Monthly Archives: July 2012

Common-Sense Compensation for “Irreplaceables”

On Monday TNTP released its long-awaited report on the crisis of urban teacher retention. The report explains that the most effective teachers in a given district–termed “The Irreplaceables”– produce 5-6 more months of student learning than poor teachers. Yet those top teachers leave their schools at an alarmingly high rate. Therefore, the report argues, schools should alter their policies to ensure that those teachers are retained.

This is far from surprising. Indeed, all students, parents, and school employees know that some teachers are better than others. The problem is that teacher compensation–presently based on seniority and credentials–implies a false reality where all teachers are equally effective. It is no wonder that a profession which fails to reward its top performers has trouble retaining them.

The fact that some teachers are better than others is not a knock on the teaching profession. Indeed, differences in employee quality exist in all industries. But teachers are too important to society to justify the present complacency. Every kid deserves a great teacher and the incredible achievement that can result, and the failure to retain great teachers is making that much more difficult. Tying teacher compensation to effectiveness would improve retention, shine a light on our best, and toss away the false reality of that teachers are nothing more than interchangeable parts in a machine. Do teachers deserve more respect? Absolutely. And a great way to make that happen–as well as help kids–is to quit hiding behind oppressive and illogical contracts and support a system for compensation driven by common sense instead of convenience.

StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

Michelle Rhee and her organization, StudentsFirst,created controversy this past week after Rhee articulated her education reform vision in a Meet the Press appearance and related TV ad. One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.

I’m not going to comment on why there is a correlation between poverty and low achievement–that is best handled by a sociologist. But I think that StudentsFirst and its allies are right to de-emphasize the role of poverty in the achievement gap, for the simple reason that it is more likely to help kids. The urban education crisis demands viable policies that will help kids, not “silver bullets” and trumpeted ideals.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has disturbingly high poverty levels, particularly among children. And it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not have an impact on education. A massive nationwide wealth redistribution, or at least redistribution of school funding, would likely fix a lot of the problems in our schools.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The continuing outrage over Obama’s healthcare reform bill–which is relatively moderate, of course– is perfect evidence that our country is not ready for radical progressivism. As I’ve written previously, we cannot depend on people to vote against their direct interests. To put it bluntly, in the current political climate “fixing” poverty is a pipe dream.

Now, do advocates of those radical reforms have good intentions? Of course. But good intentions do nothing for kids currently forced to attend ineffective, unsafe schools. Talk of systemic social problems as the cause of low achievement serves as little more than a convenient justification for inaction; it masks and ignores the urgency of the problem. Instead of maligning wealth distribution to little effect, let’s figure out what we can do tomorrow to help kids that are being failed by the system. Every day we do nothing is a moral failure. Imagine that you or your child had to go to a terrible school. Would you be willing to wait for a radical economic reorganization? I bet not.

Rhee understands this. It’s not that poverty is irrelevant, just that it is not useful or practical to emphasize it in discussions of education reform. She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can  actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding. 

Obama’s Elite STEM Teacher Corps: A Step in the Right Direction

Today President Obama unveiled a proposal to create a national corps of elite teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The fifty top teachers in each of those subjects would receive a $20,000 stipend on top of their salaries in exchange for a multiyear commitment to the corps. Over the next four years the program would expand to 10,000 teachers, with the goal that they would share resources and best practices to teachers across the country.

I’m glad to see this, and hope that this model is spread to other content areas. The structure of teacher compensation in this country is based on the assumption that teachers are equal, interchangeable widgets; seniority, not effectiveness, determines salary. Yet all parents, teachers, and students know that some teachers are better than others. Instead of lying to ourselves at the behest of regimented union contracts, we should acknowledge these differences by highlighting and rewarding our best teachers. Besides incentivizing great teaching with higher salaries, this would encourage the countless great teachers in this country to share resources and best practices. Increasing the influence of outstanding teachers can only help our nation’s students.

I understand why Obama chose to start with STEM teachers for this program–improving our performance in those subjects is perhaps more urgent in the fast-moving global economy. But the principle and simple logic of the program applies to all subjects in all grades. In a time of limited resources, it is especially important to best utilize the resources we have. This proposal takes a big step in that direction.

What the U.S. Constitution Can Teach Us About For-Profit Charter Schools

I’m proud to be a liberal. My blood boils when I read about massive ExxonMobil profits, comically large bonuses for CEOs, and corporate corruption. It follows, then, that I have a strong visceral aversion to for-profit charter charter schools–to handing our tax dollars and the crucial task of education to corporations.

Yet I struggle to think of a real argument against it. Vague anti-corporate sentiment and concerns about potential corruption, though understandable, are not strong reasons for opposition. In fact, for-profit companies have led to incredible innovations in transportation, medicine, agriculture, and many other industries. Like it or not, the opportunity for financial gain is an effective motivator. Why not bring it to education?

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood this. As it says in Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have power to. . . promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

The purpose of this “exclusive right”–which we today call copyright or patent– is to guarantee financial gain for those who make useful innovations. Without this, the framers imply, the “progress of science and useful arts” would be slowed. Keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution granted very few powers to Congress, and in general the framers were skeptical of a large federal government. But promising financial reward for useful invention was considered crucial enough to be worthy for inclusion.

It is clear that our public education system, especially as funding continues to plummet, is desperate for this type of innovation. We should offer the opportunity for financial gain–an idea literally as old as the U.S. itself–to encourage this. Our country has countless brilliant minds working to improve countless industries; we need more of them in education. And what better way to bring them over than a chance for profit? Visceral discomfort with the idea isn’t a good enough reason to cast aside a potentially great opportunity for our nation’s kids. The framers of our Constitution would have given their blessing.

Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession

Yesterday’s WaPo reports that the Fairfax County, VA school system has dropped its attempt to revoke the tenure of veteran teacher Violet Nichols. As I discussed last month,  Nichols was recommended for termination for  incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered. She claimed that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggested that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I can’t really comment on whether Nichols or her principal “were right” in this case–I don’t know either of the parties or the circumstances involved. What I do know, however, is that this outcome, though on its face a victory for teachers, is deeply damaging to the reputation of the teaching profession.

In any industry, people get fired; it’s a reality of employment. Whether the reason is a tight budget, “restructuring,” incompetence, or a capricious boss, when you take a job you accept that you could lose it. But teachers don’t really face that risk. To fire a tenured teacher, a school district will inevitably have to win a lengthy, incredibly expensive legal battle with the local union. And given today’s budget constraints, districts rarely can afford to do that. As a result, tenured teachers have essentially gained a “right” to their jobs.

Sounds peachy, right? But teachers accept this at the expense of reputation and societal respect. When teachers hide behind tenure after making a mistake, they flaunt a luxury of the teaching profession not afforded to other professionals. Is it any wonder, then, that teachers are not afforded the same respect? We need to realize that respect and trust is earned through measurable success and accountability; it is not simply handed to us. Teachers won’t be treated like professionals until we start acting like them.

School Effectiveness, Not Labels

Last month, I went to the ER for a head injury I sustained while playing basketball. (Caught an elbow in the forehead, though naturally I told people that I hit my head on the rim while dunking.) Though the wait was inconvenient and the co-pay hefty, it was a necessary cost: I needed stitches, and  had neither the skill nor the resources to take care of it myself.

Education works in basically the same way, though hopefully with fewer lidocaine injections. Society has decided that an educated community is a public good that is worth paying for. And since it is both impractical and inefficient for individuals to be responsible for educating their own kids, we pay for somebody else to do it for us; we call these public schools. Sure, we have to fork over the money and deal with some inconvenience, like transporting our kids to and from school. But we agree that it’s a necessary cost.

That is why I am continually frustrated by arguments about whether charter schools are public schools. Besides being a ridiculous argument in the first place–even the NEA definition of charters calls them “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools”–it is a distraction from what actually matters in education: whether kids are learning.

The basic reasoning for public education is that it is in the community’s interest to shoulder the cost of educating children, just as it was in my interest to shoulder the cost of an ER visit to get medical treatment. Expanding use of charter schools does not alter that model in any way; all kids are still receiving an education on the taxpayer’s dime. Is the money diverted from the established bureaucracy? Sure. But it isn’t dismantling or destroying anything except old appropriation decisions.

Instead of wasting our time on labels, we should be ensuring that schools are effective. Whether traditional public, charter, or alternative, if schools aren’t educating our kids there is no reason to have public education at all. If I weren’t confident that a doctor could have stitched up my head, I wouldn’t have bothered to go. Yet as education in this country continues to hemorrhage,  people are more concerned about the names of the stitches than whether they can stop the bleeding.

The Fallacy of the Charter School “Movement”

It is no secret that the number of charter schools in the US has been rapidly increasing. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991; today there are over 5,600 charter schools serving over two million students. And with decreasing municipal revenues and the impressive success of many charters across the country, that growth should continue.

Unsurprisingly, charter schools have become a common target of supporters of the educational status quo, particularly teachers’ unions. Charters, they claim, directly attack the public education system by draining resources from “real” public schools. The dangerous and malicious charter school “movement” needs to be stopped.

I’m not going to counter that critique of charters here; that is for another post. But it is worth pointing out that referring to charters as a “movement” is a fallacious oversimplification that unfairly presents charter schools as an opponent, rather than a component, of public education. 

The reality is that charter schools in the US are incredibly diverse from one another, and hardly synchronized or connected. According to the National Education Association, charter schools are “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.” Charters can differ from other public schools by emphasizing foreign languages and cultures, prioritizing certain areas of study, or using different instructional models. Though charter approval works differently in different areas, the basic idea is that someone in the community suggests that it would benefit the kids in the community to have an additional public school option; the specific proposal must then be approved by a representative body in the community. Of course, applications for charters are routinely rejected as well.

What is NOT happening, despite what charter opponents may have you believe, is some kind of coordinated attack on public education by charter school advocates. There is no concerted “movement”; it is just becoming more common–and rightfully so–for active citizens to realize that kids in their community are not receiving the education they deserve. Lumping charter schools together may make for easier sound bites, but that doesn’t make it valid. We should call the description of charter school expansion as a “movement” what it is: a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory intended to manipulate public opinion to preserve a broken status quo.