August 28, 2015

Who Is Missing From The NOLA Education Debate? The NOLA Educators…

I have a column in U.S. News & World Report today:

This week’s 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is sparking the usual sparring between education reformers and their critics about New Orleans. What’s new, right? On one key issue, though, the reformers and their opponents too often seem to agree: New Orleans’ education reform is largely an outsiders’ project. It’s an idea that while useful for both sides and a conflict-addicted media, is disrespectful to a lot of New Orleans educators and distorts the complicated story of that city’s schools…

…I’m not trying to convince you about the success of the New Orleans education reforms. Although there is little dispute among serious analysts that the schools are better now, in aggregate, than in 2004, there are plenty of complicated particulars and real questions about how the well the model can travel. Rather, the point is the next time you hear a simplistic story about New Orleans education, dig deeper. As with most things in that great city, there is usually more there.

Some angles on that story and some of those educators? It’s all right here in USN’s “Report,” which includes a special NOLA package. Send me your stories of great New Orleans educators or tweet them to me @arotherham.

Take A Kid Fishing

IMG_8725It’s almost the end of summer so time for a periodic PSA. Get outside! Find time some weekend and take a kid fishing -it’s good for them and for you! Here’s Bellwether’s Jason Weeby out with his son on the same water he fished as a kid.

How do I do that you ask? No special skills required, here’s a primer!

Want to see pictures of education people with fish? Hundreds via this link and more via this one.

August 21, 2015

GOP And Preschoolers, Newark Charters, Gifted Students, Landrieu On NOLA Ed, AIR On Loans, A Loveless Sample

Sara Mead handicaps the 2016 GOP candidates on pre-k education.

Donald Trump, his primary track record on early childhood education seems to be the number of times other people have compared him to a preschooler.”

There is also some analysis of the candidates who do have records or positions. Speaking of Trump, the buried lede here is a 43,000 seat high school football stadium.

Newark charter schools offer some lessons. Everyone says teachers do God’s work, but when you try to call them ministers you’re going to get some pushback (ministers aren’t covered by the NLRB). Chester Finn is worried about gifted kids. I think they are doing fine.

Mary Landreiu on what’s happening in New Orleans with schools. Here she is on video talking about the same thing with Carl Cannon and me as well as about why the NOLA story is so distorted.

New York’s not going to sanction schools/districts with a lot of opt-outs. That’s a smart approach in my view. But what about accountability for school personnel involved in all this, doesn’t that cross a line?

AIR takes a look at the literature on loan forgiveness for teachers. And here’s an interesting idea from Tom Loveless: Reporters run with flimsy studies all the time, they often don’t know who to ask for some help understanding whether the methods have any validity. But if you’re at a regional or national outlet you can walk down the hall to whomever oversees polling. They can tell you some basic stuff for sure…with guns, fire, and research safety starts with you!

Friday Fish Porn – Jim Ford!

11887895_738144152978711_8563791172225403072_nJim Ford’s a very sharp educational consultant who does a lot of work on charter schools. He led the charter school initiative at the National Council of La Raza and later was lead at the Raza Development Fund. He’s Denver-based and in addition to facilities financing and acquisition he also does strategic planning, technical assistance, financial management, board trainings, business development and fiscal work for charter schools. He has more energy than almost anyone I’ve ever crossed paths with. And, yes, he can fish. Here he is the other day in the Caribbean. Needs a new cap but the fish is nice.

Wait, isn’t this an education blog? Indeed! But it also is home to hundreds of pictures of education people with fish. Click here and also here to see them.

August 20, 2015

Can You Even Remember Your SAT Scores? FL Teachers Must! Landrieu Changes Lanes, Teacher Perceptions, And I Weep For Yale Students…Breaking: Common Core A Flashpoint!

Changing Lanes with former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. Carl Cannon and I took a car ride with Mary Landrieu the other day to talk centrist politics, New Orleans rebuilding, and her health care vote (which she would unhesitatingly cast again). She just can’t make her mind up about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (includes Common Core politics). Also don’t miss this Atlantic article about what her brother Mitch is up to in New Orleans around violence. 

PSA - “Soft bigotry of low expectations” is not just a catch phrase.  In case you haven’t heard, Jeb Bush’s Common Core position is controversial!

The hardships of being a Yale student. In response to yesterday’s Times op-ed on Yale’s spending on money mangers that had all right-thinking people outraged, Matt Levine points out that,

Yale spent almost three times as much money on private equity managers as it did on students, but the private equity managers gave Yale almost ten times as much money as the students did. And Yale didn’t need to feed, house or teach them.

True, education really is a dog of a business. But if you actually want to see more endowment money flowing to student aid you have to convince donors that their money should go to student aid or unrestricted purposes. That’s hard when people want to endow chairs, buildings, and all sorts of naming rights kinds of things or particular initiatives that are important to them. Maybe stop beating up money mangers for their gifts to schools and instead beat them up for not giving unrestricted dollars or donations earmarked for student aid? Surely couldn’t be less productive than the current conversation. Also, most colleges don’t have endowments at all and for those that do most aren’t that big. So I guess it’s OK to get all worked up about the hardships of students at Yale (or similar schools) if that is your thing. But, it’s not really where the action is and if you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time worried about that rather than, say, the University of Connecticut, you might want to pause and think?

The hardships of being a teacher with good SAT scores. Florida wants to pay teachers more if they had good ACT or SAT scores. Cue the usual controversy, refusals, etc... Seems like two things are true at once here. SAT scores are actually a modest predictor of teaching performance – probably owing to the verbal ability required to do the job well. Not much attention to that in all the coverage (might spoil the fun and why break with tradition?). But, SAT scores and most other similar measures (including current credentialing) are swamped by the predictive leverage of, you know, actual job performance. In other words the best predictor of future job performance is past job performance in the classroom with real kids. (So, please pay no attention to our crazy and costly teacher credentialing regimes!) Also true, this Florida deal is sort of a crazy policy anyway. A better policy might be encouraging and incentivizing students with strong scores to find their way to programs in the UTeach vein? But that’s a lot of work. Too much apparently for Florida. Instead, Florida is kind of cutting out the middle man but not in a useful way. Fine thing to argue about though because everyone already has their talking points.

ICYMI – Opt-out students in New York mostly aren’t poor, diverse, or good at taking tests but there are a lot of them. And that’s why there is a political potency to their movement public officials should handle with care.

August 19, 2015

Education On The Campaign Trail, No Brunch Left Behind

Parents want more fruits and vegetables in school lunches. Unclear what it means for this USDA initiative.

Education will be a hot issue on the trail in New Hampshire today. That’s not something that happens all the time, or almost ever actually…Campbell Brown will discuss education with the candidates at The 74′s education forum. Highlights:

  • Gov. Jeb Bush: 9:00am
  • Carly Fiorina: 9:45am
  • Gov. John Kasich: 10:30am
  • Gov. Scott Walker: 1:45pm
  • Gov. Bobby Jindal: 2:30pm
  • Gov. Chris Christie: 3:15pm

You can watch live here all day.

Dem event coming in October.

August 18, 2015

Education Next 2015 Poll

The Education Next 2015 poll is out. Well done, a lot of meat in it.

What Now For The Opt-Out Movement?

Data released last week by New York State – the epicenter of the K-12 standardized test opt-out movement – shows that the opt-out movement there was far broader than critics assumed but also not as diverse as proponents claimed. I take a look at that and what might be next for the opt-outers and public officials in a U.S. News & World Report column:

Speculating about how many and what kind of students were opting out of standardized tests was a fun education parlor game this spring. Highly energized proponents claimed the opt-out movement was a diverse cross-section of public school students. Critics responded that, no, it was a movement of affluent white parents and not that many of them. And, as usual with education debates, most Americans said, “what?” Now, though, we have actual data from opt-out ground zero in New York State, released late last week, and it turns out the proponents and opponents of opt-outs were both right and wrong about what happened…

What happened? You can read the entire thing here. Share all the things you’ve opted out of and drop out and opt-in to Twitter and respond right here.

August 17, 2015

St. Louis Fed On College, Two Studies On NOLA, NLRB On NCAA F’Ball Unions, Waldron On CEOs, Bogus Stats, New Teachers, And More!

Important story in The Times about a new Federal Reserve study on race/ethnicity and college attainment and wealth. Classic ‘two things true at once’ issue. College is a great social mobility strategy for minorities and lower-income Americans but it’s also not a surefire way to address a host of other current and historical issues.

Three yards and a cloud of lawyers: National Labor Relations Board knocks down the union drive for athletes at Northwestern. It was these questions about how to make unionization work in the at once Balkanized but also common playing field world of college sports that derailed things.

NSNO on the New Orleans school story (pdf). Doug Harris on the same.

Curriculum Associates* CEO Rob Waldron talks about new ways to think about evaluating the CEO role and the net promoter question part of his compensation is tied to.  Karen von Klahr discusses supporting new teachers.

And here I thought the last Chicago teachers strike was about politics (The next one will be because the Cubs are doing OK so why not extend summer a little, right?).

Sandy Kress is blogging! This story about a bogus higher ed stat is illustrative in a few ways, none of them good.

*Former BW client.

August 14, 2015

Social Security’s Birthday. (A Nice Gift Idea Would Be Enrolling All Teachers)

Social Security is turning 80. The landmark social insurance program quietly works, is a great anti-poverty program, and its fiscal challenges are more manageable and less complicated than other entitlement programs (though certainly politically challenging for instance raising the contribution limits for higher income workers, which makes sense policywise but is a tough sell). Yet despite all this 40 percent of teachers aren’t covered (pdf), which creates a host of problems and some economic insecurity for them. And the teachers unions profess to love Social Security but resist efforts to extend it to all teachers and support changes that would interfere with the progressivity of the program. Leslie Kan has more at

If You’re Going To Mess With Chad Aldeman…Better Bring Evidence

Part 1: Teacher attrition might not be what you’ve been hearing….

Part 2: He will read your prior writings and haunt your dreams.

August 12, 2015

Education Candidate Forums For POTUS Contenders (Plus Flash Cards!)

The Seventy Four is hosting candidate forums with the R and D candidates for the White House. Not something that happens all the time on this issue. The R one, co-hosted with the American Federation for Children, is later this month on the 19th. It’s followed by the D one, co-hosted with the Des Moines Register, in October. In keeping with everyone’s shortened attention span (blame summer, blame Twitter) they’re compiling cue cards about the candidates starting with the Rs. Today’s is OH Governor John Kasich.

August 10, 2015

TNTP Is At It Again, Kan and Aldeman Back At, Warren On Accountability, Pell Grants For Prisoners, Our Dysfunctional Testing Industry: “Parents For Better Capital Markets?” More Charters For LA? Mead On Head Start, Smarick on Youth, And More!

Thanks to Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan for looking after the place while I was gone.  Their posts are all below. I hope you got a taste of the pension issue, which is fascinating to work on because it’s complicated substantively and politically and the top-line answers “just go to 401ks” or “just fund the pensions and leave them alone” don’t actually work in practice. You can keep up with all of it via short blog posts, long analyses, and everything in between at

Motoko Rich has a big “teacher shortage” article out in The Times. Chad looked at part of that issue here the other day. And Sara Mead does today. It’s one of those where the aggregate data generally masks the real tale (and makes it an evergreen story).  We don’t have a generalized teacher shortage – in fact there is a surplus in many parts of the country. Rather, there are specific shortages based on areas of expertise (languages, hard sciences, special education) and geographic shortages causing acute issues in some communities. That was true before, during, and after the last recession. It’s also why in its early days Teach For America wasn’t replacing teachers in the communities it operated in, it was replacing non-teachers. That’s started to change as the organization has grown and entered into different arrangements with school districts (pdf).

Also in The Times, New York’s new teacher test survives legal scrutiny.

It’s easy to demagogue giving student aid to prisoners but it is good policy on a few levels, not least of all the human one. And anyone who thinks education benefits will entice people to commit crimes or reward them hasn’t spent much time in an actual prison or with actual offenders.

While we’re on the subject of legal scrutiny and prison Ed Week writes up the Chaka Fattah indictment in Pennsylvania given his education involvement in Congress, but there is a more direct education angle to the case. 

In general I think there are two kinds of policy research that add value. One is research that shows new things and can change how we think about things. The other is work that documents an issue that is generally understood but has not been really explained in a data rich way. TNTP excels at the latter. People understood that urban school district HR was broken or teacher evaluations were non-existent but it was detailed TNTP work that really galvanized action and improvement on these issues. Their new report on teacher development will hopefully have the same impact. Few people labor under the impression that teacher PD is useful to teachers – least of all the teachers who have to endure it – but it remains a multibillion dollar sinkhole.

Seven or eight(!) percent is hard! Getting agreement about pension policy?  Hard, too!

Please define “long-term.”  Sara Mead says teacher prep is education’s Superfund site. I really like this, of course. Sensible Chester Finn on the AP history revisions.

Elizabeth Warren is an accountability hawk on schools as well as banks. So is Sandy Kress, at least on schools. Student voice gets a $12 million round at Panorama Education.

So charter schools in Los Angeles are, on average, producing significant gains there compared to other schools (pdf). How much? About the equivalent of 50 extra days of school in reading and 79 days in math each year. That’s based on the CREDO analysis. Yet having more of them is really controversial and hard (for the adults, who get a lot of play in this article).

Sightly simplified and generalized here’s how the testing ecosystem plays out in practice: States put out specs for assessment programs that are generally unworkable in their entirety. Then they choose the testing company that is going to do the least bad job trying to meet the unworkable specs. When the testing copany predictably fails to do a good job the state often has little recourse because the penalty structure varies and in some states there are restrictions on damages beyond actual costs (which are generally low even if the impact is high). And states know that it’s generally not in their interest to fire the testing company because they already picked the one that would do the least bad job (firing your first choice to hire your second or third choice usually doesn’t make a lot of sense and you can’t just change assessment systems on a dime anyway). In addition, there aren’t that many companies to start with. The big for-and non-profit providers can be counted on barely more than a hand (and it’s not where the big money in publishing or assessment is anyway). So, it’s nice that Pearson is making a gesture like this one in Minnesota after some errors but it’s not where the action is. If testing critics were really serious about getting better test quality (rather than, say, no tests or no accountability) they’d be demanding real accountability for corporations doing business with states. That might help dissuade companies from entering into contracts with unattainable goals or fines that are just a cost of doing business and allow state officials to actually hold someone accountable when things go wrong. (They might also support more investment in new companies to help disrupt the industry some and bring in new players but don’t hold your breath. And “better capital markets” isn’t much of a rallying cry anyway). Otherwise, though, this is mostly a shell game.

Sara Mead unpacks the new Head Start regulations in this smart analysis. A still youthful Andy Smarick hangs out with the youthful innovators. 

August 7, 2015

Weekend Reading List

Some good weekend reads:

  • Catherine Gewertz on more states moving to the ACT* or SAT as their high school accountability test.
  • Sandy Kress doesn’t pull any punches on current NCLB reauthorization proposals.
  • Mary Nguyen Barry asks if we need a “NAEP for Higher Ed.”
  • Here’s the GAO on teacher prep and the lack of state oversight. Key quote: “Some states reported that they do not assess whether TPPs are low-performing, as required by federal law. 
  • And Sara Mead on America’s broken approach to teacher preparation.
  • On that note, Kevin Carey makes the point that researchers basically can’t tell universities apart from one another, because they’re just a collection if disjointed departments and faculty members. If that’s true for entire universities, what does that mean for colleges of education, which typically offer multiple distinct prep programs, each of which may only have a handful of students?
  • On enrolling newly hired University of California employees into a new 401k-style plan rather than the existing defined benefit pension system, Janet Napolitano said, “Pension reform needs to happen. It’s the responsible thing to do.”

*Disclosure: ACT is a former client. 

–Chad Aldeman

Teacher Shortage? Blame the Economy

*Cross posted at the blog

What’s causing teacher shortages across the country? Although it might be fun to blame your least favorite thing in education–the Common Core, say, or teacher evaluations or millennials–new research suggests the economy is the primary driver in the supply of new teachers (h/t InsideHigherEd).

The new paper looks at the college majors of students who turned age 20 between 1960 and 2011. Then, it linked the students’ decisions with data on macroeconomic trends to examine how business cycles affect student choices. Of the 38 majors included in the study, education was the biggest loser. When recessions hit, both men and women were less likely to want to become teachers and instead turned to fields like accounting and engineering. In number terms, the researchers estimate that, “each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate…decreases the share of women choosing Early and Elementary Education by a little more than 6 percent.” (For men it was even higher.)

To put that in context, the national unemployment rate rose from 4.4 percent in May 2007 to 10.0 percent in October 2009. Using the paper’s estimates, that would imply the recent recession caused a decline in female enrollment in elementary education of 33.6 percent (the 5.6 percentage point change in the unemployment rate multiplied by the 6 percent figure above).

A 34 percent decline due purely to economic conditions may sound high at first blush, but it would help explain much of what we’re seeing out in the field. For example, it would explain most but not all of the decline in program completers that we documented in our recent paper on California’s teacher pipeline. State-by-state changes in economic conditions may also help explain why some, but not all, states are experiencing declining interest in teacher preparation programs. (And all of these figures put Teach for America’s much-publicized 10 percent decline in perspective. So far, TFA has weathered the decline better than other preparation programs.)

While the declines are not good news for schools–it means they’re competing for a smaller number of candidates–a recent paper found that teachers hired during the recent recession tended to be stronger than those hired during better economic times.

What’s ironic about all current attention to teacher shortages is that teacher shortages are the exact thing that will lead to the next boomlet in teacher prep. The media will cover the shortages, districts will raise their wages to attract workers, and we’ll start this cyle all over again. And then the next recession will hit and we’ll be back to hearing about teachers who can’t find teaching jobs. And so on, and on…

–Chad Aldeman

August 5, 2015

Updated: Who Are the 12 Percent?

Last year the Center for Public Education (CPE) released their first report in a series on high school graduates who do not go on to college. In that report, author Jim Hull found that only 12 percent of high school graduates did NOT go on to college. When nearly everyone goes, the “college or career” dichotomy is mostly a myth (and a shrinking one at that).

CPE’s latest report in the series looks at what happens to these students. According to their analysis, some things don’t seem to matter–in general, the number of courses students completed, how much homework they did, or how involved they were extracurricular activities did not affect their future earnings potential. However, completing certain courses in math and science (and certain combinations of courses) and attaining a professional certification or licensure DID have an impact on earnings as well as non-economic outcomes like voting and volunteering.

Check out the full report here.

Update: My friend Ben Miller asked how this would change if we looked at high school students earlier in their career. Luckily, NCES has a national survey on high school sophomores and their outcomes 10 years later. For every 100 public high school students who were sophomores in 2002, 3 dropped out before graduating, 13 graduated high school but not go on to college, and the rest attended at least some form of postsecondary education (50 of the original 100 attained some postsecondary credential) within 10 years. See Table 1 here.

–Chad Aldeman

The Every Child Achieves Act Is Loose-Loose

Spend enough time in education policy, and you’re bound to hear someone articulate the concept that federal education policy should be “tight-loose.” That is, federal policy should be “tight” on the expectations for what students should know and be able to do, but “loose” on how students and schools meet those expectations. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli has been one of the most active champions of this concept, articulating in a 2011 “Briefing Book” (with Checker Finn, Fordham’s President at the time) exactly how this tight-loose construction should work. (The slogan became so ubiquitous that Fordham released a joke video in 2013 where “tight loose” played a prominent role.)

But times have changed, and although you may hear the same phrase, it no longer means what it used to. Petrilli now supports a Senate bill, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), that is loose on goals AND loose on means.

I’m not just aiming potshots at Petrilli for the sake of it. I consider Mike a friend, but I find it troubling that he and others seem willing to walk away from his good policy ideas simply because the political winds today are less friendly to federal involvement in education policy.

For my purposes here, Petrilli presents the opportunity to show that what used to pass for a sensible, “reform realist” conservative policy is now considered anathema. So as a useful historical exercise, here’s a list of key policy issues with how Fordham circa 2011 proposed tackling it, compared with how today’s ECAA does it. On nearly every aspect, the ECAA is looser than what Fordham and Petrilli supported just a few years ago:

Issue Comparison
Standards Fordham: “As a condition of receiving federal Title I funds, require states to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math, OR to demonstrate that their existing standards are just as rigorous as the Common Core. Standards developed apart from the Common Core initiative would be peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts…” 

ECAA: States must “provide an assurance that the State has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards,” but states are not required to submit their standards to anyone.


Verdict: Looser

Achievement Goals Fordham: “As a condition of receipt of Title I funds, require states to set achievement standards such that students will be college- and career-ready by the time they graduate from high school. Require states to back-map achievement standards down to at least third grade, so that passing the state assessment in each grade indicates that a student is on track to graduate from twelfth grade ready for college or a career. States…would have their standards peer reviewed at the federal level by a panel of state officials and content-matter experts.” 

ECAA: States must establish goals, “that take into account the progress necessary for all students and each of the categories of students to graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation,” but there is no federal oversight and the Secretary is explicitly prohibited from establishing any “criterion that specifies, defines, or prescribes…the specific goals that States establish.”


Verdict: Looser

Student Growth Fordham: “In the spirit of “tight-loose” and transparency, we think it’s reasonable for the federal government to require, as condition of Title I funding, that states be able to measure student growth.” 

ECAA: Student growth is left to state discretion, and the Secretary is explicitly prohibited from requiring states to measure student growth.


Verdict: Looser

Other Subjects Fordham: “Require states to develop grade-level science standards; for history (or history/civics/geography), require standards in at least three grade bands. Require annual testing in science and at least one test in history in each of the elementary, middle, and high school levels.”“States must report separately their schools’ reading, math, science, and history scores.”


ECAA: States must develop standards in science. They must test students in science at least once per grade band and release the results on state report cards. States may also administer assessments in other subjects at their discretion.


Verdict: Looser

School Accountability Measures Fordham: “State rating systems cannot be pass/fail, but should indicate a range of effectiveness.”“All schools should be judged, at least in part, by how many of their students are on a trajectory to reach college and career readiness by the end of the twelfth grade.”

“Individual student growth must feed into a school’s rating system, though states should have the flexibility to determine the specifics of this requirement. States must have data systems that make this possible.”


ECAA: States must establish “a system of annually identifying and meaningfully differentiating among all public schools in the State” that include student proficiency and graduation rates, in significant part, plus at least one other “valid and reliable indicator of school quality,” but states are free to weight factors as they choose and omit student growth. At their discretion, states could give schools binary pass/fail ratings.


Verdict: Looser

Subgroup Performance Fordham: “State rating systems must incorporate subgroup performance into school ratings. Schools may not receive the highest rating if any of their subgroups is performing poorly.” 

ECAA: State accountability systems must include all students and subgroups of students, but the bill does not include any protections if individual subgroups are low-performing.


Verdict: Looser

In sum, although some conservatives may want to claim the ECAA is tight on goals and loose on means, it’s actually loose on both.  If the bill goes forward as is, I think conservatives like Mike Petrilli will regret everything they gave up to get a bill, any bill, through this Congress. That’s a shame, because there is a small-c conservative vision for federal education policy that has real merit. It would start with setting national priorities for transparency on measures that matter (like student growth and college-readiness) and add in a strong federal role in research and innovation. One potential path forward would be to hold states accountable for student outcomes while leaving the details (content standards, assessments, curricula, interventions, and more) to the discretion of each state. The ECAA has none of those things. It’s just loose-loose.

–Chad Aldeman

August 4, 2015

Studies in Contast

It’s hard not to contrast two new studies out today:

In “The Mirage,” TNTP estimates that districts spend 6-9 percent of their budgets on professional development for teachers, which produces approximately 0.0 effects on student learning.

In “Good News for New Orleans,” Douglas Harris estimates that the suite of school choice reforms adopted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina produced student learning gains of .2 to .4 standard deviations, at the cost of approximately 9 percent* of spending. For context on those effect sizes, Harris and his co-authors concluded they were, “not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

*That’s a VERY rough estimate. The report cites a cost figure of $1,000 per pupil. For comparison’s sake, I converted it to a percentage of expenditures using Louisiana’s per pupil spending figures here.

–Chad Aldeman

“Best Practices” Can Be the Worst Practices?

Don’t miss the new TNTP report on costly, mostly ineffective professional development for teachers. The “best practices” that districts use to help their teachers improve may be a mirage that’s stopping them from pursuing new strategies.

–Chad Aldeman

August 3, 2015

Christie’s Politics Get in the Way of Pension Reform

*Cross posted from’s blog.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. In an interview with Jake Tapper, New Jersey Governor said he prefers to deal with bullies with a “punch in the face.” Who deserves this? The teachers’ unions, according to Christie.

While this sort of brash talk may attract attention, it isn’t good for negotiating reform. Ironically, Christie actually has a good reform proposal. Christie’s pension committee calls for a cash balance plan, a type of defined benefit plan that accrues benefits evenly rather than the bumpy accrual of the current backloaded plan. The cash balance plan would provide better benefits for early and mid-career teachers who get shortchanged by the current plan and better fiscal housekeeping for the system.

But Christie’s politics are preventing this reform from moving forward. The teachers’ unions are still fuming over the Governor’s decision to go back on his promise and shortchange the pension fund.

As Christie continues to play with fire, however, he may stymie the state’s chance for genuine reform of its pension systems.

July 31, 2015

California’s Pension Sink Hole Just Got Deeper

*Cross posted from’s blog.

California’s pension debt is dizzying. The state’s collective unpaid pension debt is now $198 billion, up from $6.3 billion in 2003.  The California Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) makes up over a third of this debt, $74 billion unfunded. (These numbers look even bigger depending on what discount or interest rates are used.)

Complicating matters, the state can’t reduce any future benefits under an obscure, rigid legal doctrine known as the California Rule. Under the rule, workers are basically promised the same or better benefits as laid out on their first day of work; workers get what they’ve earned so far as well as future earnings. (A new ballot initiative may allow for structural reform and better public accountability, but is still up in the air.)

Put this together and it means that a younger generation of workers are stuck with the state’s massive bill. As we write in our new report, pension reform cuts typically fall on new workers, and now is the worst time in the past three decades to be a new teacher.

See for more info on California and other states, including interviews with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and current Executive Director of the California School Employees Association, Dave Low.

Friday Fish Porn – A Cod Piece!

IMG_1448Tim Lee works on development at the EAO 50Can. Here he is with a cod he caught off the coast of Iceland. Weighed in at 35lbs. Hard to tell who looks more surprised at the situation, Tim or the fish?

This image is just one of hundreds of education types with fish they have caught carefully curated here. You can find them all via this link and a few recent ones by just scrolling down this page.

July 30, 2015

Are Pension Refunds the Same as a 401k?

*Cross posted from’s blog.

Over half of new teachers won’t meet the minimum vesting or service requirements to receive a pension. One common response is that these teachers are allowed to receive a refund on their contributions plus interest, and that the refund is comparable to private sector workers who receive a 401k. It’s a good point, but it’s not exactly the case for all teachers.

While it’s true a teacher can get a refund on her pension contributions plus interest in some states, like California, in other states, like Illinois, teachers do not receive interest. In fact, in Illinois, teachers receive less than their original employee contributions. An Illinois teacher is required to contribute 9.4 percent of her paycheck to the state teachers’ retirement system. Upon leaving the classroom, however, she is only entitled to a refund equal to 8.4 percent of her earnings. And, in the majority of states, teachers do not receive any portion of their employer’s contributions.

Overall, state public retirement systems face significantly less scrutiny from the federal government than the private sector. Unlike the private sector, states are not required to provide their public workers with Social Security, can set their minimum vesting requirements upwards of 10 years, and aren’t held to the same funding standards. So California teachers may be able to get a full refund with 4.5 percent interest, but they also won’t get Social Security. For teachers in Illinois, they receive neither a full refund on their pension contributions nor Social Security for their time in the classroom.

Participating in the state systems may be good for a select few, but for the majority of teachers, it comes with too many trade-offs.

July 29, 2015

Ending California’s Teacher Drought?

California’s water drought has been in the news lately, but the state is also facing a growing shortage of teachers. A new Bellwether report looks at how to strengthen California’s teacher supply–and improve the quality of teacher preparation at the same time.

July 28, 2015

Chicago Running Out of Options after Pension Reform Law Overturned

*Cross posted from’s blog.

It’s back to square one for Chicago pensions: last Friday a city judge ruled unconstitutional a pension law that would have reduced benefits for city workers. The ruling is a tough blow for the city’s finances and could worsen the situation for new and future workers, including teachers.

For Illinois taxpayers, it feels a lot like Groundhog Day. Chicago’s pension reform law, albeit a slightly different spin, like the state’s 2013 pension reform law, attempted to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for current workers. And like the state law, the city court says the cuts violate the state’s constitution. Even if the case goes to appeal, it’s highly likely that the city’s attempt to cut benefits will again be deemed illegal just like the state’s attempt, which was finally upheld as unconstitutional last spring.

Paying the price for massive debt are the city’s workers. On the books, the city judge’s ruling is a win for the Chicago Teachers’ Union and other unions who filed the suit. But it’s a significant loss overall for the city’s new and future workers and teachers who now need to eat the costs of growing debt. Chicago, like the state, already instituted drastic cuts for its new teachers through a previous plan in 2011. New teachers hired after 2011 face negative net benefits for the first two decades of work because the value of their contributions exceed their future pension benefits. And they don’t qualify for Social Security. For the city’s schools, last year’s pension contributions ate up 11 percent of the Chicago Public Schools’ operating budget, or nearly $1,600 per student.

Chicago is running out of options. Without the pension law, which would have allowed the court to enforce full funding to the laborer’s and municipal employees funds, the city lacks any checks to ensure adequate funding. Moody’s recently downgraded the Chicago Public Schools’ debt ratings to junk status, now matching the city’s rating, because of poorly funded pensions; the S&P cut the city’s rating again because of chronic structural debt. Governor Bruce Rauner’s recent pension bill would allow Chicago and other municipalities to file for bankruptcy, a mechanism which would allow the city to start over, restructure its past debt, and reform its pensions plans (but even in this case, there would be obstacles around when Chicago could actually file because of the way the city reports its debt).

The city desperately needs structural reform to clean up its financial mess and to ensure adequate benefits for its teachers and municipal workers. Until then, Chicago’s public workers, teachers, and taxpayers will be expected to foot the bill.

Edujob: National Mobilization Manager @ Hope Street Group

Hope Street Group is seeking a National Mobilization Manager. Big opportunity at an innovative non-profit. This role oversees the National Teacher Fellows program and leads other external work. You can learn more and learn how to apply here (pdf). Note that the deadline is 8/19.

July 27, 2015

New Jersey Pension Battle Continues

*Cross posted from’s blog.

New Jersey teachers are still angry with Governor Chris Christie for shorting the pension fund and are now suing for $4 billion total in damages. While teachers have absolutely every right to be mad with the Governor—who after all, broke his own promise and law—teachers are also severely shortchanged by the pension system itself. Over half (55 percent) of the state’s new teachers won’t meet the minimum 10-year service requirements to qualify for a minimum pension benefit. Even for teachers who do qualify for benefits, these teachers will most likely end up paying more towards the system in contributions plus interest than what they will get back in return, losing money overall.

Christie’s pension commission proposed a fiscally responsible plan that would overhaul the current system and provide better benefits for new early and mid-career teachers. Unfortunately, however, it looks like Christie’s politics may jeopardize the chance for true reform.

Edujob: Founding ED, New Mexico Center For Charter School Excellence

Charter school support organizations are proving to be an important part of charter school quality efforts. New Mexico is launching one and seeking a founding executive director. Great state and a great opportunity for impact. You can learn more about the role and learn how to apply or nominate someone here.

July 24, 2015

Speaking Of Pensions And Politics

While we’re getting ready to head into summer Pensionpalooza here at Eduwonk, this from Matt Levine’s morning finance newsletter about some of the politics:


 Here’s a story about how teachers unions that don’t like Dan Loeb’s charter school advocacy are criticizing him for avoiding taxes using hedge fund reinsurance. The taxes he avoids could be used to pay for public schools, “this unconscionable tax avoidance scheme must end,” etc. One nice (?) thing about the U.S. tax code is that it provides limitless ammunition for personal attacks: If you have a rich (or corporate) enemy, you can pretty much always criticize him, her or it for avoiding taxes. Because everyone is always doing something that reduces his taxes, relative to some other universe where he did different things to increase his taxes. This is sometimes described as a product of tax complexity but it isn’t really; people criticize Warren Buffett because most of his economic earnings come in the form of unrealized capital gains, which is a pretty simple way to avoid taxes. You can pick any arbitrarily simple tax code, and pick any arbitrary rich person, and you will find him doing something to reduce his taxes under that code. And then you can get mad, if you want.

Coming Attractions – Pensions!

I’m going to take a summer break from blogging for a couple of weeks.  Up to a few things including the Pan Mass Challenge, baseball, and fishing!

While I’m gone Leslie Kan and Chad Aldeman of will be posting blog posts here about the teacher pension issue. Although the issue of teacher pensions is frequently presented as some battle between greedy teachers and stingy reformers this political framing misses the real issues and why genuine pension reform is so complicated. In fact, the current approaches work for very few teachers. Only about one in five teachers even earns a full pension. So not exactly “gold-plated” for most. Meanwhile the cost issues are adversely affecting school districts and municipalities. But neither the status quo nor a straight 401(k) style system is an adequate answer. It’s a lot more complicated than that. And that complexity leads to political dodges and means that right now it’s new teachers who are bearing the brunt of the cost of reform in some ways that are not only lousy education policy but lousy retirement policy as well. 40 percent of teachers, yes forty, also don’t participate in Social Security because of state and local policies – that further hampers secure retirement for educators. You can learn more about all of that by following along the next couple of weeks here.