Monthly Archives: November 2011

Teacher Salary and Student Performance

In a recent blog, the Future of Children discussed media reports of mediocre student performance in the US, especially in reading. The Future of Children’s School Readiness volume shows evidence of additional performance issues in math, science, and writing, particularly among African American and Hispanic students when compared to whites. The evidence of poor educational quality in many schools, especially urban schools, has led parents and policymakers to demand reform of the US education system. Many argue that one way to increase student performance is through improving teacher quality.

More specifically, some suggest that teacher quality may be improved by raising teacher salaries. In a recent Huffington Post news blog, US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, argues that low salaries among teachers make teaching less appealing, leading many talented and dedicated individuals to avoid teaching as a career, or to leave it upon starting a family or purchasing a home. Another Huffington Post article suggests that budget cuts in many school districts have pushed an increasing number of teachers to take on a second job.

How can we effectively improve teacher quality in the midst of current financial constraints?

Although it seems to make sense that increasing overall teacher pay could make teaching a more attractive profession for top graduates, the Future of Children’s Excellence in the Classroom volume indicates that overall increases in teacher salary would be both an expensive and ineffective solution to improving teacher quality. Instead, the volume recommends that reform focus on restructuring salaries so that teachers are rewarded for specialization and for teaching in less desirable schools. There is some evidence which also suggests that basing teacher wages on student performance may lead to increases in teacher effectiveness; however, more research is needed to better understand the effects of performance-based pay on teacher quality.

Finally, professional development programs that are linked to the curriculum, have substantive content, and can be sustained over time show promise for improving teacher quality, as do coaching and release time for directed collaboration among teachers. But again, more research on these specific programs is needed to determine their effectiveness, as neither graduation course work nor the majority of current professional development programs have been shown to be effective in boosting teacher quality.

For a compilation of past research on this topic, see the Future of Children’s Excellence in the Classroom volume. For current research on the topic, go to Teacher Policy Research, a joint program run in collaboration with Stanford University (with Future of Children Excellence in the Classroom Issue Editor Susanna Loeb), the University of Virginia, and the University at Albany.

New Census Data Good for Researchers

In September, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 15.2 percent of all U.S. people or 46,602,000 were living below the poverty line. This number was reached using the standard measure, the same method the Census Bureau has used for the last half century, and “a method that no longer corresponds to reality,” as Jane Waldfogel, Future of Children Issue Editor/ Author and Professor of Social Work at Columbia University told the New York Times. “It doesn’t get either side of the equation right–how much the poor have or how much they need. No one really trusts the data.” (New York Times, November 3, 2011)

This week, the Census Bureau released new poverty data based on using new methods that take into account federal programs, including tax breaks and food stamps, the cost of medical care, transportation costs to get to and from work, and the changing make-up of families. The latest figures raise the poverty line to an annual income of $24,343 for a family of 2 adults and 2 children compared to $22,113 under the official standard. When taking these factors into consideration, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in the U.S. rose to 16 percent or 49,094,000.

On the PBS News Hour, in a segment with Ray Suarez, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins points out that this is not the first time the Census Bureau has looked at poverty in the United States in a more comprehensive way. The Census Bureau has been publishing similar numbers, although not as complete as the New Supplemental Poverty Measure, since roughly 1995. One of the reasons the poverty measure is important is that it can indicate whether or not government programs are helping those living in poverty. Haskins states in this interview that these programs provide a substantial amount of help, particularly to low-income working families.

The Census Bureau admits that the new measure will not replace the official poverty measure, and it will not be used for resource allocation or for program eligibility. But this crucial data could begin to tell us something about the way millions of Americans are forced to live. (The Guardian Datablog, November 11, 2011)

As Haskins says, “I think it’s helpful for [Americans] to learn that government programs make a big difference, and it’s helpful for the poor to know that, if they try to work, even if they make low income, they can do much better because of government programs… To me, that’s the main message of this report, that government programs are effective in helping poor people, especially if they’re helping themselves.”

A table comparing the data from the Standard Poverty Measure with the New Supplemental Poverty Measure can be found on the Guardian Datablog.

For more information on programs that support poor families, see the Future of Children’s volume on Antipoverty Policies.

Improvements in Math, but Reading is Another Story

With the dramatic changes that have occurred in education over the past two decades, the US might expect huge improvements in children’s academic achievement. And when looking at math scores, this is exactly what we see: the percentage of proficient fourth graders rose from 13% in 1990 to 40% this year.

However, the November 1st release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores revealed that, as a nation, we have made little progress in the past 20 years in helping our fourth graders read on grade level. Twenty-nine percent of fourth graders were proficient readers in 1992, but by the new millennium this number had only risen three percentage points, and since then it’s only risen two. Reading achievement has remained stagnant since many of the parents of today’s kids were in school.

Why haven’t reading scores improved as they have with math?

According to a New York Times article, one explanation for the slow progress in children’s literacy compared to math is in how reading and math are learned. Math is primarily learned in the classroom, but many of the skills required to become a good reader are generally acquired at home through parent education, time spent reading alone and with parents, communication with parents and caregivers, and more. In the Future of Children’s School Readiness volume, researchers indicate that racial and ethnic gaps in reading can largely be explained by factors like socioeconomic status, the number of books in the home, and parenting.

Last month, the Future of Children invited some of the nation’s top scholars and officials in education, literacy, and child development to meet for a discussion on solutions to the issue of children’s literacy in America. Their research and suggestions for programs and policy will be compiled in the Future of Children’s fall 2012 volume, Literacy of American Children.

The urgency of improving the literacy of American children was a theme throughout the conference. As Robert Slavin, Co-Director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University and Chairman of the Success for All Foundation noted at the conference and in a recent blog, “reading well is a fundamental necessity for learning in all other subjects from math to history, even art. Children who are not reading on grade level simply cannot reach their full potential in any other subject. Economically, this leads to immeasurable loss in untapped potential of our future workforce. Instead of the “keep on keepin’ on” mentality that has yielded predictably flat results for two decades, it is time to do something dramatically different in reading instruction.”

Stay tuned for the Future of Children’s fall 2012 volume on the Literacy of American Children.

Big Bird as Babysitter?

The American Academy of Pediatrics once again urges parents of infants and toddlers to limit screen-time for their children, says The New York Times; and based on figures in Future of Children’s Children and Electronic Media and reports from the Kaiser Foundation, the timing couldn’t be better: more than three quarters of households with children age six and under have personal computers; nearly a third of children under age two have a television in their bedrooms. With the exception of sleeping, American youth of today spend more time with media than any other activity.

Young children’s increasing media exposure could be catalyzed by other trends. The current economic crisis has pulled hundreds of American homes below the poverty line, and Future of Children’s Work and Family reports that divorce rates, working mothers, and single-parent households are on the rise. In many households, both parents must work to make ends meet, limiting the amount of time parents can spend with their children. Low-wage working parents are the least likely to have the resources and flexible work schedules to be involved with their children.

Findings suggest that the children most affected by these economic changes could be the most at risk of high media exposure. A 2011 nationally representative study of over 1300 parents of children ages 0 to 8, found that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds spend more time with media and are much more likely to have a TV in their bedroom. As many as 42% of these parents say they sometimes use media to occupy their children while they do chores. Similarly, the Kaiser Foundation found that many parents encourage their children to use media because it gives them a chance to get things done without having to worry about leaving them unsupervised.

What can be done to ensure more positive outcomes for children using new media?

The main lesson learned from the Future of Children’s Children and Electronic Media volume can be captured in one phrase: content matters. Rather than focusing on the type of technology used or how much time is spent with media, parents and policymakers need to focus on what is being offered to children on the various media platforms. In addition, although more research is needed, parents’ co-viewing and mediation can have positive effects on learning from educational media.

As media use plays an increasing role in children’s lives, content selection and parental involvement will become increasingly important. It is critical that parents continue to educate themselves about good media use based on their children’s developmental stages and monitor their children’s media use to ensure that it is healthful and constructive. (See the Children and Electronic Media volume for more on this.)

Children and Electronic Media notes that children under age two benefit more from real-life experiences than they do from video and that too much screen time may lead to childhood obesity and other health problems. However, under appropriate circumstances, technology can be beneficial to children of older ages. Upcoming Future of Children volumes on Children with Disabilities (Spring 2012), Literacy of American Children (Fall 2012), and Postsecondary Education (Spring 2013) will further explore the role of media and technology in children’s learning.