2017 in review

What we’ve learned: 5 lessons from education research to take into 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

Education research comes out faster than most of us can keep up with — and staying up to date gets even harder when advocates on every side claim that the newest study supports their views.

We’re here to help. Here are some of the most important lessons we’re taking away from 2017, thanks to the researchers who do their best to separate fact from fiction. (The typical caveats apply: these are all subject to change based on new evidence, and each study has limitations.)

1. Teacher certification rules can have negative side effects.

There are two big ways that rules about who can and can’t teach cause problems. First, they disproportionately exclude teachers of color, who a bevy of recent studies have shown benefit students of color. High-stakes exams, GPA cutoffs, and traditional training requirements all hit would-be teachers of color the hardest, and there’s no clear solution.

Another downside of existing rules: they can make it hard for teachers to move to a new state. A recent study finds that although teachers are less likely to move between states than many other professionals, perhaps because of challenges in gaining a new license.

This can hurt students, particularly if effective teachers leave education as a result. And it may explain another new finding: that schools near state borders — and thus most affected by teachers unable to move between states — have lower student achievement.

2. Union protections may benefit students.

Teachers unions have long argued that by protecting teachers and bargaining for better pay, they ultimately help students. Research bolstered their case this year.

Most prominently, an analysis found that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort to dramatically scale back union power hurt student test scores. Another study, this one from California, showed that when charter schools unionize, students saw larger test score gains. That study wasn’t able to pinpoint why.

Two other studies — one from Louisiana, the other from Michigan — showed that removing tenure protections increased teacher turnover, at least in some schools. Past research has found that turnover usually harms students.

3. Students who stay in voucher programs longer do better.

As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed private school vouchers into the limelight, critics have seized on recent studies showing that using public money to attend a private school can hurt student learning.

But analyses out of Indiana and Louisiana suggest that students who stick around in private school for three to four years see their scores bounce back after an initial drop. By year four, students in Indiana even made some gains in English. Still, many other students saw test scores drop because of the program, including those who left early and students in younger grades in Louisiana.

The disappointing test score results pushed voucher proponents to focus on their impact on other metrics, like high school graduation or college attendance. One study this year found that Florida students who used a tax-credit voucher were more likely to enroll in — though not necessarily complete — two-year college than similar students who attended public school.

4. State tests provide useful information about how schools affect students. Testing can also have unintended consequences.

One study focusing on charter high schools in Chicago showed that not only did those schools raise test scores substantially, they also helped send more kids to college and to stay there. That was also true of Chicago’s Noble charters, a high-profile network. Another piece of research from this year came to a similar conclusion: students who attended high schools in Michigan that raised students’ test scores also earned higher GPAs in college. At least in these contexts, tests were a meaningful gauge of school quality.

However, we also looked at a study showing that students were (slightly) less happy in the classrooms of teachers who were effective at raising test scores. This suggests that there are multiple dimensions to good teaching — and being good at one aspect doesn’t mean you’re good at others.

Finally, another study highlights the challenges of using tests to hold schools accountable: by focusing on test results starting only in third grade — the first year with federally mandated exams — schools are encouraged to place their weaker teachers in earliest grades. And many schools, at least in Miami, Florida, did just that.

5. We still don’t know much about how to turn around a struggling school.

This lesson may be the least surprising to policymakers. But as states try to help low-performing schools under the new federal education law, ESSA, they have a thin research base to draw from.

The highest-profile study on the topic came at the beginning of the year: a federal analysis of the Obama-era turnaround plan known as School Improvement Grants. It did not have any clear benefits — a finding DeVos has since touted to promote her own favored strategies.

But other studies from this year suggest that the effects of the federal improvement grants varied by place: They appear to have had a big impact in both Ohio and San Francisco, but not in Rhode Island.

New York City has also wrestled with this challenge. Early research has found that the city’s high-profile and expensive effort to help schools by offering wraparound services and other help had produced only mixed results.

Gradebooks

Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs

If you’re a principal intent on disruption, here’s one place to start: Ban Fs.

“Fs and Ds are worthless,” Principal Juan Carlos Ocon told a group of rapt educators Thursday. The principal of Benito Juarez Community Academy in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen spoke as part of a panel on improving student performance at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The event took place during a daylong look at the consortium’s latest round of pivotal research, which draws a clear line from ninth grade performance to high school graduation.

Conferees discussed the latest data showing freshman GPAs in core classes — such as reading, math, and science — dropping a third of a point from their eighth-grade GPAs. One key finding: Failure in non-core classes, like PE, far exceeds similar eighth- grade numbers. But researchers didn’t uncover why as many Chicago freshmen fail PE as science. (Read more here.)

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Sarah Duncan, left, of the Network for College Success, moderates a panel on grades at a conference Oct. 11, on findings of the To & Through Project. Also appearing on the panel at the University of Chicago are Juan Carlos Ocon, Chad Adams, and Wayne Bevis.

Joined on the panel by fellow principals Chad Adams of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park on the North Side and Wayne Bevis of Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a test-in school in West Englewood, Ocon said he took a hard position to “ban Fs from kids’ lives.”

“It actually increases rigor,” he said, explaining how the mindset of his school has shifted from punitive deadlines to encouraging learning at a student’s pace. Any high schooler who isn’t proficient in a subject by June must keep going to class until the light bulb glows, Ocon said. “Our classes do not end in June when classes end in traditional high schools — our classes extend through second week of August.”

Panelists Adams and Bevis are also “blowing up” the idea of Fs. At Adams’ school, located in an immigrant-rich neighborhood and inside which 40 some languages are spoken, Fs aren’t quite verboten — but, every five weeks, teachers have to come clean with how many Fs they give.

“Teachers didn’t like it as first, but then they started to hold each other accountable,” Adams said. I have the same kids (as you do) in your class, but, look, I gave 4 Fs versus your 54. What are you doing?”

Bevis has done away with As through Fs entirely and moved to a numeric grading system that runs 1 to 4. He’s also implemented a buildingwide revision policy, which can be controversial at some schools. After receiving a grade, students have at least two weeks to resubmit revised work and show they have improved their skills. “Some teachers go longer than two weeks, up to a semester,” he said.

Though located in very different areas of the city, each school has seen significant gains in student performance, with consistent, year-over-year rises in graduation rates and “freshman on track” percentages — that is, the percentage of freshmen who are on track to graduate as measured at the end of ninth grade, a metric developed by the University of Chicago and a key measure of success in Chicago.

The principals used the panel session to share other practices they see improving performance in their schools.

At Lindblom, for example, a revolving weekly “colloquium class” offers students extra help in a particular subject. Students must submit requests by Monday night, and with input from teachers a computer spits out their assigned special class, which can change week-to-week. “There’s a consistent understanding among teachers and students that we need to target which skills they struggle with,” Bevis said.

At Juarez, teachers spent the past year studying and recommending a set of core developmental competencies, a list that includes perseverance and relationship skills. Daily lessons are built in during an advisory period, and the staff is on board since they helped create them, Ocon said.

Adams echoed the idea of building a high-performance culture starting with his teacher corps. He’s likewise building a set of core values to express what a Sullivan High School graduate represents. When it comes to creating a learning culture, staff buy-in is essential, he said. When it comes to change, “if the teachers aren’t ready, the kids won’t be ready.”

 

held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
A student opens his locker between classes at Overland Trail Middle School on August 17, 2017, in Brighton, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.