Union Balks, Schools Lose $60 Million

Teacher unions have a strong stake in maintaining the status quo. Not exactly a news flash, I know, but this report from the Education Action Group outlines how far they will go (or what they will give up) to prevent evaluations of their members based on performance.

Makes one shake his or her head — at the very minimum.

A year and a half.

That’s how long New York City’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, had to agree to a new teacher evaluation system that would have allowed New York Public Schools to receive $60 million in federal aid.

The money was part of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, and would have gone to help 33 of the district’s lowest-achieving schools hire more teachers and instructional aides. 

In order to get the money, all UFT needed to do was approve a teacher evaluation system that contained some measurement of student learning. The evaluations would have been used to determine teacher tenure and future employment.

But UFT President Michael Mulgrew insisted that an outside arbitrator be used to decide cases involving teachers who received an unsatisfactory job review.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that would only add “a burdensome procedural layer designed to keep ineffective teachers in the classroom,” thus undermining the entire purpose of the reform.

When it was clear late last week that the union would not budge on its demands, New York’s Education Commissioner John King Jr. pulled the plug on the $60 million.

 “The failure to reach agreements on evaluations leaves thousands of students mired in the same education morass,” King told the New York Post. “Until the grown-ups in charge start acting that way, it won’t be a very happy new year for the students.”

Like all teacher unions, the UFT always insists that it has the best interests of children at heart. But not even $60 million earmarked for improving bad schools was enough to persuade the union to beef up teacher accountability standards, which means the students lose on both counts.  

“Actions speak louder than words” might be an old adage, but it certainly applies here.


Education Innovation Welcome in Any Form

The headline, subhead and opening sentence of this item found on the Governing magazine web site are wrong, wrong, wrong. Check them out and then I’ll share why and the fact that what is taking place is a very, very good thing.

Creating Competition for Charter Schools
Massachusetts is opening more “innovation schools” this fall to keep kids from transferring to charter schools and taking education dollars with them.

Every time a student is accepted into a publicly funded but independently-run charter school, the traditional public school he or she leaves loses money. To stay competitive with charter schools, Massachusetts enacted a law last year to allow for the creation of "innovation schools," a hybrid between charter and public schools, reports the Boston Globe. Like charters, a committee at each innovation school has control over all curriculum, staffing and budget decisions, allowing for the needs of the individual students and school to be taken into account. Unlike charters, though, the hybrid-model schools have to negotiate their freedom with the superintendent and abide by all contract provisions from the unions, which support the new schools. About a dozen innovation schools are expected to open this fall, following another dozen next year. They can be created from scratch or converted from existing ones (if two-thirds of the teachers agree). This past year, three districts tested the idea by launching schools with unique focuses: one caters to the emotional and social well-being of students in poverty, another operates almost entirely in cyberspace, while another focuses on college prep. Similar schools have also been seen in Baltimore, Colorado and Cleveland.

So what are the problems?

  • I hope traditional school districts aren’t trying to best serve their students with a variety of strong education options simply to "compete with charter schools"
  • Pretty much the same reasoning applies for the subhead. Sure, the district doesn’t want to lose students, but would it really embrace innovation solely for that reason?
  • Finally, the subhead and first sentence both state that a student goes to a charter school and the home district loses money. That fight has been played out endlessly in Indiana in recent years during debates on charter school caps, school funding and related legislation. The simple response: Are taxpayers funding schools or are they funding students? Why shouldn’t the money follow the child?

Despite my qualms with the beginning of the story, what’s taking place in Massachusetts (and other cities cited in the story and I’m sure a few other places) is exactly what should be happening in school districts across the country. It’s what charter school supporters have said would happen — the education establishment embracing innovation.

Are they doing it because of the competition, because of the serious shortcomings for students with the "we’ll do it this way because we’ve always done it this way" mentality or because it’s simply the right thing to do? I would like to assume it’s the latter reason, but maybe the best answer is that the reason doesn’t matter as long as innovation is embraced and our young people benefit.

Education Dollars Not Finding the Classroom

For the three hundred and twenty-three thousandth time (or so), it’s not the total amount of education dollars provided — it’s how the dollars are spent.

The latest evidence comes from California. Yes, we can learn from the Golden State. Pepperdine University did the research on five-year spending at more than 950 public school districts. The key result:

Between 2003-2004 and 2008-2009, total school spending per capita (not including capital spending) increased by 24.9%. This, of course, was far greater than the growth in per capita personal income or inflation. Direct classroom expenditures, however, declined from 59% to 57.8%.

Statewide expenditures for teacher salaries and benefits (obviously by far the biggest part of the direct classroom mix) declined from 50% to 48%. The question is where did the more than 42% of dollars go that were spent outside the classroom?

The president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education noted, "It is intriguing to contemplate the lost opportunities this study brings to light. If California had the extra $1.7 billion that went outside the classroom, we might have been able to hire more than 21,000 teachers statewide."

A Brave New Education World in Buckeye State

Public policy in Ohio (not unlike many other states) has not been kind to education innovation. But despite the roadblocks, online charters — or virtual schools — have experienced strong growth.

We’ll share some info from the Fordham Institute. While based in Washington, Fordham has its roots (as well as an office) in Ohio and is active as a charter school organizer and energetic advocate for students. It reports:

Despite a moratorium on new charter e-schools (installed five years ago) enrollment in online programs has risen by 46 percent, with 29,000 students now served by such programs.

Ohio must rethink how we use technology in education, and embrace nontraditional, non brick-and-mortar models.

Almost 30,000 students are served by a virtual charter school. Ohio’s credit flexibility plan allows students to earn credit for distance learning, internships, community service, and other educational experiences (and doesn’t require a standard amount of “seat time”).

While undoing seat-time requirements and exploring hybrid models represent uncharted territory for most Ohio educators, there was general consensus that it’s inevitable. This is the pathway down which education is headed – and it’s exciting. The possibilities for using online learning to improve student achievement are exponential, and we’re not taking full advantage of it (yet). Further, a proficiency or mastery-based model makes better sense for students and districts should introduce online learning as an intervention for those students having trouble mastering content. This is good for students, and the messaging is much more palatable than introducing technology in a manner that frightens teachers (they may fear it will take their jobs).

Lastly, online learning “unbundles” teachers’ skills and is more efficient than current learning models. For example, teachers who are adept at teaching AP physics or statistics can teach those courses traditionally and in an online format (and reach hundreds more students) rather than teaching AP courses along with basic courses or myriad subjects, etc. And since the online program presents the content (in various modalities suited to kids), virtual teachers spend less time presenting content and more time explaining, trouble-shooting, and interacting one-on-one with students. Isn’t this what parents and educators want more of?

Brinegar: “A” through “F” Grading System for Indiana Schools Warrants High Marks

Indiana Chamber President Kevin Brinegar explains how the State Board of Education’s new analysis process for Indiana schools will benefit education in the state. He notes that removing ambiguous labels with a simple "A" through "F" grading system will make the process much clearer and more understandable for all involved.

New York City Schools See Benefits of Making Kids Earn Promotion

The Foundry blog of the Heritage Foundation has an interesting post about the gains New York City schools have made by not allowing undeserving students to move forward. They write:

New evidence shows that ending social promotion – the practice of allowing students to advance a grade level without having mastered the content of their current grade – is having a positive result in student testing. A new study released on October 15th by the RAND corp. shows how New York City seventh graders who were held back as fifth graders have made academic gains.

The study, which looks at the effectiveness of the New York City Department of Education’s 2003 grade promotion policy, finds that fifth-graders who were held back due to low testing scores in math and language arts tested better as seventh-graders than did their peers who also tested low but advanced to grade six anyway. The policy, which put an end to social promotion for fifth-graders in 2003-04, has since been expanded to include grades five through eight.

Students in the Big Apple aren’t the only benefactors of the new policy. New York City Schools’ Chancellor Joel Klein takes notice of the success Florida has also had by ending social promotion. Klein writes about the similarities that exist between the policies Florida has implemented and those New York City is trying to implement in Education Next:

“Like Florida’s schools, New York City’s serve a high-needs population. But we are not allowing demographics to define our outcomes. Since 2002, our students have made steady progress. Today, far more students are meeting and exceeding standards in math and reading. We’ve substantially narrowed the racial and ethnic achievement gap, our students are catching up to students in the rest of the state, and our graduation rate is the highest it has been in decades.”

The Great Teacher Conundrum

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the troubling difficulty of firing tenured teachers, even when it would seem warranted. For instance, they cite a teacher who allegedly told a student who had attempted suicide that he needed to "carve deeper next time" and "Look, you can’t even kill yourself."

The Los Angeles school board, citing (the teacher) Polanco’s poor judgment, voted to fire him.

But Polanco, who contended that he had been misunderstood, kept his job. A little-known review commission overruled the board, saying that although the teacher had made the statements, he had meant no harm.

It’s remarkably difficult to fire a tenured public school teacher in California, a Times investigation has found. The path can be laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings.

Not only is the process arduous, but some districts are particularly unsuccessful in navigating its complexities. The Los Angeles Unified School District sees the majority of its appealed dismissals overturned, and its administrators are far less likely even to try firing a tenured teacher than those in other districts.

Obviously, it’s a complicated issue — and I’m the last guy to blast public school teachers on the whole (not only because I had several great ones, but also because my father and step-mother have made careers out of public teaching — and doing it well). But it’s unnerving that, according to an Indianapolis Star story, Indianapolis finds itself disposing of teachers who have actually excelled simply because they haven’t been there long enough.

The district’s youngest and most enthusiastic teachers are on the chopping block, including nine of the 32 recently announced as nominees for IPS teacher of the year. Two of the laid-off teachers were among 10 finalists for the districtwide honor

"IPS claims it wants to become a world-class school system," Rick Henss, a father of two boys attending Sidener Academy, wrote in an e-mail to School Board members. "Nothing makes that claim ring more hollow than watching world-class teachers emptying their desks."

Henss criticized the district’s planned layoff of fifth-grade teacher Lori Feliciano, a finalist for teacher of the year.

"She has made for my son what school was intended to be: a place of higher learning, where learning for the sake of learning is encouraged and enjoyed," Henss said. "There could be no greater travesty or injustice than for a highly qualified, proven, driven, vibrant and talented teacher like Ms. Feliciano to lose her job to satisfy the ridiculous and ineffective practice of seniority."

Make of these situations what you will, but the findings are not encouraging.

Hat tips to Chamber staffer Jonathan Wales and Reason Magazine’s blog.

UPDATE: Mike O’Brien also has a post on this matter over at the WRTV6 Capitol Watchblog. He makes a terrific point:

Imagine a company that makes a decision to cutback by firing their top salesman because he’s been there for five years instead of the company’s worst employee who has been there for thirty years.  That’s education in Indiana.  It’s the biggest business in Indiana and it’s run on a patronage system.

Bennett to Superintendents: It’s Time for Full 180 Day School Year in Indiana

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett sent a memo to Indiana’s public school superintendents today outlining the need for a full 180 day school year. He states his case as follows:

I believe strongly that schools must do everything in their power to ensure students receive the full 180 days of education as prescribed by state law. Please be advised that beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, it will no longer be the practice of the Department of Education to adopt emergency policies allowing schools to apply for waivers of the financial penalty for canceled instructional days.

As President Obama said last week in unveiling his education agenda, "the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

We expect schools to find ways to ensure the 180 day standard is met, despite cancellation of school days due to severe weather or other emergencies. A full instructional day is defined in law as five hours of instruction at the elementary level and six hours of instruction at the secondary level. Lunch and recess are not counted as instructional time…

The Department of Education stands ready to assist school corporations in planning their calendars and seeking creative solutions to guarantee students receive the 180 days of classroom instruction prescribed in state statute.

Our own Derek Redelman lauded the decision in an Indy Star article:

Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, applauded Bennett’s decision, saying it was a step closer to ensuring Indiana children are in class long enough to compete in a global economy.

The state originally required 180 days of class as a compromise, with the understanding that it would work toward a much longer school year, he said.

"We are seeing that our competitors around the world are getting kids into school longer," Redelman said. "I think it’s pretty clear that you can cover more material if you’re in school more."

Obama Policy Committee Member Wonders ‘Where is Outrage?’ About Education

Our very own Candace Gwaltney recently scribed an interesting piece in BizVoice about former Wabash College grad and now Washington D.C. attorney/school choice advocate Kevin Chavous. In the article, Chavous offers evident outrage over the current state of public education, explaining 40% of all fourth graders in the U.S. are not reading at grade level, and students attending public high schools in urban areas have less than a 65% chance of graduating (way less, in many cases).

But for politicos, what you might find most interesting are the political ramifications of school choice and how it could change the shape of the left/right paradigm as we know it:

Chavous, who has served on president-elect Barack Obama’s education policy committee, says national reform can occur with bipartisan efforts locally and nationally. “That’s a challenge because the traditional Democratic, union-led education policy folks, some of which are on that policy committee as well, clearly are going to be resistant to some of the radical change that needs to happen in education.”

He notes Obama is a strong supporter of charter schools and in the last presidential debate “he didn’t pound the table on vouchers.” Chavous predicts Obama will “come to support all forms of parent choice,” which will cause a shift in the Democratic Party.

“The way forward in terms of parental choice is bipartisanship,” Chavous emphasizes. “And there are members of your (Indiana) legislature on the other side of the aisle who will be a part of this.” 

For more, read the article.

Charter Schools: More Attacks, More Misunderstanding

A new report from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) notes continuing misunderstanding about charter schools – while spurring even more headlines throughout the state that are actually adding to that confusion rather than clearing up gross misperceptions. Indeed, the report has already caused one state legislator, Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary), to call for a moratorium on charter schools.

At the heart of CEEP’s report is the short-sighted suggestion that charter schools in Indiana are performing no better than traditional public schools.

To draw that conclusion, the report ignores the academic starting point of charter school students and notes only that charter school students are passing ISTEP at similar rates as traditional public schools in the same geographic area.

Yet, it has already been well-documented – and inexcusably ignored by CEEP – that most charter schools enroll the poorest performing students from the district in which they are located. It is the student who is struggling whose parents seek an alternative, not the student who is already doing well. Thus, if the ISTEP pass rates for charter schools match the districts in which they are located, then the more important story is that charter schools are showing greater success with students who did not do well in their former schools. Continue reading