Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Halting a runaway train
The education field has traditionally clung to the belief
that true “professionals” are those teachers who stick with this work for their
entire careers—ten, twenty, thirty years, usually in the same school or school
system and certainly in the same state. To recruit and retain such teachers
(and in lieu of more generous salaries), school districts and states have long
depended on the ability to promise them generous benefits—including pension and
health-care plans—when they retire.
These [defined-benefit] pension systems...are burdening state and local education budgets across the land, particularly at a time of broader economic frailty, and at a time when Baby Boomers are starting to retiring en masse.
Recently, however, it’s become clear that fewer of today’s
teachers plan to remain in the classroom (or in the state) for their entire
careers. The traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension system—which builds
retirement capital slowly at the outset of a worker’s career, and often cannot
be merged with other retirement plans after a job or geographic switch—now appears
ill-suited to the work, lifestyles, and needs of a younger and more transient
Besides which, the DB pension system is almost always very expensive,
and getting more so, both for taxpayers and (depending on the structure of the
plan) for its future beneficiaries. These pension systems (often unfunded or
underfunded), plus ancillary health-care costs and related benefits for
retirees, are burdening state and local education budgets across the land,
particularly at a time of broader economic frailty, and at a time when Baby
Boomers are starting to retiring en masse.
But few communities and states have yet demonstrated the
wisdom, fortitude, capacity, and imagination to devise workable alternatives
and put them into place. This major public-policy (and public-finance) problem
has been defined and measured, debated and deliberated, but not yet solved.
Except where it has been.
Fordham recently set out to uncover some of these stories in
our new report, “Halting
a Runaway Train: Reforming Teacher Pensions for the 21th Century.” Here, we
examine pension reform in federal, state, and local governments; a private
company; a university; and four charter schools. (We also offer a handy primer
on defined-benefit and defined-contribution [DC] plans.) What do we take away
from these cases? Three lessons emerge.
First, this is messy, complicated work, fraught with
challenges. Yet smart organizations can prepare for them. The
organizations that enacted the most dramatic and efficient pension reforms were
those that moved proactively, prepared their employees for the shift, and
mustered hard data to document their assertion that the status quo had become
unsustainable and change was therefore unavoidable. In almost every case we
examined, the greatest challenge in enacting pension reform was to convince
current employees that change was necessary and that it would not be
detrimental for them. Those organizations that managed the smoothest transitions
gauged employee sentiment at the outset and informed employees of new
developments and potential outcomes well before any change took place. They
also effectively demonstrated to their employees that inaction would lead to
even more dire consequences—at best, layoffs and other budget cuts, and at
worst, the dissolution of the organization.
Second, cost savings from pension reform may be real but
not immediate. One of the strongest criticisms that opponents can hurl at
pension reformers is that changing plans may actually cost more in the near
term. That’s because, without new employees to subsidize lingering DB plans,
the employer is suddenly on the hook for more costs going to support today’s DB
retirees and any current employees who remain in the DB plan. One way to ease
those costs is to shut down the DB plan entirely and include existing as well
as new employees in the new plan. But as several cases in this volume show, the
stormy political climate surrounding reform—even in private institutions—does
not often tolerate such sweeping moves (and placing all employees, especially
those near retirement, into a new DC plan may not be fair). In any pension
switch, the ability to show how pension reform can save thousands, millions, or
even billions of dollars down the road is pivotal. This is true not only before
the reform takes place but in the years after; in many of the cases we
examined, opponents to the reforms remain vocal to this day, well after the new
plans have gone into effect.
need not choose between saving money and disregarding employee concerns. Though
most organizations examined in this volume adopted new retirement plans in
order to save money, many took pains to minimize real or perceived harm to
their employees. That doesn’t mean avoiding all pain—a key goal of pension
reform is to shift some investment risk and expense from employer to employee,
and most every transition documented within these pages did so— but employers
can take actions to keep that discomfort within reasonable bounds. Some
organizations reinvested savings elsewhere—e.g., one charter school raised
teacher salaries and bonuses, while another employer used savings to hire
investment counselors for its employees. Others found ways to overlay different
plan components into a blended retirement system so that employees would
benefit from a menu of options and be somewhat protected from investment risk.
Utah, for instance, instituted an innovative hybrid plan that offers employees
DB-style protection while capping state contributions.
At the end of the
day, saving money in and of itself is not the ultimate aim of any reform;
rather, saving money is a means to stabilizing an organization and making it
stronger, healthier, and more productive—all of which is good for the
organization’s present and future employees, too.
Opinion: Harkin-Enzi's hodgepodge
By Michael J. Petrilli
finally have a serious, thoughtful ESEA reauthorization proposal in the Senate,
one that should gain support from both sides of the aisle and both ends of
Pennsylvania Avenue. But here’s a warning: It’s not the bill that the Senate is
currently marking up.
Like the guy in green, the Alexander-Burr proposal
is just plain stronger. (Photo by Hector Alejandro)
No, that bill, authored by
education-committee chairman Tom Harkin and ranking member Mike Enzi, is a
hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that should alarm folks on the right and
sure enough, progressives have already made their opinions clear on why the bill
should be stopped dead in its tracks. But it should offend conservatives
(including the Reform Realists among us) too,
though for very different reasons. Such conservatives should back the
aforementioned proposal put forward by
Senators Alexander, Burr, and others, instead.
are the Harkin-Enzi bill’s major offenses:
expansive new reach into high schools. While the legislation
deserves credit for handing many accountability decisions back to the
states, it would launch a whole new series of federal interventions in the
nation’s worst high schools. Targeting “dropout factories” might sound
like a good idea until you consider the Department of Education’s capacity
(or lack thereof) for tackling something so complicated and complex from
the onerous “highly qualified teachers” mandate. One of No Child
Left Behind’s most hated provisions is the requirement that teachers earn
designation as “highly qualified.” Not only did this get the feds into the
position of micromanaging teacher qualifications, it also did so in a
clumsy way, focusing on paper credentials. The Administration’s waiver
package moves to a policy of “non-enforcement” around this provision,
signaling that it’s time to move on. And the Alexander proposal scraps it
entirely. Meanwhile, Harkin-Enzi keeps the “highly qualified” rules in
place for newly hired teachers.
than eliminating or consolidating wasteful programs, it adds new ones.
As far as I can tell, few major programs are put on the chopping block,
and several more are created, including a new initiatives for high
schools, STEM, literacy, and “safe and healthy schools.” As the country is
running a historic deficit, this is the best we can do?
Republicans, including ranking member Enzi and Senator Lamar Alexander, have
already signaled that they will vote to get the bill out of committee but can’t
support “sending it to the president” in its current form. Here’s hoping that
somewhere along the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (House of Representatives,
we’re looking at you!), these onerous provisions fall by the wayside.
Otherwise, Republicans would be wise to scrap
the bill and start over—with Senator Alexander’s proposal as the jumping-off
point. It’s a much stronger bill, closer in many ways to the Administration’s
own Blueprint, and much more serious about re-calibrating the federal role in
education. And if Democrats won’t go for that—well, wait for a more favorable
environment in 2013.
This piece originally
appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.
Subscribe to Flypaper here.
|Click to listen to commentary on the Harkin-Enzi proposal from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: Age of Aquarius meets the Age of Austerity
This is the dawning of the Age of Austerity.
(Photo by Dottie Mae)
Since his election as Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel
has pushed hard on several education-policy fronts—including lengthening the city’s
inexcusably short school day and expanding all-day kindergarten access. It’s
not just what he’s fighting for that’s exciting (though lengthening the school
day is long overdue). Nor is it whom he is fighting against (though it does always tickle Gadfly when Democrats
buck the unions). What makes Rahm so promising is the refreshingly pragmatic
manner in which he is waging these battles. Noting that “the cost of putting
political choices ahead of practical solutions has become too expensive,”
Emanuel has exerted concerted campaigns to deflate bloated departments and
reroute the recouped dollars to targeted initiatives. To pay for that all-day
kindergarten, for example, he lopped $400 million off the city’s schools’
bureaucracy. Best of all is his refreshing rhetoric. About the 2003 teacher-union
contract (signed by Arne Duncan, by the way), he said: “Chicago teachers got a
double-digit pay raise and a shortened school week. The result was that
politicians did not get a teachers’ strike and teachers did get better pay. But
can anyone tell me what the kids got? We are going to design a system where the
kids get something.” Yes, yes, yes!
News Analysis: A monopoly meets market demands
Public-school systems are notoriously insensitive
to parental demands. When they do offer popular programs that parents want,
they are often oversubscribed—and yet officials almost never take the obvious
next step and expand or replicate the offering. Not so in St. Louis. In
response to swollen market demand for its standout magnet school, Kennard
Classical Junior High, the district has created a second magnet school—by
transforming an undersubscribed school slated for closure. Mallinckrot
Academy—and its gifted-education program—are meant “to capitalize on the demand
for accelerated learning that Kennard alone cannot satisfy.” These programs,
which are largely geared toward middle-class families, are designed to keep these
folks (and their tax-base dollars) within city limits. Which, in Gadfly’s view,
is a worthy goal. Other struggling urban districts would be wise to follow suit.
Review: Strong Support, Low Awareness: Public Perception of the Common Core State Standards
By Daniela Fairchild
While adoption and implementation of the Common
Core State Standards (CCSS) have spurred a hailstorm of activity across
educator and edu-wonk circles alike, the general public remains clueless even
as to what the standards are—never mind how they are being implemented or what
the long-term implications of their adoption might be. Through this national
poll (given to 800 registered voters), the folks at Achieve find that a
whopping 60 percent of Americans have never heard of the Common Core
standards—and another 21 percent have heard “not much.” Further, among voters
who have heard peep about the Common Core, impressions are mixed: Thirty-seven
percent view them favorably while 34 percent hold an unfavorable opinion (the
rest are undecided). Despite this mixed reaction to the CCSS specifically,
Americans overwhelmingly approve of the idea of common academic standards for
all states: sixty-six percent support vs. 31 percent opposed. (Even a majority
of Republicans like the notion of common standards.) But with so few people in
the know, it’s clear that Common Core remains fragile politically. The good
news, however, is that public-school teachers (most of whom have heard “a lot”
about the Common Core) like the idea of common standards: Sixty-five percent of
them are in support. That’s a promising indication that these standards might
actually have some staying power in the classroom—if the public doesn’t come to
dislike them first.
Review: The Gateway to the Profession: Assessing Teacher Preparation Programs Based on Student Achievement
Would-be elementary teachers deciding whether to
enroll in the education school at Antioch University or the University of Puget
Sound: Go with the latter. According to this new report by Dan Goldhaber and
Stephanie Liddle, Puget Sound graduates are much more effective at boosting
their students’ achievement levels than Antioch. For this analysis, Goldhaber
and Liddle tapped a database of roughly 8,700 elementary teachers in Washington
State and linked them to about 293,000 students for whom value-added data could
be garnered. They found significant differences between individual in-state Washington teacher-training
programs: In reading, the average difference in student performance between
teachers from the most- and least-effective programs is equivalent to that seen
in students without learning disabilities and those with. Hiring an alum from a
program in the 84th percentile versus the mean is as effective at upping
student test scores as reducing class size by five to ten students. (Surely,
some of these differences can be attributed to selectivity of school. But Goldhaber
and Liddle found this not to be the overwhelming factor.) However, the authors
also found little or no difference between teachers that were trained inside or
outside the state of Washington. The authors jump through a long-course of
statistical hoops when formulating these analyses—and these mixed results leave
more questions than they answer. The biggest might just be: The Data Quality
Campaign reports that thirty-five states have enough available data to conduct
this same type of research—why haven’t more studies of this ilk been conducted?
|Click to listen to commentary on Goldhaber's and Liddle's report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Review: The Impact of Ohio’s EdChoice on Traditional Public School Performance
By Jamie Davies O’Leary
Rigorous school-voucher studies abound, with
most research measuring the achievement effects of vouchers for students who
use them. This study by CATO’s Matthew Carr—the first of its kind to
investigate Ohio’s EdChoice
Scholarship program—takes a different tack. It examines whether traditional
public schools are spurred to improve in the face of a threat of losing students to private schools—if competition itself
“creates incentives for systemic improvements.” To test this, Carr analyzed
fourth- and sixth-grade reading and math achievement data on low-performing
EdChoice-eligible schools over three academic years (2005-06, 2006-07, and
2007-08). The results were mixed. While fourth-grade math and sixth-grade math
and reading scores remained the same, Carr found the voucher threat correlated
with significant achievement gains in fourth-grade reading (the equivalent of
2,200 extra students reaching proficiency). What’s most significant about this
finding is that Carr’s analysis controls for (among other things) the “scarlet
letter” effect—i.e., did schools improve not because of the voucher threat but
rather because of the stigma
associated with receiving a highly publicized poor rating from the state? (For
the stat-heads in the bunch, Carr’s methods are worth a scan.) Further, while
fourth-grade reading gains were significant, they didn’t come from the “bubble
kids”—those just below the proficiency cut-off; rather, students in the lowest
and highest performing categories made gains. Though its findings don’t
constitute a grand slam for voucher proponents, the report is welcome—especially
as EdChoice adds another 15,000 students to its eligible roster.
Review: Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race 1900-1954
Zoë Burkholder (a recent Fordham/AEI “Emerging
Education Policy Scholar”) expounds in this book on a little-remembered, but still-felt
initiative of teachers to change the racial discourse in America. Prior to
WWII, Burkholder explains, racism was nation-based, often between various European
ethnic groups. Non-whites were largely invisible within society. During the war,
teachers—who started championing the ideal of tolerance—changed America’s concept
of race from nationality to color, in order to gain acknowledgment of
non-whites in society. Then after the war, teachers promoted a “color-blind”
society in which individuals were valued and identified for their talents and
cultural diversity instead of the color of their skin, shifting the conception
of race again, this time from color to culture. The book’s anecdotes and
explanations are valuable for their context; the book a smart window into
consequences of social molding through schooling.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: 666 is 999 turned on its head
Mike and Janie hold down the fort this week,
discussing the Harkin-Enzi bill, same-sex schooling, and St. Louis (both its new
gifted-ed program and the Cardinals). Amber evaluates teacher-prep programs and
Chris finds a novel way to hide a bald spot.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: K5 Learning offers new findings from High Flyers data
By The K5 Learning Team
In this guest blog post, the team at K5
Learning delves further into the data from the Fordham Institute’s recent study,
“Do High Flyers Maintain their Altitude?”
K5 Learning offers an online reading and math program
for K-5 kids and urges parents to be proactive in their children’s education.
New data tells us that students who are not
performing well above average in reading and math by grade three are highly
unlikely to ever become academic high achievers.
Last month the Fordham Institute released “Do
High Flyers Maintain their Altitude?,” an examination of the
performance of high-achieving students (those scoring in the top 10 percentile
on widely taken-standardized tests). K5 Learning has reviewed the
Fordham data to analyze those students who were not high achievers
when first tested in grade three. The results are a wake-up call for every
parent of young children.
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Is school choice a worthy end in itself?
The Columbus Dispatch ran competing
op-eds by School Choice Ohio’s (SCO) Chad Aldis and Fordham’s Terry Ryan on the
expansion of vouchers in the Buckeye State. Both Aldis and Ryan support the
expansion of school choice programs in Ohio, but how the state should hold
these new programs accountable for their academic performance and even whether
it should do so is contentious.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: Late to the party
- Responding to the cheating
scandal that erupted this fall, New York is taking bold action: The state
has proposed that teachers
not be allowed to grade their own students’ exams. What’s next?
Ensuring that correct answers are taken off the walls of classrooms on the
day of the exam?
- When it comes to market
share, Ohio is dominating the charter-school arena. According to a
recently released National Alliance for Public Charter Schools paper, the
Buckeye State claims four
of the top twelve cities for charters. New Orleans, with 70 percent
market share, takes top honors.
- Keeping track of changes
to the Harkin-Enzi proposal during markup is tedious, tricky, and only a
little bit dizzying. (Did Rand Paul propose seventy-two or seventy-three
amendments? How many turnaround models are now being floated? Four?
Seven?) Luckily, Ed
Sector and Politics K-12 are doing the legwork for you.
- Students in the
Mountaineer State, put down those hoes and tillers. The West Virginia
Department of Education is now investigating the feasibility of extending
year-round schooling to all of the state’s public school students.
- A love triangle has
emerged in the publication world: Amazon.com is now
working directly with authors to get books out to Internet
audiences—cutting publishers out of the fold. Imagine an education world
without the textbook oligarchy.
- We often compare teaching
to the medical profession. But what would this comparison look like flipped
on its head?
It’s official: Thirty-five
states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico have applied for a chunk of the $500
million in RTTT-version-three funding.
Announcement: Rethinking education governance
For some time now, we’ve been spouting about the
need to fundamentally rethink education governance for the twenty-first
century. Now it’s time for action. Join Fordham—and our co-sponsor the Center
for American Progress—on December 1 for an all-day conference about the
problems with education governance and potential solutions. With a bold and
forward-thinking cast of panelists, the event is not to be missed. For a
full schedule and list of panelists, or to register, click
Announcement: Four cheers for being a Fordham intern
We’re on the hunt for bright, capable interns to
assist our research and new-media teams this coming winter and spring. If
you’re passionate about education reform, have a keen eye for editing, and a
knack for HTML, check out
our job description here.
Announcement: Brokering a Brookings deal
The smart folks at Brookings’ Brown Center are
looking for a research analyst to join their ranks. Those with a background in
quantitative research, with strong writing skills and an interest in education
here for more information.
Announcement: Are we there yet?
On the paper anniversary of Race to the Top,
what successes has the program claimed? And what key concerns persist?
Tomorrow, October 21, 8:00AM-1:30PM, a group of dynamic speakers will dive into
the ups and downs of RTTT at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For more information
about the event—or to register—head here.
Featured Fordham Publication: Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions
In this “Ed Short” from the Thomas B. Fordham
Institute, Amanda Olberg and Michael Podgursky examine how public-charter
schools handle pensions for their teachers. Some states give these schools the
freedom to opt out of the traditional teacher-pension system; when given that
option, how many charter schools take it? Olberg and Podgursky examine data
from six charter-heavy states and find that charter-participation rates in
traditional pension systems vary greatly—from over 90 percent in California to
less than one out of every four charters in Florida. As for what happens when
schools choose not to participate in state-pension plans, the authors find that
they most often provide their teachers with defined-contribution plans—401(k)
or 403(b)—with employer matches similar to those for private-sector
professionals. But some opt-out charters offer no alternative retirement plans
for their teachers (18 percent in Florida, 24 percent in Arizona). Read
on to learn more.