Apr 29, 2011

Teachers Unions: Agents Of Change Or An Oppositional Force?

We hope this site will serve as a place where people with differing views can present their ideas. In that spirit, StudentsFirst is presenting the views of two guest bloggers today.
The first blog post is from elementary school teacher Eric Bethel who says he watched his teachers union take important steps toward bringing major reforms to the District of Columbia school system.
The second post is from Terry Moe, a Stanford University professor and the author of a recent book about America’s teachers unions. Moe says real reforms can't take place as long as the teachers unions remain as powerful as they are.
Change from within
Eric Bethel   
Eric Bethel was a fifth grade teacher in the DC Public Schools when the new IMPACT teacher evaluation system was introduced last year, a system that rewards the highest performing teachers with bonuses and faster track promotions and removes low performing teachers from the system.
I can vividly remember when the teacher's lounge and copy room conversations at my school shifted from day to day local school and classroom issues to talks about large scale reform; union contracts, teacher evaluation, and performance pay.
It was an interesting time as teachers began to speak passionately and honestly about the future of education in our district. There was a wide range of voices, expressing every emotion from trepidation to sheer excitement. The discussions were rich and meaningful. No matter what side we stood on, the common sentiment was doubt.
No one seemed to believe that such reform could actually take place under the current structures. Some thought that our union would protect the way things were and prevent reform from happening. Others, including myself, thought maybe there weren’t enough voices to push this reform through.
Thanks to the efforts of both our DCPS officials and union leadership, the union members were given the opportunity to talk with our feet. We voted in favor of a contract that has changed the way we evaluate and compensate our teachers.
The union, as it stood, made a collective decision, to put the interest and education of our students first and in doing so provided our teachers with an evaluation system that supports instructional growth and celebrates successes. We were able to bring about change from within.

Understanding the most powerful voice in education -- Q & A with Terry Moe
Terry Moe
Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the Institution's Koret Task Force on K–12 education, and the William Bennett Munro Professor of political science at Stanford University.
He is an expert on educational policy, U.S. political institutions, and organization theory. His current research projects are concerned with school choice, public bureaucracy, and the presidency.
Your research has shaped education policy for decades. Why did you choose to study the teachers unions?
Two reasons, really. The first is that the teachers unions are by far the most powerful groups in American public education. They shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining contracts that -- through countless restrictive work rules -- put the union stamp on virtually every aspect of school organization. And they shape the schools from the top down, by using their formidable political power—arising from millions of members, tons of money for campaign contributions, and armies of activists in virtually every political district in the country—to influence the policies and reforms of state and national governments. No other groups can exercise this kind of far-reaching power. They are in a league of their own.
The second reason is that, precisely because the teachers unions are so extraordinarily powerful, any effort to understand the public school system -- to understand why the schools are organized as they are, why their performance has been so disappointing, and why reforms have failed to bring much improvement -- needs to pay serious attention to the unions and their hugely consequential roles in collective bargaining and politics. Yet they have barely been studied. For decades, in fact, education researchers have done almost nothing to make them a focus of systematic inquiry. My book is an attempt to change that.
What are the key findings of your research?
This is a very long book -- ten chapters, 500 pages -- that is heavy on detail and documentation and covers a great deal of ground, from the unions' early emergence to their nature as organizations to their exercise of power in collective bargaining and politics to their profound impacts on education reform. But throughout, the voluminous facts bear out one very general theme: the teachers unions use their power to promote the job interests of their members, and these interests often lead them to take actions -- and to shape the schools in countless ways -- that are not good for children.
In collective bargaining, they impose bizarre forms of organization on the public schools --seniority provisions, restrictions on teacher assignments, pay rules unrelated to performance, and much more -- that no one in their right mind would favor if they simply wanted schools to be organized effectively for the education of kids. In the political process, the unions use their political power to block or weaken reforms that they find threatening (because jobs are affected) regardless of how helpful those reforms may be for schools and children. They stand in the way of major and eminently sensible reforms, such as accountability and choice, that seek to bring fundamental change to the system. They also stand in the way of extremely simple, easy-to-accomplish reforms, such as getting bad teachers out of the classroom. All of this has been going on for well over a quarter century, and is absolutely central to any effort to understand why this nation had made so little progress in bringing significant change and improvement to the public schools.
A central tenet of the book is that, as long as the teachers unions remain powerful, these problems cannot be resolved. While it may be comforting to think that union leaders can somehow be convinced or pressured to do what's right for children, a clear-eyed understanding of unions as organizations reveals that they will always be special-interest advocates for their members—and that these job-related interests will continue to come into conflict with effective organization, genuine reform, and the best interests of children. If kids and quality education are ever to win out, the power of the teachers unions must be drastically reduced.
Fortunately, because of two developments I discuss in my book -- one political, the other technological -- this drastic reduction in union power will eventually happen. But it will happen slowly, over a period of decades. In the meantime, the problem of union power will remain. And so will its consequences for schools and kids.
Many teachers support reforms that are opposed by union leadership. How is that possible?
Actually, teachers who belong to unions are very concerned about job-protection, and they are quite supportive of their leaders on most education reform issues -- dealing, for example, with tenure, accountability, testing, vouchers, charter schools, seniority, and more. This is not true for all unionized teachers, of course, and there are minorities -- maverick teachers who are true reformers -- who dissent from the standard union positions. In general, though, it's accurate to say that most teachers tend to be fairly unified on the basis of their job-related interests, and that union leaders do a reasonable job of representing those interests. Union leaders are not "bosses" who chart their own paths and ignore their members.
That said, it is important to emphasize that the job-related interests that guide unions in the policy arena -- and that members largely support -- often come into conflict with what is best for kids. Both leaders and members tend to support seniority provisions in transfers and layoffs, for instance, but these provisions often lead to outcomes -- the layoffs of excellent young teachers, while even the most inept senior teachers are kept on -- that are clearly bad for children. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem with union power is not that leaders are departing from what members want, but rather that what members want -- such as deference to seniority -- is not necessarily good for kids. The interests of employees are simply not the same as the interests of children. That is the basic problem.
Many overseas school systems that out-perform us have high rates of unionization. Many US "right to work" states have low-performing school systems. Why is there no apparent correlation between unionization and school performance?
Student achievement is subject to many influences and has many causes. As anyone who has ever taken a statistics class can testify, the only way to determine the impact of collective bargaining on achievement is to control for all the other factors that also appear to be relevant, so that the partial effects of collective bargaining alone can be isolated. For reasons I won't go into, this is very difficult to do, especially when making comparisons across countries or states. Absent such a controlled analysis, however, it can be very misleading to simply look at levels of collective bargaining and levels of student achievement -- and nothing else -- and draw conclusions. The presence of a simple correlation between the two may mean absolutely nothing.
Finland, for example, has collective bargaining and also has high levels of achievement -- but this tells us nothing about the causal impact of collective bargaining on achievement. Countless other factors -- for example, Finland's small size, homogeneous culture, investment in education, virtual absence of poverty, and so on -- are doubtless contributing to this country's high level of achievement, and they are simply being ignored. It is entirely possible that, if Finland had no collective bargaining at all, its student achievement would be even higher.
The same applies to the American "right to work" states -- which are southern and border states that have lower levels of collective bargaining than the other states, and also tend to have lower levels of student achievement. Here too, there is a simple correlation: collective bargaining seems to be associated with higher levels of achievement. But here too, the simple correlation tells us nothing about causation. The southern and border states are different from the other, more unionized states in many ways that might affect student achievement, among them: their educational histories (segregation, low funding), the minority composition of their students, their political and social cultures, and much, much more. All these factors would need to be taken into account in a sophisticated, controlled analysis before conclusions would be warranted about causation.
Bottom line: simple correlations are highly misleading. Nonetheless, union leaders are constantly using them as "evidence" that collective bargaining is good for student achievement. Finland has collective bargaining, they say, but it also has high student achievement -- so collective bargaining must be good for schools. This kind of claim sounds good on the surface, and it works well as a glib public relations ploy. But it is based on causal reasoning that is entirely invalid and unwarranted.
What is your advice to teachers and parents who want reform?
Schools are government agencies, and everything about them is ultimately determined through the political process. This includes collective bargaining, which is itself a product of politics. It would be comforting to think that political decisions about education are made on the basis of what is best for children, but too often this just isn't so. The reality is that politics is driven by power -- and that powerful groups, notably the teachers unions, play out-sized roles in determining how our schools are organized, what policies govern them, and how or whether they will truly be reformed.
If teachers and parents want to make reform a reality, then, they need to get informed, get active, get organized -- and get powerful. This is not an easy thing to do on a grand scale. The American education reform movement has been underway for more than a quarter century, and throughout this time parents have failed to take organized, powerful action on behalf of children and better schools. Teachers, meantime, have been monopolized by the unions; and the reformers among them have made little headway in changing the unions from within or in creating reformist organizations of their own -- although Teach for America is a dramatic exception that is gaining influence and impact.
There is no easy answer. Motivating and organizing huge numbers of people is difficult, due to the "collective action problems" that stand in the way of all such efforts. Fortunately, there are now charismatic reformers like Michelle Rhee who are dedicated to building mass-based reform organizations -- and StudentsFirst is precisely the kind of enterprise, with precisely the kind of inspired leadership, that can bring reformist parents and teachers together and give them genuine power. What parents and teachers need is a focal point for organized action. StudentsFirst, or something like it, can provide that focal point.

What Will Teachers Like About Indiana's New Education Reform Bills?

Jim teaches the seventh grade at the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School in Indianapolis, Indiana.
As a teacher, the bill I am most excited about within the education reform package that passed this week in Indiana is Senate Bill 1 which could transform the way our state evaluates, coaches, and recognizes teachers. I believe the new policies will have a dramatic positive impact in four ways.
It ensures evaluations are a team effort.
While administrators must play a critical role in teacher evaluation and should be held accountable for doing so, they must also heavily invest in teacher leaders to play major roles in the coaching and evaluating of teachers. In order for teacher evaluation to occur as frequently as is needed, administrators and teacher leaders must work together to identify problems and provide supports to correct them.
It creates a culture of reflective practice.
By establishing fair, credible and consistent evaluation practices that have ramifications for both administrators and teachers, Senate Bill 1 rebrands the notion of “teacher evaluation” into a meaningful, substantive process.
Those who will be responsible for implementing its features, namely district and building administrators, must also view this as an opportunity to take this “rebranding of teacher evaluation” one step further. If educators view these changes as purely punitive, then the opportunity is lost.
Instead, the legacy of Senate Bill 1 should be that it professionalized teachers unlike any other initiative by compelling teachers not simply to accept being evaluated, but rather to create a systemic, pervasive culture of reflective practice that renders teacher evaluation a school-wide, dynamic process rather than the work of a handful of administrators.
In a first-of-its-kind study of teacher evaluation practices in high-performing charter schools around the country published by the Center for American Progress, Heather Peske and Morgaen Donaldson found that in addition to annual evaluations for every teacher, the studied schools also infused a culture of reflection and accountability in the day-to-day work of schools. There also were efforts to advance a “no surprise policy” so teachers and administrators were on the same page throughout the year about teachers’ performance. This makes the consequences for teachers’ jobs predictable and clearly communicated from the start, when teachers still have power to adjust course if they need to.
While no bill can mandate this sort of culture within schools, Senate Bill 1 does everything possible to lay the foundation for such cultures of reflective practice to exist and thrive.
It creates urgency around evaluation.
The status quo of teacher evaluation practices is currently anything but urgent when it comes to improving teacher quality and removing those few teachers who are not showing improvement after significant interventions.
Compelling research exists to show that three consecutive years of an effective teacher is enough to close the achievement gap between scholars from underserved backgrounds and their more affluent counterparts.
We simply cannot wait to evaluate, coach, and in some cases, counsel out our lowest-performing teachers. The majority of teachers understand more than anybody that low-performing teachers do not represent the majority of the teaching force. Yet we also do not want such teachers in schools any more than students and parents do.
Senate Bill 1 moves us away from an era in which chronically failing schools do not coach or counsel out, let alone identify, their lowest-performing teachers.
In the end, I am grateful that the legislation is being signed into law because of the ways in which it will strengthen the teaching profession and improve the educational experiences of Indiana’s youth. It will enable us to recognize those in our ranks whose scholars are making tremendous academic growth and others who need the coaching and mentoring from these very teachers.
It enables us to learn from the true masters among us
Moreover, by requiring schools to utilize a differentiated teacher evaluation that looks for the same essential qualities and characteristics, we will be able to identify teachers who are exemplary not only in terms of their scholars’ academic growth, but also in terms of their planning, instruction, and leadership.
In doing so, the state could cull videos and documentation of exemplary practice from these elite educators. In turn this could shape the professional development for educators all across the state.
In the process, we would be affirming and celebrating in meaningful ways our state’s best classroom teachers while using their wisdom and skills to improve the broader Indiana teaching force and as a result, the educational attainment of our state’s scholars.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not ne cessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

Apr 27, 2011

Pink Slips In The Golden State

Christina Giguiere earned a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and M.A. in Teaching at UC Irvine. While teaching first and third grade in Irvine Unified, she obtained a MS in Reading and Reading Specialist Credential and is passionate about literacy. Christina returned to UCI in 2007 to work as the Multiple Subject Credential Program Coordinator. In this role she  fosters innovative partnerships with district and schools where the credential candidates are completing their student teaching. She implements professional development for elementary teachers and teaches courses about health, classroom management, lesson planning, assessment and education policy. 
I loved reaching into my mailbox at school, thinking about what I might find: The latest edition ofEducational Leadership magazine, an observation note from my principal, or a PTA update. Those joyful feelings disappeared the day I received a menacing "pink slip." I was disheartened at the thought of losing my job, especially because the staffing decision did not have anything to do with my teaching abilities. I assumed that because my students were proficient or advanced in all subject areas that I would remain in the classroom. Don't school districts want to retain passionate and effective teachers?
Fortunately, after several months of anxiety, the district renewed my contract. The process of over-noticing teachers, or basically letting them know they might be laid off, is common in California. Although districts may end up retaining these teachers, the notices can lead to a decline in staff morale and a decrease in productivity. Instead of focusing on student learning, beginning teachers stress over the uncertainty of being hired back.
In some cases, the layoffs are all too real. Due to recent budget shortfalls in California, there are many talented teachers actually being let go. What's worse is how this happens. In California, when layoffs arise, decisions over who will go and who will stay are based on seniority. I consistently see newly credentialed teachers obtaining positions but then losing them after just a year or two. After spending countless hours and dollars in graduate school, they wind up working as instructional assistants, leaving California to teach elsewhere or abandoning the profession altogether.
"Last in, first out," is counter-intuitive, especially in a field where the stakes are so high. Any teachers, who have shown they can positively impact student achievement, need to remain in the classroom.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

Apr 26, 2011

Hoosier Success-Future Is Bright For Indiana's Education System

Congratulations to Indiana for passing aggressive new legislation reform to empower excellent teachers and advance student achievement. Read what one Indiana teacher believes will be most important for kids.
Andrew is a fifth grade teacher at Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis, Indiana.
As an educator and an advocate for education reform, I am excited about what is happening in my home state of Indiana. Just recently Indiana has seen a plethora of fresh-minded leaders gain key educational and political seats to affect educational policy.
The work of the past several months has been vital for the path to creating a better educational landscape for all Hoosier children.
Recently the Assembly passed Senate Bill 575, which among other things will protect teachers' rights to collectively bargain the issues that should be in contracts: salaries, pay scales and wage-related benefits -- while making sure other areas (school calendar decisions, class size and teacher evaluations) aren’t bogged down by provisions that distract from schools' core mission: teaching children.
And just yesterday legislators followed up with a powerful and necessary second step by passing Senate Bill 1, eliminating last-in, first-out rules, adding a rigorous new evaluation system and implementing a performance-based compensation model.
Together these two pieces of legislation will work together to benefit Indiana's children and support good teachers.
Senate Bill 575 -- Teachers’ Rights to Collective Bargaining -- Passed!
Senate Bill 575 on collective bargaining will have a significant impact on Hoosier schools, bringing more autonomy for school leaders as they try their best to orchestrate a teaching staff that has the students' best interests in mind.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett said it best when he said, "Indiana is one step closer to an education system that gives school leaders the flexibility they need to build and lead their instructional staff and drive student performance."
By focusing collective bargaining on salaries and benefits, the legislation frees school leaders from restrictive contract provisions that do not focus on student learning.  This is so important because this freedom can possibly help place and keep great teachers in Indiana classrooms while teachers found to show little student growth can be removed more easily.
Senate Bill 1 -- Evaluating and Paying Teachers like the Professionals We Are -- Passed!
Passed yesterday, Senate Bill 1 will promote excellent teaching and school leadership by ensuring that Indiana teachers are evaluated yearly in multiple different facets but specifically regarding student growth and performance.
The evaluations proposed may then be used in considering pay increases for deserving teachers. This change will help pave the way to change teacher tenure so it is not based on longevity in the system but on results.
I, and other champions for reform, believe a key to education reform and increased student achievement is the hiring and retention of transformational human capital.  The legislation will ensure those champion teachers get rewarded financially for the student achievement gains we see.
The legislation also gives school leaders leeway to dismiss educators not showing student growth.  This ensures hard work, accountability, and possibly even a healthy level of competition, all of which benefit the students of Indiana.
Together both bills amount to a tremendous achievement for the state of Indiana and are an encouraging break from the past.
Currently, my state treats teachers as identical pawns by failing to consider our work or effectiveness, and this law will ensure that teachers are finally treated like the talented professionals we are. Creating more autonomy for our educational leaders and creating a more effective means for evaluating teachers will go a long way in helping Indiana create a better educational atmosphere for the children in Indiana.
The future of Indiana's education system appears to be bright.  Political and educational leaders are asking the right questions and, more importantly, asking the right questions to the right people.  The effective teachers and the struggling students in Indiana need a new way, and Indiana legislators are now at the forefront of real change in Indiana.
Hopefully, the passing of this legislation will trigger even more changes for the betterment of Indiana teachers and students in the future.

Apr 25, 2011

Change Would Bring Higher Degree of Professionalism, Respect To Teaching

Michael Loeb, a third-year educator, teaches middle school students with special needs in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, NY.
"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." That's how Nobel Prize for Literature winner George Bernard Shaw saw it over 100 years ago when he wrote these now infamous words. Educators know first-hand that Shaw was wrong. But we have to do more to change lingering misperceptions. Considering the enormous role education plays in shaping the lives of our kids, it is essential we elevate the status of teachers in our society.
President Obama told us during his State of the Union that one of the biggest impacts on a child's lifetime success comes from teachers. The president reminded us, "In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect."
I agree, and I believe changing some of the archaic rules that hamstring our profession would be a good start. In particular, ending last in, first out would help foster respect that's missing for teachers. LIFO, as it's called, is the policy that states that during difficult economic times teacher layoffs must be determined by seniority -- not quality.
Studies show that President Obama is correct: the most influential factor in a child's school education is his or her teacher. However, in most states and districts, seniority trumps effectiveness. That is not valuing the important work we do.
Layoffs are awful. They would devastate students at the school where I teach. My friends, who also happen to be my colleagues, would lose their jobs and opportunities to do work they love. But making matters worse is how we go about layoffs when they do occur. What successful organization or business would make painful layoff decisions without taking the effectiveness of its employees into account?
I often hear that public education is not the private sector -- we don't sell derivatives, counsel, or medical treatments. I couldn't agree more. The future of our children is unequivocally more important. How will we attract new, talented, relentless teachers if potential educators know they may be out of a job in a year or two regardless of how they do? Are we really going to convince graduates or career changers to become educators and not bankers, lawyers, doctors, or anything else with LIFO in place?
Ending this bad public policy is not a silver bullet. We still need a comprehensive teacher evaluation system, more strong school leadership, better pay, training and support for teachers, and more collaboration between teachers and parents. But ending LIFO would be a substantive and symbolic shift toward acknowledging the need to keep our best teachers in the classroom. In my three years, I have seen teachers who have changed kids' lives. We cannot afford to lose a single one of these amazing educators.
If education doesn't work out for a teacher, he or she will have to find a new job. But if education doesn't work out for kids, they will have likely lost something much more valuable -- their only opportunity to reach their potential. For many of my students, this means a lost opportunity to break out of a cycle of poverty. In the richest, most innovative, and most patriotic nation we can -- and must -- do better for our kids.
Educators are able to change kids' lives. We need our laws to reflect the reality that teachers are, in fact, those who can.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

Apr 22, 2011

A Break For One Is Not Enough...We Need The Force Of Many

Mialisa Bonta comes from a family of Puerto Rican activists in New York. She has worked for nearly twenty years on behalf of youth in education reform, community building, and philanthropy. She is an alumnus of Yale College (B.A.), Harvard School of Education (Ed.M) and Yale Law School (J.D.). Mialisa currently lives in Alameda, CA where her family, husband Rob and three children Reina, Iliana, and Andres are named plaintiffs in the Robles Wong v. CA lawsuit brought forth by a broad coalition of students, parents, school districts, and education organizations challenging the state of California to fulfill its constitutional obligation to adequately educate its students by fixing its broken school finance system.
My name is Mialisa Bonta. I am responsible for establishing strategic partnerships for StudentsFirst, initially focused on engaging other education reform organizations to build upon the movement to Save Great Teachers.
I joined StudentsFirst because I believe that we need fundamental change in our educational system and it will require the collective activism of a nation to ensure students are held at the center of our policy decisions and have access to great teachers and schools that put them on a path to success.
As an elementary school student in the Bronx, one teacher intervened for me, helping me to avoid going to a middle school known to be a dead-end for learning. It was life-changing, a personal lottery of sorts, as I was able to go to a great secondary school, then on to college, graduate school in education and eventually law school. I was a good student, but no more special than the other students in my grade. I was 1 out of over 100 students. The others, well...
The personal experience of the child became the political challenge for the adult. I have worked with students, teachers, parents and district leaders throughout my career to change the odds that I faced, but that are still so unfortunately prevalent for so many of our students today. My experiences with different organizations, whether community-based youth programs like LEAP in Connecticut, national pathway-to-college groups like Breakthrough Collaborative, or with the Stupski Foundation, focused on district-reform, have all taught me a critical lesson. One group, acting independently, cannot achieve the transformative educational changes that we all seek for our children.
Over the next several months, StudentsFirst will actively pursue partnerships with a range of education reform organizations, civil rights groups, researchers, education associations, and district, local and state leaders. We will strive to transform our independent actions into a collective force spurring our leaders to be courageous while reminding the nation that education should not be a thing left to chance, but rather is something we all hold as fundamental right.

A Teacher's Perspective--It's Time To Take A Risk And Support Real Reform

Ben Salkowe is a fifth grade teacher in Nevada and co-leader of the Scholars Working OverTime (SWOT) program at Keller Elementary School. SWOT is the first extended-day, college-prep program for students in East Las Vegas, and now Ben is working to support education reform legislation that would impact communities across his state.
By any measure, my state ranks at the bottom of the nation for the quality of education we offer our kids. Nevada's achievement on standardized assessments is dismal and our annual dropout rate is heartbreaking. This reality is what makes the state hearing I recently attended so extraordinary.
Last Saturday morning, the Ways and Means Committee of our state assembly heard several hours of testimony from teachers, school districts, and community leaders on a landmark education reform package. The reforms moving through the legislature would tackle Nevada's challenges directly by making students' academic growth the bottom line at every level of our system.
It is hard to overstate the potential impact of these reforms. This year, hundreds of great teachers in my district are in line to be laid off due to budget cuts. Nevada's "last in, first out" (LIFO) rules require that these layoffs be based solely on the years a teacher has worked, with no consideration of the achievement a teacher has led in his or her classroom. The proposed reforms tell districts forced to layoff teachers that they should do so based on effectiveness, not seniority.
We also have an evaluation system that rates nearly every one of us as satisfactory, despite the fact that our state has been one of the lowest performing in the nation for years. That just doesn't add up. How can we evaluate an educator without considering the growth they lead students to achieve? The new legislation says evaluations in our system, for both teachers and administrators, should be based on the academic growth students make in their classrooms and their buildings.
The morning after the hearing, I scanned the local headlines. When I saw the story at the top of the Reno Gazette-Journal, I was puzzled. "Teachers argue against Nevada bill that would cut tenure." I had been at the hearing and I knew many educators who supported this legislation. How could the takeaway have been that teachers opposed the reform package?
When I thought back to the testimonies, I started to realize the challenge we face. Despite some strong statements from teachers who wanted to see LIFO ended, many veteran educators who spoke up did so in opposition to the proposals. They were not opposed to the goals of the legislation, but worried and confused about what it would look like to overhaul a system so many of them had worked in for years.
Change may be difficult, but our status quo is unacceptable. It is time to take a risk. Those of us teachers who have questions about these proposals need to ask them with the understanding that all of us want to produce better outcomes for our students. And those of us teachers who support these reforms need to step out of our classrooms and start talking to our colleagues and our community members about the chance we have to make history.
The real game changer in education reform -- the thing that will really turn our state around -- will not be a piece of legislation. It is going to take a shift in the mindsets of people throughout our communities. That starts with those of us who understand these challenges the best. That starts with teachers.

Apr 21, 2011

Paying Teachers What They Deserve

Theodore Hershberg is a professor of public policy and history and director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. Claire Robertson-Kraft, an IES Fellow, is pursuing her PhD in Education Policy in Penn’s Graduate School of Education. More information about their comprehensive framework for school reform can be found at their website: .
One of the most important messages StudentsFirst can help bring to parents and taxpayers is the need to reform the system of compensation for teachers in our nation’s public schools.
Two decades of research on the annual progress of individual students shows empirically what we have always known anecdotally – good teachers matter. In fact, teacher quality is the most important factor affecting the rate of student learning. In our current system, teacher salaries are based on years in the classroom and academic credentials, neither of which has been shown to have a meaningful impact on student learning. Attracting and retaining the most talented and committed women and men to the teaching profession requires a system that makes teaching a more financially rewarding and intellectually satisfying experience.
Developing the right pay-for-performance system is not always easy, as recent research from a Nashville-based program demonstrated. That particular program showed that paying teachers bonuses for increasing test scores did little to improve student achievement in middle-school math. But it would be wrong for defenders of the status quo to use this as evidence that compensation reforms are unnecessary.
Pay-for-performance is actually a much fairer way to compensate teachers. Consider this: using value-added measures as indicators of performance, we find, roughly speaking, that two-thirds of teachers in grades 3-8 are effective, i.e., they provide their students with a year’s worth of growth in a year; the remaining third are split between highly effective and ineffective. Yet in our current system both of these groups – the top and bottom performers – are compensated as if they were average teachers. So in paying everyone without regard to whether their students learn, we are on average misclassifying at least one-third of teachers.
If we are to recruit more of the best and brightest to the teaching profession, keep more of our most talented teachers in their classrooms, and attract the most able career changers, we will have to provide higher annual pay based on effectiveness. We must recognize that at the very moment we want our students to master new and more demanding academic standards that are benchmarked to meet international rigor, we are disproportionately recruiting new teachers from the bottom third of our college graduates.
Bonus pay by itself is not the answer, however. The reality is most teachers need additional training and support to increase student achievement. As such, we need to create a system that not only provides higher salaries for our top performers to incentivize improvement, but also offers high-quality professional development aligned to teachers' needs. New compensation systems will work only if they are coupled with meaningful feedback and support teachers need to grow professionally.
Additionally, new incentives and rewards must be balanced with risk and consequences, which is why we must also reform our system of tenure, remediation, and dismissal. Peer Assistance and Review processes, such as we describe in A Grand Bargain for Education Reform: New Rewards and Supports for New Accountability (Harvard Education Press, 2009), provide due process for teachers, but can also lead to timely dismissal for those who, despite the provision of time and resources, are unable either through lack of ability or lack of effort to improve their instruction. Most importantly, these systems treat teachers as equal partners in the reform process.
New compensation systems are necessary and can work, but they will be widely implemented only when a sufficient number of parents and citizens are organized to demand systemic change in our state capitals. That makes StudentsFirst’s efforts to raise the profile and level of dialogue about this issue an important contribution to education reform.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

Apr 20, 2011

Let's Talk About, And Tackle, The Achievement Gap

Courter Shimeall is currently pursuing a dual degree in law and public policy at Ohio State. Prior to being a student, he taught middle school English for two years in Watts, California, and then worked for Teach For America in recruiting for several years. Courter stays active in issues regarding educational inequality. He is an alumnus of the College of Wooster (B.A.) and Loyola Marymount University (M.A. Ed.). He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Angela, who is a public school teacher.
I'm always struck by the way those debating the state of public education lump together communities across the socio-economic spectrum as if they're all the same. "Public education" becomes an un-diverse, monolithic term that encompasses every American school student. But those who have taught in a low-income community -- or have experience in both low-income and higher-income areas -- know this is not the case.
In truth, the communities are far different, particularly in educational prospects. The statistics for students in low-income communities bear this out. Roughly 14 million school-age children live in low-income communities in America, and their high school graduation rate is about 50 percent. African American males, who often come from low-income backgrounds, are more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college in this country.
Spend a few minutes researching or paying attention and the truth becomes increasingly clear: the state of education in low-income communities is far worse than in other communities.
The distinction is especially relevant in light of some of the recent national debates over issues such as "last in, first out," the role of teachers' unions and teacher tenure. Because the communities are indeed so different, these policies have different effects.
Not surprisingly, the policies disproportionately hurt students in low-income communities. In particular, "last in, first out" and a system of teacher tenure without any means of objective criteria to discern job-performance both serve to deflect accountability. They also perpetuate the status quo.
The status quo might work for students who come from higher-income communities, have broader safety nets, and enjoy a stronger financial background. But, given the educational prospects and achievement rates of students in low-income communities, the status quo is definitely not working for everyone.
For the vast majority of Americans who believe that education is a basic civil right, this is not acceptable.
So, what can we do about it? For starters, we can have an honest debate and talk about the unique problems facing students in low-income communities. And, in recognizing the problems, we can talk about the solutions in a way that's not one-size-fits-all. The more we lump together communities that face different issues, and that need different educational policies, the more we perpetuate a status quo that isn't working for kids in low-income communities.
Students in these communities cannot afford to wait for adults to re-frame the debate and realize the difference. If we fail to act, the ones who will suffer the most are those who rarely have a voice in these debates: the students.

Apr 19, 2011

Teacher Absences And Their Effect On Kids

Raegen T. Miller is the Associate Director for Education Research at American Progress. His work focuses on strategic management of human capital in education. He has published articles in peer-reviewed research journals shedding light on the productivity costs of teacher absences. He holds a doctorate in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Raegen’s work in education policy is grounded in many years of practice and service. He taught mathematics in the United States and abroad, in traditional public schools and in charter schools, and in urban and suburban settings. Raegen completed his teacher training at Stanford University, and he holds an M.S. in mathematics from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He was a trustee of Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Somerville, Massachusetts, and he served as president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, California.
Dunkin' Donuts ran a television ad a few years ago that captured the conventional wisdom about what happens in a classroom when the teacher is absent. The ad shows a gangly young man standing in the front of the classroom. He announces that he's the substitute teacher for the day, whereupon a hail of paper-wads flies his way. Many people find it hard not to laugh at the ad, as intended. But the subject of teacher absence is a serious matter in terms of basic safety, financial cost, learning loss, and equity.
As the ad suggests, safety is a big concern, and not just the safety of substitute teachers. The absence of the regular teacher may create opportunities for bullying and horseplay that have no place in a safe classroom. Parents, even ones who would laugh at the ad, are quick to name their concerns about children's safety during teacher absences.
The financial costs of teacher absence are not trivial. Public school teachers in the United States are absent between nine and 10 days per year, on average. This means that between kindergarten and 12th grade, a typical student is taught by someone other than the regularly assigned teacher for the equivalent of two-thirds of a school year. Stipends for substitute teachers and associated administrative costs amount to $4 billion annually. But the chaotic classroom in the Dunkin' ad also suggests costs to student learning.
Researchers have recently documented that students' academic achievement suffers because of their regular teachers' absences. This is no great surprise if instruction essentially stops during absences. Some substitute teachers, no doubt, are extraordinarily talented, but they tend to lack the qualifications and training of regular teachers. While all regular teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree, a high school diploma suffices for substitute teaching in many states. The most compelling research to date suggests that the daily learning loss caused by a teacher absence is equivalent to that suffered when replacing a teacher of average quality with a teacher drawn from the bottom tenth or fifth of the talent pool. This sounds like a big deal, and it's only compounded by equity concerns.
Students in schools serving predominantly low-income families and students of color experience teacher absence at higher rates than students in more affluent, whiter communities. Thus, part of the achievement gap stems from a teacher attendance gap.
Dunkin' Donuts and its ad firm were not thinking deeply about the challenges posed by teacher absences, some of which are unavoidable. Policymakers ought to think about these challenges.
  • Federal policymakers should amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require school-level information about teacher absences on school report cards.
  • State policymakers should re-examine and justify statutes governing teachers' paid leave privileges. Ohio law, for example, requires districts to furnish teachers with 15 sick-days and 3 personal-days annually. Eighteen days is a tenth of the school year.
  • Local policymakers should encourage experimentation with and evaluation of incentive policies designed to reduce levels of teacher absence. Many examples of such policies exist, and teachers do respond to them. Aldine Independent School District in Texas, for instance, offers tax-sheltered bonus payments for teachers with exceptionally few absences, and North Carolina requires teachers to pay a co-payment for each absence above a certain threshold level.

Apr 18, 2011

Secretary Duncan And Governor Daniels Came To My Class!

My name is Andrew Porter and I am in the seventh grade at Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School in Indianapolis, Indiana. I am here today to talk about what it was like to have Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) and the Governor of Indiana (Mitch Daniels) come to our school and visit my class.
My day started off in first period with my teacher Mr. Larson. In first period Mr. Larson explained who was coming to our school and why. When he told us who was coming, that is when my nerves kicked in. I was so nervous I couldn’t focus on our lesson. Really the Secretary of Education and the Governor of Indiana are coming to our school…I couldn’t believe it!
Second period came next with Ms. Kim and the excitement was still all throughout my body. The class looked scared and we mostly admitted to it as well. There was one thing I forgot about. We had a science exam and it was a long one. To calm myself down of all of the excitement I just thought about my favorite hobby basketball and I flew through that test in a breeze. After second period was finished it was time for lunch. Lunch was usually time for us to relax and catch up on the latest seventh-grade news, but today we had to eat lunch in our room because they were setting up television cameras and seating for the town hall meeting in our lunchroom.
Walking down the hallway with our lunches to our fourth period classroom, the excitement was at its peak because the buzz had started that our special guests had arrived. While eating lunch, the whole class was talking about the cameras and the ways our lunchroom had been transformed for the special event. While I was still nervous, I tried to keep it to myself.
It was fourth period when Governor Mitch Daniels and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began touring the school. The excitement and nervousness was impossible for us to contain. Yet we knew we had to get it together by fifth period, when our distinguished guests would be visiting my class.
Finally it was time. Our class was in our best posture of all year ready to see Governor Daniels and Secretary Duncan walk through the door. Then, it happened, cameras and flashes everywhere. They walked in while we were in the middle of mirroring our teacher using gestures and words to understand the five stages of plot.
Mr. Larson asked Mr. Robinson, our principal, if he wanted to stop our class for questions. He did. First, Governor Daniels and Secretary Duncan asked if we had any questions. At first, no one raised their hand, so I stepped up and asked a question. I asked, "How hard was it achieving your position and what did you have to do to get there?"
Governor Daniels answered, "It was extremely hard and I had to work hard everyday even having late nights, but anything working hard for is worth it in the long run." Soon other students were asking questions to our special guests. In the end, I felt their visit was a great success. They had to leave to go to the meeting, but everyone wanted to hear more from them.
Mr. Larson was so proud of our class and said we did an awesome job. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget.

Apr 15, 2011

Lighting My Own Torch

I watched the Oprah Winfrey episode with Michelle Rhee back in December of 2010. As I sat on my couch avoiding a looming homework assignment, I felt inspired more than ever to be a part of this movement. So, I went to the website and I joined Student'sFirst. I was definitely going to be a part of the first million to sign up.
Now what? I am the Chief Executive Officer of WFH Inc. (Wills Family Household) and while the title decorates my name quite nicely, the pay... Well let's just say I do it for the love. I can't donate thousands of dollars and when exactly was I planning on advocating for yet another cause? Somewhere in between tomorrow’s dental appointment, next week’s homework assignment and the weekly chore of cleaning the house. Let's not forget the church events and the play date scheduled for this weekend. It seemed impossible. That was until last week.
I received the email that Michelle Rhee would be attending a forum at Spelman College and the topic being discussed was: "Is Education The Shared Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?" This was perfect. My "friend in my head" would be in my city. Michelle Rhee would be on a panel discussing topics near and dear to my heart, education and children. I had to be there. But how? I have class on Thursday nights and we were scheduled to have an in-depth lecture on developing Individualized Education Plans (IEP). I'm seeking a degree in Early Childhood/Special Education for g oodness sakes. I can't miss this class of all classes. I need to know this stuff. After days of debating it over in my head, I took the matter to my professor. To my surprise, she was really supportive. So, it was settled. I would be at the forum.
When I got there, I said and watched the clip of the movie "Waiting for Superman" as if I'd never seen those scenes before. That feeling is back. This time it's more than inspiration. How can I describe it? I'm moved. I'm excited. I'm anxious. I'm overwhelmed. I like this feeling.
Three speakers opened our minds and filled us with knowledge about today's education crisis. Civil rights activist Lonnie King urged the viewers to go out to the small and large towns of rural Georgia and knock on doors. He believes that those folks want to see a change. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia told the audience that they could get involved by using their own sphere of influence. The last speaker was Michelle Rhee. She said if we are going to make education the civil rights issue of our time it's okay to show a little more outrage.
Panels are great for informing people and getting the conversation started. What happens though, when we leave the forum? Are we really taking away something valuable that will spark a fire within us, or are we more concerned with the pictures we have in our cameras to commemorate the event?
So, as I sit here reminiscing on words of wisdom from last night, I still have that feeling. Moderator Charles Black offered a moving anecdote during the discussion. He says that oftentimes when asked, "Why don‚t you old folks past the torch?" His response is, "Light your own damn torch." As parents, teachers and activists, we should heed his advice. We should feel outrage. We should do whatever is necessary to make education the great equalizer.