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February 09, 2016 9 min read
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| NEWS | Teacher Beat

50 Years of Research Shows Good Teaching Matters Plenty

The famous 1966 “Coleman Report” set up a long-standing (and still unsettled) debate about how much schools can do in the face of poverty and socioeconomic stratification. But one of its findings still resonates, a well-known scholar argues in an article released last week: Teachers matter.

Buried within the venerable, 700-page report is the finding that teacher quality seems to bear more of a relationship to student progress than school facilities or curriculum—especially for underserved children, notes the University of Washington’s Daniel Goldhaber, in an upcoming edition of the journal Education Next.

Sound familiar? It should. The last decade or so has seen dozens of studies, mostly based on sophisticated statistical analyses of growth in student scores, that have reached the same basic conclusion: Of the in-school factors affecting achievement, differences in teacher quality explain a lot of why some students do better than others.

A list of studies outlined in Goldhaber’s article, for example, show that as teachers’ effectiveness improved, so did student learning.

There are some differences between then and now, of course. James S. Coleman found teachers’ verbal ability to be the most predictive factor, followed by educational background. Today, we know that teacher experience and some measures of academic aptitude seem to matter, while things like master’s degrees have a less consistent relationship to good teaching.

Goldhaber also takes time exploring the research on teacher quality post-Coleman. He notes that we now know that much of the variation in teacher quality is actually within schools, rather than between them.

There are also some things we still don’t fully know, such as how teachers affect other student variables of interest, including self esteem, resilience, and attendance. But all in all, there’s research going back to the Lyndon B. Johnson era showing that teacher quality is really important.

Waiting for the inevitable caveat to this walk down memory lane? Here it is: 50 years later, despite the research affirming the importance of teachers, there is not a lot of consensus about what policies will help to improve the average teacher’s overall ability.

–Stephen Sawchuk

| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

Virtual Reality: Poised to Bring Big Changes to Education?

Virtual reality has been hyped as the “next big thing” for more than two decades, but is 2016 the year that it finally makes a break into schools in a big way?

Some might argue it already has. The increasingly popular Google Expeditions—virtual field trips that students can “take” via smartphones tucked into Google Cardboard viewers—are a simple form of VR. Students hold the viewers—which are designed so that their field of vision is completely focused—up to their eyes, use an app that displays the video to produce an immersive experience that takes students to any of up to 150 destinations, and get the feeling of being inside, or at, the location that is unfolding before their eyes.

Still in “closed beta,” Google Expeditions are being tested in schools that preregister with the company. Schools must apply and be accepted to officially participate in the project.

“More than half a million students have experienced it,” Jonathan Rochelle, the director of product management at Google for Education, told an audience at the British Educational Training and Technology show in London, as he unveiled “expeditions” to Buckingham Palace and the Great Barrier Reef.

At a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, meanwhile, “education” was identified in a survey as the industry most likely to benefit from the widespread adoption of virtual or augmented reality—the latter a technology that overlays information and images as one goes about day-to-day life, without using a headset.

“Mostly early adopters attend CES,” said Todd Richmond, the director of advanced prototype development at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, in a phone interview.

This select audience’s view that education is the most likely realm to benefit from the technology isn’t far from coming to fruition, he said.His institute, for instance, has a patent-pending design for a viewer that clips onto a tablet and creates the same effect as a Google Cardboard, he said. “The top part is an immersive 3D (experience), and the bottom half of the display can show text, videos, or be a virtual joystick controller so you can control what you’re viewing.”

But are VR and AR likely to be adopted only in schools that can afford it? Richmond said that in 15 or 20 years, they will be “like tables and chairs"—infrastructure that is part of the classroom. “Look at computers,” he said. “They had a small place in the classroom. Now they’re in every classroom.”

–Michele Molnar

| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

N.Y.C. Moves to Departmentalize 5th Grade Math Instruction

Across the country, most 5th grade students, along with the rest of their elementary peers, sit in a single classroom with a single teacher for reading, math, science, and social studies instruction. It’s not until middle school that they tend to start switching teachers for academic subjects.

That may be changing for some of New York City’s 5th graders, Chalkbeat New York reports. The district is looking to departmentalize math instruction at that grade level, meaning there would be a designated teacher only for math.

The move to departmentalize 5th grade in New York is part of a larger Algebra for All initiative in the city, according to a memo sent to principals last month. The district is hoping to increase students’ readiness for algebra by improving math instruction in the early grades. The initiative also seeks to “minimize any math anxiety [5th grade through Algebra 1 math teachers] may have and strengthen their capacity to serve as content experts in their schools,” the memo says.

New York City teachers who wish to take on designated 5th grade math classes will receive three days of professional development this winter, three weeks this summer, and five days next school year, when the departmentalizing begins. “We know this initiative is a big step forward and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful,” the memo says.

–Liana Heitin

| NEWS | The School Law Blog

Texas High Court Revives Cheerleaders’ Lawsuit Over Religious-Banner Display at School Games

The highest court in Texas has revived a lawsuit brought by cheerleaders at a Texas high school who were barred, for a time, from displaying banners with religious messages at school football games.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously to reinstate the suit against the Kountze Independent School District, even though the district later relented from its fall 2012 prohibition against student groups displaying religious messages at school-sponsored events.

The cheerleaders had displayed banners with messages such as, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

They sued the district and its then-superintendent, who said he felt bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent to bar the religious messages on public school grounds.

As the suit proceeded, the district backed away from the policy against religious messages. A state trial court issued an order sought by the district that said “neither the establishment clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”

But that order sowed confusion about whether the cheerleaders’ banners were private speech or school speech. The district then asked a state appellate court to declare the suit moot, which that court did.

The state Supreme Court, ruling 8-0 with one justice not participating, rather drily held that the case was not moot.

“The district has never expressed the position that it could not, and unconditionally would not, reinstate” the old policy, the court said in its Jan. 29 decision in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District.

–Mark Walsh

| NEWS | Charters & Choice

Proposal to Launch Education Savings Accounts Begins to Gain Traction in Arizona Legislature

Legislation moving along in Arizona would greatly expand eligibility for a school choice program first enacted in that state in 2011. Versions proposed in both chambers of the legislature would allow all public school students to use state funding to switch to a private school or home school through Arizona’s education savings account program.

Nevada made headlines in June when it became the first state to pass an ESA program— which gives parents unprecedented control over how state education dollars are spent on their children’s education—that’s open to all public school students, regardless of income or disability status.

However, the idea for education savings accounts originated in Arizona five years ago as a way for school choice advocates to get around a state supreme court decision that deemed traditional vouchers unconstitutional.

Initially offered only to students with disabilities, Arizona’s program was expanded to include several other groups such as students in foster care, on Indian reservations, with parents in the military, and in a zone with a low-performing school.

This most recent bill would phase in the expansion through the 2018-19 school year, starting first with students in K-5. Additionally, it would maintain a tight cap—one-half of 1 percent of the 1.1 million public school students—on the number of students who can participate also through 2019, according to the Associated Press.

Nevada’s program, which had no such phase-in period, received more than 1,000 applications in the first 10 days of the application period. A judge recently put the program on hold until lawsuits challenging its constitutionality are resolved.

–Arianna Prothero

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Top Lawyer at U.S. Department of Education Will Serve as Agency’s Second-in-Command

James Cole Jr., the general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education, has been tapped as a senior adviser fulfilling the duties of the deputy secretary of education.

The gig—the No. 2 position at the department—became available when former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan resigned and John B. King Jr., who had essentially been serving as the deputy, was tapped by President Barack Obama to oversee the agency.

Cole has a long résumé, mostly serving in legal positions. Before coming to the Education Department, he was the deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation. And before that, he was a corporate lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz in New York.

He was a member of the board of directors of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a member of the board of Prep for Prep, a New York City-based nonprofit that helps students of color attend—and be academically ready for—rigorous boarding and private day schools.

Meanwhile, coordination of P-12 programs will shift from the deputy secretary’s office to Emma Vadehra, King’s chief of staff.

–Alyson Klein

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2016 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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