First Person

Bungled by Design

There’s a well-known education research textbook by three distinguished scholars at Harvard entitled By Design.  Judy Singer, one of the authors, once told me that the working title for the book, rejected by Harvard University Press, was Bungled by Design.  That title conveyed the key message of the book, which is that, when it comes to education research, you can’t fix by analysis what you bungled by design.  The design of a research study dictates what a researcher can plausibly ask, and the credibility of the claims about what is being studied.

The recently-released NYU study of the New York City Principal Leadership Academy comparing graduates of the Aspiring Principals Program to other new NYC principals is, in my view, bungled by design.  This is not a knock on the authors, each of whom I know and respect a great deal.  Rather, it reflects the fact that the NYU researchers were brought in to study the Aspiring Principals Program of the Leadership Academy long after critical design decisions about how to evaluate the impact of the program were made—either by omission or commission.

The three key limitations I raise here pertain to selection mechanisms that ideally would have been observed by the researchers.  The inability to understand and model these selection processes undermines the objective of isolating the effect of the Aspiring Principals Program on student outcomes.  (See the comments of Sean Corcoran, lead author of the report, on selection issues here.)

Let’s start with selection into the program itself.  We know precious little about either the individuals selected into the Aspiring Principals Program or those who self-select into becoming principals in the comparison group.  To be sure, they can be compared on race, age, years of teaching experience, and a couple of other variables, but there’s no information about the personal qualities of the APP and comparison principals—and these personal qualities might be relevant to their subsequent success as principals.  This concern is heightened by the fact that the Aspiring Principals Program is highly selective.  For example, the 2003 cohort of Aspiring Principals consisted of 90 individuals culled from 400 applications;  the number of applications ballooned to 1,200 in 2004, which means that fewer than one in 10 applicants was selected for the program.  The analysis cannot even rule out the uncomfortable possibility that some of the members of the comparison principal group applied to the APP and were rejected because the program administrators predicted that they would be unsuccessful.  There’s really no way to establish that the APP and comparison principal groups were equivalent on things that might matter for their success at the time that the groups were selected.

Next, there’s the selection of the schools that APP and comparison principals were chosen to lead.  The NYU report documents that APP principals were placed in different kinds of schools than comparison principals—schools that were smaller, lower-performing, and on a downward trajectory, with higher concentrations of Black students, and more likely to be located in the Bronx.  Other than the stated mission of the Leadership Academy to place APP principals in hard-to-staff schools, we have little to go on to document the process of assigning principals to schools.  The fact that APP and comparison principals wound up in different kinds of schools greatly complicates an understanding of the impact of the program, because there is a risk that the differences in outcomes which are observed are as much a function of the features of the schools in which principals were placed as the changes in principals’ behaviors attributable to exposure to the APP.  The NYU researchers do the best they can to address this by looking at the performance trajectories of schools pre- and post-arrival of the APP and comparison principals, but there are many unanswered questions.  Suppose, for example, that a school was on a downward trajectory for two years before an APP principal took over.  Might we expect such a school to trend upward just by chance, given what we know about year-to-year fluctuations in school-level test performance?  If so, the slight advances observed in schools led by APP graduates relative to comparison principals might be due to differences in the schools they led, and not to the impact of the APP.  The question here is whether there is a sufficient number of schools led by APP graduates and schools led by comparison principals with similar trajectories prior to the arrival of the new principal to rule out this possibility.             

And third, there’s the issue of selection out of both the APP group and the comparison principal group—what is often referred to as sample attrition.  Of the 147 graduates of the APP in the 2004 and 2005 cohorts (82% of the approximately 180 entrants to the program in those two years), 120 served as a principal for some time in a DOE school.  Of these, 15 switched schools, a few served as a principal and transferred to another DOE position, a couple were promoted, and some left the DOE after serving as a principal.  There are 86 APP graduates of the original 147, or 59% of the graduates, included in the analysis.

The study does not address the attrition either from the APP group or from the comparison group.  (We know next to nothing about the comparison principals who started and didn’t persist in the same school for three years, and thus were vanquished from the study.)  Were the 34 APP graduates who started as principals but didn’t meet the three-year tenure requirement of the study unsuccessful and counseled out (or kicked upstairs)?  How did they differ from the 86 APP graduates who represent the core sample analyzed in the study?  Understanding the impact of a program requires an understanding of who leaves the “treatment” group as well as who leaves the comparison group, and why.  

Finally, I can’t end this post without commenting on the limits of assessing the Aspiring Principals Program primarily on the basis of the state test scores achieved by students (for the elementary/middle schools).  The fact that such test scores are often available—although never for students below grade 3!—and are at the center of the city’s accountability system does not justify the decision to exclude virtually every other measure of principal performance that might be relevant.  Does the principal support students’ social and emotional development?  Or preparation for citizenship in our complex democracy?  Does s/he support the teachers’ learning, and ambitious teaching practices?  Does s/he promote collaborative problem-solving among the staff and stakeholders of the school?  Does s/he manage resources efficiently to support the instructional mission of the school?  Does s/he act with integrity?  These are just some of the desirable features of a skilled principal that the NYU evaluation of the Aspiring Principals Program was unable to address.  Through no fault of the researchers.

And finally-finally:  Although clearly beyond the purview of the NYU project, I am hoping that someone is engaged in a cost-effectiveness analysis of the Aspiring Principals Program.  There’s considerable attrition at various stages up to the desired outcome of a sustained stint as an NYC principal, and the results obtained in the NYU study do not show that students in schools led by an APP graduate have much better outcomes than students in schools led by comparison principals.  A careful cost-effectiveness analysis would juxtapose the student outcomes observed in the two groups with the cost of preparing individuals in the two groups.  There may well be direct and indirect costs associated with preparing principals who do not go through the APP.  We know that the costs of taking an individual through the APP are substantial, perhaps in excess of $150,000.  Do the small and mixed differences in student outcomes favoring APP graduates observed in the NYU study justify investments of this magnitude?

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.