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Guest Post: Data Offers Education Reporters Fresh Angles on Familiar Stories

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) held its annual meeting in San Francisco last week, and I asked The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus to share a guest post.

The Common Core State Standards. Teacher quality. College access.

None of these are particularly new topics on the education beat. But they can be reported in new ways using data, according to researchers who collect it.

Take the Common Core. Data shows that states whose education standards are already closest to the Common Core do best, said Bill Schmidt, co-director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University.

There are survey results about the Common Core, too. Ninety percent of 13,000 teachers polled said they have heard about and like the standards, and 70 percent have read them.

The bad news, as Schmidt put it, is that only half of elementary, 60 percent of middle, and 70 percent of high school teachers feel well-prepared to teach the topics required by the Common Core, 80 percent thought the standards were “pretty much the same” as what they’re teaching now, and only a quarter were willing to relinquish subjects that the Common Core requires be shifted to another grade.

“That really begins to affect the coherence and the focus,” Schmidt said.

Worse still, he said, “Nobody’s paid much attention to the kids.” And surveys of students find that half are concerned about earning good grades, 45 percent about getting into a good college, and only 29 percent about learning.

“It’s just a matter of playing the game,” Schmidt said these results show. “These more challenging standards might just not be that well received.”

How well teachers teach, meanwhile, is now the subject of so-called observational data based on a longitudinal database called Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, a project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sample videos of teachers teaching have been collected over the last few years and are being scored based on such measures as behavior management, organization, and pace and rigor of instruction, said Brian Rowan, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

The conclusions so far: Most practicing teachers manage behavior well, have orderly classrooms, and get along well with their students, and many conduct fast-paced and organized lessons. But few conduct lessons that are highly intellectually challenging, meaning that they include such things as analysis, modeling, and classroom discussion.

“Teachers are actually not engaging much in that,” Rowan said.

“There’s substantial evidence that high-quality, targeted professional development to teach particular content in particular ways would bring the teaching up,” he said. “I think there’s going to be massive need for more professional development.”

Those students who do make it through their high school years face an uneven playing field in the college admissions race, said Laura Perna, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her data about access show a gap of 25 percentage points between the proportion of lowest-income students enrolled in college and the highest, and about the same difference between whites and nonwhites.

“We’ve been making progress improving some outcomes, but we’re not closing gaps across groups,” Perna said.

One reason is that, in primary and secondary schools, she said, “there’s great disparity as to which students from different backgrounds have the opportunity to participate in rigorous coursework.”

Increases in tuition, too, take a larger toll on low-income students, Perna said.

And now reporters can find the data to prove it.