No matter what your editor thinks of Karen Lewis’ rhetoric and defense of traditionalist practices, all I have right now is prayers for her to make a speedy recovery from her surgery last week to remove a brain tumor. As children of God and people of goodwill, we share in the pain of life threatening illness faced by our fellow men and women. Let us all keep Lewis and her family in our prayers through their tough time.
The American Federation of Teachers and its defenders always like to claim that the millions it and its affiliates spend annually on preserving influence is nothing more than an effort to advance social justice. Especially when it comes to the donations the union makes to supposedly like-minded progressive and old-school civil rights groups. Even as outfits such as the Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change spend their time (and donations from the AFT) targeting reformers who threaten the union’s influence such as Campbell Brown and her Partnership for Educational Justice, union president Randi Weingarten and her traditionalist allies always proclaim the spending is really geared toward helping the poor.
Which brings up the curious case of United Students for Sweatshops, whose unit at Harvard University garnered attention last week when it issued a letter to the Ivy League institution’s president that it should cut ties with Teach For America, the alternative teacher training outfit that has long ago showed up the nation’s university schools of education. Proclaiming that Teach For America somehow destabilizes public education, USAS’ Student Labor Action Movement is demanding Harvard and its graduate school of education stop working with the outfit unless it makes a laundry list of changes. As you would expect, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who uses her Answer Sheet blog to give voice to every bit of wrongheaded traditionalist thinking, wrote about the affair.
Considering that Teach For America attracts applications from one out of every five Harvard seniors, along with the university’s strong ties to the outfit (and the fact that, as with nearly every university, Harvard’s president wields little in the way of power in its shared governance), this isn’t likely to happen.
The Harvard affiliate’s move is just part of United Students’ much-wider effort against Teach For America. This includes a tour of at least five universities to supposedly tell “truth” about the outfit, as well as issuing letters such as the one it sent in September to cofounder Wendy Kopp and co-chief executives Matthew Kramer and Elissa Villanueva-Beard imploring them to meet United Students’ demands. This includes requiring Teach For America recruits to get “adequate training” from “an Official Teacher Preparation Program” (read: one of the outfit’s competitors among the nation’s ed schools). Given the overwhelming evidence — including a study released last year by the U.S. Department of Education (conducted by Mathematica) — that TFA recruits are more-effective than peers coming out of ed schools, I would say that Kopp and her crew should take a pass on all of United Students’ suggestions.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to pressure university leaders, a reactionary group that is always concerned about maintaining appearances with progressive and other left-leaning outfits, to shut the door on Teach For America’s recruiting efforts. Could it work? Perhaps, perhaps. But given Teach For America’s broad reach into higher education — along with its bona fide success in helping kids from poor and minority backgrounds receive high-quality education they need and deserve — there’s little chance of universities even bothering with that step.
But one has to wonder why would a group geared towards rallying collegians to the cause of “economic justice” and improving workplace conditions for low-wage workers is so concerned about Teach for America? Alexander Russo of This Week in Education, in particular, wondered if United Students was getting some kind of union support. To get to the answer, follow the money. And it leads back to Weingarten and her crew at AFT.
The union gave United Students Against Sweatshops $58,650 in 2013-2014, according to its latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. Thanks to that donation, AFT was single-biggest donor to United Students in the fiscal year; the Communications Workers of America handed the group an almost-as-hefty $55,000, while the AFL-CIO donated $12,415 to its cause. AFT is helping out United Students in other ways. Yesterday, staffers from the AFT’s Beantown local, the Boston Teachers Union came to Harvard’s campus to help United Students’ Harvard wing talk about Teach For America’s “shortcomings”, a stop-by that was mentioned by the AFT’s Twitter feed for organizing higher ed faculty.
For the AFT, the cash to it gives to United Students ends up being a two-for-one special. As part of the outfit’s Education Justice effort, it is also targeting Students for Education Reform, the group cofounded by Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin five years ago while they were attending Princeton University. As far as United Students is concerned, both Teach For America and SFER are not progressive enough because of their funding from the Walton Family Foundation (yeah, that anti-WalMart stuff) and other deep-pocketed reform-oriented philanthropies. The fact that United Students itself is being funded by the AFT, an equally deep pocket which garners its funds by forcing teachers (and ultimately, taxpayers) to pay into its coffers thanks to compulsory dues laws, doesn’t factor into their thinking.
Nor does United Students consider the fact that the AFT, along with the National Education Association, are no different than the companies they rail against. For the unions, who collect $2.2 billion annually from teachers by force, this includes corporate social responsibility activities such as handing money to United Students. This gives the AFT the patina of being progressive even as their efforts (including opposing Parent Power activists) only serve to preserve failed policies and practices that hurt the very poor and minority communities for which United Students claims concern. One has to wonder if United Students’ eager-beaver members consider these issues (along with the fact the AFT refuses desires of its rank-and-file, violates their first amendment rights through compulsory dues, and actively stifles their voice), as they rail against Teach For America, which has been lauded by reformers and traditionalists alike for an openness and willingness to listen to recruits and alumni. Guess they can be comforted by the fact that, unlike the NEA, the AFT hasn’t been called on the carpet for union-busting.
For the AFT, the largesse handed out to United Students gives them some mileage with the progressive groups they have long co-opted. As for United Students? The upside really isn’t there.
*Updated to include reporting on the Boston Teachers Union’s appearance at Harvard.
There have been plenty of comments about the report released yesterday by Education Trust on school ratings used by Florida, Kentucky, and Minnesota as part of accountability systems developed as part of the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit. As you would expect, fair weather accountability hawks within the school reform movement such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute criticize Education Trust for clearly pointing out once again that these systems — including the A-to-F grading approach used in the Sunshine State — are concealing the failures of schools and districts to address achievement gaps.
From where Petrilli and others sit, Ed Trust is off-target because it is arguing for accountability systems that focus”gap-closing and proficiency rates” — the principle at the heart of No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision — that the new regimes replaced. Instead of going back to an accountability approach that was supposedly “demoralizing” teachers and school leaders charged with helping poor and minority kids succeed, Petrilli and others prefer the new approaches, which attempt to focus on the growth schools and districts make in helping our most-vulnerable.
Yet what Petrilli and others fail to admit is the reality that Ed Trust is pointing out in its report: That A-to-F grading and other approaches implemented as part of the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit actually do little to inform families, teachers, school leaders, or policymakers how well districts and schools are helping poor and minority kids, either in terms of proficiency, gap closing or growth. You can’t spur systemic reform if the accountability systems in place are neither transparent nor hold anyone accountable.
Even before Ed Trust issued its latest report, there have been plenty of concern (especially from the civil rights wing of the school reform movement) about the displacement of AYP with new accountability systems. For plenty of legitimate reasons. For one, instead of focusing on how schools addressed achievement gaps and subgroup accountability, the administration allowed states to develop accountability systems that primarily focused on the worst-performing five percent of schools along with an another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps. As a result, states receiving waivers carte blanch to let schools and districts — especially those in suburbia — off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula to black, Latino, Asian, and poor white children. This was made clear last year in a report released last year by the New America Foundation that showed that 73 percent of 6,058 failure mills in 16 states identified under No Child in 2011-2012 escaped scrutiny under the waiver gambit a year later.
Over the last two years, new questions have been raised about whether the new accountability systems are transparent enough to hold schools and districts accountable. Indiana’s A-to-F grading system came under scrutiny last year after it was revealed that former Supt. Tony Bennett amended grades for 165 schools because the underlying formula couldn’t deal the nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format for those schools. Hoosier State officials cleared Bennett of allegations that he changed the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. But evidence that the underlying formula behind A-to-F grading was far too complex to implement in the aggressive time frame Bennett had set, along with Bennett’s failure to be candid about the decision, raised questions about the transparency of Indiana’s system, as well as similar systems in Florida and New Mexico.
As I noted yesterday, the effort to eviscerate AYP and No Child Obama Administration (along with plans from House and Senate Republicans, egged on by Petrilli and other Beltway conservative reform types, to do the same) is ditching an approach to accountability that has helped spur reforms from which children have benefited. But as Ed Trust research czar Daria Hall points out along with Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, the biggest problem with these post-AYP systems don’t honestly detail how schools and districts are doing in improving student achievement.
One of the problems with the accountability systems is that they obscure school performance in stemming achievement gaps, a key goal of systemic reform. This is a particular problem with A-to-F grading systems. Because of how the systems are structured, a school can be rated an A even if it has done little to stem achievement gaps, or does little better on that front than peers in lower-ranked schools. Hall and other civil rights activists within the reform movement have made this point for the past two years. But she, along with Ushomirsky and Williams illustrate that in the case of Florida,where the proficiency levels for black students in A-ranked schools are, on average, four percentage points lower than for white peers in C-ranked schools.
But the problems aren’t limited to A-to-F grading. Take Minnesota, which uses a three-point scale that features Recognized (or top-performing schools), as well as struggling schools which are either “Continuous Improvement” or “Priority”. As Ushomirsky, Williams, and Hall point, out, the average gap in on-track performance rate for black and white students in Recognized schools is 18 percentage points, a mere two points better than for peers in low-performing schools. Yet because the schools are highly-ranked under the accountability system, few would ever know this unless they dig deep for the data.
Of course, for Petrilli and others, the focus on achievement gaps is a non-issue for them. They argue that the focus should solely be on growth (or progress) schools are making in improving achievement for poor and minority kids. Certainly it should be a component of accountability. But focusing growth only works if the accountability systems adequately account for it. Ed Trust didn’t put much focus on this aspect. But based on what it has turned up so far, it is clear this isn’t happening.
Let’s go back to Florida. Thirty-nine percent of Sunshine State schools rated A in 2013-2014 saw declines in reading proficiency rates for black students from the previous year. Another 45 percent of schools rated B in 2013-2014 experienced year-to-year declines in math proficiency for Latino kids in their care. These are clear signs that schools are failing to improve achievement over time. In short, no growth. Yet families, researchers, and policymakers wouldn’t immediately know this (if at all) because these schools were still given the two highest letter grades. This isn’t shocking: Reformers in Indiana such as Indiana Chamber of Commerce education czar Derek Redelman were equally critical of that state’s A-to-F grading system because of concerns that it didn’t actually measure growth or hold schools and districts accountable for failure on that front.
These are serious problems. Why? One of the underlying reasons why AYP helped spur reforms that have improved student achievement for poor and minority kids is because it exposed how schools and districts failed to focus on helping those very children (as well as held them to account for doing so). The accountability systems that have replaced AYP are obscuring subgroup performance, essentially allowing the adults who work within them off the hook for doing well by the children in their classrooms. Put simply, these new systems are a step back for systemic reform.
Two other decisions made by the Obama Administration in its less-than-infinite wisdom make all this even more troubling. The first? Thanks to the No Child waivers, which exclude all but a few schools from sanctions, highly-rated schools aren’t likely to ever be penalized for widening achievement gaps. Second? The Obama Administration’s decision to allow states to implement supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” proficiency targets — usually with lower proficiency rates for poor and minority kids than for middle-class and white counterparts — allow districts and schools to do little to help those kids succeed. Because these Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets are tied to the accountability systems, low expectations for black, Latino, low-income Asian, and poor white kids are being compounded.
Another reason lies with the fact that these new accountability systems hide crucial data that all players in education decision-making, especially families, need to make smarter choices for their children. After all, a school that is top-performing in general may not be the right fit for particular groups of children, especially young black men who, along with American Indian peers, suffer the most from the nation’s education crisis.
Certainly there is a need for accountability systems to provide comprehensive-yet-simplified data, and A-to-F grading, in particular, attempts to make that a reality. But obscuring a key indicator of performance does no favors for families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who need that data the most. Just as importantly, what is the point of focusing accountability on growth if the system used for holding schools and districts accountable essentially don’t account for it?
Meanwhile Petrilli and other critics of the Ed Trust report fail to remember this fact: That policies are clear expectation in action of what we expect for our society. You can easily surmise that these post-AYP accountability systems essentially proclaim that state leaders (along with those such as Petrilli who support their efforts on this front) don’t expect districts to do very much for the black, Latino, and Native kids in their care. You can even say that they don’t even expect much from those kids themselves. And the children and families, in turn, probably shouldn’t expect anyone outside of themselves to be concerned for their futures.
Which makes the lack of concern about stemming achievement gaps on the part of Petrilli and other critics of the Ed Trust report particularly troubling. By being more concerned about how accountability supposedly feels to those working in schools than on the demonstrable benefits to the poor and minority kids who deserve high-quality education, Petrilli and others have failed a key tenet of being school reformers. You cannot proclaim you want to help all kids succeed, and yet essentially argue that those long-mistreated by traditional public education should be left behind. Considering that minority children now make up the majority of enrollment in American public education (especially in suburbia), along with the fact that half of the nation’s fifth graders are either reading Below Basic or just at suboptimal levels of literacy, you cannot blithely declare, as Petrilli does, that stemming achievement gaps is “a terrible principle to embed” in accountability.
Instead of criticizing the Ed Trust report, reformers such as Petrilli (along with state officials and the Obama Administration) should welcome it. They should then go back to the AYP model, then add on growth components that can result in a focus on both stemming achievement gaps and on growth in achievement over time. This can easily be done with a narrow No Child waiver similar to that granted by during the last years of the Bush Administration.
What Ed Trust has demonstrated is that the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit is damaging to children in ways we are just beginning to recognize — and that the opposition of some reformers to AYP is equally counterproductive. It is time for the administration to abandon its misadventure in reckless policymaking, and for all to once again embrace an approach to accountability that actually works for kids.
Based on all the complaints from Washington State politicians and conservative Beltway school reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reported by Motoko Rich last Sunday in New York Times, you would think that the Obama Administration’s leveled a great injustice by not renewing the waiver given to it two years ago to ignore the No Child Left Behind Act. If anything, as an update of a study by Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor shows, moving back under No Child will help spur reforms that will help children in the Evergreen State succeed. If anything, the Obama Administration should abandon its counterproductive gambit altogether and embrace the strong approach to accountability at the heart of the federal law.
From where Washington State politicians and Petrilli sit, the Obama Administration’s decision is “punishing schools and educators” because the state will now have to fall back on No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision, as well as the aspirational provision that states must ensure that all kids are proficient in reading, math, and science. This, along with No Child’s provision that states must make sure all kids are proficient in their core subjects by 2014, would lead more schools being labeled for under-performing than they supposedly should be. Meanwhile Petrilli and others believe that the Obama Administration is acting arbitrarily in violation of federal law. From where they sit, the administration cannot require states to fulfill promises they made as part of seeking the waivers.
Rich’s report (as well as the views of politicians and others cited in the piece) has garnered much-deserved criticism from Anne Hyslop of Bellwether Education for offering a misleading perspective on how No Child’s accountability provisions actually work in practice. This includes the fact that the 100 percent proficiency provision isn’t actually so (thanks to safe harbor provisions and other legalisms in place, it is actually 92 percent), as well as the fact that the school highlighted in the piece, Evergreen Elementary in the Seattle suburbs, wasn’t identified as being in need of improvement in 2012-2013 because of better performance. So I won’t spend time on this.
But Evergreen State politicians, along with Petrilli and other Beltway reform wonks, ignore a few inconvenient facts.
For one, they ignore the key reason why the Obama Administration declined to renew Washington State’s waiver: The state’s failure to meet its promise to replace its shoddy observation-based evaluations with more-objective data-based performance management tools using test score growth data. After all, implementing those new evaluations was a key condition of attaining the waiver in the first place. Because state legislators, at the behest of the National Education Association’s affiliate there, refused to pass a law back in February allowing the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As in the case of Oklahoma (whose own failures in getting its No Child waiver renewed was discussed on these pages in August), Washington State had ample opportunity to muster the political will needed to change the law in order to fulfill its promise under the waiver. So it deserves no sympathy for failing to do so.
There’s also the fact that the Obama Administration is rightfully holding Washington State accountable as it is supposed to. Sure, as your editor has long explained ad nauseam, the No Child waiver gambit is a grand misadventure that is damaging efforts at advancing systemic reform. At the same time, the administration is correct in holding Washington State accountable for not meeting the condition of its waiver. What is the point of the entire exercise if the federal government will let states off the hook? Just as importantly, and contrary to assertions by the Petrilli crowd, the Obama Administration is legally correct in doing so. The No Child waiver gambit is legally questionable because the administration is allowing states to ignore whole sections of federal law. But the administration is allowed to hold states responsible for how they spend federal subsidies. This includes any promises states made as part of attaining waivers.
In any case, Washington State’s return to AYP should be welcomed and not disdained. Why? Because it has been proven that No Child’s accountability provision is critical to spurring reforms that help children succeed.
This was made clear this week in Ahn’s and Vigdor’s study on the impact of AYP on improving student achievement in North Carolina, a new version of research developed last year for the American Enterprise Institute on the impact of No Child’s accountability measures. Freed from the efforts of AEI’s education czar, Rick Hess, to spin the results in support of his opposition to accountability and focusing on achievement gaps, Ahn and Vidgor point out that AYP has “beneficial” effects on student achievement. By shining harsh light on the low performance of schools as well as prescribing consequences for continued failure, No Child’s accountability approach forced districts to focus on improving student achievement, especially for poor and minority children they have long ignored.
In the case of North Carolina, for example, the mere threat of No Child’s sanctions alone led to many schools that were identified as failing for the first time to take on the kind of reforms needed to improve student achievement. It also worked for schools failing AYP for the first time; on average, a Tar Heel State school failing AYP improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation. Even better, the failure of a school to achieve AYP led families to transfer their kids to better-performing schools under No Child’s school choice provision allowing them to escape, which led to improvements in their math achievement.
The benefits are even better when perpetually failing schools are forced to take corrective action under No Child accountability. A poor-performing North Carolina school under Needs Improvement for a fifth consecutive year (and forced to develop a restructuring plan) improved reading performance by six percent of a standard deviation, while math achievement improved by nearly three percent of a standard deviation. An under-performing Tar Heel State school forced to restructure after six consecutive years of laggard performance improved did improve student achievement in math by six percent of a standard deviation.
No Child accountability was particularly helpful for poor and minority kids. Ahn and Vigdor found that a student in a school that missed AYP saw math achievement improve by four percent of a standard deviation; a student in a school missing AYP for five consecutive years improved math achievement by nearly 10 percent of a standard deviation. For poor and minority kids, AYP has proven to be a critical tool in helping them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success. None of this is shocking. As Dropout Nation has noted, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that accountability (along with other reforms) have led to declines in illiteracy and innumeracy among poor and minority kids (including a 10 percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2013).
The benefits of AYP are also reaped by high-performing kids, according to Ahn and Vigdor, countering arguments by Petrilli and others that No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps led to high-performing students being shortchanged. Children in the top percentile of student achievement in schools missing AYP saw small gains in math and reading achievement. This corresponds with Dropout Nation‘s analysis of NAEP data, which shows that average reading and math scores for top-performing students improved between 2002 and 2011 (versus almost no change between 1998 and 2002, before No Child was implemented), while the percentage of students reaching such levels increased since its passage (including a four percentage point increase in the number of students reaching such levels in reading between 2002 and 2013).
Though Ahn and Vigdor concede that North Carolina’s implementation of AYP — including merit bonuses to teachers who increased student test score growth — may have ameliorated any possible “adverse impacts” on either top-performing or struggling students, they conclude that high-performing kids can benefit from accountability. If anything, No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps — and helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality teaching and curricula — benefits all children. And contrary to what Petrilli and others have argued, curricula and learning, especially in music and arts, hasn’t been narrowed either (something, by the way, that has been proven by both the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research founder Robert Morrison).
This isn’t to say that AYP is perfect or even an unqualified success. The fact that No Child allows a school to fail for six consecutive years before triggering an overhaul has never been a good idea; failure mills should be forced to restructure within at least three years instead. There’s also the fact that AYP focuses solely on schools and not on the laggard traditional districts whose failures are the reason why they are under-performing in the first place; forcing districts to overhaul their operations is as critical to helping kids succeed as restructuring and shutting down schools. The fact that AYP doesn’t focus on low educational achievement for young men of all backgrounds, the most-persistent symptom of the nation’s education crisis, has allowed districts to continue practices such as overlabeling of young men as special ed cases that toss more futures into the abyss.
No Child’s school choice option could have been more powerful than it has been. In fact, the school transfer option has often failed to work effectively in many districts because families weren’t fully informed of their options until June, when they are on their way to summer vacation and cannot exercise any choice. The fact that the school choice option was limited to just schools operated by the district (which may often be just as bad as the failure mills kids were leaving) instead of a wide array of charters and parochial schools outside of it has also blunted its usefulness.
Yet by holding states and districts accountable for — and forcing focus on — helping poor and minority kids they long ignored — No Child’s AYP provision has spurred reforms that have helped more kids get onto the path to lifelong success. This, in turn, points out a reality that neither the Obama Administration nor Beltway wonks such as Petrilli fail to admit: That No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958.
For the first time in the history of American public education, federal education policy set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics, and finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. It also made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children, as well as focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Without No Child, there would be no Common Core, no overhaul of teacher evaluations (or focus on revamping how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers), or no expansion of school choice options. Even the most-sensible reforms touted by the Obama Administration — especially Race to the Top — wouldn’t have happened without No Child in place.
Which is what makes the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit so disappointing. By dismissing the lessons gleaned from No Child’s success — and ditching the accountability tool that worked so well — the administration has weakened systemic reform on the ground. The ditching of AYP (along with allowing states to replace the 100 percent proficiency provision with Plessy v. Ferguson-like targets) has allowed states and districts to go back to subjecting poor and minority kids to the soft bigotry of low expectations. This is particularly true in states such as Indiana and Florida that have implemented A-to-F grading systems that essentially allow schools proclaim they are high-performing even when they have wide achievement gaps.
By allowing states to ignore AYP, the Obama Administration also took away valuable information on performance that is critical for shedding harsh light on school and district performance that is key to accountability. The effort has turned federal education policy into an incoherent mess, fueling opposition to a strong federal role in supporting reform. It has even weakened the advancement of the second wave of reforms — most-notably implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — critical to helping kids gain the academic proficiency needed to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
The Obama Administration could then take these last two years of its existence to advance reforms through the No Child framework, as it should have done in the first place. This includes issuing a new round of waivers that keep AYP in place, and at the same time, adjust it to address its shortcomings as well as take advantage of what has been learned about accountability over the past decade.
Certainly this will be displeasing to many. But it is clear that returning to AYP will help more children than continuing a waiver gambit that has become a present obstacle to systemic reforms the administration and the movement support.
Featured photo courtesy of the Associated Press.
*Updated to include this afternoon’s decision by the Obama Administration.
In many of my early memories, my mom told me about her work as a teacher as I sat on a makeshift wooden platform between the front seats of my family’s Volkswagen van. As we drove through the tough neighborhoods of Richmond, California in the 1970s, she told me she became a teacher to work for a world where people were no longer judged by the color of their skin. She also told me she was in a union, like her grandmothers who’d been seamstresses in New York City in the early 1900s.
Over the following decades, however, she became frustrated. She became a union rep, and pushed to have the union make student achievement its primary goal. She was shocked to find that her fellow union reps seemed to only care about job protection and salaries. Later, when she worked with other senior teachers to push for pro-student scheduling changes, she was surprised at how much resistance she found among some of her colleagues.
My mom retired early, exhausted. Like so many of my friends and family in teaching, she remains concerned about ineffective teachers.
Over the course of my life, I have tried to understand why so many teachers felt these frustrations. I have gotten to know my own public school teachers. I became a volunteer teacher in public high schools during and after college. In grad school, I focused on education law and policy. I served school systems as a pro-bono consultant, and periodically left the private sector to work in education policy. I entrusted my own child to a public school.
And in that time, I have learned four things:
1) In both word and deed, most teachers are pro-children
Data show how America’s teachers think and behave. A Public Agenda survey of teachers shows that three quarters of teachers believe that good teachers “can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents;” two thirds of teachers entered the profession to help put “underprivileged kids on the path to success.” Many teachers, like my mom, take work home and work long hours. An earlier survey of the broader public concluded: “Parents, the public, principals and superintendents say that almost all teachers are caring and qualified.”
A close look shows that many teachers believe in parent engagement and choice. When the chips are down – in other words, when it comes to their own children – public school teachers are twice as likely as other parents to send their kids to private schools. When I had an ineffective teacher as a child, my mom pinched pennies to put me into a private school for a few years. Teachers do this for reasons eloquently explained by Ray Salazar, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who wrote about his choices for his own children and why public education should offer more choices for all parents.
Teachers also share my mom’s specific frustrations. Teachers hold wide-ranging views on reform. The majority believe that tenure is automatic, not dependent upon quality. A plurality believes that unions should focus more on teaching quality and student achievement. On average, teachers believe that about 10 percent of their colleagues are ineffective. Three quarters of all teachers and an even higher percentage of highly recognized teachers believe it needs to be easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. Unfortunately, teachers feel that they have no voice outside their classrooms.
2) Historically, unions have given only lip service to kids
The personal sincerity of proud unionists can be mesmerizing. Consider legendary American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker endorsing reforms in the wake of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk; or current AFT President Randi Weingarten pushing the anti-reformers within her caucus; or new National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García showing humor as a parent and grace as a social justice advocate. At the local level, Dr. John Thompson of Oklahoma, Xian Barrett of Chicago, and Ben Spielberg of San Jose all believe their union-driven reforms would have succeeded, but for the so-called “corporate” reformers that Shanker endorsed. For years, optimists have believed in these individuals, and predicted that they will make the unions more focused on students. Dana Goldstein defends unions as “potent advocates for many of the education policies that most benefit disadvantaged children, from tuition-free pre-K to better training for teachers.”
My mom’s experience, however, alerted me to the sincerity of those who have concluded that reform unionism is a mirage. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who concluded that teachers’ unions have been an “unwavering road block to reform,” started his career as a teachers’ union organizer. Civil rights leader Howard Fuller traveled a similar path: starting his career as a public sector union organizer, but eventually concluding that the unions prioritized political power over student interests.
Unfortunately, history has thus far favored the pessimists. The unions have unparalleled political influence over the best-funded public education system in human history. As reported over the last two weeks, the AFT alone spends millions annually to preserve that influence; the NEA devotes even more. If the optimists were right, the unions would have directed their lawyers, think tanks, communication operatives, and staffers to deliver results in many evidence-based areas, from overhauling schools of education, to promoting hands-on learning in science, technology, and math, to substantially higher salaries for the best teachers, to universal arts programs.
Unfortunately, state legislators and superintendents do not report union emphasis on these items. Aside from occasional lip service, pro-student movements within the unions disappeared as quickly as they’ve arisen, and have rarely ever delivered.
Instead, the unions pick only two real fights. First, unions attack charter schools and oppose direct scholarships for students. Second, they critique meaningful differentiation among teachers as well as defend policies such as last-in-first-out layoffs, lockstep pay, and tenure. Even teachers know the NEA and AFT don’t push for meaningful evaluations. To take one high-profile example, they opposed John McCain’s effort to cut corporate welfare and redirect the proceeds to pay more to great teachers and teachers in poor schools. In picking these two fights as their demonstrated priorities, the unions have chosen to defend a century-old industrial model of labor that casts teachers as interchangeable assembly-line cogs.
The question is why.
3) Unions are structurally biased against student interests
To see why, start with the truisms that union defenders will themselves admit. Some teachers are great, many are middling, and some are terrible. Some work very long hours, some work very few. And although money isn’t everything, it matters.
Now consider two different teacher profiles to see how incentives skew average union engagement. Imagine a fifth year teacher named Pat, who has outstanding skills and works long hours. At $50,000 per year in compensation, Pat would likely see hourly compensation go up if fired and forced to obtain a different job. Pat has very little near-term financial reason to get involved in union politics. Now imagine a veteran teacher named Ronni, who has a weaker skill set and works contract-minimum hours. Close to a generous retirement and earning six figures or more, Ronni would likely see a significant drop in hourly compensation if fired. Ronni has an immediate and strong personal financial stake in making sure that the local union takes a strong stance against accountability and choice. As a result, Ronni votes a lot more often than Pat, especially if a district considers reform.
The result is that union leaders tend to be unrepresentative. A 2005 survey of membership and leadership by the National Education Association found that only 15 percent of teachers are actively involved with the union. The same survey also showed that the larger the local affiliate, the less likely the local affiliate president will reflect the demographics and political views of their members.
To see how reform-minded teachers are systematically under-represented in union elections, consider Washington, D.C., as a case study. In 2010, George Parker, the president of the AFT’s Washington Teachers Union, negotiated a lucrative-yet-reform-oriented contract. But some teachers expressed fears about job security. Parker lost his seat shortly thereafter to challenger Nathan Saunders in an election with 25 percent turnout. Afterwards, Saunders declared in his victory comments, “this is a race about job security.” Unfortunately, 25 percent is not a particularly low turnout for a union election. Last year, in the election held by the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in New York City, retirees cast more votes than current teachers (only 17 percent of working classroom teachers voted); this year, during an election held by the union’s United Teachers Los Angeles local, an anti-reformer won with just 22.5 percent turnout. The combination of low turnout, and systematic under-representation of pro-student voices, has decimated the viability of pro-reform unionism.
No matter the personal sincerity of leaders like Weingarten and García, they remain subject to the politics of their unions. When a fast-growing splinter group pushed unions to militantly oppose reform, the AFT spent millions on a “national day of action” to that end. As Stanford University Professor of Political Science Terry Moe concluded in a comprehensive 2011 study, “union leaders are never going to [reform, because] their incentives are heavily front-loaded and short-term.”
The structural biases against reform do not work perfectly. Across tens of thousands of districts, pro-student constituencies occasionally gain control, such as in San Jose, Calif. Unfortunately, the power structure of the unions makes such exceptions irrelevant. This is because neither union holds direct elections for senior offices. A few thousand of the most active and invested union politicians attend national conventions to choose the national leaders. Within these conventions, dissent is rare. Weingarten earned a 98 percent margin in her recent re-election to lead the AFT, while García earned 94 percent of her convention’s vote. Union leaders elected in this environment tend to intervene against reform-minded locals. In the San Jose case, the local’s parent union, the NEA’s California Teachers Association, pushed the state board of education to stall the affiliate’s request to modify local tenure rules.
4) The hope is that eroding traditional union power will empower pro-student teachers
Overcoming these structural and cultural barriers will not be easy. But changes are taking place that might, finally, give real weight to the pro-student voices within the unions.
For starters, reformers may be outgunned, but they are gaining momentum. Philanthropists finance radically disruptive technologies, charter schools, and direct scholarships (also known as vouchers). These changes increasingly create pro-reform parent constituencies among traditional labor allies such as civil rights organizations. Public opinion favors reform, and parents opt out of the system through private schools and by homeschooling. All of these trends threaten the $600 billion in annual taxpayer expenditures that finance the unions, and thus compel reform.
Second, as we learned in the cases of leaded gasoline and cigarette toxicity, evidence can overcome well-funded adversaries. As bad charter schools have closed and good ones have expanded, evidence has accumulated that new schooling models can deliver better results for students in poverty, black students, Hispanic students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. As a result, we see the rapid growth of high-performing nonprofit charter school operators such as Success Academy, along with high public approval of charter schools.
With great charter schools proving how much all children can learn, public deliberation is also making progress on improving traditional schools. Consider the recent Vergara v. California case, in which a neutral state judge rejected a well-funded union legal team and ruled that California’s teacher work rules violated the rights of students. The unions launched a full PR fusillade, endeavoring to make support for Vergara into a litmus test for whether someone was anti-teacher. Despite this, the decision was endorsed by virtually every major editorial board in the country, including the New York Times, and the Washington Post. And longstanding union allies such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller agreed.
These trends are weakening the unions’ clout within the progressive movement. NEA was exposed as toothless when its resolution condemning Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was widely ignored. The AFT’s two affiliates in New York snubbed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to no avail. As I have written elsewhere, progressives have strong reasons to oppose public-sector unions, and private-sector labor is splitting from NEA and AFT. Thanks to private-sector unions, Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo won the Democratic primary for governor in spite of opposition from NEA and AFT affiliates. Meanwhile in California, superintendent candidate Marshall Tuck faces heavy opposition from NEA and AFT affiliates, but is winning union households by a 2-1 margin.
As this dynamic accelerates, it compels the unions to pick winnable fights, such as the NEA’s fight against standardized testing. If this push by the unions leads to more holistic, sophisticated evaluation systems for students and teachers and schools, the whole country will be better off.
Even more powerfully, changes legal and fiscal are eroding the unions’ structural bias against reforms. In the past few years, several states – including Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana – have passed laws dismantling the ability of NEA and AFT affiliates to compel teachers into paying dues. Indeed, this might soon be the national norm. As Dropout Nation noted in July, the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that it may soon strike down compulsory dues in the public sector as a violation of free speech. A case filed in California last year could trigger that ruling relatively soon, which would essentially eliminate the anti-reform leaders’ advantage within their unions. Union leaders who wish to earn the dues of their members in such states will need to be much more solicitous than in the past of pro-reform teacher sentiments.
As these financial changes happen, the last defense of the status quo – district-level implementation – will begin to crumble. Pro-reform local unions will be free to innovate. Idealistic and entrepreneurial teachers will be attracted to those districts. We will learn from their experiments, and voters in other localities will notice.
After listening to my mom’s stories about teaching, I briefly spent time working in high school classrooms with legendary teachers Tommie Lindsey of James Logan and Cathy Berman of El Cerrito. Perhaps my proudest moment as a professional was when Tommie told me, “It’s obvious that great teaching is in your blood.” But after hearing my mom’s frustrations, I chose not to enter the profession myself. Today, my daughter wants to be a teacher. By the time she enters the workforce, I believe that teaching will be much more welcoming to her voice.
Last week, Dropout Nation perused the American Federation of Teachers’ 2013-2014 financial filing with the U.S. Department of Labor and have revealed the millions the union is spending on preserving its influence as well as in opposing systemic reform. As you would expect, traditionalists, along with AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, attempted to disregard what is clear from the data; Weingarten herself even tried to argue that she didn’t earn $557,875 last fiscal year. But again, this isn’t shocking; Weingarten even tries to claim that she is a veteran teacher even though she only spent 10 months on the job (over a period of a six years as a part-timer) before becoming an AFT executive.
But as your editor has consistently pointed out, the AFT spends big to oppose systemic reform. Especially when those efforts will cost it both money and influence. And this can be seen today in Philadelphia, where the union’s Philadelphia and Pennsylvania units are battling against efforts to address the decades of dealmaking with the City of Brotherly Love’s district at the heart of its fiscal morass.
Earlier today, the AFT and its Pennsylvania affiliate fired off a press release blasting the School District of Philadelphia and the state commission that controls it for having “amped up a war on teachers”. How? By moving to cancel the collective bargaining agreement the district has with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s unit there, and reducing the generous healthcare benefits it provides to the union’s rank-and-file. Though the contract has been expired since last year — and the district has had free rein (as it can given the Keystone State’s restrictive state laws governing most aspects of how it manages its teachers) to do what it must to address its woes — PFT and its parent union insist that the deal remains in force. This includes basing layoffs on matters other than seniority as normally required under state law.
Thanks to move, Philadelphia will continue with a series of efforts that began last year with a move to effectively end near-lifetime employment for teachers in the district’s employ. The move would also allow the district to deal with its high teacher benefit costs. Thanks to a series of deals Philadelphia struck with the AFT local, along with increases in pension contributions, led to a 53 percent increase in spending on teachers’ benefits between 2002-2002 and 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau; benefits accounted for 27 cents of every dollar spent on teacher salaries in 2012, versus 21 cents a decade earlier. The district estimates that the cost-cutting will save it $246 million (including federal funds) over the next four years.
Given that Philadelphia has also been on a capital spending spree that has denied the reality that fewer kids are attending its school (as well as engaging in senseless financial engineering through the use of interest rate swaps related to its building boom), just focusing on teacher benefit costs isn’t enough. But considering that the AFT has also been an obstacle to the district’s efforts to provide high-quality education to kids in its care, canceling the collective bargaining doesn’t hurt. It even puts the onus on the district to actually address its fiscal and academic woes without being able to blame AFT intransigence.
But what may be good for Philadelphia (and for taxpayers and children) isn’t exactly welcomed by the AFT. After all, any cuts in healthcare benefits (or requirements for teachers to contribute more to those costs) strike at the heart of the grand bargain struck decades ago by the union with its rank-and-file members to insulate them from the arrangements typically found in the private sector. It’s hard for PFT, much less AFT, to justify forcibly collecting dues from teachers when it offers nothing to them. And given the district’s move last year to shut down 23 half-empty schools, as well as the layoff of 2,151 employees, PFT has fewer dues-paying members on the roster. The AFT local had 27,543 rank-and-file members in 2013-2014, eight percent fewer than in the previous fiscal year.
So the AFT is spending big to help its local out. It subsidized PFT to the tune of $1.5 million in 2013-2014; that’s a 10-fold increase from the $140,392 the union handed out to the unit in the previous year. Given that the PFT only generated $2.4 million in 2013-2014, the AFT’s subsidies are especially helpful for the local’s efforts to beat back the district’s moves. The AFT is also spending heavily on events in the city geared toward defending the local’s influence and coffers. This includes holding three meetings (including two so-called community events) at the ritzy Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown at the cost of $142,129 as well as dropping $272,715 at the rather nice Sonesta Philadelphia hotel to cover “member related expenses”.
Meanwhile the AFT is helping out PFT in another way: Co-opting progressive groups who are aiding the union in beating back reform. As Dropout Nation reported last week, the AFT poured $49,120 to ACTION United, the so-called grassroots group in Philadelphia which has served as an ally of its Philadelphia local in its efforts against the financially-strapped district to keep it from closing half-empty schools and overhaul how it compensates teachers. The union also contributed $20,000 to Philadelphia Student Union, whose board includes Anissa Weinraub, a PFT union leader, as well as Phil Wider of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, a signatory on an AFT statement issued as part of its Reclaim the Promise effort to defend the traditionalist policies that sustain it.
The AFT also contributed $60,000 to Youth United for Change, another ally of the union’s Philadelphia local in opposing reform efforts in the city. Two years ago, it teamed up with the Philadelphia Student Union on a joint letter opposing one of the district’s stillborn plans to overhaul its operations. The group also managed to get Weingarten to grace them with her presence at an awards ceremony it hosted last year.
Altogether, the AFT spent $2 million in 2013-2014 on preserving its declining influence in Philadelphia. That would be a really nice shopping trip at the old Wanamaker department store (now Macy’s) in the heart of the city’s downtown. To put this into perspective: The union poured just as much money into opposing reform-minded governors and efforts in several Midwestern states, while spending considerably less than that in Chicago (where it can count on its notoriously-bellicose local there to do the heavy lifting).
Based on the Philadelphia district’s move today — along with the decision by the city council last month to reject PFT’s effort to place a question on November’s ballot asking for support to end the state’s control of the district — the AFT would have been better off spending that money elsewhere. Particularly for teachers forced to pay into the union’s coffers, that’s $2 million that wasn’t used to provide them with courses on using data in improving student achievement. For the teaching profession the AFT claims devotion, that’s $2 million not used for for launching an alternative teacher preparation program that could bring talented collegians and mid-career professionals into teaching. And for kids, that’s $2 milllion that doesn’t help them in any way whatsoever.
But the AFT’s efforts in the Keystone State aren’t limited to the Philadelphia alone. There’s also the rest of the state, especially the state capital of Harrisburg, where the union’s affiliate, AFT Pennsylvania, has been battling Gov. Tom Corbett’s oft-unsuccessful (and usually lackluster) efforts on the reform front. This includes his push to expand school choice as well as the now-stillborn plan to address the School Employees’ Retirement System’s virtual insolvency of $37 billion (or 27 percent more than the pension officially reports).
The AFT subsidized the Keystone State unit (including its solidarity fund) to the tune of $499,661 in 2013-2014, $42,074 more than in the previous fiscal year. Given Corbett’s struggles to get his fellow Republicans controlling the Keystone State legislature to back his reform efforts, you can say that this was money well spent for its goals of keeping itself in business. For high-quality teachers and kids? Not so much.
So when AFT officials argue that they don’t have the money needed to challenge reformers and are devoted to helping kids succeed, point to what it is doing in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Because they aren’t admitting reality.
AFT President Randi Weingarten and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers boss Jerry Jordan. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.