Unions are not to blame for the severity of public pension shortfalls, but that doesn't mean that taking a hard look at collective bargaining is a bad idea. Matthew Di Carlo at Shanker Blog called yesterday for pols and commentators to stop blaming the nation's public pension issues on collective bargaining. He has a point, but I can't run with his conclusions here:
I find little evidence that the unionization of public employees has any effect ? whether positive or negative ? on the fiscal soundness of state pension plans. This, along with the fact that we already know why pensions are in trouble, and it has little to do with unions, once again represents strong tentative evidence that the push to eliminate collective bargaining is misguided, and the blame on unions is misplaced. States with little or no union presence are, on average, in no better shape.
Pensions are far from the only issue at hand. The Pew report cited by Matthew shows that, in addition to the $660 billion gap in pension systems, there is a $604 billion shortfall to pay for generous health benefits for public-sector retirees. This gap has little to do with the financial crisis, because states didn't have much savings to lose in the markets to begin with.
The absolute level of health care liability per person ? not the gap, but the dollar amount states will have
If you make an infographic colorful enough and confusing enough, people won't pay attention to how absurd your methodology is. That seems to be the theory motivating this chart, posted by Alexander Russo and originally developed by the futurejournalismproject:
A few objections. First, it simply can't be the case that teachers in the UK only work 15.6 weeks a year, which is what the chart implies (~625 hours / 40 hours). In fact, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a teacher union there, claims British educators are overworked and average 50 hour weeks much of the year. There's clearly a fundamental problem with the underlying data for hours worked ? one of Russo's commenters suggests contact hours, not work hours, are being measured.
Second, salary divided by GDP per capita is not a useful measure of how well a profession is compensated, because it suggests teachers in the US deserve the same fixed share of economic output that teachers in other countries command. In doing so, the chart compares apples to oranges ? Korea's teachers are drawn from the top 5% of their class in high school and go through highly selective programs (the same story prevails in Finland). Korea also has a student-teacher ratio of 30:1 and math teachers making $4M a year in virtual education:
South Korea is able to pay teachers high starting salaries because it
Esther Quintero, a research associate at the Albert Shanker Institute, blogs today that focusing on teacher quality and accountability is un-American, because it "views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning." She goes on to criticize school reformers for portraying students as "devoid of agency."
That's a false dichotomy. Reformers believe that good teachers are capable of transforming the lives of their students, leveling the playing field for poor kids and providing every child with the opportunity to live up to their full potential. But it's not that home life and background play no role ? it's that hard work by students doesn't amount to much without good teaching. The a priori assumption that all under-performing students must be duds is offensive.
I don't say this abstractly. I come from a working class family living in an economically-depressed rural area in the middle of the country. Three generations of my family worked as coal miners, sheet metal workers, and firefighters after coming to the US from Italy (which my grandparents still called "the Old Country" when I was a kid). My brother and I succeeded and found middle-class careers in small part because of our hard work ? but in larger part because of the hard work of teachers who didn't believe our free/reduced lunch status determined our ability to learn.
Why do people like Dr. Quintero, who profess to be pro-teacher, argue that teachers are irrelevant or interchangeable? Why
Georgia is on the road to eliminating seniority-based layoffs throughout the state. The big news is that they're replacing it with a flexible, sensible option for performance evaluation to be determined by local school and district managers.
GA's Senate Bill 184 sets three basic policies. First, local school boards cannot use length of tenure as the "primary or sole determining factor" in deciding whom to lay off during reductions in force. Second, performance should be the primary determining factor in making these layoffs. The bill states clearly that "one measure of [teacher performance] may be student academic performance." That is, local districts are free to decide how much to weight to assign to test scores and the like, and for which teachers they're relevant. Third, the bill establishes a commission of teachers, ed school profs, school managers, and others to identify effective professional development opportunities by 2015 to help all teachers improve their craft. It looks likely that the governor will sign the bill into law.
Some teachers and union folks say we can't evaluate teachers until we have a universally-valid evaluation system. Some reformers cling to a magical 50% weight for student test scores (or value-added) for performance evaluations, as if that's applicable to every locale and circumstance. Both approaches are wrong-headed. This bill moves in the right direction of setting a broad framework for reductions in force while empowering districts to work out the details locally.
? Chris Tessone
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.