Flypaper

The Education Gadfly

The Massachusetts Miracle debate is back for its sixth round! Sol Stern returns to comment on other debaters' points. If you've missed part or all of this back-and-forth about teachers unions and education reform, you can catch up on it. Here's Sol:

Despite all of Jay Greene's nit-picking, the fact remains that when Diane Ravitch presented her Finland and Massachusetts counterfactuals to rebut a??widely held theory that teacher unions always depress student achievement, that??was (contra to Jay's assertion)??not the equivalent of presenting a full blown alternative theory of her own. I don't see Diane giving speeches, writing op eds, running to editorial boards, to press??a theory??that unions never do anything foolish or counterproductive. On the other hand I do see many in the school reform movement doing exactly that??to press??their claim that wherever we have public schools, unions are out there undermining reform and depressing student achievement. And they have been immensely successful, as any reading of the New York Post and other media outlets will attest. All??Diane was saying to the school reformers is give us??better proof?? (other than Caroline Hoxby's lone study) to support such an extreme claim and show us specifically how unions

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Robert Costrell, currently the "endowed chair of education accountability" in the University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform (Jay Greene's shop), and formerly an advisor to three Republican Massachusetts governors, weighs in on our ongoing debate about the meaning of the Bay State's achievement gains in the face of a "strong union":

Let me offer some comments as a State House participant in the Massachusetts ed reform battles in 1999-2006. I served Governors Cellucci, Swift, and Romney and worked closely with our Democratic counterparts. I have written about this experience in the past, and Mike Petrilli's initial post was absolutely correct: the teacher unions were the largest obstacle to education reform in Massachusetts. In this post, let me add a bit more flesh to Mike's point, and then try to advance the discussion with the further lessons drawn by Massachusetts' ed reformers regarding the unfinished business in Massachusetts.

It is indisputable that the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was the largest obstacle to implementing key elements of the reforms, most notably the MCAS exit exams, which were the main driver of Massachusetts' success. Diane seems to minimize "the current effort to show that teachers' unions

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A few weeks ago I experienced an inexplicable burst of optimism about the education stimulus. I had thought that $100 billion in??federal funds--and especially the $5 billion "race to the top" kitty--might encourage some states to make politically-difficult but reform-friendly changes to policy. Maine was my prime example, as it looked poised to finally pass a charter school law in order to qualify for the big bucks from Uncle Sam.

Well, let the cynicism return. Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center alerted me to this article from today's Morning Sentinel, aptly??entitled "Committee rejects charter schools."

AUGUSTA -- Members of a legislative panel narrowly rejected a bill Wednesday that would allow charter schools in Maine, setting the stage for a contentious debate on the Senate floor.

In an 8-5 vote, the Legislature's Education Committee ceded to concerns that allowing charter schools would direct funds away from local school districts already reeling from reduced state subsidies.

The lawmakers in favor of allowing the independently-run public schools said the legislation's passage was overdue in Maine,

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We've been lamenting the poor (literally) state of teachers' pension funds but what about the union-run health insurance plans? Alas here's a story that had me beat. The Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) was investigating how to transfer the health portion of its insurance trust to an outside provider when the external auditor discovered some (ahem) troubling news: the fund has a projected $67 million deficit. The fund pays for long-term disability for teachers in 90 districts and health insurance in 30 districts (it's not clear whether those two overlap, however).

The whole situation is being investigated by the FBI and the IN Secretary of State's office. It seems the managers of the fund's portfolio made some very risky investments of their participants' funds--and when the market went south, the fund went south too. Meanwhile, the brokers handling the fund were getting paid big bucks and ISTA has been running around telling its participating districts not to fear and, more importantly, not to pull out. Guess who pays the bill if the fund goes bankrupt? Now the NEA has taken over the Indiana union due to "financial distress," since ISTA had no insurance on its insurance (it self-insured...

I didn't. But the story's true and Steele himself tells it to students at H.D. Woodson Senior High School in his native D.C. as part of C-Span's "Students & Leaders" program. Ever the public speaker with his "hip" verbiage and unfortunate use of the verb "ain't," the chairman actually paints a compelling story about perseverance. Watch the video courtesy of DCist.com. (Don't worry, I was confused too, since Steele holds a JHU degree. He got himself back in through persuasion, pressure from tough-love Mama Steele, and summer school.)

With the news that President Obama has nominated Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana to be the Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, we have reached a milestone of sorts. All of the major k-12 education positions have been filled. And on the whole, it's a talented lot, generally reform-oriented, and diverse.

But there's one box that Obama and his talent scouts failed to check: There isn't a single state superintendent among the bunch. As far as I know (and tell me if I'm wrong), there's nobody on his team who has even ever worked for a state department of education.

That's pretty remarkable, significant, and, I think, foolhardy. To be clear, I share no particular love for state education agencies. These classic bureaucracies are easy to hate. But there's no getting around the fact that if you work for the federal government and want to influence local school districts, there's no getting around the states.

Well, almost no getting around them. It's true that the feds sometimes make grants directly to local school districts, and no doubt Arne & Company will...

Alex Klein

Mike's post about teachers unions and education reform in Massachusetts really seems to have struck a nerve; we have run four follow-up posts, each highlighting other people's opinions on this issue. Missed the debate? Here's the most recent Flypaper post on this subject.

It has attracted attention from outside this blog, too.??Stephen Sawchuk of??EdWeek's "Teacher Beat" blog added his thoughts, excerpted below:

I've been to enough education policy discussions to recognize two common tropes on this topic. One argument runs along these lines: Student achievement tends to be lowest in the South, which has many right-to-work states that don't allow collective bargaining for public employees. The other argument, which is at the center of the Flypaper debate, notes that the nation's highest-performing state on national tests, Massachusetts, has laws and policies that are generally favorable to unions.

Leo Casey at EdWize wrote a thoughtful post that defends Diane Ravitch's point of view more than Jay Greene's. He concluded his post with the following:

For reasons I will take up in a subsequent post, I think there are good reasons to be skeptical about all broad stroke generalizations about teacher unionism and educational

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In March, President Obama told a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter that ???????the number of children going to the Cleveland Public Schools who are actually prepared to go to college (is) probably one out of seven or eight or ten. And that's just not acceptable. It's not acceptable for them. It's not acceptable in terms of America's future. And so we've got to experiment with ways to provide a better education experience for our kids, and some charters are doing outstanding jobs.???????

This week, the woman hired to run the Cleveland Metropolitan School District's Office of New and Innovative Schools, Leigh McGuigan , was dismissed from her post less than a year after starting her job because she was pushing too hard for reform . The types of reform she was pushing, in a district that has been battling Dayton for the title of lowest performing district in the state for decades, are exactly those being called for by the President and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Specifically, close the most dysfunctional schools, reach out to high quality charters and have them open new schools, work with innovative STEM schools, and partner wherever and whenever possible...

The Education Gadfly

Please see our previous posts about the Massachusetts Miracle and related issues -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. After you're all caught up,??take a look at the latest addition, from reader Stuart Buck in response to Sol Stern.

In Part 4, Sol wrote:

Here are two of the highest performing school systems in the world, yet both have strong teacher unions. Ravitch was not presenting her own theory about the effects of teacher unions, merely challenging the validity of the reformers' grand theory about the wholly negative effects of the unions. She did this by pointing to specific cases where the theory doesn't seem to explain the empirically observed outcome. Isn't that what social scientists do all the time?

Stuart Buck responds in the comments of that post:

No one is trying to contend that unions are so powerful and so awful that wherever a union exists, it will be impossible for any school to attain high achievement. If someone made such a strong claim, then, and only then, would it be relevant for Ravitch to point out that in a few locations, unionized districts

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It all started with a post of mine that argued that??Diane Ravitch is wrong to say that Massachusetts's situation proves teachers unions to be a non-factor in education reform. After Ravitch responded with a rebuttal post, Jay Greene added a follow-up that challenged her to "point to a rigorous piece of social science research that supports her argument."??Sol Stern then joined the discussion to add his take on what Greene said. We've now arrived at Part 5 of this Massachusetts Miracle series, where Jay Greene is back to defend his positions:

Diane Ravitch was not, as Sol Stern suggests, only countering the view that unions are "the main, sometimes the only,??institutional bulwark against reforming school systems and raising the achievement of disadvantaged students." Her clearly stated argument was that "[t]eachers' unions do not themselves raise or lower academic achievement." That is, she wasn't simply knocking down the hyperbolic claims of certain advocates, she was indeed "presenting her own??theory" ??that teacher unions, on average, do not harm student achievement.

So, Sol Stern is wrong to assert that Ravitch would never "say anything as absolute as ???unions do nothing.'" She said almost precisely that.

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