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Special Education Today Newsletter 3(19)
What’s the news and information for 6 November 2023?
Welcome to this, the 19th issue for the third year of Special Education Today. I hope that those of you who needed to do so accurately adjusted your clocks over the past weekend. Wikipedia’s entry on DST indicates that only some of the countries on Earth follow the pattern of shifting clocks during the spring and fall of the year and those that do so are home to a minority of Earth’s population. Also, of course, those countries in the southern hemisphere that employ DST flip the switching, springing back and falling forward. Ahh, conventions….
I devote the remainder of the newsletter to familiar content. After I list the posts from the previous week, I’ll provide a few notes, and I’ll follow those notes with a smidge of commentary. Read on!
First, though, let me use the accompanying photo to provide an answer to a question that I posed Friday of the past week. This image is less abstract and stylized than the one I posted in the Friday Photos post a few days ago (see following link to the post). Many readers may not recognize the location even in this less tricky form. It will likely be familiar to people who along the eastern front of the Rocky Mountain cordillera in the vicinity of Colorado Springs. That is, indeed, a photo of Pikes Peak and environs. No one suggested that identification in the comments or in back-channel correspondence with me. There being no winner in this contest, the prize will roll over into the next contest. Stay tuned.
Here are links to the past week’s posts. They are, as usual, in chronological order.
Special Education Today Newsletter 3(18)—You mean there was something happening this past week?
Sara G. Tarver 1935-2023—History: S. Tarver was a valuable contributor to special education
Special ed process—Step 2: Planning an appropriate program
Halloween ‘23 #5: Colored water
ASAT November newsletter—Here’s a reminder for folks who are interested in autism
Friday photo with no person in it: Where in the world is this?
I hope readers found something worthwhile in these posts. If not, please let me know; suggest other stories I should cover.
After a brief growth spurt among free subscribers (the number of SET free subscribers is increasing), there’s been a drop in paying subscribers of late. Looking on the brighter side, two years ago, SET had about ~275 subscribers. So there’s growth., and at least a few readers who are supporting SET’s distribution to 100s of others. So, here’s a shoutout for those subscribers, especially including those who provide premium support beyond the basic subscription.
While in Colorado Springs, I caught this a story by Chris Osher and Evan Wyloge with the headline, “Colorado's poorest schools have fewer highly effective teachers than the richest schools, raising equity concerns,” in The Gazette of 5 November 2023. As SET regulars might suspect, it caught my interest.
There’s very little (okay, nothing) about special education in Mr. Osher’s and Mr. Wyloge’s article, but the phrase,“highly effective teachers” rang my chimes. Socio-economic status (i.e., “poorest” and “richest”) and schools is a topic that has been bandied about—inconclusively in my view—for a long time…at least since the famous report by James Coleman (1966) which provided an analysis of achievement by students of different ethnic backgrounds and revealed (surprise!) average differences between black students and white students. Although the topic might well have arisen even without the Coleman Report, even since its publication it has provided fodder for debates among educators, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and representatives of other disciplines—as well as politicians, the lay public, and many others.
Here is Mr. Osher’s and Mr. Wyloge’s article following along in that long history, focusing on disparities in the quality of teaching in Colorado’s schools. Drawing on measures of (a) free and reduced lunch and (b) teacher effectiveness, they reported that the inequities in Colorado schools appear connected. They lead with this paragraph:
Colorado's "highly effective" teachers are unequally distributed across its public schools, according to a Gazette analysis of the state education department's teacher evaluation data. The poorer a school is in Colorado the more likely it is to have fewer "highly effective" teachers, while top-rated teachers are mostly concentrated in the state’s wealthier schools.
As I contemplated the headline and the lede, I thought, “Okay, here we go. Nothing particularly new here….” But, I almost immediately thought, “Wait. What does ‘highly effective teachers’ mean? How’s that measured?” I suspect many readers of SET had quite similar thoughts.
As it turns out, teacher effectiveness was measured by combining (a) the test scores of students of individual teachers and (b) ratings of teachers. Most educators know that there are controversies about exactly how to obtain both of those two classes of measures. Variations on them have been extensively debated in discussions of merit pay for many years. There are lots of questions. For example, here are two illustrative questions:
To assess student outcomes, one would hope schools would use consistent tests administered under standardized conditions. To correct for inevitable variation in the learning of groups of students that are not under the influence of teaching (prior knowledge, entering behavior, etc.) might one have to do some fancy statistical adjustments in finding an average achievement level for a group of students in an individual classroom in a particular year?
To assess teachers’ competence, one would have to know something about how well the teachers know the content (whether it’s arithmetic or 20th century American short stories) they are teaching and implement beneficial pedagogical practices. For the latter, to observe teaching effectiveness, what will observers record? How do observers assess teacher demeanor, teacher employment of evidence-based practices, teacher reactivity to being observed, teacher performance on any given day as opposed to an entire school semester or year, etc.? Might one have to use some fancy data collection and statistical methods to find an average for a given teacher?
What would be the reliability and validity of such measures? Can we trust those measures?1 Suppose that the readers of SET could wave their collective magic wand and make every teacher in Colorado an effective teacher. Would the Colorado measure (or any other scale) reflect their effectiveness?
Here’s a hint. As a part of their reporting, Mr. Osher and Mr. Wyloge did a little checking. They reported this:
One 2009 study of teacher evaluation systems across the nation similarly found those systems often fail to distinguish and identify poor performance. That study found that in most school districts less than 1% of teachers were rated as unsatisfactory but 81% of administrators and 57% of teachers could identify a teacher in their school who was ineffective.
Another 2019 analysis by professors at Brown University and Vanderbilt University found other state teacher effectiveness rankings identified far higher rates of poorly performing teachers than Colorado’s system. New Mexico in 2017 identified nearly 30% of assessed teachers as needing improvement while Colorado only identified about 4% as needing improvement that year, that study found.
Suffice it to say that I have concerns about the foundations of this analysis reported by Mr. Osher and Mr. Wyloge. To their credit, they examined many of those concerns. I hope many of their readers reflect extensively on the issues they raised.
My reservations about the measures used in establishing which teachers should be considered “highly effective” should are substantial. However, I hope that readers do not take those concerns as a rejection of the importance of ensuring that students, regardless of their ethnic origins (and other characteristics) receive the most effective instruction educators can muster.
Providing high-quality instruction in schools is probably fundamental in reducing the number of children who are instructional casualties in education. We educators need that to happen. And we special educators need to know that the students assigned to us are kids who got a fair shake in general education, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, hair color, ratio of the lengths of tibia and fibula, the number of hair swirls, the straightness of their teeth….
So, I guess this is just another way of saying that, in addition to taking care of each other (wearing masks when it matters; using seatbelts, not letting others walk into the paths of speeding cars, etc.), we should teach our children well.
SET should not be confused with a product with a similar name that is published by the Council for Exceptional Children. SET predated CEC’s publication by decades.
Coleman, J. S. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity (Vol 1). U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, National Center for Education Statistics.
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