A Noble Attempt at Improved Regulation of Teacher Salaries

Baltimore recently completed a “four-year effort to transform the traditional teacher-pay schedule into one emphasizing professional accomplishments over credentials and seniority.” As Hugh Rockoff noted decades ago (1984 – cite below), “the price system does a great deal of work,” meaning that substitutes for the price system’s allocation process inevitably require a large commitment of people and money, and that costly regulatory substitutes do not perform nearly as well as market-determined (=freedom-determined) dynamic price change. Rockoff argued that regulated price change had performed acceptably only when it existed temporarily on a comprehensive basis to ease the transition to improved policies. In this case, the four years of hard work at something markets do much better, at no cost, was the basis for payments to Baltimore’s teachers.

Admittedly, it was a noble effort that persisted over the four years because the longtime status quo in most places is the disastrous “single salary schedule” wherein teacher pay only depends on general credentials and experience. That means teacher pay is the same for different subject credentials, and for different campuses within the district, regardless of whether the regulated salary level was enough, or too much, to attract the desired skill mix for each campus. That usually means there will not be enough math and science teachers, anywhere, and not enough of the most effective teachers at the most challenging or poorly sited campuses. Single salary schedule also means teacher pay does not depend on accomplishments, including especially genuine effectiveness, which may differ from a narrow, sometimes fraudulent test score measure of effectiveness.

Baltimore developed a point system that shifts price control from total pay to base total pay plus the basis for supplemental pay. “Baltimore teachers earn incremental pay boosts each time they compile 12 achievement units or AUs. District- and union-staffed panels spent more than two years determining which activities should count towards pay, and creating the rules for the promotions (supplemental pay awards), a task all parties agree proved stressful and bewildering at times.” For example, on what concrete basis do you specify the AU value of coaching teachers vs. teaching children directly vs. creating new programs?

Who decides if/when an activity or assignment meets the definition for an AU award?  I would not want to be that person, or on that committee. A key market virtue is that the basis for value determination is impersonal. For example, suppose a district wants to have a teacher coach on a specific campus. There will probably be a known, approximate market price for educators qualified to do that. The locals can adjust that up or down a bit depending upon how many applicants they get. Both employer and applicants know that the salary level is largely externally determined; a “going rate”, so there is no one to blame for earnings not being higher.

And then there is the critical problem of financially keeping up with AU awards, and matching the quantity provided with the quantity of an activity needed. Earning additional AUs does not put more money in district coffers, either contemporaneously, or eventually through higher tax rates, or sufficiently higher property values. What if the price (AU) ― setting committee sets too high a price on something; too many AUs for something that is easy, or becomes easy? Then there is a financial problem funding the salary increases, and a surplus of that something.  Price regulation forgets that per-unit value depends on quantity provided.

The noble Baltimore attempt to escape the ravages of the single salary schedule may be better than what it replaces. And whether it is or not, the inevitable difficulties that will arise will hopefully show that market-determined teacher salaries are the best available option.

Student Engagement with Free Mobile App Verso

Getting kids to put down their cell phones is a constant battle for parents and teachers alike. Rather than soldering on in the struggle, Denton Independent School District in Denton, Texas is embracing the electronic irritations, ending the struggle and engaging students at the same time.

Denton is deploying Verso, a free mobile app that allows teachers to create challenges for their students. The students can create their own responses and browse the anonymous submissions of their classmates from the comfort of the phone, tablet or computer.

“We can get a lot of true feelings out there on the table since the students can respond in a safe, independent manner, and not just mimic what someone else has said,” said Denton ISD Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Mike Mattingly in a prepared statement. “We can start making headway and know better how to deal with the issues at hand.”

Denton’s willingness to embrace and integrate technology into the classroom is a great example of one of the key ingredients to student engagement: hands-on learning. Integrating student feedback and hands-on learning are simple ― yet vital ― ways we can bring more choice and personalized learning into the classroom without breaking the bank.

The Grinch of Blindness to Pricelessness

Millions of children, especially the least advantaged, persistently suffer the ravages of out of field teaching ― one of the key “roots of the low performance problem” ― because even at the very high level of education scholars such as Dr. Arthur Levine, there is utter blindness to the key role of “pricelessness”. In this case, the “pricelessness” problem is political regulation of teacher salaries in the form of a “single salary schedule“.

President/Professor Levine’s “15 Ways to Draw Great Teachers to High-Need Schools” makes no mention of the single salary schedule as the culprit that prevents paying higher, market-determined salaries at harder-to-staff schools and/or for harder-to-fill positions such as math and science teachers. The resulting shortages of especially-hard-to-fill positions at especially-hard-to-appropriately-staff schools hurts the children most in need help away from home. Dr. Levine pleads for a revision of the “central plan”, but not the single salary schedule part of the central plan. An attempt at that is the subject of my next blog post.

Engagement in STEM Education

Education reformers have recently turned their attention to STEM ― the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics ― because of a lack of STEM workers and a mismatch in STEM degree-holders in STEM fields. Today, there are 277,000 STEM job vacancies, and it is estimated that there could be 2.4 million STEM vacancies by 2018. Moreover, the number of STEM degree-holders do not match up with actual employment data:

  • There are over 12.1 million STEM degree-holders in the United States, but STEM employment in 2012 was just 5.3 million.
  • Just one-third of employed native-born Americans with a STEM degree actually work in a STEM job.
  • Seventy-four percent of individuals with a STEM bachelor’s degree are not employed in STEM occupations.

How can the United States tackle this problem? Private school choice can increase student engagement in STEM subjects. Engagement in today’s schools is a problem ― as a 2013 Gallup poll notes, 45 percent of students are not engaged or are “actively disengaged” while at school.

The current public education system uses a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, which often results in disengaged, unmotivated students. Because students have a wide variety of learning styles and interests, school choice would allow students to attend the schools that best fit their learning styles. If students could choose their schools, schools would have an incentive to compete in offering effective and engaging lessons, and schools could choose to specialize in certain areas or offer theme-based education (such as a sports-themed school) that would motivate students who might not succeed in a traditional learning environment.

Decentralized Planning Works, But Beware of Rough Transitions

You’re reading the only school system policy blog series that directly addresses the consequences of pricelessness, and the urgent need for price decontrol, which means the need for market-driven, dynamic price change to facilitate decentralized planning. How that could be so is utterly shocking and an incredible opportunity to work out the nature of school system reform that fully exploits the potential for improvement before transformational change becomes politically feasible in one of our states. As your understanding of the skills and knowledge of the typical U.S. teenager will tell you, the potential to improve is much more than the 10-15% international test score difference between the top-performing countries’ price controlled K-12 school system, and the U.S. price controlled K-12 system.

The inattention to the need for decentralized planning by most of the population ― free enterprise orchestrated by market-driven price change ― is utterly incredible.  In the world’s developed countries, decentralized planning driven by price change orchestrates production of nearly all goods and services. The only alternative to it ― central planning by government bureaus ― has a horrible track record, including for K-12 education. Central planning struggles to function acceptably even for the core government functions of defense and justice. This night-time satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula says it all in a single glance with the stunning contrast between the centrally planned north, and the free enterprise-driven south.

Your country needs you to be a messenger of this essential truth; without price decontrol the upside of school system change is just a small fraction of the potential to improve our K-12 system; the urgent need to improve. So that you can be an effective messenger, let’s review how de-centralized planning through free enterprise and price change would orchestrate production of schooling options, including home production (the decision to home school) when parents have a comparative advantage schooling one or more of their own children. The process can start with folks, including many current educators, detecting an opportunity to enter an existing schooling niche, say instruction for math whizzes. The detection process involves comparing feasible tuition prices, plus the potential to solicit donations, and schooling costs, especially personnel costs. That process produces a new school, or a significant expansion, that imitates existing schooling practices whenever the per pupil payment times the likely number of enrollees, plus donations, exceeds the cost of operating the school by enough to at least generate a normal (for the entire economy) gap between long-run revenue and expenses. For example, that circumstance might arise, repeatedly, in growing regions, after increased demand raises the selling price that stills fills, or nearly fills, the school. The consequent opening of some new schools competitively drives the selling price down until schools fill at a price that is not attractive to potential newcomer producers.  That process informally regulates the total capacity of the system.

The President Throws $1 Billion at Pre-K and Shakira Celebrates

President Obama announced new federal funds to support early learning around the country. The $1 billion comes from public funds as well as over $350 million in private donations from donors such as Disney and the LEGO Foundation. The announcement came with some added star power from Shakira who took to social media to promote Pre-K:

Preschool costs ~ $8k per year per child. Juvenile detention costs ~ $90k per year per child. Again-numbers don’t lie.

Sharkira will need to do more than just state that preschool is cheaper than locking up kids.

Half of the money will go directly to early Head Start, a fourth of it will go to federal grants:

  • $500 million in federal grants to expand and improve Early Head Start programs and child care partnerships.
  • $250 million in federal preschool development grants will help enroll more than 33,000 additional children in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisors released a report on the benefits of investing in early learning programs in conjunction with the announcement.

In total, the existing research suggests expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.

However, not everyone is convinced that there is a good return on investment in early learning. The Cato Institute sharply countered the announcement with their own research and data.

Throwing money at education and big PR stunts will not improve the educational system in this country. We already know that our nation’s education system has plenty of room for improvement. Why add on to a poor educational system with early learning, instead of working to fix what is already in place?

Charters Pushing the Pricelessness Envelope

Charter operators are pushing the envelope, but they are mostly still in it. Take for example, the Rocketship brand; if you can. They are adding schools, but admission at each is by lottery. The waitlist lists about as many students as the Rocketship chartered public schools enroll. Since the potential for expansion in any location is limited by the ability to raise money there, expansion means a new school and a new waitlist in a new location, not expansion to fully meet demand in any given location. State funding is not enough to start new schools; maybe not even to operate them. Like so many other innovative charters aiming for some customization to address the unique learning needs that were a bad fit for the traditional public school mainstream, Rocketship is donor dependent. “Rocketship must raise $5.5 million for each regional rollout. In Milwaukee, for instance, Rocketship has pulled together funding from the Walton Family Foundation, the Bradley Family Foundation, and Baird Corporation among others.”

The shortages represented by the waitlists and the struggles to replicate what produced impressive results at the first Rocketship schools are readily explained by the economic fundamentals of the low price ceiling (“pricelessness”) established by one-price-fits-all school funding policies. Unable to charge what the market will bear and thus have the resources to build and appropriately staff enough schools to avoid the quality-eroding effects of persistent shortages, Rocketship is struggling to finance expansion as described above, AND failing to maintain the personnel quality needed for its model to work as well at its new schools as the original campuses. That is yielding the scandal and declining test scores that threaten the whole chartered public school and school choice movements.

Coder in Chief Jumpstarts Computer Science Education Week

Today marks the second day of this year’s Computer Science Education Week. The White House and the non-profit Hour of Code kicked things off yesterday, as President Obama became the first “Coder-in-Chief,” writing a few lines of JavaScript in an effort to prove that anybody can code.

“Don’t just consume things. Create things,” urged Obama in his Computer Science Education Week kick-off video. “Take an hour to learn more about the technology that powers our lives.”

While Hour of Code focuses on introducing individuals to the process of coding, the Obama Administration is pushing to expand access to computer science education by:

  • Introducing computer science courses to over 60 school districts, reaching over 4 million students.
  • Increasing teacher training in computer science with the help of philanthropic contributions.
  • Partnering with the National Science Foundation to introduce an Advanced Placement Computer Science course.
  • Getting women and under-represented minorities involved in computer science in higher numbers.

Increasing interest in computer science ― and STEM fields overall ― is important for both success-seeking individuals and the United States’ economic prosperity. As we’ve discussed before, the Department of Labor estimates that by 2020-2022:

  • 1.4 million computer-related jobs will need to be filled.
  • There will be an 18 percent growth in computer-related occupations and an 8 percent growth in the employment of computer programmers.
  • Over half of all STEM jobs will be in computer science-related fields.

Interested in trying your hand at coding? Check out Hour of Code. Or if you’ve got a specific coding language in mind, delve a little deeper at W3 Schools or Code Academy.

Given the vital nature of technology in our lives, teaching children to code will soon be just as important as teaching them to read or write. Events like Computer Science Education Week are a good way to introduce both kids and adults to the importance of computer science.

Sexual Assault on Campus: The UVA Case, Public Opinion and Due Process

By now, most people have read, or at least heard about, Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s account of a gang rape at UVA. The allegations in the Rolling Stone article are indeed shocking, but also staggering in their own way have been the media and community responses to the allegations. To be sure, the acts depicted in the story (and, we would do well to remember that, at this point, that’s what it is — a story) are horrific and, if true, deserve unqualified condemnation and justice. But might we also remember Crystal Mangum?

If you’re not familiar with that name, you’re excused — few, after the media firestorm that ensued (media blitzkrieg? Media circus would certainly be too polite a term to describe what happened), would know her name. But surely all remember the Duke lacrosse players?

Crystal Mangum was the young woman who falsely accused three Duke lacrosse players of rape in 2006. Chaos erupted, the school’s lacrosse coach was fired and the team’s lacrosse season was cancelled. The young men whose lives were torn apart by the accusations were immediately presumed guilty by the school, the media and the public at large. Duke denounced them, and story upon story were run in newspapers, decrying white privilege and wealthy elitism. It sparked nationwide outrage.

Of course, it didn’t happen — we know that now. But it took 13 grueling months before criminal charges against three of those boys were dropped, and today — eight years later — those players, even the ones not formally charged, are living in the scandal’s shadow.

The case, tragic as it was, was an outstanding reminder of the virtues of our American principle of innocent until proven guilty. How unfortunate that we seem to have forgotten that lesson.

The Rolling Stone rape story details a horrific attack on a first-year college student by a group of boys in a fraternity. Upon publication, the public responded with fury, outrage and disgust as the article — entirely devoid of the use of the word “alleged” — made its way across the internet. UVA suspended all fraternity activities until January, and protestors vandalized the fraternity house identified in the story. But after two weeks of condemnation, a few people have begun to ask — are we sure this happened? At least, did it happen as described?

Chartered Public Schools ― Catching the Uniformity Disease

The founders and supporters of the chartering institutional innovation want chartered public schools to be alternatives for children that are not a good fit for traditional public schools, to be incubators for innovative practices and to provide competitive pressures for market-based improvement of the whole school system. But charter-provided alternatives must be produced for a largely uniform amount that is typically less than the per-pupil funding of traditional public schools, including initially when new approaches are often more costly. Donor support for temporary or long-term charter funding needs is the only reason many charter-based instructional approaches can exist at all, and if then, not nearly in the quantities necessary to meet the demand for alternatives, including some that might be developed under more favorable circumstances.

Not surprisingly, charters struggle to provide established or innovative instructional alternatives that fit all types of students, including severely disabled. But a lot of proven programs and likely innovations would serve some children very well, but fit others poorly. And given the diversity of children, specialized approaches need to be encouraged, not discouraged. Dynamic price signals can orchestrate a mix of specialized schooling options into a menu that includes at least one good fit for every child. But every charter law’s price control precludes dynamic price signals, and charters cannot, by law, turn away anyone, except randomly, if the school is over-subscribed. “Counseling out” children that are a poor fit for the school’s attempt at a mission focus is also illegal, but not as readily enforceable. So, pressures to serve all push charters in the direction of the traditional public school “comprehensive uniformity” that does not work for a lot of children; precisely the children charters could and should provide a specialized better fit for.

By the way, have you wondered why a family would want to move their child from a traditional public school formally tasked with serving all children to a school attempting a narrow mission focus that does not match the learning traits of their child? That charters often attempt a low key, discreet counseling out of such mismatches is ― like (among many) the story of roaming district superintendents, and repeated failures to deploy additional resources in a way that will notably improve student academic outcomes ― another sign that the assigned traditional public school is a very poor fit (or worse) for a lot of children.

Many supporters hope for, and many chartering opponents fear, that chartering will tap into the forces that produce dynamic, efficient outcomes throughout the economy. But with price control muting the critical price change signal, there is little market benefit to be had from chartering other than some limited, initial entry; some new options that long waitlists and lotteries quickly turn into school chance, not school choice. And the availability of another key to desirable market outcomes ― potential for profit ― alongside huge shortages (waitlists) could actually produce scandalously bad market behavior.

So, not many charters can offer instructional approaches that cost more than the government-set price per enrollee, and each charter campus must serve all who demand admission. Because large waitlists are the norm, charters cannot increase their revenue through improved performance, or see it shrink from anything short of massive performance reductions. Like the traditional public schools’ single salary schedule, fixed total revenue largely precludes funding for merit raises. And full, waitlisted charters cannot feel, or be a cause of, competitive pressures. Hmmm?  This is starting to sound familiar. The roots of the problem are spreading to chartered public schools.