Teachers

  • On the same day that Jeb Bush unveiled his education agenda, thousands of families in his home state marched in Tallahassee to support some of the very school choice programs he championed in office. The first-of-its-kind Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which helps generate funding for poor children to attend the private schools of their choice, has recently been contested in court by Florida Education Association (the state’s largest teachers’ union). In protest against the lawsuit, swarms of students, parents, and educators from charter schools made their voices heard. The most persuasive speaker of all, however, was none other than Martin Luther King III. “What choice does,” said the son of the civil rights icon, “is essentially create options, particularly for poor and working families that they would not necessarily normally have.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
  • Useful policy ideas don’t spring only from the campaign trail, or from earnest direct action. (To be honest, they almost never come from the campaign trail.) This week, the Council of Chief State School Officers opened an important new front in the war to close America’s skills gap. In partnership with the National Association of State Directors of Career
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  • The ink is dry on the bill, the interest groups are mollified, and the lobbyists have made the first payments on their tastefully appointed condominiums. Now that the Every Student Achieves Act has become the law of the land, it’s time to examine its implications for our federal education bureaucracy. Ace Fordham policy fellow Andy Smarick has identified the shrinking classroom influence of Uncle Sam as the top media takeaway from ESSA’s passage, and there’s no denying that Congress acted decisively to roll back the Department of Education’s Obama-era authority. But just how much has the agency—and John King, who will act as its leader regardless of whether he ever gets a confirmation hearing—seen its prerogatives narrowed? This recap from Education Week offers a good primer, consulting aides from both parties along with education superlawyer Reg Leichty. Shockingly, the sources don’t agree on whether future secretaries of education will be “handcuffed” in their dealings with state accountability schemes. But as Leichty happily observes, those differences in opinion will likely be resolved in the courts.
  • Now that it’s the second week of January, you’ve probably received your W-2 tax form. And as the old saying goes, there are
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Leslie Kan

This week, teachers’ unions continued their battle over mandatory “agency fees” in the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California. Union dues cover the costs of lobbying and collective bargaining and are crucial to advocating for employee benefits, including teacher pensions. Add these fees on top of a teacher’s mandatory state pension contributions, though, and it becomes apparent that teachers are spending a substantial chunk of their paychecks on pensions—without receiving much in return.

Take for example, a California teacher’s paycheck. California teachers are required to pay a mandatory state pension contribution of 8.15 percent, soon to rise to either 9.205 or 10.25 percent in the next few years depending on a teacher’s hire date. Alongside pension contributions, teachers contribute a portion of their salary toward union dues. About a third (the amount varies depending on the school district) goes toward political and legislative advocacy. (In 2013, the California Teachers’ Association spent a year of political and legislative action preventing harsher cuts from a recent pension reform law.) The remaining two-thirds of dues, or the mandatory agency fee, covers the cost of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining indirectly impacts pension benefits through negotiations like late-career salary raises that can spike pension benefits for certain teachers. California’s mandatory agency fees make...

A fascinating new study in Education Finance and Policy examines discretionary layoff policies in Charlotte Mecklenburg. In general, there are two non-discretionary, mechanical approaches to reducing the number of school employees. One is seniority-based layoffs: last in, first out (LIFO). There is also an approach known as “inverse student performance”: those with the worst value-added scores are the first to be fired. Neither of these is particularly desirable. In LIFO’s case, the reasons are obvious and legion. And using only value added might result in teachers focusing solely on test scores or in the loss of instructors who fill organizational needs (e.g., teaching specific grade levels or subjects) or otherwise contribute to a school’s educational priorities.

In contrast, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools use a discretionary policy. Candidates for layoffs are identified using a variety of factors, including the lack of formal job qualifications, length of service, and performance as determined by principal evaluations, plus the particular needs and goals of the school. Student test scores are not part of the process. Between 2008 and 2010, the district laid off over a thousand teachers because of the recession. The study’s author, Brown University’s Matthew Kraft, asked two questions: Which teachers actually...

As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacyChad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about the Catholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were...

The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.

I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”

I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who...

Perhaps it’s because, as a nation, we’ve come around on teacher quality. Or perhaps it’s because so many of the policy prescriptions that contribute to improving the teacher corps are so dry, technical, and largely beneath the hurly-burly of public debate. Either way, NCTQ’s 2015 Policy Yearbook is notable for the substantial amount of positive change it documents, with states “continuing down a reform path focused on teacher effectiveness” and “fewer states out of step with the prevailing trend each passing year.” What the report fails to note is that NCTQ itself can claim substantial credit for creating this tipping point, amassing a substantial record of effectiveness in a very short amount of time.

Getting religion on teacher quality is one thing. Ending our sinful ways is a very different matter. The average state teacher policy grade for 2015 is a C-minus, a mark that is “still far too low to ensure teacher effectiveness nationwide,” NCTQ notes. Yet just six years ago, in the 2009 yearbook, the average was a D. The pews are beginning to fill up.

Better evidence of improvement can be seen state-by-state. In 2015, thirteen states earned grades between B-minus and B-plus (six years ago, no...

Based on a national sample of thirty-seven thousand public school teachers, this report from the National Center for Education Statistics’s School and Staffing Survey (SASS) looks at teacher autonomy in the classroom during the 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12 school years. The news in brief: Teachers are somewhat less likely to feel that they have a great deal of autonomy than they have been in the past. But they still report a degree of professional freedom that most of us would surely envy.

To measure autonomy, researchers asked teachers how much “actual control” they have in their classrooms over six areas of planning and teaching: selecting textbooks and other classroom materials; content, topics, and skills to be taught; teaching techniques; evaluating and grading students; disciplining students; and determining the amount of homework to be assigned. Teacher autonomy is “positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and teacher retention,” the report notes. Those who perceive that they have less autonomy are “more likely to leave their positions, either by moving from one school to another or leaving the profession altogether.”

With nearly three out of four teachers still reporting a “great deal” of autonomy (down from 82 percent in 2003–04), it hardly seems...

  • To everyone except the students and educators who labor to start them, high-performing charter schools must seem like fully formed miracle factories. They sprout from Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse, produce outstanding academic results, and win facilities conflicts with crusading big-city mayors. This week, the Hechinger Report spins the incredible (and incredibly detailed) story of how these places actually come together. In three interlocking narratives focused on a first-time principal, a veteran teacher, and an incoming freshman, the account details the emergence of Brooklyn Ascend High in the daunting Brownsville neighborhood of New York City. The school, organized around an ideal of civic service and employing a nontraditional discipline structure, offers an ideal backdrop against which to examine the challenges of establishing an academic culture and galvanizing a faculty. For readers who wonder why more charter profiles can’t offer the fractured perspectives and compelling mystery of Rashomon, here’s your (regrettably samurai-less) answer.
  • The Texas Board of Education rules over the state’s textbooks like a juice-drunk toddler rules over his sandbox: utterly, and hilariously. If they’re not pondering the knotty question of whether to include creationism in science curriculum (guess I thought Spencer Tracy settled that one), they’re helpfully reinserting
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As 2015 comes to a close, the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will likely soon become a reality. Among many proposed changes is the jettisoning of the federal waiver requirement mandating teacher evaluations. Before critics rejoice and demand an immediate end to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES), it would be wise to remember why evaluations were instituted in the first place: Several research studies indicate that while teacher quality isn't the only factor affecting student achievement, it is a significant one. Ensuring that all students have a good teacher is a worthy and important goal; without a system to evaluate and differentiate effective teachers from ineffective ones, though, it is impossible to achieve. It’s also worth noting that many of the evaluation systems that existed prior to federal waivers—those that were solely observation-based—failed to get the job done. Teacher evaluations have come a long way.

That being said, Ohio’s system needs some serious work. Fortunately, fixing evaluation policies isn’t without precedent: In 2012, only 30 percent of Tennessee teachers felt that teacher evaluations were conducted fairly. In 2015, after the Tennessee Department of Education ...

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