Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Midwest unrest: The view from Washington
E. Finn, Jr.
|Click to listen to commentary on the unrest in the Midwest from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
As union protests in Madison, Columbus, and elsewhere loop
continuously on cable TV, it cannot be easy to be an education-reform-minded
Democrat. They’re honorable folks; their commitment to bold education reform
seems genuine; and they’ve generally been willing to push for a host of
promising changes in policy and practice that rub teacher unions the wrong way.
(Well, not vouchers!) They’ve been reasonably candid in fingering those same
unions as obstacles to programs and initiatives that put kids’ interests first.
At the same time, most of them have labored—especially the
elected officials and wannabes—not to burn all their union bridges. Some of the
most prominent of them (starting with Messrs. Obama and Duncan) have even created
opportunities to “reach
out” to union leaders with encouraging
words if not actual hugs. And the many billions shoveled from Washington
into public-education coffers these last two years—billions devoted almost
entirely to preserving teacher jobs—have gone a long way to salve whatever
wounds were caused by support for charter schools, achievement-linked teacher
evaluations, etc. The basic stance of reform-minded Democrats vis-à-vis the
unions seems to be “tough love”—and it’s no stretch to observe that the signs
of love have exceeded (certainly in cash value) the tough bits.
Now it’s getting harder for them. The 2010 elections
combined with staggering federal and state deficits to spell a “new normal” for
reform-minded Democrats. The “tough love” strategy is vastly harder to pull
off—especially the love part—and they’ve now got to choose the side of the
proverbial line on which they will stand. On one side are the unions, pretty
much demanding business-as-usual, complete with tenure, seniority, scheduled
raises, Cadillac pensions, ample fringe benefits, and the right to bring just
about everything to the bargaining table. Of course, there are huge dollar
costs there and essentially no reforming.
Like it or not, reformers of every political persuasion will have to pick sides.
On the other side can be found governors like Christie,
Kasich, Daniels, and Walker, not to mention the GOP freshmen in the U.S. House
of Representatives. Not only are they pushing hard for deep cuts in government
budgets at every level; they are also attacking the dearest possessions of
public employees, including job security, predictable salary increases,
generous (and immutable) benefits, even the right to bargain collectively
Note that this GOP agenda is not mainly about education
reform per se—though the proposed changes would indeed make it easier to weed
out incompetent teachers, reward superior classroom performance, and empower
school leaders in the personnel realm. The agenda is mostly about saving
taxpayers’ money, curbing the privileged status of public employees in general,
and reining in the practice of collective bargaining in the one large domain of
the American economy where it still flourishes, namely the public sector. Teacher
unions, some of the staunchest and most numerous supporters of Democratic
office-seekers, would be among the groups hit hardest.
Faced with such a choice, what’s a reform-minded Democrat to
do? Most are trying to split the difference, insisting on the long-sought
education reforms, acknowledging that the unions are obstacles, and agreeing
that “some changes need to be made” in the bargaining process (as well as
give-backs squeezed from current contracts) without
giving up on unionism and collective bargaining
themselves. The argument is generally: Unionism is not to blame, the unions
There will surely be some places where that sort of “middle
course” ends up being steered, where reins are applied but gently enough that
the horse doesn’t wind up with no teeth left. And that’s not necessarily a bad
But it’s not a great one, either, not from the standpoint of
school kids, taxpayers, and American competitiveness. At least so long as the
current structures and governance arrangements of American public education
endure, the average local teacher union is apt to prevail over the average
local school board. The union has many more assets, including a large (often
captive) membership, a discretionary (and rather secret) treasury, the ability
to bring in heavyweights from the state and national offices, the threat of
striking, all those statutory job protections, and leaders who don’t have other
day jobs (as most school board members do) and can thus work on their agendas 24/7.
What’s more, in many places, the union also exercises great influence over who
gets elected to the school board. (The
dynamic is very different for cops and firefighters—who negotiate with mayors
and county executives rather than boards that they largely control.)
Given this fundamental power imbalance, Republicans are not
wrong to go after collective bargaining itself—and to use both the budget
crisis and their current political ascendancy to limit it to a few key issues,
if not abolish it altogether. And reform-minded Democrats may be kidding
themselves to believe that they can preserve collective bargaining while still
pushing forward the reforms they know to be necessary.
As one veteran follower of teacher unions remarked
this week, the
battle lines are clear. Like it or not, reformers of every political
persuasion will have to pick sides. May they choose wisely.
Opinion: Midwest unrest: The view from the front line
By Terry Ryan
The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state
laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector
employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police
officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like
Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting
slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or
dropped “small bombs” as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How
should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how
should the pain be distributed?
To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and
governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension
systems. In Ohio, Senate
Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively
over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also
make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school
employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their
health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining—and entrusting to
management—such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting
continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as
the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the
primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.
Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted
by the Buckeye State’s teachers, their unions, and their political allies.
Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham—as veteran advocates for “smart
cuts” and “stretching
the school dollar”—have been drawn into the fray. In the past week, I
testified at a legislative
hearing on key education components of SB5, and joined a conversation in
Dayton with Senator Peggy Lehner and a group of teachers and union leaders. On
both occasions, large crowds of disgruntled protestors stood outside the
meeting rooms, though most were respectful.
Photo by Eric Albrecht, Columbus Dispatch
In those sessions and beyond, my colleagues and I have
argued that changing state law to offer school districts more flexibility over
personnel during times of funding cuts is critical for helping them maintain
their academic performance. Further, this flexibility to make smart cuts is
critical if our schools and students are to emerge out of this financial crisis
stronger than ever.
And a crisis it is. The federal “bail-out” dollars that have
cushioned Ohio and its school districts for the past two years will dry up by
late 2011 and the state is required to balance its budget. Adding to the
challenge, dollars for schools must compete with other valuable public
programs. Though Ohio’s K-12 enrollment has been all but flat for a decade, during
that same period the number of Ohioans enrolled
in Medicaid has leaped from 1.3 million to 2.1 million.
Something has to give. The state can either raise taxes or
cut programs (or both), but Governor Kasich and the legislative majorities in
both chambers were elected in November on the promise not to raise taxes. So
cuts will be made and, as K-12 education eats up about 40 percent of the
state’s revenue, schools and school employees will bear a share of the pain.
Can this be done while protecting children and their
learning? We know, for example, that relying on seniority-based layoffs to
close fiscal gaps hurts pupil achievement. Last hired, first fired also hurts
high-poverty schools, which typically have more junior teachers.
Seniority-based reductions in force (RIF) will also trash some of the state’s
most innovative schools—like STEM schools—because they’re new and staffed largely
by younger teachers.
I made this case to the group of teachers in Dayton the
other morning and they unanimously rejected it. They defended seniority on two
fronts. First, they insist that district officials will axe their most
expensive teachers first simply to save money. Second, they said, Ohio doesn’t
have a decent system for measuring teacher performance, and test scores—they
insisted—don’t prove much, and certainly not the caliber of a teacher’s
Further, they kept asking, why the rush? Why all of the
sudden is the state needing to make these changes? The teachers felt that GOP
lawmakers are attacking them in retaliation for their unions’ lack of support
for Kasich in the last election. They seemed completely unaware of how
thoroughly they (and other Buckeyes) had been left in the dark these past few
years about Ohio’s impending budget cliff—thanks to the federal stimulus
dollars, some tricky accounting at the state level, and former Governor
Strickland’s celebration of his hocus-pocus school-funding scheme, which
promised billions of non-existent new dollars for schools over the next decade.
Earlier this week, the self-same former governor emailed his
supporters that “thousands and thousands of Ohioans just like you have crowded
the Statehouse because the livelihoods of Ohio’s families are on the line. I
was so inspired by these crowds that I decided to join them this past Thursday.
There’s just too much at stake to let Governor Kasich and the legislature roll
back the clock on progress for Ohio’s middle class.” It’s important to recall
that not once during the three gubernatorial debates last autumn did Ted
Strickland state that to balance Ohio’s budget he would call for increased
taxes. If that wasn’t his intent, however, how did he expect to balance the
budget other than by cutting—which is precisely what Republicans are proposing?
Teachers may be forgiven for feeling like all of this change
has come out of nowhere because Ohio had zero leadership around the looming
fiscal crisis before last month. The real debate in Ohio is just starting and
there is no doubt that the current bills under consideration will be
significantly amended or even put aside for alternatives. An air of suspense
blankets the state until Kasich himself presents his budget by March 15.
Hinting at what’s coming, the other evening he said, “We are
searching for a balance. Give our managers, our cities, our schools, and even
our state the tools to control their costs.” He added, “Workers have been
overpromised. This is not about attacking anybody. It is about fixing the state
and making us competitive again.”
He’s right. And it isn’t just Ohio that he’s right
News Analysis: The long arm of the Common Core
|Click to listen to Mike interview Rick Hess on this topic
Adoption of the Common Core standards comes with a slew of benefits for
states—including the high-quality standards themselves, as well as the
economies of scale that might come from collaborating with other states on
tests, curricula, and more. But as the two federally funded assessment
consortia go about their work and flesh out their plans to develop tests
aligned to the Common Core, danger lurks. One big challenge arises from their
enthusiasm for “through-course assessments”—interim tests that students would
take three or four times a year in lieu of a single end-of-year summative
assessment. Frequent testing for “formative” purposes is not a new idea and,
when limited to diagnostic uses, can be a welcome tool in a teachers’ toolbox.
But the intent of the PARCC consortium is for these quarterly tests to count;
the results would roll into a summative judgment of whether students—and their
schools—are on track. That makes some sense from a psychometric perspective—the
assessments can be more closely aligned to what students are actually learning
in the classroom, and won’t be subject to the all-or-nothing measurement errors
that can stem from once-a-year testing. But there’s a huge downside, as Rick Hess
pointed out on his blog last week: It creates powerful incentives for schools
to align their own curricula and “scope and sequence” to the quarterly tests,
severely undermining school-level autonomy. Building the tests this way is a
far more potent “homogenizer” than, say, the kind of “common” curricular
materials that the AFT
and many other educators are calling for. Such materials would remain
voluntary for districts and schools. But once a state adopts a new testing
regimen that compels instructional uniformity, only private schools will be
able to avoid it. This is particularly problematic for public schools—like
charters—that were designed to be different. We still favor the Common Core
effort and the trade-off of results-based accountability in return for
operational freedom. (We also favor the development of high-quality curricular
materials that help teachers handle the Common Core.) But it’s time to ask
whether the move to high-stakes interim assessments will make that trade-off
News Analysis: If I'm going down, I'm taking everyone with me
|Click to listen to commentary on Detroit's budget balancing from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
The Detroit Federation of Teachers has once
again proven: It would rather sink the DPS ship than head alee into unfriendly
waters. Most recently in Motown, the state superintendent approved a plan from
emergency financial manager Robert Bobb to close roughly half of the district’s
schools and increase high school class sizes to an unwieldy sixty students.
Bobb may have originally proposed the plan, which he himself calls ill-advised,
as a strong-arm tactic to force the otherwise recalcitrant union into opening
the black boxes of teachers’ benefits and pension packages. Yet the union
stranglehold on the district remains intact. By refusing to rethink salaries
and pensions, DFT may be defending its members, but its shortsightedness is
surely pushing the Motor City toward bankruptcy. Sadly, this predicament is
unsurprising—Detroit finished dead last in our 2010
report on the best and worst cities for school reform.
Review: The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District
This semi-authorized biography of Michelle Rhee
tracks her tenure as an elementary school teacher, her leadership of the
nascent New Teacher Project, and her time as chancellor of D.C.’s public
schools. For those unfamiliar with her formative years, the book provides a
compelling explanation of how she came to be obsessed with teacher quality (and
with firing incompetent employees). And for those who didn’t follow the Washington Post coverage of Rhee’s D.C.
whirlwind, the book offers an inspired narrative. Unfortunately, while Whitmire’s
text is rich in research and peppered with interview quotes, his final
assessment of Rhee’s legacy in D.C. is too vanilla. The five criticisms he does
send her way (e.g. she sometimes had poor media judgment, she fought battles that
did not need to be fought) could have come from any D.C. insider or avid Post reader. Furthermore, he doesn’t
push hard enough on the question of whether Rhee’s reforms actually boosted
student achievement—or are likely to in years to come. Still and all, education
reformers interested in gaining a comprehensive perspective on Michelle Rhee
(the person, not the action figure), or on finding some Waiting for ‘Superman’-like inspiration, would be wise to seek out
and read The Bee Eater.
Review: Student Achievement in Massachusetts' Charter Schools
|Click to listen to commentary on the report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Weary of studies that lump
charter schools together and treat them as a monolithic entity? This one,
conducted by top-notch researchers at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and MIT takes a step in the right direction
by parsing effects for urban and nonurban charter schools in Massachusetts. The
report is a follow-up to two earlier evaluations that were limited to schools in Boston
and Lynn. Once again, analysts conduct both a lottery analysis (comparing
students accepted to oversubscribed charters with those who weren’t) and an
expanded observational study (comparing students in middle and high school
charters operating in the Bay State between 2002 and 2009, including the
undersubscribed schools, to those who attended traditional public schools).
Overall, the lottery analysis found that charter middle schools boost average
math scores but have little impact on average English language arts (ELA) scores.
But when the data were disaggregated by school type, researchers found that urban
charter middle schools show significant positive effects on ELA and math
scores. Nonurban middle schools have the opposite impact: zero to negative
effect on a student’s ELA and math state test scores. In fact, while urban
charter schools do especially well with minority and low-income students and
moderately well for white students, nonurban middle schools fail to show gains
for any demographic subgroup, and even post some negative effects for
white students. Delving further, the authors survey school administrators, the
results showing that the successful urban charter schools tend to have longer
days, spend about twice as much time on language and math instruction as
nonurban schools, are more likely to ask parents and
students to sign contracts, and identify with the “no excuses” view on education. The differences in
achievement between the two types of charters, then, should come as little surprise.
Joshua D. Angrist, Sarah R. Cohodes, Susan M.
Dynarski, Jon B. Fullerton, Thomas J. Kane, Parag A. Pathak, and Christopher
R. Walters, “Student
Achievement in Massachusetts’ Charter Schools,” (Cambridge, MA: Center for
Education Policy Research at Harvard University, January 2011).
Review: Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System is Failing and What We Can Do About It
Ronald Wolk, founder and longtime editor of Education Week, and creator of Quality Counts, presents a sobering
message in this new book. As the
title suggests, Wolk outlines why twenty years of American education reform have
yielded no positive changes, hitting hard against standards-based learning, the
fetish with highly-effective teachers, our obsession with testing, and more.
Wolk proposes a second, parallel strategy—one he believes will upend the status
quo and challenge traditional notions of the role and capacity of the education
system. Specifically, he wants more individualized and experiential
instruction, school choice, and alternative teacher preparation. “I find it
hard to imagine that a new strategy would be any riskier or less effective than
the system we have now,” Wolk writes. “Why should new ideas bear the burden of
proof when the existing system is allowed to continue essentially unchanged
even though it is largely failing?” Wolk’s
turnabout may not be as dramatic as Diane Ravitch’s, but it’s a significant shift
all the same: from a top-down standards-based reformer to a libertarian
grass-roots choice advocate. Read the book and enjoy the ride.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Qaddafi, Rhee, and other zealots
Fordhamite for life Liam Julian goes another
round on the podcast, as he and Mike discuss the clashes in the Midwest, the
self-sabotage of Detroit, and what’s so irksome about Michelle Rhee. Amber
shows that not all charter schools are created equal (the urban ones are
better) and Chris gets out the whip against corporal punishment.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: In Wisconsin, a battle over "local control"
just got weirder: liberals are now for “local control,” and Tea Party
conservatives are against it. At least that one’s way to read the situation in
Everyone knows that school reform has long foundered
at the local school-district level. Powerful teachers unions, with the help of
state and national behemoths, get their friends and allies elected to the
boards with whom they negotiate. Those boards—whether out of niceness, naiveté,
or negligence—make promises that taxpayers can’t afford. Education spending
goes up, and productivity goes down....
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: The next frontier (abyss?): Testing and its kissin' cousin, cheating
By Peter Meyer
Yesterday, at the end of a bang-up Education
Writers Association conference on improving teaching quality, held at the Carnegie Corporation in New
York City, I was approached by a newspaper’s education editor who asked whether
I thought charter-school test results were real. “Are they cheating?” she
asked, more pointedly.
The question followed what had been a bruising
roundtable discussion between journalists and educators about the value of
testing: Good or bad? High-stakes or benchmarking? Standards-driven or
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011: A closer look
Amber and Kathleen explain the methodology and
findings from our latest standards review,
State of State U.S. History Standards 2011—and speak about why solid
history standards are so essential.
Briefly Noted: Holding the budget hostage
marks the release of the 2009
NAEP TUDA science results. Overall, they’re unfortunately and
unsurprisingly low. Expect more from us on this report next week.
- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie issued
his state budget on Tuesday, with a caveat. He proposed to pay $500 million
into the pension-fund system, but will only do so if legislators approve his
- Try your
hand at cutting $100 billion in discretionary, non-defense spending with this interactive feature
from the Center for American Progress.
- Hats off
Prep Academy in Chicago, which boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate
for its senior class—for the second year in a row. Its secret: high
expectations and hard work.
- Now that
the dust from the PISA results has settled a bit, it’s worth noting that the
losing ground on international tests. We’ve never been at the top. And
America still attracts the best and the brightest from around the globe.
century skills take a hard hit from an educator charged with teaching them on
Core blog. Look for more posts by “Emma Bryant” (names have been changed to
protect the innocent) describing her days at a New Tech High School.
- A bit of karma is hitting
America’s largest teacher union. The NEA is facing $14 million in shortfalls to
its operating budget this year—and serves 54,000 fewer members than last year.
But don’t be fooled: It will maintain its political strength by simply raising members’
Fordham's featured publication: Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons From the Frontline
Charter schools are one of the hottest policy
debates in American education—and one in which Fordham has been a lively
participant since day one. This book, which recounts our experience as a
charter-school authorizer, describes and analyzes our efforts, successes, and
failures, and distills what we think they all mean for others committed to
school reform and innovation. We are happy to finally share our story, a memoir
of our unique role as dual participant in the charter-school debate since its
inception, and authorizer of actual schools serving some of Ohio’s neediest