Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Up with teachers, not so much with unions
E. Finn, Jr.
A apple for America's teachers
(Photo by Stacey)
Over the next couple of weeks, youngsters across the land
will strap on their SpongeBob backpacks and lace up their new Converses.
They’ll board school buses, sharpen their pencils (and turn on their iPads),
and settle in their classroom chairs, eager-eyed and ready to learn. But for a
lot of teachers in a lot of states, the 2011-12 academic year won’t begin with
the same cheerful anticipation. More and more educators, we’re hearing, are
dragging to school with grimaces rather than grins on their visages. September
looks like worn-out June. They feel the burden of societal
disrespect, of distrust, of being blamed by the public for all that ails
They’re wrong—fortunately. The new Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup
survey makes clear that most adults value their children’s teachers.
Seventy-one percent say they “have trust and confidence in the men and women
who are teaching children in the public schools” and 67 percent say they would
like to have one of their own children become a public-school teacher.
That’s tons more positive than the public’s view of schools
in general: Just 17 percent give A or B grades to them (though Americans
continue to give high marks to their own children’s schools—and this figure,
say the pollsters, is rising).
Respondents were also asked to grade the teachers,
principals, and school board in their own community. Here again, teachers fared
best: Sixty-nine percent of respondents would award their town’s teachers
either an A or a B versus 54 percent for principals, and a meager 37 percent
for the school board. (This widening recognition of the governance
failings of our public-school systems is, in its way, heartening.)
Parents—interestingly—rank the worst: A discouraging 36 percent of respondents
would give their communities’ parents top marks for “bringing up their
More and more educators, we’re hearing,...feel the burden of...being blamed by the public for all that ails American education. They’re wrong—fortunately.
So whence cometh the perceived public ire? PDK and Gallup lift the lid a bit:
Forty-seven percent of survey respondents feel that unionization (of teachers)
has hurt “the quality of public education in the United States” compared with
26 percent who say it has helped. (Are you paying attention, Randi and Dennis?
Your organizations don’t have a lot of fans. Even school boards fare better!)
Some aspects of school teaching seem permanent, even
eternal, but in many ways teaching today has changed from my own student days
and it’s likely to be even more different tomorrow.
In the last half-century, unionization has flooded the
schools (and is now slowly starting to ebb—or be pushed back). Possibly more
important, though, has been the sheer growth in the number of public-school
teachers. In the 1950s, the crude ratio of students to teachers across American
K-12 education was 27:1. Today it’s 14:1. That doesn’t mean everybody’s classes
are smaller but it does mean that we now employ an enormous number of
teachers—in the ballpark of 3.5 million—and essentially all the extra money
we’ve put into public education has gone to pay for their salaries and
benefits. That’s why teacher pay has simply kept pace with the cost of living
and why these levels of compensation in much of the U.S. today aren’t
sufficient to attract and keep a great many of our ablest college graduates.
(Mercifully, they attract and keep some!) If today’s ratio were still 27:1,
today’s school budgets would be sufficient to pay an average teacher salary
north of $100,000.
As for what will be different in the teachers’ world
tomorrow, five developments need to be noted and taken seriously.
First, technology is going to have a major impact, both on
what happens within traditional schools and classrooms and, more broadly, on
what we mean by “school” and where and when learning occurs. Most likely, it
will mean that we need fewer flesh-and-blood teachers sitting in the classroom
with Johnnie and Susie—though we may need more aides and tutors and such to
provide face-to-face explanations, pats on the back, and (when needed) stern
looks and reminders to remain on task. (Expect a paper soon from our “Creating
Sound Policy for Digital Learning” series on the specifics of these shifts.)
Second, school budgets are going to be flat (or falling) for
the foreseeable future—and looming deficits in retirement and pension funds
almost certainly mean that the take-home pay of practicing teachers will see no real-dollar growth and
could well decline. (The only rational antidote to that is, in fact, employing
fewer individuals and paying them better.)
Third, there’s a revolution underway in teacher evaluation
and many of the HR practices associated with it, including retention, tenure,
compensation, promotions, and layoffs. It’s rocky, to be sure, but we’re
gradually coming to gauge teachers more by what their students learn and less
by the credentials that they carry. (And this isn’t just a cause trumpeted by
wonks and reform junkies. Per yesterday’s poll, 74 percent of adult Americans
say that it’s important to incorporate student test-score data into teacher
Fourth, big changes are brewing in teacher preparation
and licensure as ed schools come under fire, as “alternate routes” proliferate,
as programs like Teach For America get greater traction, and as more attention
is paid to what a teacher knows about her subject than to what pedagogy courses
she took in college.
Fifth, though the system hasn’t quite made this adjustment
yet, we’re seeing that a non-trivial fraction of teachers are people who want
to do this work for a time, before or after they do something else, rather than
make a lifelong career of it. We’ll likely evolve a set of arrangements that
capitalizes on the short-termers as well as the classroom careerists.
As we contemplate this future, it will surely help if
teachers themselves, with or (more likely) without their unions’ help, prove
willing to experiment, to grow, to listen, and to learn. And it will help if
all the rest of us—even the curmudgeonly crew at Fordham—pause to thank today’s
hardworking educators for selfless, challenging, and not very well compensated
work on which our kids’ future and our country’s prospects depend so heavily.
News Analysis: Let's make a deal!
Montana's retroactive revolution
(Photo by Brian Swan)
On Sunday, 158 Montana public schools were slated to join the
state’s other “failing” schools—per federal AYP designations. On Monday, that
number plummeted to three. Yet this change in labeling had nothing to do with student
achievement. Instead, the feds allowed education officials in big-sky country
to simply redraw the state’s schedule of testing targets—retroactively back to
2005. Why? The Treasure State had revamped its own state assessment that year,
yet hadn’t reset its proficiency standards (something the NCLB accountability
workbook allows). Duncan’s crew found this loophole and let Montana rewrite its
proficiency targets from 2005 on. For this year, that means that Montana’s
required proficiency rates will be slightly above the state’s original 2007
levels. A possible contributing factor to ED’s willingness to find a
work-around: a desire on Duncan’s part to save face after Montana's flagrant and
continued refusal to raise its proficiency standards—even after the Secretary’s
threat to withhold
Title I funding. Yet Duncan’s clumsy wielding of the NCLB stick, as well as
this back-bending for states, may have serious negative consequences. So, Mr.
Secretary, take heed of Jeb Bush’s good
advice: Be a leader. A thought-out plan on how to pass responsibility to
the states is more pragmatic than defusing potentially embarrassing situations.
|Click to listen to commentary on Montana's "new deal" on NCLB from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: Wrong conditions for a coup
Hopeless optimists in the
ed-reform ranks have noted—and exhalted—recent cracks in teacher-union armor,
some of which seem to be brought about by teachers themselves. The latest
United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) elections saw a reform-minded slate of
teachers (self-dubbed NewTLA) take ninety of the 350 seats in the union’s
governing body. New York City’s Educators for Excellence, a group of teachers
working to reform arcane and detrimental policies like last-in, first-out, now boasts
3,500 members. While it’s easy to become smitten with these examples of change,
however, Terry Moe reminds
us that they won’t bring about large-scale “reform unionism.” Why? Because
unions are inherently designed to quell reform efforts. Further, while younger
teachers are more reform-minded than their elder peers (look to NCEI’s
recent survey for more), they also exit the profession at higher rates—leaving
union leadership unscathed. While any chinks in the armor are likely good for
kids and taxpayers alike, imagine the damage to the status quo these
reform-minded teachers could inflict if they started working against the steadfast
unions and not through them.
|Click to listen to commentary on "reform unionism" from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: It's working in Harlem
Geoffrey Canada has become a bit of
an ed-reform rock star since he began the Harlem
Children’s Zone in the 1990s. That initiative provides wraparound
services—including schooling, healthcare, healthy meals, and after-school
activities—for children and their families in a sixty-block square of central
Harlem. And the idea has grown legs across the country (look to the “promise
neighborhoods” initiative for proof). Yet, in Columbus, a similar effort led by
Columbus Collegiate Academy
(one of the top-performing urban schools in the Buckeye State) and the Boys and Girls
Club risks having its legs swept out from under it. (Full disclosure: CCA is a
Fordham-authorized school.) The partners hope to open a new school in a vacant
building near the Boys and Girls Club on the city’s near west side, where
existing middle-school options are paltry. Planning was going smoothly, with
grants and donors lined up to support the CCA-BGCC joint program, until the
state’s biennial budget bill was finalized in late June. Under the new law,
districts no longer have discretion about whom they rent space to. That
decision must now be done by lottery. (Ironically, the change in law is meant
to ensure that charter schools have greater access to vacant district
buildings, as districts have been remiss to rent space to them.) Yet now, CCA
might miss out on this prime school-system real estate, putting the entire
children’s zone partnership—and a much-needed network of services for needy
kids—at risk. And that would be a sad day for Columbus and for its children.
Review: Money, Mandates, and Local Control in American Public Education
At times, local school districts may feel like
marionettes, with state and federal mandates contorting them to fit one policy
priority after another. According to this fascinating new book by Wake Forest
professor Bryan Shelly, higher levels of government can indeed manipulate local
education agencies with remarkably few dollars—as little as 5 percent of their
budgets. Shelly uses NCLB to illustrate this effect, showing that even state
and local politicians with serious reservations about the law implemented it
anyway, unwilling to cut ties to federal cash—or brave the political backlash
that would ensue. While some states (like Colorado and New Mexico) have passed
laws formally opposing various NCLB provisions, every state has at least
partially implemented 95 percent of NCLB’s provisions. The same is true at the
district level: Only seven of the nation’s 14,383 school districts have
formally opted out of NCLB. With these facts in hand, Shelly draws a simple but
important conclusion: A better way for higher levels of government to leverage
reform would be to ease up on onerous mandates, leaving to locals the heavy
lifting in areas like teacher quality and curriculum. State and federal money need
not be accompanied by the demolition of local control. Do that and local school
districts might start to whistle Pinocchio’s favorite tune, “I’ve got no strings.”
Review: IDEA National Assessment Implementation Study: Final Report
By Janie Scull
This paper examines the state of IDEA services
in the five years after the law’s most recent reauthorization in 2004. Findings
are drawn from a 2009 survey of state special-education offices as well as 1,200
school districts. Though there is much throat-clearing in the report, it is
chockablock with relevant data. Perhaps the most interesting tidbits relate to implementation
of intervening services for students who are not yet identified as
special-needs but who require additional supports to succeed academically: Eleven
percent of districts have voluntarily opted to direct allotted IDEA funds toward services
to Intervention (RTI), something they’ve only been allowed to do since 2004.
(RTI is an instructional technique that provides students with tiered and
increasingly intensive instruction to address problems in their early stages.) Still
many more districts provide such services without tapping into their IDEA funds:
When it comes to RTI specifically, fully 71 percent of districts—encompassing
61 percent of elementary schools, 45 percent of middle schools, and 29 percent
of high schools—use RTI. Unfortunately, the report stops short of analyzing why
districts are opting to spend their own cash on RTI initiatives, rather than
directing federal dollars to the cause, circling us back to an issue with
special-education writ large: Where, how, and why money gets spent remains a
|Click to listen to commentary on IES's IDEA report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Bradley, M.C., Tamara Daley, Marjorie Levin, Fran O’Reilly, Amanda
Parsad, Anne Robertson,
and Alan Werner, “IDEA National Assessment Implementation
Study,” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and
Regional Assistance, Institute for Education Sciences, 2011).
Review: State Achievement Score Trends Through 2008-09, Part 4: Is Achievement Improving and Are Gaps Narrowing for Title I Students?
For all the disaggregation of test scores that has taken place since the implementation of NCLB, little attention has been placed on the
Title I student population itself (those in schools with high percentages of
low-income pupils). This Center on Education Policy report—the fourth in a
series on student achievement—spotlights these kids. It assesses trends in
Title I and non-Title I student-achievement data (for grades four, eight, and
either ten or eleven) between 2002 and 2009, and the findings initially appear
promising. Of the nineteen states that disaggregate achievement data by Title I
status, fifteen saw improvement among Title I participants. Additionally, gaps
between Title I and non-Title I students have narrowed more frequently than they have
widened since 2002. Unfortunately, while CEP offers a needed peek at Title I
student success, the report’s basic methodology limits the reach of its
findings. Not only does it not correct for shifting
levels of Title I funding, it also cannot disaggregate student achievement (or
school funding) by students enrolled in school-wide or targeted-assistance
programs (albeit that these targeted-assistance programs are quickly becoming things of the past). So kudos to CEP for shining light on the effectiveness of Title I
efforts, but many more bulbs will have to be illuminated to truly understand
the efficacy of Title I’s $14 billion.
Review: Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies
By Laurent Rigal
For better or worse, testing—formative,
evaluative, and diagnostic—is entrenched in our K-12 education system. But
policies around assessment haven’t all been evidence-based. In this book,
Howard Wainer, a long-time research scientist at ETS and statistics professor
at Wharton, illustrates this point through a series of rebuttals to opinions he
sees as ubiquitous in today’s conversations around testing. In one chapter, he explains
why the SAT should not be made optional. In another, he gauges the practicality
of using value-added models (VAM) as components of teacher
evaluations—concluding that available data render VAM implementation premature.
While many of Wainer’s arguments dive far into the weeds of testing, his
overall message rings clear and true for much more than assessment: Policy that
is formed without full analysis of the breadth of data available on a topic is
policy that will fail.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
With Mike and Rick sipping Cuba Libres on the
beach, Janie and Daniela speculate on what Montana’s “NCLB do-over” might mean
for ESEA reauthorization, the potential of “reform unionism,” and the merits of
“exam schools.” Amber makes a dry report on IDEA seem fascinating and Chri$ pitches
districts a crazy idea: Turn off the lights when you aren’t in the room.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Putting Dayton’s back-to-school season in context
By Terry Ryan
Education is and
always has been profoundly shaped by demographics and economics. Ever since
James Coleman’s celebrated 1966 study showed that student achievement is
strongly affected by nonschool factors, Americans have understood the manifold
tribulations facing anyone bent on improving student achievement among our
In Dayton, Fordham’s hometown, there is no doubt that
education-reform efforts are entangled with brutal Rust Belt economics,
poverty, job loss, fractured families, and the constant churning of children
between schools. Recent news out of Dayton has not been good for children and
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Follow the money: Winerip takes out after education philanthropists
By Peter Meyer
The other day, Michael
Winerip raised what has come to be an increasingly contentious question in
the public education-reform debate—the use of private money for public
purposes.… These are tough times and deep-pocketed individuals are stepping up
to the plate to help out. Is that a good idea?...
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: Education Reform Idol: The Reformiest State 2011
Last Thursday, Fordham brought five forward-thinking states—Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—together to battle for the title of America’s Education Reform Idol. After narrowly losing to Illinois in our pre-event poll, Indiana pulled out a come-from-behind victory. To see why, watch the event video.
Briefly Noted: Live green, save green
overspending? Love the environment? So does the Mount Sinai School District on
Long Island. Last year it saved
$350,000 on utility bills by shutting off lights when not in use,
unplugging unused refrigerators during the summer, etc.
news for Hoosier students: Indiana’s new voucher program (which has
enrolled 2,800 in the forty days that applications have been open) has been
given the green light, as a county judge
declined to block implementation of this law. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Douglas
County, Colorado’s program.
from his recent book, Class
Warfare, Steve Brill makes the case that we
need more than superstar teachers to improve our schools. There just aren’t
enough to go around.
- So much
for collaboration in Illinois. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis recently
described the likelihood of a strike as “very high,” as her membership is
- And over
in the Badger state, the Wisconsin Education Association Council laid
off forty-two (40 percent) of its own central-office employees this week.
According to WEAC Executive Director Dan Burkhalter, Governor Walker’s
“union-busting” bill is to blame.
interactive graph, Batman! This one is from the New York City Charter
Schools Center and shows test-score data for Gotham’s charter schools (grades
Flash forward a few years, as
digital learning takes root, and imagine
this scene: “One or several cities emerge as hubs of teaching
talent, with large numbers of small firms of specialist teachers contracting
with blended schools around the country and around the world.” An interesting notion from Reihan Salam,
Announcement: Rick takes on Randi takes on Rick
Rick Hess and Randi
Weingarten will sit down together on August 23 from 10:00 to 11:30AM to have a
smart, frank, and amiable discussion on what current education-reform trends
mean for classroom teachers. (Gadfly is thinking “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
Which one will be James Lipton? You’ll have to come to the event to find out.) Rick
will be in shorts; we encourage you to dress casually as well. Click
here for more information.
Announcement: Nothing common about it
Common Core—a D.C.-based organization promoting
a balanced curriculum in K-12 education—is looking for a resourceful,
intelligent, and hard-working research intern to help with report-writing,
blogging, social media outreach, and the office’s day-to-day operations. If you’re
interested, learn more about the position here.
Fordham's featured publication: Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s High-Performing, High-Need Urban Schools
The overwhelming majority of schools that serve
Ohio’s poor, urban, and minority youngsters fall short when it comes to
academic performance. But there are a small handful of schools that buck these
bleak trends and show serious achievement for disadvantaged youngsters from
depressed inner-city communities. This study profiles eight of these
high-performing outlier schools and distills their successes, in hopes that
state policymakers and educators can learn from them and create the conditions
necessary for more schools like them. Read