Another Great Superintendent ― Passing Through

As I read about Terry Grier’s ongoing “impressive” career, I gave “thanks” that there are still people with his determination and talent willing to do their best under the very difficult ― unnecessarily difficult ― circumstances created by the governance and funding policies responsible for the roots of traditional public schools’ typical, persistent low performance problem. Superintendents’ typically huge paychecks help a lot; typically way more than mayors and governors.

Let me explain why I put “impressive” and “thanks” in single quotes. Because of his track record for achieving significant improvement, Superintendent Grier has no trouble finding another job after losing his job because of what it took to pursue significant improvement. He’s been the superintendent of a lot of districts, no doubt with more to come. Even after he secured significant improvements, he left behind situations with much room for further improvement; much like lionized former Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant. Superintendent Grier knows what it takes to significantly improve the performance of the current system, but the ability of anyone to improve its outcomes without systemic change is very limited, hence the remaining room for major improvement each time he has moved on.

I put “thanks” in single quotes because our current K-12 system largely squanders the considerable talents of educators like Terry Grier. So, I give thanks for the Terry Griers of the current K-12 system with regrets and apologies for severely under-utilizing them, and for mostly keeping them from enjoying the benefits of a long tenure in a place they want to call home. We have a public school system that can’t keep good people or fully exploit their talents; another powerful sign of the need for transformational systemic change.

 

Education Department’s ‘Gainful Employment’ Rule: Futile Tinkering That Misses Root Problems

At the end of October, the Department of Education released its much-awaited “gainful employment” rule. It is supposed to fix (or at least improve) the problem that many students who pursue vocational training with federal student aid money wind up without a job that pays well enough for them to meet their student loan payments.

As I’ll explain, the rule won’t solve that problem, but only limit the range of choice for students.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 allows students to use federal grants and loans to enroll in programs that are supposed to prepare them “for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” Numerous for-profit colleges and training institutes sprung up to take advantage of the opportunity to teach young people the skills they need for such jobs as dental assistant, graphic designer, pharmacy technician and cosmetologist. At present, the federal government gives about $6 billion in Pell grants and lends about $22 billion annually for students to attend these schools.

Few politicians paid any attention to those schools until the last few years, when students who borrowed substantial amounts for college (non-profit and for-profit alike) have had great difficulty finding employment that pays well enough for them to meet their debt obligations. Once the “student debt crisis” became national news, however, politicians and regulators began to focus on the for-profit sector.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions led the attack with hearings that began in 2010 and culminated in a scathing report issued in July 2012. That report highlighted the reprehensible tactics that some of the for-profit schools used to lure in students and cash their federal grants and loans. Many of the students never graduated, but even those who did had trouble finding “gainful employment.”

The Department of Education promulgated a “gainful employment” rule that was meant to weed out schools that were performing badly and leaving students in debt trouble, but a federal judge struck that rule down in 2012 on the grounds that its cut off points were arbitrary. Department bureaucrats kept working on a revision that would get rid of “failing schools” and withstand legal challenges from the industry.

Under its rule, the Department would evaluate occupational schools by comparing the earnings of graduates with their loan payments. A school is considered failing if average graduate loan payments are above 30 percent of their discretionary earnings or above 12 percent of their annual earnings. So even if quite a few students do find good jobs after graduating, the school fails if graduates on average have a debt to income ratio that is deemed too high.

More of the Same, Harder: More Symbolism Over Substance or Transformational Policy Entrepreneurship

While it seems true that watering down school system reform proposals doesn’t seem to weaken the opposition of the usual suspects, would-be-reformers have been pursuing resume-building symbolism instead of substantive, transformational policies. I’m not naming names because I don’t know if the key proponents of the largely symbolic policy reforms (all, so far) enacted on their watch were all that was possible, politically, or if they thought their proposals adequately addressed the low performance problem, or if they were unwilling to spend the political capital to achieve more.

When you achieve all that is politically possible without precluding more far-reaching measures later, you’ve achieved a lot more than most of us will achieve in a lifetime. You’ve improved the lives of thousands of children that find a better fit on the current menu of schooling options. But if you help thousands when you could have helped tens of thousands, or millions, to try to have it both ways, politically ― achieve school choice expansion as a resume item without alienating grassroots proponents of the current system ― then there is a major attitude problem; pursuit of ambition at the expense of public service.

In between those extremes of getting all you can, and only getting enough to achieve a resume item at minimum political cost is the possibility that key leaders may believe the same fallacy that infects suburbanites, everywhere, that low performance is confined to poor neighborhoods in the inner city, or that there are some “failed schools” and that the others are performing adequately for the vast majority of children assigned to them. I directly encountered that delusion in a 2007 conversation with some Utah state legislators. They had just enacted a narrowly targeted tuition voucher program; later over-turned by a referendum. I asked them why they had restricted eligibility for the vouchers; which legislator votes were flipped by including the eligibility targeting. I was stunned by the response; supposedly no vote flipping rationale for leaving many families ineligible. They thought the ineligible were served just fine by their assigned public school. Of course many families think the current system is a good deal, but not nearly all assigned to any school, and many of the currently satisfied might later realize that a transformational reform will deliver an even better deal. My previous blog post discussed the myth that the better assigned public schools are good. Indeed, even the vast majority of the top-ranked traditional public schools are “Not as Good as You Think“.

This time around, with recent potentially productive leadership turnover in many states, we need to denounce symbolic acts of ambition and demand their replacement with substantive, productive school system changes. I say “potentially productive leadership” because there has been a lot more talk than substantive action. Naturally, I’d prefer that the policy changes be the ones I’ve laid out; ending the discrimination against families that believe privately-produced schooling options would work better for their children than the assigned public school used because of its public finance monopoly, allowing public-private shared financing of tuition, and little or no regulation of schooling content, or pedagogy.

 

Post Election Congress Should Address Education System Issues

With the elections mostly behind us, the holidays coming up quick and the New Year right around the corner, it’s time to start looking forward to the possibilities presented by the new Congress. With Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, there’s definite room for improvement in the education sector. As the upcoming Congress gets closer to session, they should consider addressing the key areas distressing our education system: the lack of parental involvement, incentives and parental power, as well as the inability to properly integrate technology into the classroom.

Increase Parental Involvement. Studies have repeatedly shown that the more involved parents are in their child’s education, the more likely the child is to succeed. According to the National Education Association, students with involved parents are more likely to:

  • Perform well academically
  • Attend school regularly, and
  • Go on to seek a postsecondary education

Incentivize Learning. Is learning its own reward, or do you get what you pay for? According to the Heartland Institute’s Book Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn ― and why teachers don’t use them well, incentivizing students to work hard and do well through the use of stickers, parties and prizes, helps children develop successful learning habits and improves test scores, graduation rates, and the likelihood that students will attend college after graduation.

Empower Parents. No child should be trapped in a school in which they can’t succeed. Whether it be a lack of resources, a disconnect between teaching and learning styles, or a desire to relocate to a more convenient school, parents need the ability to make the choices that will best benefit their children. Opening up both public and private school choice would empower families to best set their children up for success, regardless of income. To truly open up school choice, lawmakers should:

  • Focus on increasing options. Everyone wants a good education for our kids. The public and private sectors need to work together to offer a wide range of education options for our kids, whether they be public or private, in person or online.
  • Remove financial roadblocks. Creating voucher programs and encouraging the use of education savings accounts (ESAs) ensures that children whose parents fall at all levels of the income spectrum have the chance to choose the school that best fits the child’s needs.

Integrate Technology Into the Classroom. There’s a lot of cool education technology out here, but many schools lack the training or resources to fully integrate these advancements into the classroom.

By addressing these four issues at both the federal and state levels, lawmakers could make a big impact on the education system. After all, the children are our future ― don’t we want to make sure they have the tools to be as successful as possible? By increasing parental involvement, empower parents, incentivizing learning and integrating technology into the classroom, we can best prepare our students for life after graduation.

Turnover at the “Sausage Factory”

The November 4 general election improved the staff at the federal sausage factory, and at several state legislatures. But we have to remember that no matter how noble its members are, all of the legislatures are still sausage factories. New faces don’t change the underlying process. Prominent reform advocate, Fordham Foundation CEO Mike Petrilli, compared the 2014 turnover to the slightly smaller 2010 turnover that led to policy changes in 2011 that the Wall Street Journal dubbed, “The Year of School Choice,” despite the very small scope of the changes. The most highly touted 2011 changes were looser caps on chartered public school formation in five states — far from transformational because of the “pricelessness” and non-selective admissions that all 43 charter laws have in common — and, in a few states, small dollar value tuition tax credits and narrowly targeted tuition vouchers.

As participants in the school system reform struggle, we have to make better use of this political opportunity. For example, Pennsylvania and Texas had Republicans in all key statewide offices and majorities in both legislative chambers for multiple sessions, but school system policies are little-changed in either state. Neither state even has a highly ranked charter law. The next blog post will discuss the propensity for a timid preference for symbolism over substance, but there may be more at work here in the repeated failure to exploit majorities not beholden to key organized opponents of school system reform such as teacher unions. I suspect it has something to do with widespread failure to understand or publicly recognize that better public schools are still mostly pretty bad, and thus failure to push the suburban middle class to support transformational school system change. Unskilled use of potentially compelling evidence like this study for Texas, and this one for California, to argue that the current system is a bad deal for everyone would likely produce anger and denial that could end some political careers before the onset of the final “acceptance” stage for bad news. So, then, a key reform advocates’ concerted effort would be to identify careful and skillful ways to convey the compelling message of those first studies, with more in the pipeline, that even many of the top-ranked traditional public schools are, “Not as Good as you Think.” That evidence will surprise the vast majority that are intellectual prisoners of the status quo. But everyone else understands that the “roots of the problem” of low performance are not just present in the low income and/or urban zip codes where myth says there are confined. Failure to skillfully demolish that zip code myth will likely mean more bashful remedies following brash calls for [targeted] change.

ALEC’s Latest Report Card on American Education by State

The American Legislative Exchange Council recently released their 19th edition of their Report Card on American Education. A comprehensive review of all 50 states and the District of Colombia, the Report Card focuses on the policy areas of state academic standards, private school choice programs, charter schools, teacher quality, online learning and home school regulations.

The ALEC rankings are yet another testament to the fact that reduced government control and increased parental choice produce a winning formula for students. American schoolchildren are constantly falling behind their international counterparts, and drastic changes must be made to increase flexibility.

The one-size-fits-all education system has not worked. States should reject federal top-down standards like the Common Core, and should pass choice legislation like charter school bills and voucher systems that allow students to escape from public schools that have failed them.

The top 10 education ranked states:

Massachusetts

New Jersey

Vermont

Indiana

Colorado

Hawaii

Pennsylvania

Washington

New Hampshire

Florida

The bottom 10 education ranked states:

Kentucky

Mississippi

Alabama

Arkansas

Missouri

Arizona

Louisiana

South Dakota

West Virginia

South Carolina

A Teacher Union Confession and Contradiction

In a July 25, 2014 article in Education Week, outgoing president of the National Education Association (NEA), Dennis Van Roekel, said that, “teachers are not going to give up their industrial union rights to enjoy the benefits of being treated like real professionals until they are treated as real professionals.” Are you shaking your head like I did when I first read that? Teacher unions will assert teachers’ industrial union worker status until districts treat teachers like real professionals!?!? Public school districts didn’t treat teachers like professionals before there were teacher unions. Unionization has made it harder to do that. Okay, so a system where teachers are not accountable to their clients, and that motivated unionism partly because of that lack of choice for teachers (little potential competition for teachers), must suddenly change its stripes — it’s very nature — and do what it has never done, and treat teachers like individual professionals with unique strengths and weaknesses, and only THEN, will there be, “a transition to a new kind of contract, one that is a better fit for professionals.”

Anyway, we have an NEA acknowledgement that collective bargaining has not yet produced a contract that fits professionals. The contract teachers need in order to be treated like real professionals cannot be provided by school districts or labor unions or a combination of the two. Real professionals are directly accountable to their customers, and they are not told how to perform their work. But most public school teachers are micro-managed far beyond being told which curriculum and textbooks to use.

Public school districts amount to school cartels that have been assured high and rising per pupil funding regardless of the ineffectiveness of the de facto business “plan” created by local, state, and federal political action. They are accountable to a political process — top-down accountability — that means very little real accountability of anyone in particular to anyone in particular. Professionalism — direct educator accountability to clients — is readily attainable by eliminating public school districts’ public finance monopoly, being certain as part of that to avoid price control.

Teachers Unions Oppose Teacher Accountability Standards in Common Core

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are controversial for a number of reasons, including allegations that the program is a product of federal overreach. But lately, opposition to the CCSS has come from teachers’ unions, who are trying to remove its teacher accountability provisions. Teacher evaluations are tied to student outcomes on CCSS exams, and those whose students do not succeed on the exams can be rated “ineffective.” Student performance is responsible for 40 percent of a teacher’s rating, while the other 60 percent comes from classroom observations. Unions have objected to these accountability standards:

  • At their national convention, the American Federation of Teachers argued for rewriting the standards and removing the testing measurements that link teacher accountability to student performance.
  • President of the National Education Association Eskelsen Garcia has called value-added measures the “mark of the devil.”
  • Tennessee union leaders have objected to the teacher evaluation portion of the CCSS and have filed a lawsuit on those grounds.

Student performance and teacher accountability should be linked, removing value-added accountability measures will only hurt students.

Teacher Unions Vehemently Oppose Many Policies that Would Greatly Benefit Teachers

Dr. Myron Lieberman, a former high official of the American Federation of Teachers turned reform advocate, made it very clear that the union’s need for solidarity — unity in collective action — created a lot of union imperatives that harm teachers, directly and indirectly. Prior to my awareness of Dr. Lieberman’s work, I wrote an Op-Ed on why teachers as individual professionals should endorse Friedman-style school choice, which is a large, universal unrestricted voucher program that avoided price control by allowing parents to top off the voucher amount with their own money or with money from a scholarship fund. I hoped that voucher program mention would be enough to secure Milton Friedman’s feedback on my first draft. Indeed, he provided detailed comments on the Op-Ed; basically endorsing the substance, but shredding the style. Until his comments, I did not realize I was guilty of “excessive use of the passive voice.” I re-invented my writing style enough to get his endorsement of my critically acclaimed book, The School Choice Wars.

Chapter 14 of Wars made the same point as this recent, Michael Barba and Vance Ginn, more extensive discussion of the same issue. A Friedman-style voucher program (or large tuition tax credit or large annual deposit in an education savings account) would create the professionalism teachers say they crave, and that unionism denies (next time I’ll document NEA confirmation of that denial), through direct accountability to clients, adding private funding to public funding, and likely increasing teachers’ share of total K-12 dollars. The specialized, independent schools of choice that would become more common with the loss of public schools’ public finance monopoly would make teacher labor markets more competitive. And by matching educator characteristics with student engagement factors, the increased diversity of the school choices would greatly improve teachers’ job satisfaction.

Teachers on the Cons of Common Core

Common Core has many teachers worried, and not just about job security. A recent Gallup poll had some interesting insights into the relationship between teachers and Common Core: While 76 percent of teachers supported having one set of educational standards across the country — the whole idea behind Common Core — nearly the same number (72 percent) disliked the usage of standardized computer-based tests to measure students’ performance and progress.

So teachers generally like the standards, but hate the tests. The question is, why?