In response to our recent podcast called “Why Is ‘I Don’t Know’ So Hard to Say?,” a reader named Timothy McCollough writes in with a most interesting story. He teaches at a private international school in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His courses include two sections of AP microeconomics, sociology, and “regular economics.” Because it’s a private school, he adds, “we have freer reign to set up classroom incentives and engage students as we see fit.” For instance:
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In my classroom, students lose 1/4 point for wrong answers on quizzes. But for writing “I don’t know,” they get 1/4 point. (A correct answer is 1 point). The rationale is that if someone is in a medical emergency, and someone asks me what should be done, the answer “I don’t know” is much preferable to a guess. “I don’t know” leads the questioner to ask someone who hopefully is knowledgeable.
A new study released by NBER from authors Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer takes a look at how teaching practices affect social capital. It’s long and detailed, so we’ll only give you the highlights: in a nutshell, there are major differences between societies that teach vertically (like a teacher lecturing) and societies that teach horizontally (with students working together in groups.)
And because everyone loves international comparisons, the difference between horizontal and vertical countries breaks down as follows:
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Students work in groups more in Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain). This teaching practice is less common in East European countries and the Mediterranean (Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Italy). In contrast, in East European and Mediterranean countries, teachers spend more timing lecturing.
This year alone has seen teacher-cheating scandals in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, and elsewhere; in this week’s Times, Sharon Otterman reports how New York State is trying to curtail cheating and offers some specific instances of past cheating:
A charter school teacher warned her third graders that a standardized test question was “tricky,” and they all changed their answers. A high school coach in Brooklyn called a student into the hallway and slipped her a completed answer sheet in a newspaper. In the Bronx, a principal convened Finish Your Lab Days, where biology students ended up copying answers for work they never did.
This comes as little surprise to Steve Levitt, who several years ago recognized what most legislators and school administrators were unable (or unwilling?) to foresee: that the introduction of high-stakes testing would create incentives that might encourage some teachers (especially bad ones) to cheat on behalf of their students. So he developed an algorithm to catch cheaters, which was so successful that then-Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan brought Levitt in to help identify and fire cheating Chicago teachers. Read More »
The term “merit pay” has gained a prominent place in the debate over education reform. First it was former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee trumpeting it as a key to fixing D.C.’s ailing public schools. Then a handful of other districts gave it a go, including Denver, New York City, and Nashville. Merit pay is a big plank in Education Secretary Arne Duncan‘s platform; and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has just launched his own version of merit pay that focuses incentives toward principals.
There’s just one problem: educators almost universally hate merit pay, and have been adamantly opposed to it from day one. Simply, teachers say merit pay won’t work.
In the last year, there’s been some pretty damning evidence proving them right; research showing that merit pay, in a variety of shapes and sizes, fails to raise student performance. In the worst of cases, such as the scandal in Atlanta, it’s contributed to flat-out cheating on the part of teachers and administrators. So, are we surprised that educators don’t respond to monetary incentives? What makes teachers different?
An example of irrationality? A colleague at another university was offered a buy-out: A full year’s pay if he would resign/retire at the end of the current semester. At the same time his school also offered a phased retirement deal: Two years at half pay, with half a usual teaching load.
This economist chose to take the phased retirement, thus choosing the same pay, but teaching four courses over two years instead of no teaching. I think he’s crazy; but I think you can write down a utility function that is consistent with his behavior and violates none of our assumptions about preferences.
Peg Tyre is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who specializes in writing about education policy. In her 2008 book, The Trouble with Boys, she delved into the growing academic achievement gap between boys and girls to examine why boys are falling so far behind in the classroom. In her new book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve, Tyre mines education research data to find out which programs and strategies give kids the highest probabilities of academic success. The result is a concise handbook for parents, one that applies a macro-economic view of education in an effort to create a more rational market around school choice.
As another school year kicks off, Tyre has agreed to answer your questions about The Good School, and anything else education-related. So fire away in the comments section. Before you do, take a look at the table of contents from The Good School printed below, and also read Tyre’s adapted excerpt from the book on the merits (or lack thereof) of teaching to the test. Read More »
The school uniform debate isn’t exactly raging these days, but there’s still data to be gathered and examined as to how slacks and blazers affect school kids. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Houston, school uniforms seem to be decently effective at improving student attendance and teacher retention, but have no real impact on improving student achievement. For their data, researchers looked at the effects school uniforms had on a large urban school district in the Southwest United States.
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Last week, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he’s rolling out a merit pay program specifically for school principals, using $5 million in donated funds. The plan is particularly bold considering its announcement comes on the heels of quite a bit of evidence, from research to scandals, showing the faults of merit pay.
In March, we wrote about Harvard economist Roland Fryer‘s study on New York City’s failed merit pay experiment, the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program, which was shutdown last month. A subsequent RAND report echoes much of Fryer’s findings:
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…the theory underlying school-based pay-for-performance programs may be flawed. Motivation alone might not be sufficient. Even if the bonus here had inspired teachers to improve, they might have lacked the capacity or resources — such as school leadership, expertise, instructional materials, or time — to bring about improvement.