Thomas B. Fordham Institute
The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 41. October 20, 2011.
In This Edition
New From Fordham: Halting a Runaway Train: Reforming Teacher Pensions for the 21st Century

Halting a Runaway Train cover
When it comes to public-sector pensions, writes lead author Michael B. Lafferty in Fordham’s newest report, “A major public-policy (and public-finance) problem has been defined and measured, debated and deliberated, but not yet solved. Except where it has been.” As recounted in “Halting a Runaway Train: Reforming Teacher Pensions for the 21st Century,” these exceptions turn out to be revealing—and encouraging. As leaders around the country struggle to overhaul America’s controversial and precarious public-sector pensions, this study draws on examples from diverse fields to provide a primer on successful pension reform. Download to find valuable lessons for policymakers, workers, and taxpayers looking for timely solutions to a dire problem.

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Opinion and Analysis

Halting a runaway train
Teacher-pension plans need a makeover; here’s how
Opinion | Michael B. Lafferty

Harkin-Enzi's hodgepodge
Not better than nothing
Opinion | Michael J. Petrilli

Age of Aquarius meets the Age of Austerity
Lessons from Rahm-bo Emanuel
News Analysis

A monopoly meets market demand
St. Louis: A scrappy underdog in baseball and public-school reform
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Strong Support, Low Awareness: Public Perception of the Common Core Standards
I love the CCSS! Now, what are they, again?
Review | Daniela Fairchild

The Gateway to the Profession: Assessing Teacher Preparation Programs Based on Student Achievement
The quality of teacher-prep programs matters—at least a little
Review | Michael Ishimoto

The Impact of Ohio’s EdChoice on Traditional Public School Performance
Competition works
Review | Jamie Davies O'Leary

Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race 1900-1954
How schools reshaped the post-war world
Review | Laura Johnson

From The Web

666 is 999 turned on its head
Same-sex schooling and other niche markets
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull

K5 Learning offers new findings from High Flyers
Early achievement matters more than we thought
Flypaper's Finest | October 18, 2011 | The K5 Learning Team

Is school choice a worthy end in itself?
Only if it means higher student achievement
Flypaper's Finest | October 17, 2011 | Bianca Speranza


Late to the party
But Ohio still throws down
Briefly Noted

Rethinking education governance
A groundbreaking conference on December 1

Four cheers for being a Fordham intern
We’re hiring for our winter/spring cohort

Brokering a Brookings deal
The Brown Center needs a research analyst

Are we there yet?
Race to the Top, one year later

Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions
Here’s what reform looks like
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Halting a runaway train
By Michael B. Lafferty

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 teacher population.

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.

Halting a Runaway Train -- read it nowFordham 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.

Third, employers 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

We 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.

arm wrestling photo

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 the left.

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.

Here are the Harkin-Enzi bill’s major offenses:

  • An 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 Washington.
  • Maintaining 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.
  • Rather 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?

Leading 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 play

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

pennies in hand photo

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!

A Progressive in the Age of Austerity,” by Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, October 15, 2011.


News Analysis: A monopoly meets market demands

monopoly game board photo

Monopoly meets the real world.
(Photo by Mike Fleming)

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.

St. Louis magnet school program breeding success,” by Jessica Bock, St. Louis Today, October 12, 2011.


Short Reviews

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.

Achieve, Inc. “Strong Support, Low Awareness: Public Perception of the Common Core State Standards” (Achieve, Inc., October 2011).


Review: The Gateway to the Profession: Assessing Teacher Preparation Programs Based on Student Achievement
By Michael Ishimoto

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 play

Click to listen to commentary on Goldhaber's and Liddle's report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

Dan Goldhaber and Stephanie Liddle, “The Gateway to the Profession: Assessing Teacher Preparation Programs Based on Student Achievement,” (Bothell, WA: University of Washington Center for Education Data & Research, 2011).


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.

Matthew Carr, “The Impact of Ohio’s EdChoice on Traditional Public School Performance." CATO Journal Spring/Summer 2011.


Review: Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race 1900-1954
By Laura Johnson

Color in the Classroom coverZoë 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.

Zoë Burkholder. Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race 1900-1954, (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011).


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.

The Education Gadfly
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.

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Is school choice a worthy end in itself?
By Bianca Speranza

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.…

The Education Gadfly
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: 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 here.


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 reform, look 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

Charting a New Course to Retirement cover

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.


The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Tyson Eberhardt, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Michael Ishimoto, Laura Johnson, Matthew C. Kyle, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Bianca Speranza, Chris Tessone, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary and secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.) The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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