Jonathan Cetel is the founding executive director of PennCAN. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

PennCAN is proud to share our September research roundup! Every month we gather the latest national education research and explain what it means for Pennsylvania’s students and schools. To receive PennCAN’s monthly research roundup, sign up here.

1. Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools

Roland G. Fryer, Jr., The Brookings Institute, September 2012


This study looks at what separates the high-performing charter schools in New York City from the low-performing ones. Interestingly enough, the things people tend to associate with school effectiveness—class size, per-pupil spending and the portion of teachers with teaching certificates or advanced degrees—are not what help the best schools shine. In fact, the schools with smaller class sizes, higher per-pupil spending and more credentialed teachers tended to have poorer student performance.

Instead, Fryer found that New York’s best charter schools share these five distinguishing factors:  1) more teacher feedback, 2) data-driven instruction, 3) intensive tutoring, 4) increased time on task and 5) a culture of high expectations. Citing preliminary evidence from Houston, he suggests these practices could be just as powerful if adopted by traditional public schools.


Mastery Charter School network in Philadelphia is a great example of how a culture of high expectations for behavior and academic achievement can turn around a school. Mastery was founded in Philadelphia in 2001, and has focused on turning around underperforming, and often violent, schools with the same students in the same buildings. By utilizing an achievement-focused drive, and demanding excellence, Mastery has been able to turn around 11 public schools into high performing centers. As a part of the Renaissance Schools experiment in Philadelphia, we hope that other public schools in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania will learn from Mastery’s culture of excellence.

2. The Hangover: Thinking about the Nation’s Unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge

Sara Mead, Andrew Rotherham, and Rachel Brown, American Enterprise Institute, September 2012


In the past two years alone, more than 20 states across the country have adopted teacher evaluation systems tied to student learning. This report surfaces four key issues policymakers will need to consider as they implement the new systems:

  • Encouraging districts to innovate as they develop the new systems.  
  • Creating evaluation systems that can adapt to blended learning models.
  • Being clear on the purpose of evaluations and what problems they are intended to solve.
  • Evaluating teachers as professionals.

It ends with some policy recommendations, from focusing on improvement to creating “innovation zones” to setting clear expectations, that will help teacher evaluations become true drivers of student learning, and not just another worn-out policy fad.


In June 2012, Pennsylvania passed a bill calling for student achievement to be one of many factors in a teacher’s yearly evaluation. The student achievement component of Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation system will be split between classroom observations by principals, and multiple types of student performance data, not just test scores.

Because of the use of multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, the new evaluation system won widespread support from Democrats, Republicans, and even the state’s largest teacher union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Many Pennsylvania school districts, including Harrisburg and Northwestern Lehigh, have already begun to roll out the new evaluation system in a few pilot programs this school year. When the new evaluation system rolls out next school year, it is important that Pennsylvania keep the advice of “The Hangover” report in mind, and ensure that the new system does in fact support effective teaching and reflective feedback for improvement.

3. Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives Through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment

By Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Steven D. Levitt, John List and Sally Sadoff, Harvard University, July 2012


There’s been a lot of debate about whether offering teachers financial incentives would help increase their students’ learning. But these researchers asked another, perhaps more important question: does it matter when teachers receive those financial incentives? They results of this study suggest that yes, it does.

In their field experiment, researchers compared two groups of randomly selected teachers at Chicago Heights schools.  They promised the first group of teachers an end-of-year bonus in exchange for increasing their students’ achievement in math. They gave the second group a bonus at the beginning of the year, but warned them that if their students didn’t meet the year’s math learning targets, they would have to return it.

The results were significant. Teachers who received their bonus up front improved student achievement more than the teachers who received an end-of-year bonus, and their students were also found to be more likely to attend college, avoid teenage pregnancy, earn more money in the workforce and save for retirement.


Although Pennsylvania recently passed new legislation requiring student achievement measurements to be a part of a public school teacher’s evaluation process, the results of that evaluation cannot be used to award merit pay or to decide layoffs. Pennsylvania should consider tying the results of the evaluation system to pay and teacher status, and take into account these findings of the  “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives Through Loss Aversion” report. 


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