Published Online: November 9, 2009
Published in Print: November 11, 2009, as Blogs of the Week

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Measuring Teachers

One of the big-ticket items on the Obama agenda is a proposal to evaluate teachers by looking at changes in their students’ test scores. This idea comes out of studies by various economists who say that credentials and experience count for nothing, and that if we value improvements in student performance, we should judge teachers by their students’ scores. If the scores go up, the teacher is “effective,” and if they don’t, the teacher is a loser.

I have been trying to figure out how a school would function if the advocates of tying test scores to teacher evaluation prevail. At least three years of data would be needed, though five years would be better. At the end of the three to five years, the teachers who did not get gains would be fired and replaced by teachers who have no track record at all. Every year, a new group of teachers who had not produced gains would be fired, and another untested group of teachers would take their place. Most teachers would be exempt because they don’t teach reading or math. But for the unfortunate minority who do teach the tested subjects, there would be an annual game of musical chairs. There would be constant churn, with untried teachers thrown into the trenches. Some might make it (though it will take three years or more to be sure), but many will be ousted.

Does any other profession work this way? —Diane Ravitch


The Turnaround Dilemma

In a recent study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research examined the impact on students of shutting down 18 chronically low-performing elementary schools in Chicago. The bottom line, according to this study, was that the students who were displaced by the closings just ended up at other low-performing schools in the district. Their achievement, as measured by test scores, did not improve all that much, compared to that of students who continued to attend similarly low-performing schools.

The findings are important because U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who presided over the turnaround efforts in Chicago, is pushing a similar effort at the national level. Districts won’t be required to close down schools to qualify for the new federal turnaround grants, but it’s clear from the draft guidelines issued so far that the federal government really likes that approach.

Over at the Institute for Research and Reform in Education, founder Jim Connell has developed a simulation tool to help school superintendents decide the best course for troubled schools: transform them, or shut ’em down and start over?

You can get some answers by plugging data about your schools into the spreadsheet that Connell developed based on his experience with First Things First schools. The spreadsheet is based on lots of assumptions, of course, some of which may not apply in every district. Connell explains the thinking behind his analytic tool in a paper on the IRRE Web site, at Contact him directly to try the calculator out for free. —Debra Viadero


English for Scientists

Many scientists have a lot to say. Unfortunately, a large swath of the public at large has trouble understanding what it is they’re talking about. As a result, important scientific facts and ideas are misunderstood, or are simply not discussed in the public sphere. The language barrier also makes it difficult for the public, including K-12 students, to grasp why science is important at all, and how it affects their lives.

A new Web site, Communicating Science: Tools for Scientists and Engineers, seeks to help scientists overcome these barriers. Run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world, the site includes how-to tips for scientists to conduct interviews. It also houses online webinars, ideas for public-outreach opportunities, and a list of workshops to help scientists communicate.

I often hear scientists talk about how difficult it is to explain the rules and language of science to lay audiences. Their frustration level was especially high during the spate of fights over evolution and intelligent design in schools a few years ago, when many scientific experts sought to describe the kinds of questions science can answer, and those that it can’t. —Sean Cavanagh

Vol. 29, Issue 11, Page 9

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