Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 5
February 5, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Time to retire "last hired, first fired"
By Raegen T. Miller , Robin Chait
Strickland goes to school
No labor (union) of love
Class size commando
Land of 10,000 bonuses
Test-taking, such a drag
At least we pay our taxes
Mike and Rick discuss the relationship between K-12 diversity and quality, swapping the ACT for state high school graduation tests, and Schwarzegger's flexibility on class size reduction funds. Then Amber gives us some bad news on state teacher staffing plans and Rate that Reform audits Office Depot.
Every day, sometimes several times a day, the media report more rounds of layoffs at major American firms, from Microsoft to Caterpillar to Fidelity to Macy's and beyond. But the private sector is not the only one hemorrhaging jobs in the current recession; school districts from coast to coast are letting go of employees, too. Indeed, saving "literally hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs" is one of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's primary arguments in support of the massive federal "stimulus" bill, which would provide over 100 billion dollars to local schools.
Duncan is right to worry about stemming teacher layoffs, but there's more to this problem than simple job-loss numbers. That's because, as currently structured in most places--and locked into collective bargaining contracts, board policy, sometimes state law--such lay-offs can undermine not just the size but also the quality of the teacher workforce, both immediately and well into the future. That's because of which teachers are laid off and what signals this process sends to other educators and future candidates.
When a school district announces layoffs, often called a reduction in force (RIF), you know which teachers will get the axe: the newbies. It's a vivid illustration of the "last-hired, first-fired" rule, often found in the public sector but rarely in the private. It's designed to be objective, and administrators feel comfortable defending it. Its effect, however, is to protect seniority. In public education, in particular, it also avoids running afoul
Terry Ryan / February 5, 2009
Ohio Governor Ted Strickland's hot-off-the-presses education-reform plan is nothing if not audacious. Gutsy, even, in its way, and wider-ranging than most people expected, it tackles a multitude of topics--sometimes in incompatible and contradictory ways--and picks up on dozens of ideas, some of them sound. It is also sure to be expensive. (You can also find out more by reading Strickland's State of the State address.)
Strickland's better ideas include moving away from the current statewide high-school graduation test toward the ACT and some combination of end-of-course exams; a near-to-breathtaking plan to delay teacher-tenure decisions from 3 to 9 years; lengthening the school year; making funding more transparent; and encouraging innovations such as STEM programs and "early college" academies.
He certainly deserves credit for raising education high on Ohio's policy agenda and showing some guts in making at least a handful of proposals that appall his teacher union pals. Still, his plan raises several serious concerns that legislators and others should ponder long and hard--and that have implications far beyond the Buckeye State.
First, the so-called "Evidence Based Model" that is central to Strickland's school funding plan--and has been spreading like kudzu across the land--is based on questionable evidence and dubious theory, derived from the work of two school finance "experts" who have grown prosperous by helping litigators talk judges into ordering more money for public education. They claim to present with scientific certainty exactly what needs to be done to raise every child
February 5, 2009
Are Florida teachers channeling Wall Street arrogance? Unlike others who've been hit by the recessionary storm, teachers in the sprawling Miami-Dade district apparently believe themselves immune from the effects of economic decline. Maintaining current salary levels--or even their jobs--isn't enough; they're demanding their contractually negotiated pay increases, never mind that the district is facing a massive budget deficit and lacks the necessary $48 million dollars. The promised raises date back to 2006, when, of course, the district presumed it would be able to afford them. Alas, no more. Thankfully, saner heads--like that of school board member Agustin Barrera--might prevail. His opposition is simple: "I don't think we should be putting employees on the street to give additional benefits to other employees." These teachers should take a page from their Montgomery County, Maryland brethren, who have agreed to give up a 5 percent pay increase. Let's hope the Miami-Dade board, which will vote on the issue next week, agrees.
"Magistrate backs Miami-Dade decision to deny teacher raises," by Kathleen McGrory, Miami Herald, January 30, 2009
February 5, 2009
Unlike other, balmier breezes, the "wind of change...blowing through the Fayetteville School District" is reason to batten down the shutters. Why? Because this Arkansas-bound mistral is wafting the latest edu-fad, "21st century skills." After purchasing 2,000 copies of Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap, which offers anecdotal (and unconvincing) evidence that acquiring such skills will allow the U.S. to catch up to its competitors, the district is swooning over how to use his dubious counsel to guide Fayetteville's schools. We've already explained why this particular trend is worth resisting but please listen to two Arkansan voices (those of Jay Greene and Sandra Stotsky) that do so once again. Stotsky explains Wagner's piffle thusly: "[he] dismisses measureable academic content while embracing buzzwords like 'adaptability' and 'curiosity,' which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possible measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names?" Hear, hear. Sounds like Fayetteville Schools ought to listen up and reevaluate before they get blown away by this latest gust of nonsense.
"Schools don't need snake oil," by Jay Greene, Northwest Arkansas Morning News, February 3, 2009
"The global achievement muddle," by Sandra Stotsky, Northwest Arkansas Times, January 27, 2009
"School Board Faces Major Issues," by Rose Ann Pearce, The Morning News, February 1, 2009
"Community Talks New Curriculum For 21st Century," by Rose Ann Pearce, The
February 5, 2009
Known for his brawn, the Terminator may soon be known for his flexibility, too. He still can't touch his toes (so far as we know) but he is trying to give districts more wiggle-room when it comes to school spending. Governor Schwarzenegger's new budget proposal would allow them to use state class-size reduction funds however they see fit--and for that he's taking "Red Heat" from teachers' unions and others. Said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, "It's a sad day for all of California...We know class-size reduction works." Actually, we don't. Many studies (like this one, for example) show that lowering class size is a far-from-effective reform. In fact, capping class size means districts have to hire more warm bodies to fill new classrooms--and quantity over quality is simply a "Raw Deal" when it comes to teacher effectiveness. District leaders need all possible flexibility in deploying their dwindling funds in the most efficacious ways--a lesson more states should find worth learning.
"Bid for flexibility in class-size reduction funds criticized," by Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2009
February 5, 2009
Too taxing to decide who deserves a raise and who doesn't? Here's a simple if inane solution: remunerate everyone. That's the thinking, at least, in Minnesota, where the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune found that in 22 districts, only 27 of roughly 4,200 eligible teachers were left empty-handed under the state's Q Comp merit pay program. Yes, folks, that's a whopping 99 percent payout rate. Today, forty-four districts and 28 charter schools are enrolled in Q Comp--a local-option state program. Since each district negotiates the specifics with the local union, the result is a mishmash of policies where hoop-jumping--like continuing education credits and being evaluated by colleagues--can reap more rewards than boosting student achievement. Perhaps more telling is that districts seem to like the program, not because it offers them a way to reward highly effective staff, but because they can score $260 extra per pupil from the state in a year of tight budgets. Former Eden Prairie, MN teacher Steve Watson offers this trenchant elucidation: "They found out the teachers would buy into it if they just paid them off." We have applauded Governor Pawlenty's efforts to implement a merit pay system; problem is the Minnesota system as implemented rewards practically everything but merit.
"Is it 'merit pay' if nearly all teachers get it?," by Emily Johns, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, February 1, 2009
February 5, 2009
Bad news from the Bay State. Just as we were ready to give Patrick the benefit of the doubt over his plan to raise charter school caps in low performing districts, Massachusetts State Secretary of Education Paul Reville starts reviling the state's sturdy and sensible U.S. and World History standards. The state has been debating how and when to update its standards and assessments since last year, when Reville commissioned a taskforce on 21st century "skills." The taskforce's recommendations, which were published last November, were vacuous and vague--and will eviscerate some of the best state standards in the country if adopted. Unfortunately, Reville hasn't changed his mind one bit. "It's a new era," he cooed at a recent meeting with higher education leaders. According to reports, Reville vigorously agreed with audience members who called the state history standards embarrassing and "the 'cold war school' of history from the 50s and 60s." News flash for Reville: there's nothing embarrassing about standards rooted in facts. We can only hope Massachusetts doesn't sacrifice a top-notch standards, accountability, and testing system at the 21st century skills altar.
"Education secretary discusses regionalization," by Steve Urbon, South Coast Today, February 4, 2009
February 5, 2009
Deandre M. Ellis most certainly had other things on his mind than vocabulary words and Number 2 pencils last week as he prepared for the New York Regents exam. No, Ellis, a former Schenectady High School student, was probably more concerned with whether his wig was on straight, his eyelashes curled, and his apparel appropriate--and if he'd get caught by the test monitor. And he was right to be worried. His transgression? Going to the test in drag. Problem is that he didn't just dress up as any girl; he dressed up as a current female student at Schenectady High School in order to take the Regents exam for her. Talk about testing anxiety. The reason for his charade remains unclear--an early Valentine's Day gift gone awry?--but the consequences were swift and harsh; Ellis was arrested by local police. We can only ponder the young man's thought process as he drove to the test site that morning: Pencils? Check. Watch? Check. High heels? Check. Wig?
"Police: Regents taker an imposter," Steven Cook, Daily Gazette, January 29, 2009
"Police: NY boy dressed as girl to cheat on exam," Associated Press, January 29, 2009
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / February 5, 2009
National Council on Teacher Quality
This second installment of NCTQ's annual analysis of states' teacher policies, unlike the comprehensive 2007 inaugural edition, focuses on a narrower set of critical questions: what can state policymakers do to identify and retain effective new teachers, and how can they make it easier for districts to remove ineffective instructors from the classroom? Drawing from a rich data set, the document reveals just how far most states are from sensible teacher staffing policies. Some of its more telling findings: just two states require any evidence of teacher effectiveness to be considered in tenure decisions; thirty-six do not require teacher evaluations to include any objective measure of student learning (despite NCTQ's generous definition of objective measures, which includes student work and student quizzes); and only five allow new teachers to be compensated for relevant prior work experience (unlike virtually every other field!). Surprisingly, however, more than half the states give districts full authority over teacher pay rates--meaning they could choose to buck the traditional step-and-lane salary scale if they wanted to. Of course they don't. In the end, South Carolina came out on top with a B+ for its teacher retention polices (there were no As) while most states earned Ds and Fs. NCTQ President Kate Walsh says the report "offers practical, rather than pie-in-the-sky, solutions for improving teacher quality." Abolishing tenure may be too much to hope for but even Ted Strickland, Governor
The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School
February 5, 2009
This report from ACT (makers of the college entrance exam) seeks to explain the factors most related to college and career readiness. In other words, which variables make the biggest difference in whether high school seniors are ready to tackle credit-bearing college courses or land a decent-pay job? The study's authors considered a number of potential indicators including family background, students' coursework, high school GPAs and more. What mattered most, it turns out, is what students know and can do by the end of middle school (as conveniently measured by an eighth-grade assessment also offered by ACT). The study then examines student data from 24 middle schools and identifies factors related to strong eighth grade achievement, like disciplined study skills, good behavior in school, and positive relationships with school personnel. It's an easy read with an appendix offering all the technical detail that a card-carrying policy wonk could want. Find it here.
February 5, 2009
Anthony G. Picciano and Jeff Seaman
Trends in online learning are the focus of this report, the follow-up to a similar 2007 study. Since Sloan is "dedicated to helping institutions and individual educators improve the quality, scale, and breadth of online education," readers won't be surprised to find that online learning is up, with 75 percent of districts reporting one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course. The authors estimate that more than a million students are engaged in such courses, a 47 percent increase from two years ago. Methodologists may quibble with this estimate--the survey's response rate raises questions--but the numbers seem plausible. There's also plenty of information here about who is providing online learning, and which types of students are availing themselves of it. Check it out here.