Board's Eye View

I almost didn't get past the second sentence of Nicholas Kristof's brilliant NY Times essay this morning, as he opened with mention of Wisconsin and the ?pernicious fallacy? he?said the fracas there had generated: that teachers are over-paid. ?I didn't know that was the takeaway, but it's a worthwhile deception if it tempts education traditionalists to read this gem of a story.?

Kristof doesn't tread new ground here, but he dexterously handles three important issues at the heart of the teacher problem:? the talent gap, the salary gap, and the union practices which exacerbate the two.? And admitting that he's a ?novice? on education issues, the?veteran columnist?also has a refreshingly perceptive sidebar blog post in which he explains the origins of his new curiosity about the subject:

My interest in education arises from its role as a long-term driver of economic competitiveness and its role as an effective tool to chip away at poverty. In general, anti-poverty programs in America haven't been enormously effective, and increasingly I've come to believe that education (early childhood, k-12 and tertiary) is among the tools that really can work. The best study of this is ?Race Between Education and Technology,? by two Harvard economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz ? a dense but hugely important book.

Thanks to clear-headed writers like Kristof, we'll get to a good education place faster.? Playing off the McKinsey report on ?Closing the Talent Gap,?? he describes?the profound disruption in the profession caused...

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In a provocative new school funding case, a federal court judge in Kansas City ruled against parents from the suburban Shawnee Mission school district who had wanted to increase property taxes above the state mandated limit. This is a local control debate that is sure to heat up as we stumble through the current financial crisis, with more and more proposals to increase the centralization of school governance and financing.? (See Lou Gerstner's 70 super districts proposal.)

According to an Associated Press report?on the Kansas?decision,? allowing individual jurisdictions to set their own tax ?could bring down the state's entire school financing system.? The parents in Shawnee Mission wanted just the right to ask local voters if they wanted to pay more. The court said No. (Read the 21-page?order here.)

As the pressure to hold down school costs mounts, property tax caps have become a favored option because they remain a favorite form of funding local government agencies, including school districts.??But the objections from wealthier communities, which can afford to pay more, are also mounting. ?Twelve towns in New Jersey have announced plans to have votes on exceeding the Garden State's new property tax cap, a local opt-out option that the new cap law allows.?

Though there is more to learn about this case and its legal implications,??if the press reports are accurate, the Kansas ruling appears to mean that there can be no opting out of the cap, even if local voters...

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Don't miss Katie Couric's 60 Minutes report this Sunday on a New York City charter school that pays teachers lots of money but gives them no tenure. ?What we're trying to do is build a school where every teacher is a great teacher,??The Equity Project?founding principal Keith Vanderhoek tells Couric. ?

It promises to be a good story. But I like the part where Couric says, with almost breathless bewilderment,?that $125,000 ?is a lot of money for a teacher in this country.??? Hah.? In New York City, as Katie should know,?that's practically homeless!

But stay tuned; rather, tune in, but don't drop out.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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So what else is new?? Isn't this just the statistic that confirms the message of Nation at Risk or the flat NAEP scores for the last forty years?

The troubling?part of Arne Duncan's Capitol Hill testimony yesterday?is that he concludes from the dismal statistics ? that 80,000 of our 100,000 public schools are failing ? that it's the law's fault. ?This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year,? he told the House education committee. We all know what ?this law? means: No Child Left Behind.

Harping about NCLB's tough love approach to school improvement has dogged the revolutionary bill almost from the beginning ? I say almost because it was at first hailed as a masterstroke of nonpartisanship. Under intense pushback from teachers and their unions, however that coalition quickly splintered along predictable partisan lines. Then came a host of nitpicking, from left and right, that has made the NCLB brand poisonous.? ???

The huge law no doubt has flaws. Liam says that ?a seminal problem? with it is ?its focus on race,? the infamous subgroup standard that has sent many schools to the proficiency woodshed. President Obama says we need to replace NCLB with ?a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids.?? Mike says??NCLB has done ?some good,? mostly for poor and minority students, but has had some ?unintended consequences,? including too much testing in too few subjects.? But the major benefit...

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The New York Times is on a roll with its education coverage, today reporting on everything from Obama in Boston to Rick Scott in Florida and rich schools in Bronxville.? And though I got slapped on the wrist yesterday by John Thompson for tweaking the purveyor of ?the best journalism in the world,? it is precisely because they are the best (according to Thompson, of course) that we watch them ? and, occasionally, critique them.

Florida Moves Teacher Bill Forward. It looks like new Sunshine state governor Rick Scott will right the wrong of his predecessor Charlie Crist, who vetoed a pioneering teacher evaluation reform bill last year ? what Andy Smarick called ?the most disappointing education policy decision by a major Republican officeholder in recent memory.?? The revived and revised bill, introduced by Florida legislator Erik Fresen, would link teacher evaluations to student performance, put new teachers on one-year contracts, and institute an evaluation system that would determine raises and firings. ??We are under siege,? the head of one teacher union told the Times. Yup. And it may be time for besieged teacher unions to start thinking of the besieged students who can't read or write.

A Merger in Memphis.? Voters in Memphis decided by a large margin on Tuesday to hand over the reins of their ?103,000-student public school system to their smaller -- ?47,000 students ? suburban neighbor in Shelby County, ?effectively,? as the Times reports, ?putting an end to...

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It is encouraging to see the New York Times continue its blanket coverage of education issues and events, even if the nation's putative paper of record sometimes misses the mark (see my Inside the Bubble) and even though it insists on giving reform nemesis Michael Winerip full rein. The last couple of days are a Times education shout-out, mostly about what is now the hottest topic in education: teachers.

Class Size.? Sam Dillon, the current education heavyweight at the Gray Lady, takes on one of the big topics du jour: how many teachers is too many teachers (aka class size). It is perhaps an inevitable issue, given the budget cuts, but Dillon at least puts the subject in a cost-effectiveness context where it has always belonged.? Despite a paucity of evidence of the true value of class size reduction ? a Tennessee study from the 1980s remains one of the few solid research supports for class-size reduction proponents ?? and lots of evidence that?the impacts of our teacher-hiring frenzy have been?small and costly, class size ?will most likely wither as a hot-button?issue in the face of economic realities.?

Grading Teachers. The headline over Michael Winerip's story is intriguing: ?Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie.?? Winerip makes a convincing case for what Mike has dubbed ?Kafkaesque evaluation protocols. Writes Winerip, ?Those 32 variables are plugged into a statistical model that looks like one of those equations that iin `Good Will Hunting' only...

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Reading yesterday's New York Times editorial about the Empire State's fiscal crisis, I couldn't ?help but think of the last days of the USSR. I'm sure there were many Soviets scrambling to move the deck chairs around while that?ship was sinking.

The Times does not paint a very pretty picture of New York:

At a time when public school students are being forced into ever more crowded classrooms, and poor families will lose state medical benefits, New York State is paying 10 times more for state employees' pensions than it did just a decade ago. ?.

In all, the salaries and benefits of state employees add up to $18.5 billion, or a fifth of New York's operating budget. Unless those costs are reined in, New York will find itself unable to provide even essential services?.

And the Governor's?mandate relief commission, a politically astute way for Mr. Cuomo to deliver bad news, just reported that:

  • New York has the second highest combined state and local taxes in the nation;
  • New York has the highest local taxes in America as a percentage of personal income - 79 percent above the national average;
  • Median property taxes paid by New Yorkers are 96 percent above the national median;
  • Property tax levies in New York grew by 73 percent from 1998 to 2008 - more than twice the rate of inflation during that period.

Whether you call it Empire State exceptionalism or the canarie in the mineshaft, you have...

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John Merrow, the sage?PBS education commentator (and one of the founding fathers of the modern charter school movement [see here]), has a new blog essay devoted to what several of his readers said about a previous postof his ?on early reading.

Merrow had written?about a popular, three-day ?Campaign for Grade-Level Reading? event in Washington, saying that he was then editing a piece for PBS NewsHour?.

?about what is often called ?the vocabulary gap' that develops in the first three years of life, I am especially aware of the need for public action.? We know that about 75 percent of the children who aren't reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up?. No mistake: This is a crisis!

Indeed, it is a crisis.??But?quoting from his new book, The Influence of Teachers, Merrow warns against some popular and simplistic notions about reading:

Children do not need more drill in decoding. Reading specialists often draw a false distinction between decoding and comprehending, and because most tests reward decoding, teachers in the early grades may be tempted to treat it as a goal rather than what it is: a means to an end.

As Merrow suggests, this is not an?obvious point for many teachers, but?he says he got?"wake-up calls" from several people about his post, including E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), who sent Merrow a copy of his February speech to the Virginia House of Delegates. The two?drilled...

Though no one expected Andrew Cuomo to be a Chris Christie, the tough-talking Empire State Democrat who promised to take on the unions ? well, he blinked.? As the New York Times reports, his teacher evaluation proposal

would expand the criteria by which teachers are judged, [but] would leave intact a provision in state law that requires layoffs to be carried out in reverse order of seniority, a policy known as ?last in, first out.? And the specifics of the evaluation system would still be subject to negotiations with unions, which could delay putting it into effect.

Though aides to the Governor tried to argue that the new evaluation system would ?supersede? (the Times word) LIFO problems, nobody was fooled, especially Mayor Bloomberg, who said,?

Anything short of [abolishing the seniority system]?will harm our students and jeopardize the progress that we made in the schools....? It simply kicks the can down the road, and it will kick some of our best teachers to the curb.

The Daily News was even?blunter:

How horrible is Gov. Cuomo's purported plan to avert the disaster of seniority-based teacher layoffs?

So horrible that it betrays the best interest of New York's schoolchildren.

So horrible that it is the functional equivalent of a fraud.

Hey. This is New York. Whad'ya expect??

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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NPR's Morning Edition had a couple of good stories this morning: one included an interview with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, a Democrat, defending his decision to give all the city's teachers layoff notices. It's worth listening to; he doesn't hate teachers, he's trying to save his financially strapped city some money.? It surely makes Randi Weingarten's ?stop the insanity? speech on the City Hall steps sound ? well, insane.

The story from Detroit is simply heartbreaking. This is a city that doesn't seem to need a hurricane to destroy it (see Time magazine's yearlong series on the place).? The Motor City public school district* faces a $327 million deficit ? take that Rochester, which only has an $82 million budget gap ? and the district's Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bob, is proposing closing half the ?district's schools, which could put up to 60 kids in a classroom.

Will Randi Weingarten denounce the insanity?

But listen to the voice of Lorena Craighhead, a Detroit?teacher, who says the school system has failed the children ?on so many levels.?? Her voice is hauntingly sad:

We continue to get thrown these leaders who don't show that they care, battle with our unions who are supposed to be on our side, and have to kind of motivate and invigorate parents who've gotten apathetic, teachers who feel beaten down and kids who hear all these things being said about them as if they don't matter.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard...

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