The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty...

father and son walking photo

Talk is fine. But it's now time to walk the walk.
Photo by Gustavo Verissimo

Seven days ago, the National Education Association
(NEA)—long dormant in matters of education reform—began to stir. The nation’s
largest teacher union unveiled a plan to promote teacher effectiveness last
Thursday. Some of the NEA's ideas we’ve heard before (the union has long endorsed
teacher-residency and peer-assistance-and-review programs, for example). But
many are worthy new ideas—new, at least, to the NEA. For prioritizing these,
the union should be commended. (Gadfly readers might find the appeal for a
career ladder for teachers, with differentiated pay and responsibility, to be a
reasonably mainstream idea, but remember who’s doing the talking here.) To be
sure, old-school NEA thought does seep into the reform plan in places: While
it’s a good notion to disallow inexperienced teachers from leading the
classrooms of our neediest students, the back-handed knock at Teach For America

We’d like to extend our congratulations to Jennifer Felbaum,
a teacher at Fordham-sponsored Columbus Collegiate Academy in Columbus.
Jennifer was the recipient of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter School’s
annual teacher of the year award, a
distinction given to just one teacher in Ohio for significant contributions
when it comes to advancing student achievement. Columbus Collegiate Executive
Director Andy Boy said this of Jennifer:

As a founding member of our team, [she]
worked tirelessly to develop curriculum, systems, and procedures that have
contributed to the academic success of our students.  Our students
will excel beyond CCA because of Mrs. Felbaum's efforts. I am
honored to work with her and amazed by her ability to reach the students
we serve."

Jennifer Felbaum is a founding teacher at Columbus
Collegiate Academy, an EPIC gold-gain school.  She is in her fourth year
of teaching sixth grade reading and writing.  During this time, her
students have made outstanding progress. Last year her students grew from 52
percent proficient in fifth grade to 86 percent proficient in sixth grade. They
also achieved three times the normal growth for a sixth...

Are Charter School Unions Worth the Bargain? coverDespite its reputation, the charter field isn’t
a wholly anti-union stronghold. In fact, 12 percent of charter schools now
have bargaining agreements. (Conversion charters are much more likely to be
unionized [44 percent] than startups [9 percent].) In this new CRPE report,
Mitch Price analyzes the union contracts of nine of the nation’s 604 unionized
charters and compares them to their local district contracts. He finds that, on
average, charters’ union contracts are more flexible when it comes to length of
day and year, grievance processes, and layoff criteria—but still far too rigid.
(Using our own Leadership
criteria, Price gives charter contracts a C-plus score, compared
to the C-minus score given to district schools.) While union contracts in the
charter sector are relatively flexible—more tailored to individual school needs
(and thus less likely to stifle the missions of these schools)—Price argues
that we are only seeing their beta versions. It remains to be seen whether
these contracts, when renegotiated, will serve as examples of reasonable...

Testimony prepared for delivery to the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, August 4, 1999.

For months, leaders from LAUSD and the UTLA have
stalled within a deep tunnel of negotiations, unable to reach consensus on,
well, anything. This week, light broke at the end of that dark passageway: Los
Angeles Superintendent John Deasy and the newly elected union president, Warren
Fletcher, have reached a partial agreement. And it’s an exciting one: Under the
new pact, district schools could exercise charter-like autonomy over hiring,
curriculum, and work conditions. If a school wants to diverge from current norms
by, say, altering its salary structure or length of day, neither union nor
district officials can object. (Take note of this innovative approach for
combating union strong-arming: Pitch the reforms to teachers as a respite from
meddling district policies, not just cumbersome
union ones.) So, what catalyzed this union change of heart? Pressure from
charter schools—which hold a 10 percent market share of L.A.’s student
enrollment. According to Fletcher, “There’s been a lot of focus on
out-of-district resources and answers. This is the beginning of moving back to
some semblance of balance.” Before the agreement becomes official, though, it
must be ratified...

As education governance rises on the policy
agenda, should American reformers be looking toward greater decentralization or
centralization—or a judicious mix of both? Eric Hanushek, Susanne Link, and
Ludger Woessmann argue that, in a country like the U.S., greater school-level
autonomy offers the best shot at boosting student achievement. Using the four
available rounds of PISA data (2000-09), the trio compared achievement in forty-two
countries with their levels of school-based autonomy, as reported by principals.
(Specifically, they analyzed autonomy of academic content, personnel decisions,
and budget allocations.) Dividing the countries up by GDP per capita, the
authors find that developed nations tend to see spikes in student achievement
when school autonomy increases, while scores in developing countries drop with
greater decentralization. Autonomy works when local leaders have both
an interest in making decisions that benefit students and the capacity to do
so. The stronger governmental institutions and the rule of law, the logic goes,
the more likely leaders are to align their interests to those of their
students. Thus, in richer countries, pairing greater autonomy with test-based
accountability magnified the bump in scores. In short, how...

Monday’s post, “Dealing with disingenuous teachers unions: There are no shortcuts,” sparked a wave of discussion and criticism—which,
let’s face it, is every writer’s hope. But I wasn’t just trying to be
provocative; we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute strongly believe that issues of governance and politics have been too often ignored in the education reform debate. We’re
happy to help put these issues at the top of the policy agenda. In
fact, we’ve teamed up with the Center for American Progress on a
three-year project to do exactly that. (Join us on December 1st in Washington, D.C.—or online—for a groundbreaking conference on the topic.)

Diane got right to the heart of the matter when she wrote, “Gosh, Mike, it sounds as though you have identified the real problem that ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”

My knee-jerk reaction, which I zapped to her instantly over email,
was that union-dominated school boards represent a perversion of
democracy. Just as liberals complain about the “one percent” corrupting
our politics through unlimited campaign financing, so too do public
sector unions thwart...

After its big referendum victory last week, Ohio teachers union vice president Bill Leibensperger said ?There has always been room to talk. That's what collective bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to talk about serious issues.? He voiced an argument made by union supporters through the fight over Senate Bill 5 (and the similar battle in Wisconsin over public sector union rights): All employees want is the right to bargain; they are more than willing to make concessions during these difficult times.

[pullquote]If we want to win the fight for the more immediate future, we're going to need to take on the unions directly, and take over the school boards.[/pullquote]And to be sure, you can find examples of unions?of police, firefighters, even teachers?who have agreed to freeze wages or reduce benefits in order to protect the quality of services or keep colleagues from being laid off. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Consider the survey of big-city school district leaders published by the National Council on Teacher Quality a few weeks ago. When asked how they ?reduced their budget gaps? over the past two years, fewer than half had eliminated or...

Illinois may finally be addressing its dysfunctional teacher retirement system with meaningful, bipartisan reform:

The sweeping pension changes, presented by House Republican Leader Tom Cross and Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, would establish three retirement options for government workers to choose from going forward. State employees could keep their retirement benefit in place but pay more; take smaller benefits but pay no more; or set up a 401(k)-style plan that would give employees more control of their investments but also see them roll the dice on the markets.

I've made no secret of how little I think of last year's "reform" in Illinois, which simply took money out of the pockets of young teachers to make up for the bad choices made by legislators and unions. This is a much better start, and it's cheering that the Democratic leadership is on board.

Labor doesn't like it, with the Illinois AFL-CIO's president claiming this measure would reform the pension system "on the backs of working families." But working people are going to be hurt no matter what, since the retirement system is in terrible fiscal shape. The question is whether reform shares the pain or soaks only new...