The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 5. February 3, 2011.
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Opinion and Analysis

Nobody deserves tenure
That includes you and me
Opinion | Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Online learning, meet your mentor: charter schooling
Lessons from charters for virtual ed
News Analysis

Adding to value-added
How to assess the other 70 percent
News Analysis

Witnessing the last breaths of the public-union leviathan?
Why public-sector unions have run their course
News Analysis

Short Reviews

2010 State Teacher Policy Yearbook: Blueprint for Change
The must-dos and how-tos
Review | Gerilyn Slicker

The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning
A warning to the wise: Tread deliberately
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century
A hard look at the “career” in college- and career-ready
Review | Marena Perkins

From The Web

Welcome back, Rick
Mike and Rick ask if “Rosa Parks” can outreform them all to win the war of ideas
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Field notes: Big ideas corrupted by guns, drugs, and evicti
The tanker of low expectations is slow to turn
Flypaper's Finest | January 31, 2011 | Peter Meyer

Keeping poor kids out of good schools is a nationwide phenomenon
Kelley Williams-Bolar is just one of the victims
Flypaper's Finest | January 31, 2011 | Michael Petrilli

Smart ways to stretch the school dollar
Less money spent, not less education delivered
Gadfly Studios
| February 3, 2011


Pragmatism rears its ugly head
Both in Singapore and on
Briefly Noted

New report: School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era
What do school-board members really think of reform?

Education Next blows out ten candles
A friendly debate on the aluminum anniversary of Ed Next

Mind does matter
The Mind Trust is accepting applications for its 2011 education fellowship cohort

Want your own federal fiefdom? Apply now!
The USDOE looks for a director of its charter school programs

Dream, believe, Achieve
Work for Achieve on a new assessment initiative

Hey, hey, Cristo Rey!
Cristo Rey-Columbus is looking for a president and CEO

The Accountability Illusion
AYP across state borders
Fordham featured publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Nobody deserves tenure
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Nobody deserves tenure, with the possible exception of federal judges. University professors don’t deserve tenure; civil servants don’t deserve tenure; police and firefighters don’t deserve tenure; school teachers don’t deserve tenure. With the solitary exception noted above—and you might be able to talk me out of that one, too—nobody has a right to lifetime employment unrelated either to their on-the-job performance or to their employer’s continuing need for the skills and attributes of that particular person.

Tenure didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai or over on the Mayflower. Though people occasionally refer to its origins in medieval universities, on these shores, at least, it’s a twentieth-century creation. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) began pushing for it around 1915, but tenuring professors didn’t become the norm on U.S. campuses until after World War II (when the presumption of a 7-year decision timeframe also gained traction) and it wasn’t truly formalized until the 1970’s when a couple of Supreme Court decisions made formalization unavoidable.

In some states, public-school teachers began to gain forms of job protection that resembled tenure as early as the 1920s, but these largely went into abeyance during the Great Depression and were not formally reinstated until states—pressed hard by teacher unions—enacted “tenure laws” between World War II and about 1980.

The original rationale for tenure at the university-level, articulately set forth by the AAUP, was to safeguard academic freedom by ensuring that professors wouldn’t lose their jobs because they wrote or said something that somebody didn’t like—including, on occasion, donors who paid for their endowed chairs. This justification gained plausibility during the post-war “Red Scare” and McCarthy era.

Tenure didn't come down from Mt. Sinai or over on the's a twentieth-century creation. 


The corresponding rationale for school teachers was that they might lose their jobs for arbitrary and capricious reasons, such as not doing personal favors for the principals or irking some influential parents or board members. The civil-service version of tenure had more to do with establishing a “merit” system and keeping politics and patronage at bay in government employment. As for federal judges, lifetime tenure is enshrined in Article III of the Constitution. Hamilton termed it “an excellent barrier to the despotism of the prince.”

Speaking of the Constitution, however, various job protections for all manner of public employees, including most teachers and professors, can also be found in that document. Check out the clauses protecting individuals from actions by government (at first federal, then also state) that would “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The “due process” concept has authentically ancient roots—a version of it appears in Magna Carta—and has developed dozens of statutory and courtroom precedents, protections, and procedures to safeguard individuals from arbitrary dismissal from their jobs.

Adding “tenure” on top of that is a bit like wearing both a belt and suspenders.

As for the alleged kinship between K-12 and higher-ed tenure, two points are noteworthy. First, on college campuses, it typically takes about seven years to “win” tenure—and by no means does everyone get it then. University faculties and administrators go through elaborate procedures to determine which instructors will be “awarded” tenure. It is in no sense a right. In public education, however, it’s pretty nearly automatic and usually comes after just two or three years of employment.

Second, the proportion of “tenure track” positions in higher education has been steadily declining. NCES data show that, across a post-secondary teaching-faculty universe of 1.3 million individuals in 2009, fewer than one in four were tenured and about two-thirds weren’t even employed in tenure-track positions.

In public education, on the other hand, essentially everyone with a teaching certificate is automatically a candidate for tenure as soon as he or she is hired by a school system. (Only if these instructors are really dreadful in the classroom or change their minds as to their career do they—maybe—not make it to the second- or third-consecutive contract that typically yields tenure.)

Federal judges aside, public-school teachers now appear to be the most heavily tenured segment of the U.S. workforce.

Which gives rise to all manner of problems, of which the most conspicuous and offensive, though maybe not the gravest, is the difficulty of dismissing that relatively tiny fraction of classroom instructors who are truly incompetent—and the cost, both in dollars and in pupil achievement, of keeping them on the payroll. (If they’re in class, the kids suffer. If they’re in “rubber rooms” or other non-teaching duties, the taxpayers suffer, along with the reputation of the teaching profession.)

Tenure brings other troubles, too. Because it is nested within a set of HR practices and protections that include seniority-based job placements and reductions in force, tenure contributes to principals’ inability to determine who teaches in their schools and superintendents’ inability to let the least qualified or least needed (or most expensive) teachers go during a time of cutbacks. Because tenure—job security in general—is a valuable employment benefit that substitutes in part for salary, it tends to hold down teacher pay, which in turn affects who does and doesn’t seek to enter this line of work and who does and doesn’t stay there. Because tenure pretty much guarantees one a job regardless of performance, it reduces teachers’ incentive to see that their pupils really learn—and their incentive to cooperate in sundry reforms that might be good for their schools and their students.

No wonder a bunch of folks, including the new crop of GOP governors, want to eliminate or radically overhaul teacher tenure.

And so they should. To repeat, it didn’t come down from Mount Sinai—and there are plenty of other ways to safeguard public employees from wrongful dismissal besides guaranteeing them lifetime jobs.


News Analysis: Online learning, meet your mentor: charter schooling


   Photo by Webhampster

Twenty years ago, the notion of charter schools was the new kid on the education-reform block. Advocates saw it as a remedy, even a cure-all, for the ails of public schools, one that would both provide competition and allow underserved students to escape abysmal district schools. Flash forward twenty years and we see that this boundless faith in growing the charter movement has sometimes come at the expense of school quality—which has left a stale taste in the mouths of many, friend and foe alike. In 2011, the new kid on the education-reform block is digital learning. And its proponents would be wise to study the pitfalls—as well as the successes—of the charter movement. There are myriad examples to offer—and authors Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker do well outlining them in the most recent issue of Education Next—but some truly stand out: Investing in good data and research, avoiding bad bargains, and giving students choices while not relying on markets alone to monitor quality are all take-home messages distilled from the charter movement. So, to virtual-education proponents, Gadfly reminds: Those who don’t heed the past are bound to relive it.

Lessons for Online Learning,” by Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker, Education Next, Spring 2011, Volume 11, Number 2.


News Analysis: Adding to value-added

For all its appeal, value-added measurement (VAM) of teacher quality cannot become our sole teacher-evaluation tool, not least because VAM-based evaluations are only possible today for about 30 percent of the teaching force (basically reading and math teachers of third through eighth graders). So what to do about the rest? As detailed by ace Ed Week reporter Stephen Sawchuck, content-area experts, administrators, and even some teacher unions have begun to structure robust alternative measures of assessment, using classroom observations, portfolios, and teacher-created assessment frameworks. Rhode Island will be among the first states to adopt student learning objectives as part of its teacher-evaluation system; districts in New York have worked with their AFT-affiliated union members to shape teacher-evaluation frameworks. And there is talk in other states of using data like AP assessments to gauge student progress, and thus teacher effectiveness. This wonky work is exactly what’s needed if we want to transform teacher evaluation from a pro forma activity to something of a science. Still, it remains to be seen whether these new assessment mechanisms will provide valuable information, or simply produce another “widget effect.”

Wanted: Ways to Assess the Majority of Teachers,” by Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week, January 31, 2011.


News Analysis: Witnessing the last breaths of the public-union leviathan?

The cri de guerre of public-sector unions worldwide is worker’s rights, due process, and fair play. Behind the lofty rhetoric, however, are institutions at odds with a society’s right to self-government. Born in the 1930s, public-sector unions were initially mistrusted by liberals and conservatives alike. In a 1937 letter, FDR noted that self-interested public-sector unions threatened government’s ability to represent the broad needs of the citizenry. Yet they gained much traction during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s—with many Democratic politicians using them as a fecund source of political support. And they’ve grown in strength since, now representing one of the world’s most powerful interest groups. Confronting intrinsic issues with public-sector unions, such as pensions and tenure, will be a hard-fought battle, and not just in the U.S. For they are masters of diverting attention from strategic to tactical questions. Still, today’s era of austerity—and mounting anger about this privileged class of employees—may yet provide the best opportunity to try.

How Public Unions Took Taxpayers Hostage,” by Fred Siegel, Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2011.

Public-sector workers: (Government) workers of the world unite!,” The Economist, January 6, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: 2010 State Teacher Policy Yearbook: Blueprint for Change
By Gerilyn Slicker

The National Council on Teacher Quality has issued an interim-year State Teacher Policy Yearbook, updating its 2009 yearbook with state-specific profiles and detailed policy recommendations regarding teacher evaluation, tenure rules, and dismissal policies. The report, available via an online module, points to eleven areas critical to teacher reform—things like connecting tenure decisions to teacher effectiveness and broadening alternative-certification pathways and providers. And though states have made much progress on the teacher-quality front in the past year (thanks, in part, to reforms spurred on by Race to the Top), they still have a long way to go before meeting NCTQ standards. There are a full twenty-seven states that need to address at least nine of the eleven critical attention areas. To help states along, the Blueprint provides relatively concise state-specific policy briefs, pointing to policies in need of immediate overhaul as well as those which simply require small tweaks to see gains in teacher quality. Policymakers in Ohio, for example, should pay urgent attention to how state laws constrain the teacher pipeline (by not allowing for alternative certification pathways like Teach For America) and sever job security from teacher effectiveness. State policymakers, in Ohio and beyond, looking for a quick—and tangible—tutorial on how to improve teacher quality need look no further.

National Council on Teacher Quality, “2010 State Teacher Policy Yearbook: Blueprint for Change” (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, January 2011).


Review: The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning
By Daniela Fairchild

“There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends into its current flawed model.” That’s the main argument of this white paper by Michael Horn and Heather Staker of Innosight Institute. As the authors see it, blended learning—which is an education model blending online learning with brick-and-mortar instruction—is a “disruptive innovation” with the potential to fundamentally redesign American education. However, without targeted shifts in policy, the benefits of this new education model will be squandered, tied down by arcane statutes and regulations. To explain, the authors offer a concise tutorial on the varieties of blended learning. They identify and define six models, moving up the spectrum from the “face-to-face driven” model (which uses online learning as a supplement, like High Tech High) all the way to the “online driver” model (which allows students to learn remotely, so long as a requisite GPA is maintained). It is from these examples that Horn and Staker draw their policy recommendations. Some thoughts—like nixing caps on enrollment and class-size mandates—would provide but a modest makeover for education provision. But, others—including creating dynamic, integrated systems for better syncing among various providers’ content and services—may truly spell profound shifts in the way that students access education.

Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning,” (Mountain View, CA: Innosight Institute, January 2011).


Review: Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century
By Marena Perkins

This new report from the American Youth Policy Forum and the Harvard Graduate School of Education challenges the “college for all” rhetoric that dominates much of the current ed-reform movement, making readers rethink the “college- and career-ready” call to arms. The report points out, fairly convincingly, that only 30 percent of jobs in 2018 will require a BA or better. But by forcing all students into an academic track that may or may not correspond to their interests and career needs, schools are creating bored, uninterested, and unmotivated pupils who are ready for neither college nor career. Instead of this single tracking, the report argues, we should create multiple pathways for students—both academic and career-based. Citing examples from central and northern Europe (the apprenticeship structure of Germany, the vocational-education opt-in structure of Finland), it urges an increase in employers’ roles in student learning so as to improve rigor, relevance, and business relationships. The report works better as a manifesto than a roadmap, but it raises an important issue worthy of serious consideration—and reconsideration.

Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century,” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education with the Pearson Foundation, February 2011).



From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Welcome back, Rick

With Rick back in the saddle, our intrepid co-hosts jump right into this week’s education-reform news, discussing the “Rosa Parks” of school choice, GOP governors, and the “war of ideas.” Amber gapes at Boston Public Schools’s teacher salary and benefits structure, while Chris embarks on a campaign against poor spelling and tyrants everywhere.

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: Field notes: Big ideas corrupted by guns, drugs, and addiction
By Peter Meyer

I was just finishing up my Sunday morning, big picture memo about school district priorities when the phone rang. 

I should know better by now than to answer a phone on Sunday morning. But I did. 

It was Ken, my son’s one-time classmate and a member of the memorable third-grade basketball team I had coached—what I remember is that the kids, three of them sons of state troopers, spent more time fighting each other than the other team—almost ten years before. I had recently helped bail one of those kids, now nineteen and not one of the troopers’ sons, out of jail.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Keeping poor kids out of good schools is a nationwide phenomenon
By Michael Petrilli

The story about Akron mother Kelley Williams-Bolar getting jailed for sending her two daughters to a public school in another district is getting lots of well-deserved attention. But of course the Copley-Fairlawn district was unusual only in the lengths it was willing to go to enforce its boundaries. Hundreds of districts nationwide have found lower-profile ways to achieve the same ends: keeping poor kids out.

A year ago, my colleague Janie Scull and I released a report, America’s Private Public Schools, which identified almost 3,000 public schools that serve virtually no low-income children.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Gadfly Studios: Smart ways to stretch the school dollar

Mike Petrilli taps our recent policy brief and explains ways schools and districts can save money without hurting student learning.



Briefly Noted: Pragmatism rears its ugly head 

  • Ed released its Education Dashboard this past week, offering data on student achievement, teacher assessment, and college completion. While Arne and his team earn an A for transparency and effort, they earn a D for metric choosing and comprehensiveness.
  • Singapore’s got the brains. They scored an average forty-seven points higher than the U.S. on the 2009 PISA. According to Tom Freidman, they’ve also got the governing structure—solidified through their two “isms”: pragmatism and eclecticism. 
  • John Boehner can’t choke back his tears when he talks about American education. And that might be a powerful weapon in his quest to revitalize the D.C. Opportunities Scholarship Program.
  • In case Atlanta didn’t provide enough fodder on the perils of local control, Austin has stepped up to deliver more. Thanks to ward politics in the district, a failing school has stayed in operation for four years after being “shut down” (read: “turned around”) by the district. When will we learn?
  • What do Deb Gist, Andrew Coulson, Julio Fuentes, and Steve Barr have in common? They all give one-minute interviews on to sum up the issues around school choice.
  • Gadfly just saw a pig soar by on his morning flight. The Village Voice published an objective, insightful, and lengthy look at Eva Moskowitz’s charter-school efforts in Harlem—not, admittedly, in the Village.


Announcement: New report: School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era


This new report—co-authored by AEI's Rick Hess and jointly published by the National School Boards Association, the Iowa School Boards Foundation, and Fordham—analyzes survey results from 900 school-board members and 120 superintendents. The findings are interesting but also disconcerting. While board members are generally focused on boosting student achievement, few consider initiatives like charter schools and performance-based pay to be important in reaching that end. Read the full report (7 MB) or Education Week’s summary for more. For the Fordham team's own (brief) interpretation of the findings, see page 6 of the report itself.


Announcement: Education Next blows out ten candles

A decade since its inception, Education Next continues to provide insightful commentary, innovative ideas, and worthwhile analyses. In true form, on the journal’s decennial anniversary, the editors (including Gadfly’s pals, Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli) have released a set of papers debating the school-reform movement’s victories and challenges. One side humbly relishes Pyrrhic victories. The other attests that the movement is far from victorious.


Announcement: Mind does matter

If you have a plan to transform public education and the entrepreneurial skills necessary to put this idea into practice, then The Mind Trust wants you to join its growing ranks of talented go-getters who are launching the next generation of education reform. To apply for The Mind Trust’s Education Entrepreneur Fellowship, click here. To learn more, visit The Mind Trust online.


Announcement: Want your own federal fiefdom? Apply today!

The USDOE charter school programs (CSP) seeks a director to administer its grants programs and manage technical assistance, evaluation, and dissemination. To learn more on how you can get spearhead federal charter policy, or to apply for the position, click here.


Announcement: Dream, believe, Achieve

Bright, energetic, and ambitious education professionals: Step right up. Achieve is hiring for multiple positions—from director to program associate—to staff the newly formed PARCC program, the coalition of twenty-five states embarked on development of a new assessment system aligned with the Common Core state standards. Those interested in learning more, head here.


Announcement: Hey, hey, Cristo Rey!

If you’re a firm believer in the Cristo Rey network of schools—which provides college-preparatory education to urban Catholic students in twenty-four high schools across eighteen states—then check out Cristo Rey: Columbus. This new school, set to open next year, is searching for a president and CEO with strong administrative and leadership skills, experience in PR and community relations, and a desire to lead the launch of Columbus’s own Cristo Rey. Click here to learn more.


Fordham's featured publication:

The Accountability Illusion

This study examines the system and rules of No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provisions. Fordham selected thirty-six real schools in twenty-eight states that varied by size, achievement, diversity, etc. and determined which of them would or would not make AYP when evaluated under each other state's accountability rules. If a school that made AYP in Washington were relocated to Wisconsin or Ohio, would that same school make AYP in its new setting? Find out.


The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Amanda Olberg, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Marena Perkins, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Gerilyn Slicker, Chris Tessone, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio. (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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