Stretching the School Dollar

If you make an infographic colorful enough and confusing enough, people won't pay attention to how absurd your methodology is. That seems to be the theory motivating this chart, posted by Alexander Russo and originally developed by the futurejournalismproject:

A few objections. First, it simply can't be the case that teachers in the UK only work 15.6 weeks a year, which is what the chart implies (~625 hours / 40 hours). In fact, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a teacher union there, claims British educators are overworked and average 50 hour weeks much of the year. There's clearly a fundamental problem with the underlying data for hours worked ? one of Russo's commenters suggests contact hours, not work hours, are being measured.

Second, salary divided by GDP per capita is not a useful measure of how well a profession is compensated, because it suggests teachers in the US deserve the same fixed share of economic output that teachers in other countries command. In doing so, the chart compares apples to oranges ? Korea's teachers are drawn from the top 5% of their class in high school and go through highly selective programs (the same story prevails in Finland). Korea also has a student-teacher ratio of 30:1 and math teachers making $4M a year in virtual education:

South Korea is able to pay teachers high starting salaries because it employs relatively fewer than

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Esther Quintero, a research associate at the Albert Shanker Institute, blogs today that focusing on teacher quality and accountability is un-American, because it "views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning." She goes on to criticize school reformers for portraying students as "devoid of agency."

That's a false dichotomy. Reformers believe that good teachers are capable of transforming the lives of their students, leveling the playing field for poor kids and providing every child with the opportunity to live up to their full potential. But it's not that home life and background play no role ? it's that hard work by students doesn't amount to much without good teaching. The a priori assumption that all under-performing students must be duds is offensive.

I don't say this abstractly. I come from a working class family living in an economically-depressed rural area in the middle of the country. Three generations of my family worked as coal miners, sheet metal workers, and firefighters after coming to the US from Italy (which my grandparents still called "the Old Country" when I was a kid). My brother and I succeeded and found middle-class careers in small part because of our hard work ? but in larger part because of the hard work of teachers who didn't believe our free/reduced lunch status determined our ability to learn.

Why do people like Dr. Quintero, who profess to be pro-teacher, argue that teachers are irrelevant or interchangeable? Why do they fight so...

We at Fordham strongly believe school districts can and should learn to spend their dollars more effectively. That said, I can't agree with Kristi Bowman's idea that Congress should mandate "fiscal accountability measures" in its reauthorization of ESEA:

Congress could require that as a condition of receiving funding under the ESEA, each state must: (1) help school districts create immediate, additional cost savings; (2) publicly monitor districts' fiscal health and create a plan for escalating involvement when a district nears and reaches fiscal crisis; and (3) assist in stabilizing districts' revenues for the long term.

I'm not sure why there should be a role for the federal government in this (the paper on which the EdWeek article is based seems to boil this down to "because it's important" and "because the Feds can"). That is far from the only worry I have, though. Bowman also calls for a federal maintenance of effort mandate for all state school spending throughout the country. Not only would it make fiscal crises worse (if you can't cough up enough state funding, you lose your federal funding!), but innovative state policies to save money would now be illegal.

There are some good ideas here, too, though. Bowman calls for state governments to have plans in place ahead of time to restructure financially troubled school districts; many states have simply not thought this through. She's wrong that funding cliffs and fiscal crises can be eliminated, but the consequences need not be so...

Georgia is on the road to eliminating seniority-based layoffs throughout the state. The big news is that they're replacing it with a flexible, sensible option for performance evaluation to be determined by local school and district managers.

GA's Senate Bill 184 sets three basic policies. First, local school boards cannot use length of tenure as the "primary or sole determining factor" in deciding whom to lay off during reductions in force. Second, performance should be the primary determining factor in making these layoffs. The bill states clearly that "one measure of [teacher performance] may be student academic performance." That is, local districts are free to decide how much to weight to assign to test scores and the like, and for which teachers they're relevant. Third, the bill establishes a commission of teachers, ed school profs, school managers, and others to identify effective professional development opportunities by 2015 to help all teachers improve their craft. It looks likely that the governor will sign the bill into law.

Some teachers and union folks say we can't evaluate teachers until we have a universally-valid evaluation system. Some reformers cling to a magical 50% weight for student test scores (or value-added) for performance evaluations, as if that's applicable to every locale and circumstance. Both approaches are wrong-headed. This bill moves in the right direction of setting a broad framework for reductions in force while empowering districts to work out the details locally.

? Chris Tessone...

As you probably know by now, the President and Congress came to a budget agreement late last night that will keep the government operating through the end of the fiscal year. The deal apparently includes a five-year reauthorization of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a popular voucher program for kids in the District:

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program ? which provides low-income District students with federal money to attend private schools ? is a top priority of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The program was closed to new entrants by Democrats in 2009, but Boehner has sought to revive and expand the program. The House passed a Boehner-authored bill last month -- the SOAR Act -- to reauthorize the program for five more years, and that bill will be included in the final spending deal and signed into law by Obama.

The SOAR Act includes the so-called "three sector" payments, meaning that DCPS and public charter schools will also benefit from the program. I worked in the charter financing office in DC last summer and saw how much good those funds have done for the charter sector in the city. This seems like a big win for school choice and all kids in DC.

?Chris Tessone...

Districts in many states are spending the last of their federal stimulus dollars, and their strategy for dealing with the resulting fiscal pressure is: freak out and fire people.

The combined weight of those state and federal cuts would force Florida's Volusia County school district to cut an estimated 900 employees, including teachers, administrators, and clerical staff, said Margaret A. Smith, the system's superintendent.

The district, which has a total operating budget of about $470 million, also might have to cut back programs in art, music, and physical education, as well as extracurricular and sports programs, she said.

Volusia County is a good object lesson in why it's turning out to be so hard for districts to do more with less and what that failure costs. Unable to adjust classroom staffing due to Florida's onerous class-size mandates, the district is requiring principals like Marie Stratton to pull double duty managing multiple schools. Based on her schools' enrollment figures, she's managing 35-plus teachers and who knows how many paraprofessionals, yet the district is powerless to increase class sizes by one kid to pay for the managerial capacity they need for each school.

Not that most districts are being all that forward-thinking even where they're free to innovate. The "creative steps" Ed Week reports that schools are considering involve sharing services with other districts. Good for what it's worth, but hardly high-impact.

District leaders, unions, politicians, and, frankly, parents need to recognize...

This post was a part of our April Fool's Day edition of The Gladfly! Please don't think we're serious about this.

In light of the heroic efforts of some school districts around the country to "do more with more" by raising fees paid by students for things like school supplies, driver's ed, and sports, I'm excited to announce that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will be charging you, our readers, for all the thoughts we produce as of today, April 1, 2011.

The fees will follow a tiered schedule based on how good the thoughts produced are. Half-baked thoughts produced during staff meetings or the Education Gadfly Show podcast will cost $500. Carefully researched ideas arrived at through rigorous analysis will cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, based on their impact on student test scores. Brilliant ideas that have the potential to save American education before the next school year (most of which come from our staff assistant and interns) will cost a mere 1 million bucks. They have the potential to put us out of business if they work, after all, so we have to charge a bit more for them.

We've set up this plan to be as painless as possible for you, our audience. You'll be billed automatically by email whenever Mike, Amber, or one of our other researchers has an idea. Installment plans and payments via PayPal are available. Not only will this system help Fordham...

If you believe the two sides currently duking it out over collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states, contracts with teacher unions are either the only thing saving American education from utter ruin or they're the greatest impediment to reforming the system. What's absent from the discussion is an examination of the role of school and district leadership, which has the power (largely unrealized, alas) to make labor agreements far less influential.

Last week, I attended a great panel at the Yale SOM Education Leadership Conference on teacher contracts, ably moderated by Andy Rotherham. Discussing the district's 2009 contract, New Haven Public Schools assistant superintendent Garth Harries placed a lot of blame for the restrictive nature of labor agreements on the poor state of education management, saying that teachers will routinely go above and beyond the requirements of their contract if they trust management. The AFT's Joan Devlin, speaking to a largely unsympathetic crowd, agreed, pointing out that a good working relationship between the New Haven local and district management allowed everyone to move from haggling over hours to talking about how to reform schools together. The entire panel agreed that bold, visionary leadership with integrity is rare at the district level.

I am not naive about the battles unions fight against reform; they deserve criticism for opposing everything from the firing of absence-prone teachers to charter schools in one place or another. However, as Fordham's 2008 report, The Leadership Limbo, illustrated, district leaders often blame...

How does your local school spend its money? If your district received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Arne Duncan knows:

Provided further, That each local educational agency receiving funds available under this paragraph shall be required to file with the State educational agency, no later than December 1, 2009, a school-by-school listing of per-pupil educational expenditures from State and local sources during the 2008?2009 academic year: Provided further, That each State educational agency shall report that information to the Secretary of Education by March 31, 2010. (p. 67 of the ARRA.)

These data came up at the Center for American Progress?American Enterprise Institute event on Title I a few weeks ago. As I recall, Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, said ED is still sifting through the data, and no decision has been made about whether they will ask for something like this on an ongoing basis from more school districts.

The Department should release these data (which they've had for a year) to the public, and they should strongly consider incentivizing states to require annual public reporting of school-level data. Rhode Island is already doing it, as I mentioned earlier this week. Releasing the data will ensure they get used to improve school spending and efficiency rather than sitting on a shelf somewhere.

? Chris Tessone...

Sometimes the right thing doesn't look great politically. New York City's efforts to future-proof its schools are coming under fire, with Manhattan's borough president pointing out that the city is spending half a billion dollars on technology (mostly network infrastructure) when it may have to fire thousands of teachers. This kind of spending is necessary, however, especially when the long-term sustainability of our present models of schooling is under fire. Never mind the fact that the city couldn't legally use the cash to pad the operating budget anyway ? the investments look smart on the merits.

As the Times article notes, many schools are already finding their infrastructure inadequate to support tools like smartboards, computer labs, and adaptive testing that are or will become standard features of 21st century schools. More importantly, NYC DOE's Innovation Zone schools are developing thoughtful methods for using technology in the classroom effectively, a sharp contrast to the "smartboards and fairy dust" approach to networking classrooms seen in some other districts and charter networks. In order to bend the cost curve so that tailored instruction for all kids is affordable, districts will have to spend more money on technology, not less. A half billion dollar investment may be tough to swallow, even in a huge district like New York City, but it should pay dividends for years to come.

? Chris Tessone...

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