around $56,000. In other words, the cost of development is just a bit under a third of the cost of salaries. That is a very large amount of money. It is an especially large amount of money to spend absent clear evidence of results. It is a disturbingly large amount of money to spend in light of evidence that there are no results, according to “The Mirage.”

Where is all this money going? “The Mirage” does not break down the totals, but does give considerable background on what went into the calculations. The authors provide “low,” “middle,” and “high” cost estimates. The $18,000 headline number is the middle figure; the low end is $13,000 and the high end is $20,000.[2] As an example of the difference, the salary bump that comes with a master’s degree is included in the middle and high figures, but not in the low estimate. Paying for a higher degree is certainly a real cost, although perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a district’s support of “professional development.” But getting a master’s degree does share something with the rest of findings in “The Mirage”—we know that it doesn’t improve teaching.

Teachers spend time equivalent to almost 10 percent of the school year in professional development. Of this time, five to 10 school days each year are devoted to mandated development activities; the remainder is spent on self-initiated activities. So a non-trivial part of the cost of professional development is simply salaries and benefits for teacher time. But the larger fraction is paying for the time and resources of everyone else engaged in development. In fact, “The Mirage” compares the cost of staff training in schools (excluding the part that goes to teacher salaries and salary bumps) to the costs in other large organizations and reports that schools spend four to 15 times more than non-school organizations on staff training. One might speculate as to whether the high levels of spending by schools reflect a set of vested interests in the teacher development biz, but so far as I know there isn’t any evidence on why schools spend so much on training.

Professional development seems like an obviously good idea. Indeed, after writing “we found no set of specific development strategies that would result in widespread teacher improvement,” the authors of “The Mirage” argue “that doesn’t mean we should give up.” Well maybe we should give up. Or at least, maybe we should cut way, way back on what we spend on professional development and devote the freed up funds to higher teacher salaries and more hours in which classroom teachers are in class with their students. In my bookProfit of Education, I argued that the single most important education “reform” would be to pay teachers more…a lot more; my ballpark figure is 40 percent more. The considerable funds now spent, apparently ineffectively, on improved teacher development would be a good down payment towards improved teacher salaries.

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