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Report Roundup: Three New Reports Answer Three Important Questions

How Does Teacher Pay Compare?

A new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) finds that in terms of compensation, elementary and secondary teachers are being left behind other professionals. Reports on teachers' salaries come out rather frequently and tend to have mixed findings—some say teachers are underpaid, others say they are fairly paid (almost none say they are overpaid). What's going on here? It's more than just politics. EPI's report, How Does Teacher Pay Compare? Methodological Challenges and Answers, found that such studies depend heavily on the definition of compensation (e.g., whether or not benefits are included), the chosen comparison group (e.g., all workers or college graduates with similar skills), and how teachers' summer vacation is accounted for. EPI tackled each of these to create accurate wage comparasons.

One of the trickiest issues in comparing teachers' pay to that of other professionals is dealing with teachers' summer vacation. EPI researchers dealt with this problem by purposefully doing conservative calculations that rely on weekly wages. The researchers reason that comparing teachers' annual wages to those of professionals who work year-round probably overstates teachers' wage disadvantages because it does not take into account the value of the additional leisure time or the extra income that they could earn during the summer. In contrast, comparing weekly wages probably understates teachers' wage disadvantage because teachers who take summer jobs may have to accept lower rates of pay and teachers who engage in professional development and prepare classroom materials in the summer may think of themselves as full-year workers. (To examine these weekly wages, researchers have surveys that ask about wages earned in the most recent week of work, as well as surveys that ask about annual wages and weeks worked per year.)

Keeping in mind EPI's conservative approach, consider these key findings: Relative to workers with similar skill requirements—like accountants, reporters, registered nurses, vocational counselors, and computer analysts—teachers' earned $116 less per week in 2002. When the researchers accounted for the fact that teachers, on average, work more hours per week than these other professionals, they found that teachers have a wage disadvantage of 14.1 percent. Furthermore, while it is true that teachers tend to have better benefits than these comparable professionals, those benefits do not offset the wage disadvantage much at all: When benefits are considered, teachers have a total compensation disadvantage of 12.5 percent. The problem isn't that teachers' salaries are actually going down—it's that they aren't keeping up with the salary increases that professionals in other fields have been enjoying. Between 1979 and 2003, female teachers' weekly wages actually dropped 18.5 percent relative to those of similarly experienced and educated professionals. (Male teachers suffered a 9.3 percent relative drop over this time period, resulting in a relative drop for all teachers of 13.1 percent.)

The report also painstakingly refutes some recent research that claimed that teachers' hourly wages were actually higher than those of lawyers, computer programmers, and some other highly-paid professionals. In brief, these reports are based on flawed data sets that make it impossible to compare the wages of professionals who are on regular schedules to those who are not (such as teachers, college professors, and airline pilots).

Ultimately, the report predicts problems with maintaining teacher quality in the future if the erosion of teacher pay is not stopped. According to one of the authors, Sylvia Allegretto, "This gap puts teachers in an untenable position, where they have to choose between their students and their own families' well-being." To read a brief excerpt from the report, or to purchase it, go to www.epinet.org/content.cfm/books_teacher_pay.

How Tough Are Exit Exams?

The decade-long push to increase standards and accountability has produced high school exit exams in nearly half of U.S. states. Developing such exams is a delicate enterprise: To be worth administering, the exam needs to cover important content in a serious way such that passing is an accomplishment—that is, the exam must address material that is worth knowing because it is necessary for well-paying work or college. At the same time, an exam that is unrealistically difficult or disconnected from real-world requirements for success will not sustain public support.

States have a long way to go to find just the right balance, but a new report by Achieve indicates that they are making progress. The current batch of tests is more rigorous than the minimum competency tests designed in the 1980s, but however difficult they may be for students, this new batch does not represent a level of rigor that exceeds what students actually need to succeed in college or in most well-paying jobs. Further, in comparison to other industrialized countries, America's exams are still less demanding. Achieve does not claim, however, that getting all students to pass will be easy; states must offer students extra support and multiple opportunities to retake exit exams.

The report, Do Graduation Tests Measure Up? A Closer Look at State High School Exit Exams, presents careful analyses of mathematics and English language arts exit exams in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas. Drawing on panels of mathematics and English language arts experts, as well as some independent rating scales, Achieve answered several key questions about these state exit exams:

• The exams mainly measure basic, not advanced, content. Achieve divided the exams into the disciplines' major domains (e.g., number, algebra, geometry/measurement, and data analysis for mathematics; basic comprehension, literary topics, informational topics, and critical reading for English language arts). They found that the math exams emphasize basic topics in algebra and geometry, and the English language arts exams emphasize basic comprehension.

• Exam questions mainly draw on lower-level cognitive skills. Analyzing the content of the exams is important, but it's only part of the picture: Questions on basic topics in geometry, for example, can be quite simple or they can require real analysis. Therefore, Achieve analyzed the content of the test questions to find out their level of cognitive demand. In mathematics, they rated the cognitive demand of each test item as follows: recall, using routine procedures, using non-routine procedures, formulating problems and strategizing solutions, or advanced reasoning. They found that the tests placed a heavy emphasis on using routine procedures and expected very little advanced reasoning. Similarly, the English language arts exam items were rated as: literal recall, infer, explain, or analyze. Once again, they found a heavy emphasis on knowledge and skills at the lower end of the scale (particularly inferring).

• U.S. math exams expect less than foreign exams. Achieve compared the content on the mathematics exams to the International Grade Placement (IGP) index tells when certain topics are taught in 41 nations. According to the IGP, the content of the selected states' mathematics exams is taught in about eighth grade, on average, in other countries.

• States' English exams expect less than national exams. Lacking an international measure of when language arts topics are typically taught, Achieve compared these states' exams to assessments used nationally, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the SAT, and the ACT. Achieve found that the reading passages were mostly at a late middle-school to early high-school level, with some passages at a late high-school level. As for the overall content of the English Language Arts exams, Achieve found that the vast majority of the content was at the 8th and 9th grade level.

Achieve concluded that the exams represented reasonable expectations for high school students, but cautioned that today's high school students will only pass these exams if they are given the extra support they need. For example, Achieve points out that in Massachusetts, 95 percent of the class of 2003 passed the state's exam after having multiple opportunities to retake the test. Importantly, Achieve notes that, "Those who initially failed the test and took advantage of the extra help available to them were significantly more likely to pass the test the next time, underscoring the importance of student effort and responsibility."

Achieve's report can be found online by going to www.achieve.org, clicking on "News/Reports," and then clicking on "Publications."

What Works to Raise Student Achievement?

Increased accountability in both state and federal laws has spurred a new thirst for information on programs and strategies with evidence of effectiveness. Trouble is, there are few areas in which educational research can offer adequate, meaningful, and reliable guidance. Educators typically don't have the time to sort through the thousands of studies published each year nor do they have the training necessary to identify which studies are flawed. After many attempts to remedy the situation—including efforts like An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform, which the AFT published in 1999 in conjunction with four other organizations—there's finally a sustained effort underway to let educators know what practices and programs really are effective.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) is a much-needed, new organization devoted to making education research useable. Many of its key staff members (including some formerly with the AFT) worked on the Educators' Guide—they know what schools need and are working hard to provide it. The WWC's main objective is to critically review evaluations of curricula, programs, and interventions so as to clearly state which ones are trustworthy and what the findings were. To accomplish this objective, the WWC has set standards that define what credible and reliable evidence is. In brief, the standards ideally call for studies with experimental designs, similar to those conducted in medicine, in which students are randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group. (The standards also allow for quasi-experimental designs in which students are not randomly assigned, but are carefully matched so as to make the treatment and control groups as similar as possible. However, the WWC advises caution with such studies because there is no guarantee that the two groups are equivalent.) Over time, the WWC hopes researchers will strive to meet these standards—and thus greatly increase the overall quality of education research. The new Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education has promised to support this form of research.

To kick off its research, the WWC identified several high-priority topics such as beginning reading instruction, character education, mathematics curricula, and dropout prevention. In November 2004, the WWC completed its first topic review and released a set of reports on middle school mathematics curricula. Unfortunately, the findings say more about the need for better research than they do about math: Of the 800-plus studies that were initially identified, only 11 met the research standards set by the WWC. Those 800 studies reviewed 44 mathematics curricula, but the credible 11 studies only covered five curricula—and just two of those curricula had evidence of having increased student achievement (but their results were not uniformly positive). Of course, this doesn't mean that other curricula are not effective—it just means that we don't have enough evidence to know whether they are effective or not.

Thankfully, this won't be the final word from the WWC on middle school mathematics curricula; their findings will be updated on the Web as new studies become available. For now, teachers may find it useful to check the list of 44 curricula to see if it includes any that are used in their school. Each curriculum is briefly described and has an annotated list of evaluations indicating which are credible, which are not, and why.

There is great hope that with so much new attention being paid to student achievement, more states, districts, schools, and teachers will demand high-quality evidence of programs' effectiveness—and that researchers and program developers will start providing that evidence. To read the WWC's reports and learn about upcoming projects, go to www.w-w-c.org.


Idea of America Essay Contest

Describe totalitarianism by comparing the goals, methods, and results of fascism and communism. How were the tenets of these totalitarian movements different from the ideals that unite Americans? How did the ideals embodied in the American founding prevail?

These are the challenging questions that high school juniors will tackle when they enter the 2005 Idea of America essay contest run by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). As part of NEH's We the People initiative, this annual contest focuses on America's unique foundation: We are a people united by shared principles of democracy and freedom, not by a common ethnicity, religion, or race.

In 2005, students are asked to focus on the totalitarian states that arose after World War I and consider the costs of absolute state power not only to the people who lost their freedom, but to those who remained free as well. Successful essays will draw heavily from primary sources, present multiple perspectives, and explain the historical context of the issues addressed. Essays must be in English and no more than 7,500 characters (approximately 1,200 words). All entries must be received by April 15, 2005. The first place winner will receive $5,000 and have his or her essay published in a national forum. Five runner-ups will each receive $1,000. Winners will be notified in September 2005. All six winners, accompanied by a parent or guardian, will attend an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. in October 2005. Please visit NEH's Web site at www.wethepeople.gov/essay/guidelines.html for more information.