The Donald edition

Insolvent districts, alleged teacher shortages, NOLA’s ed reforms, and the market’s effect on teacher effectiveness.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Markus Nagler, Marc Piopiunik, and Martin R. West, "Weak Markets, Strong Teachers: Recession at Career Start and Teacher Effectiveness", National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 21393 (July 2015).


Mike Petrilli:               Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Megyn Kelly of education reform, Dara Zeehandelaarar.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    That was better than I thought it was going to be.

Mike Petrilli:               Megyn Kelly. This has been a fascinating week with the response to the debate, of course, and the ongoing debate between Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly. In the conservative movement, people do not like it when people mess with one of their favorite Fox news correspondents.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    I have to say I, in general, don't understand the mental process of, let's say some of the candidates, but don't go after one of the most beloved figures on the network that you really need to support you, who by the way, has shown in the past that she has absolutely no problem standing up for herself.

Mike Petrilli:               Yes, and that she asked a reasonable question. This, again, is like you, Dara, you are willing to ask tough questions. Like Megyn Kelly, he had to be asked these questions. He's called women these horrible names and he did it again with Megyn Kelly, providing her point. Why is it that we have so many Americans out there who are still attracted by that? I mean, this is not about political correctness. This is about just being polite.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Misogyny.

Mike Petrilli:               Misogyny. Civic discord.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Sexism.

Mike Petrilli:               Sexism, like don't be rude. When was it that conservatives suddenly loved New Yorkers? I mean, this is ridiculous.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    I don't know.

Mike Petrilli:               No offensive to the New Yorkers out there or Robert Pondiscio on our staff, a guy who would never say something like this.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    I have to give her props for not actually stooping to his level on this one because give the man a shovel and he'll dig the hole himself.

Mike Petrilli:               I would love it ... I wish he was participating on Campbell Brown's debate on education policy to see if he would do this to Campbell Brown. Would love to see what she would do. Would also love to see him and Eva Moskowitz at one point. He would get ...

                                    Okay. Enough with that. We have some fun stuff to cover. I am back from vacation. Rio, baby, Rio. It's got to be on your bucket list. It is an amazingly beautiful place.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    You guys can't see, but I'm standing here glaring at Mike because he was in Rio and we were in the humidity.

Mike Petrilli:               Yes, it was actually a beautiful time to go. Okay, let's get started. Clara, let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Clara:                          All right. First question: A new Fordham report offered solutions for insolvent school districts. What's the best way to get them out of the red?

Mike Petrilli:               So, Dara, you were the lead author of this report. Tell us: What is this all about?

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Well, to answer the question by not answering the question, the best way to help districts who are in the red is to very, very strongly prevent them from getting that far in the first place. There are an incredible amount of ways that districts can get into trouble. Some of them are just pretty mind-boggling, like districts allowed to operate with a deficit and deficit spend for several years in a row and nobody steps in until they are already in debt. That doesn't make any sense. Districts being allowed to enter into long-term contracts based on future revenue that they have, not only no guarantee off, but probably aren't going to get because of declining enrollment. Yet, nobody is monitoring them to say, maybe it's not a good idea for you to enter into a 10-year vendor contract with money we're pretty sure you're not going to have.

Mike Petrilli:               Let's be clear about this. We're talking about districts out there, right. They go broke. This is not ... sometimes it may be a matter of not having somebody on the team that really knows finances. Sometimes, very rarely, it could be something about fraud or somebody stealing money. Most of the time, it's just the normal way that we do business in education, which is that, particularly with these contracts, and your teacher union contracts, other labor agreements, they go for these 3 or 5 year contracts. In many cases, the districts don't know what their enrollment's going to be. They don't know what the revenue is. You look at, for example, after the great recession, all of a sudden the birth rate plummeting in America. Now, we are finding in lots of places around the country, we have fewer kids coming in in Kindergarten and first grade. This was not foreseen. Well, guess what. Fewer kids mean less money, means you don't necessarily to pay those higher salaries that you promised 3 or 4 years ago, or that the previous superintendent promised.

                                    Here in this brief, we try to give states some ideas about what they can do to try to be, as you say, pro-active in keeping districts from completely crashing and burning.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Well, yes. Also, now to answer the question that was actually asked. What happens when they're actually in trouble. We can't districts to take ... states to take ... high quality preventative measures. In this brief, we outline a series of 3 tiers of interventions. The first one is collaborative supports, which I realize is dissatisfying for people who want to just sweep the problem clear and take over a district, or something like that. Collaborative supports for existing leaders to identify problems and even give them political cover to make decisions. They know they need to raise class sizes or operate closer to class size maximums and they just need someone to come in and be like, well it's out of my hands. Now, I can make the hard choice and then, towards financial management, and then full-district administrative control we call state takeover.

                                    The fact is, states are not good at running districts. Let's not jump to that step right away and, instead, have a tiered system, a prescriptive tiered system, with very clear triggers for moving from one stage to the next.

Mike Petrilli:               Check it out on our website. Share it with your friends and family. Okay, topic number 2.

Clara:                          Alleged teacher shortages have been getting a lot of press lately. Is this something something parents and policymakers should be concerned about?

Mike Petrilli:               Well, in some places, right. This has really dominated the news this week, in part because, there's nothing else going on. The big New York Times story over the weekend about teacher shortages nationwide. As Alexander Ruso pointed out, rightly I think, this stuff varies dramatically. It's not nationwide. It is localized in some places. There are districts that are scrambling to find teachers but other places don't have the same. Then, you dig deeper and you probably would find that there are certain areas, like math and science, who were struggling more than other places. This is, Dara, this is partly, this is about demographics. We say, we fired a lot of teachers a few years ago. Now we need more teachers again.

                                    Part of it is just getting schools to be smarter about the ways they recruit and identify teachers. You can't just sit around twiddling your thumbs, waiting for people to apply. You've got to be pro-active out there and go out and find great people and bring them to you.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    I agree, but the problem is that: Who's problem is this really? It's not the parents. It's not the policy makers. It's the principals, but the principals, who are scrambling to find teachers. Especially I know in Los Angeles, charter school principals are scrambling to find teachers, even at the elementary level, which are supposedly easy to find. The principals, that's whose problem it is, but the principals are not in charge of recruiting and teacher training writ large. This really needs to be an opportunity for collaboration between the principal saying here's what we need and then the policymakers or even district officials, being more strategic about recruiting teachers.

Mike Petrilli:               I'm confused now. It's interesting on charters because I would ... My impression is that in a lot of places, at least the high performing charters that have a long track record, they continue to get tons of applications because teachers want to teach in effective schools. They want to teach in places that are working well, where they can be successful, so the Kips of the world end up having a lot of people apply. Now they are very selective. In a place like L.A., is it because in California they need to be certified? What is causing the shortage or what's blocking up the system?

Dara Zeehandelaar:    What's blocking up the system at this point is job security and salary. Now that the big districts are hiring, teachers, especially younger teachers, would rather work for a district with a guaranteed job, where they're not going to get a pink slip and where their salary is secure and is set to raise every year, versus the unknown of a charter school.

Mike Petrilli:               Now, that's interesting.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    It's going to be different in other places with other job markets, but in large urban centers where the district is a secure source of employment and the district is hiring, the charters are having to hold.

Mike Petrilli:               This is fascinating, Dara, because it was not that long enough. It was just before the great recession, when all the talk was about how young people today, they don't want to be in one job for their whole life. They're going to have lots of different jobs. They want to be in a place that's entrepreneurial. Well, suddenly, the great recession happens, right. We just talked about the birth rate. This also has an impact on people's outlook on work, on psychology. The same thing happened with the Great Depression. It really freaked a lot of people out. Suddenly, a secured job and job security and all the rest start to look like something that's much more attractive, even to young people, even to millennials.

                                    That is interesting. It is true that in Ohio, for example, a few years ago, there was a push to try to buy-out veteran teachers, in part because of expenses, because of pension stuff, other reforms. You've had a wave of veteran teachers leave. As you say, these big urban districts now are hiring lots of people. When they can pay more than the charters, that is a challenge for the charter schools. Hey, you know what causes that is funding and equity.

                                    Okay, topic number 3.

Clara:                          A set of articles out of Two Lane concluded that New Orleans ed reforms are working. How applicable is this success to other locals?

Mike Petrilli:               Dara, what's your take on this? You're the researcher, so tell us. It looks like pretty compelling evidence. It's hard. We can't randomly assign hurricanes to city, thank God. Well, maybe actually Mother Nature does sort of ...

Dara Zeehandelaar:    No.

Mike Petrilli:               .. no, no. Okay, as you can see the wheels turning in my head there. It is hard to figure out some of the methodology of how do you ... There's so many factors going on in New Orleans, lots of different reforms. Are the kids the same? Are they not the same? Who came back after the storm? Still, you've got some very smart people in New Orleans trying to untangle all of this. What they conclude is, hey, as far as we can tell, the schools today are dramatically better than they used to be.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    I won't be able to answer that question specifically, but I'll tell you who can, which is, if say, Chicago or New York City or Los Angeles or Houston is trying to learn from New Orleans, then what they will be able to take from those reforms is really up to them. It's really kind of the job of the researchers here to present their results in a way that people from other districts can decide: Is this applicable to my context?

Mike Petrilli:               All right, well that's fine. That's a little bit of a non-answer.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    A non-answer to the the answer. I know.

Mike Petrilli:               Look, and you say what were the New Orleans reforms. I mean, the city is now mostly charter schools, but a charter school system that had a very strong focus on quality. They have been closing bad charter schools. They have been working very hard at all kinds of the nitty-gritty problems that we know about, funding. What's an appropriate discipline policy? How do we make sure special ed kids have access to these schools? Uniform enrollment system, more outreach to parents. I guess one interesting thing that kind of met a narrative here in New Orleans. It does appear that the schools are getting better. Achievement is better. Still not where we want it to be. There are still plenty of parents, in particularly African American parents who are not happy with how it all went down. There's still a sense that this was done to them rather than done with them.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    It's up to the school leaders in Louisiana and in other places to figure out how much do they really care about that. Right?

Mike Petrilli:               That is. I mean, is that inevitable. Is there always going to be that tension? That if you want to move quickly, if you want to do really hard stuff and stuff that's transformative, you're not going to get at least 100% community support for that. Is there other things that the folks in New Orleans could have done better to bring the community along? I guess the next couple of years, as they work more and more on those community issues may tell.

                                    Okay, that's all the time we've got for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it is time for everyone's favorite: Amber's Research Minute. David Griffith, welcome back to the show.

David Griffith:             Thanks for having me.

Mike Petrilli:               David is pinch-hitting for Amber this week. She is busy with our big evaluation with the Common Core Assessments that's going on right now, so David's going to be pinch-hitting. David, we were talking earlier about Donald Trump versus Megyn Kelly. Has this turned you into a Megyn Kelly, Fox News fan? I'm curious.

David Griffith:             The phrase that comes to mind is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Mike Petrilli:               Okay, well played.

David Griffith:             I'm not sure who that makes my friend, but ...

Mike Petrilli:               Well played. Well played. All right, hey, so what have you got for us, David? This is your second time on the show. This is a big opportunity here but big shoes to fill because everybody makes it very clear whenever I talk to them, whenever I talk to podcast listeners, that most people listen for Amber. This is the meat of it here. No pressure, but you've really got to nail this one.

David Griffith:             Well, today I have a study entitled, "Weak Markets, Strong Teachers, Recession at Career-Start and Teacher Effectiveness."

Mike Petrilli:               Ooo, wow.

David Griffith:             Yep.

Mike Petrilli:               Very relevant to what we're talking about today about the teacher shortage.

David Griffith:             For sure. The study is conducted by Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Markus Nagler of the University of Munich, and Mark Peunich of the Ethos Institute of Economical Research. In the study, they essentially assess the impact of the business cycle on teacher quality. They use recessions to see if there's any impact on either the demand or supply for teachers on their quality. For the study, they essentially rely on data from Florida. It comes from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. That's reading and math scores for every 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade student who was tested in Florida between 2000 - 2001 and 2008 - 2009. In addition to sort of the beginning of the major recession that we're all familiar with, it also captures the earlier, sort of smaller recession from the Bush years. They use those scores to construct test-based value-added scores for 33,000 4th and 5th grade teachers in Florida Public Schools. They use value-added as their measure of teacher quality.

                                    The main finding of the study is that teachers who enter the profession during a recession are roughly .1 standard deviations more effective in teaching math and .05 standard deviations more effective in teacher English/Language Arts than non-recession teachers. There are a number of factors that could explain this, but the results of the study basically suggest that it's driven by increases in the supply of very effective teachers during recessions, rather than decreases in the demands for teachers because the government is hiring fewer of them, or some differences in the rates of attrition as between recession and non-recession teachers after the end of their profession. Essentially, they suggest that stronger teachers are entering the profession or trying to enter the profession during recessions, most likely because they have relatively few alternatives.

                                    There's some interesting nuances. For example, the effect seems to be stronger for male teachers than female teachers. It seems to be stronger for minority teachers. It seems to be stronger for teachers who are entering the profession later in life, suggesting perhaps that those groups are a little bit more motivated by the economic returns to teaching than other groups. I think the really interesting part for me was trying to actually estimate how much better the teachers who entered the recessions were than the teachers who would have entered otherwise because if all the teachers who start teaching during recessions become teachers only because of the recession, then the effectiveness difference between these groups would essentially be equal to the measured effect, the .1 standard deviations. However, if only 10% of the recession teachers went into teaching due to the recession, then the difference in effectiveness could actually be much much larger, as much as 10 times larger or a whole standard deviation.

                                    The study has a couple of pretty clear policy implications. First, and most obviously, recessions may be a really great time for the government to hire effective teachers. Because ...

Mike Petrilli:               I thought you were going to say, have a pro-recession government policy.

David Griffith:             Yeah, right. Obviously, we need to create more recessions so our kids can learn. Second of all, regardless of where we are on the business cycle, the study provides pretty strong evidence that we will be able to attract better teachers to the professions if we pay new teachers more, although that's very different from say that increasing the salary of the current teaching workforce would lead to higher achievement. Those are the big takeaways. It was an interesting study.

Mike Petrilli:               Very well timed, David, as we were just talking about the teacher shortage problem that we're hearing about this week. It's kind of crazy, right. Recessions, but for education, at least for this respect, a tighter labor market, which we're now finally so many years after the great recession we were experiencing is bad for hiring teachers. There's not as many of them. It makes me wonder if you charted Teach for America in their sort of good years and bad years, I bet that this would be very counter-cyclical, as well. You think about TFA getting started back in the early 90s after a recession. I remember in the mid-90s when the economy's booming, things were tough for Teach for America. This is just one of these facts of life.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Teach for America applications are down now, too.

Mike Petrilli:               Absolutely.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Which speaks to, exactly what David was saying about making the entry-level salaries more lucrative. I think it, unfortunately, also speaks to the fact that teaching is still perceived as a back-up plan or a second-tier profession. I can't do what I really want to do, so I'll teach for a couple of years.

Mike Petrilli:               Right, right right, right. The question is, so their takeaway is what? Take advantage of this during the recession, but of course, during recession, schools also tend to have a bit hit on their funding and, so it's perhaps hard to do those things. This is one of those dynamics that it is helpful to understand but it's not quite clear we can do much about.

David Griffith:             Yeah, I think there are a couple of things we could do, but there's political barriers to them. Right? For example, we spend a lot of money on pensions. Right? We could shift that investment to the front-end and try to attract better people to the profession. That's easier said than done.

Mike Petrilli:               I would like to point out as a former member of the Bush Administration, that to the extent that you blame the Bush Administration for the great recession. Well, it looks like this was one of our great accomplishments in education.

Dara Zeehandelaar:    Keep telling yourself that.

Mike Petrilli:               All right. That is all the time we've got for this week. Thank you, David. Until next week ...

Dara Zeehandelaar:    I'm Dara Zeehandelaarar.

Mike Petrilli:               And I'm Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.