Monday, October 3, 2011

Low-Cost Education Reforms: Later Starts, K-8, and Focusing Teachers

Discussions of education reform often seem to collide with a budgetary brick wall. Longer school year? Better teacher pay? Longer school day? What school district can afford it? Thus, the discussion paper by Brian E. Jacob and Jonah Rockoff for the Hamilton Project is a breath of fresh air, because they propose three low-cost methods of reorganizing existing school resources in ways that research suggests will improve student performance. Their overview (citations and footnotes dropped throughout):

"In this paper, we describe three organizational reforms that recent evidence suggests have the potential to increase K–12 student performance at modest costs: (1) Starting school later in the day for middle and high school students; (2) Shifting from a system with separate elementary and middle schools to one with schools that serve students in kindergarten through grade eight; (3) Managing teacher assignments with an eye toward maximizing student achievement (e.g. allowing teachers to gain experience by teaching the same grade level for multiple years or having teachers specializing in the subject where they appear most effective). We conservatively estimate that the ratio of benefits to costs is 9 to 1 for later school start times and 40 to 1 for middle school reform. A precise benefit-cost calculation is not feasible for the set of teacher assignment reforms we describe, but we argue that the cost of such proposals is likely to be quite small relative to the benefits for students."

On starting the school day later

They write: "The earliest school start times are associated with annual reductions in student performance of roughly 0.1 standard deviations for disadvantaged students, equivalent to replacing an average teacher with a teacher at the sixteenth percentile in terms of effectiveness. ... According to the National Household Education Survey, roughly half of middle schools start at or before 8:00 a.m., and fewer than 25 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. High schools start even earlier. Wolfson and Carskadon (2005), surveying a random sample of public high schools, found that more than half of the schools reported start times earlier than 8:00 a.m."

As the authors point out, there are two main tradeoffs here. One is that starting later might require some school districts to use more buses, rather than using the same buses in series every morning for high school, middle school, and elementary school. The estimated cost of additional transportation is $150/student, which is a very low cost for this much educational gain. The other main concern is after-school activities, especially sports and work. A possible resolution here is whether schools could offer more flexibility during the last school period of the day for those who need it for these reasons.

On K-8 schools

They write: "While the vast majority of American public school students in Grades 9 through 12 attend a traditional high school, a wide variety of configurations are used to divide students in the primary grades (K–8) across school buildings. Although there is likely no single configuration that is optimal for every school district nationwide, it is unlikely that the hodgepodge we see today is based on a careful analysis of how grade configuration impacts student achievement. In particular, recent evidence suggests that districts should address problems in middle schools (Grades 6 to 8) and junior high schools (Grades 7 and 8), particularly in the year of entry, or eliminate the use of these types of schools altogether. ... Middle and junior high schools were not always part of the educational landscape in America. ... These types of schools have never become popular in the private sector, where K–8 or K–12 institutions continue to be the most common grade configuration. If middle and junior high schools are effective organizational forms, it is curious that the private sector continues to eschew them. ..."

The clearest and most worrisome evidence on middle and junior high schools comes from two recent studies, one in New York City (Rockoff and Lockwood 2010) and the other in Florida (Schwerdt and West 2011). Both are statistical analyses of large administrative databases that track student achievement over the majority of the primary grades and, in the Florida case, into high school. The clear result of both of these studies is that students who move to a middle or junior high school in Grades 6 or 7 experience a sharp decrease in their learning trajectories and continue to struggle, relative to their peers who attended K–8 schools, through Grade 8 and into high school. ..."

As the authors point out, some districts would find it less costly to move to a K-8 configuration than others, and this may be a suggestion to be plucked when the time is ripe. But they add: "Even if changes in grade configuration are not an option, the research discussed above suggests it is imperative that districts devote resources to eliminating the drop in achievement associated with middle schools."

On focusing teachers

They write: "Recent research suggests that elementary teacher grade assignments vary considerably from year to year, even among the set of teachers who maintain the same certification and continue teaching in the same school. In New York City, for example, roughly 38 percent of teachers switch grades from one year to the next. An even larger fraction of teachers switch grades over two or three years. ... The rate of grade switching among upper elementary teachers in Los Angeles, Miami, and Gwinnett County, Georgia, are all greater than 20 percent. ..."

"A recent study of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in North Carolina found a correlation of roughly 0.7 between measures of teacher effectiveness in English and math. However, even with this relatively high correlation, the authors of this study calculate that shifting teacher assignments so that each teacher taught only the subject in which she or he was most effective would lead to substantial increases in student achievement. Indeed, they estimate the benefits of this complete specialization would be larger than the benefit of firing the bottom 10 percent of teachers (based on student test scores). Of course, complete teacher specialization by subject would require large structural changes in the organization of schooling."

Again, the authors are quick to point out possible trade-offs here. Sometimes students benefit when teachers switch. But principals and others who set teaching assignments should stay highly aware that specific experience in teaching a certain grade and subject does tend to make the teacher better at that focused task. Striving to make switching less common, and instead to have teachers develop deeper expertise in a grade and/or a particular subject, would be a useful step.