Monthly Archives: January 2006

The new frontier for education reform?

This story is from another era by blog standards–almost a year ago–but I’ve been curious to see more discussion about it. Peter Orszag pointed me to this a while ago, from star economist Roland Fryer ($):

His most ambitious project, which grew out of his belief in the power of environment, is an experiment designed to see if incentives can inspire minority students to improve their grades. For all the talk about education reform, Fryer says, he feels that one party is being overlooked: the students themselves. ”I’m troubled by the fact we’re treating kids as inanimate objects,” he says. ”They have behavior, too. They respond to incentives, too.”

Fryer recently ran a pilot experiment with third graders at P.S. 70 in the Bronx. If a child achieved a certain score on her reading test or improved by a certain percentage, she got a small prize.….

[Joel] Klein asked Fryer if he might be interested in expanding his incentive experiment into 15 or so low-achieving schools. At P.S. 70, the rewards had been pizza parties or field trips. This time around, Fryer planned to give cash — $10 per good test for third graders and $20 for seventh graders.

Isn’t Fryer right about the logic of education reform? We say our public schools should incorporate incentives for excellence, much as other institutions do. NCLB has created more incentives for schools to perform. Eduwonk and others are working hard to create more incentives for teachers to perform. So isn’t this the next step–incentives for kids to perform?

The usual approach is high-stakes tests. But isn’t it also true that the prospect of being left back doesn’t provide much incentive for kids who (a) are too young to grasp all the consequences of being held back or (b) aren’t expecting to graduate in the first place? Pizza parties, gift cards, and cash could reach many more kids–and with smaller social costs than retention.

The article describes Fryer’s effort to answer questions from principals.

Fryer addressed each issue as best he could. But one question kept coming back at him: if we start paying students to test well, aren’t we sending the message that learning is not its own reward?

Playing the piano eventually becomes its own reward, but countless parents have used every kind of bribe to encourage their kids to practice more. Nothing wrong with that: The kids don’t need to love piano while they’re kids; they just need to learn it so they can love it when the time comes. And reading, unlike piano, is something kids need to learn whether they ever love it or not.

Will be very interesting to see what comes of this.


Federalism Footnote

Not to beat a dead horse, but Eduwonk recently blogged on this story about the new federal program to give added funding to students who complete “rigorous” high school programs. The article contains the requisite expressions of concern, both scholarly (“national school board”) and, well, less scholarly (“just the precursor for a new federal invasion”).

Truth be told, there is little reason to expect the current Department of Education to do especially well defining rigor. And there is plenty of reason to worry that a federal definition will be applied inconsistently across 50 different states with 50 different standards and tests. The solution for both problems is to establish an independent body charged with working this out (plenty of groups already live and breathe this stuff) and establishing standards and tests for everyone.

There is nothing wrong with the federal government encouraging kids to take rigorous classes. It’s a good idea. Implementing this idea will be a lot easier with national standards, which is one more reason to do it.

The radical, sensible, vital (?) center

Alone among major domestic policy subjects, education boasts a broad, aggressive center. Not the wan, split-the-difference kind, but the bold yet practical kind. In Washington, Education Sector may be near the center of that center, but support for key elements radiates left and right.

All good. The problem is that among Washington politicians, we seem to be seeing more polarization rather than less. Most Democrats voted for NCLB, but nowadays many complain about it–not just in the details but at the core. George Bush signed NCLB, but his successor may well ditch it.

What will it take for the smart center of education policy to prevail? Here are four things that would help–none necessary, none sufficient, but each helpful:

1. The country’s conservative leadership could stop spending tens of billions on special-interest giveaways and start spending more on education instead. This is not just a liberal talking point. Substantively, teachers’ base salaries just aren’t high enough to institute performance pay by cutting them; most regular public schools just aren’t rich enough to better fund charters out of their budgets. Politically, pragmatic progressives need a partner on the other side; otherwise, when they try to bring along their own people, they are said to sound “quaint.”

2. While it would be nice if conservatives recommitted to their own best principles, progressives can’t wait. That means progressive constituencies need to put education back on the agenda. If Wall Street Democrats pushed for moderation on education the way they do on trade, or if civil rights groups demanded action on the achievement gap the way they do on affirmative action, the Democratic Party would begin to see education very differently. Ditto if the progressive “netroots” recognized that sometimes the best evidence of the courage and principle they claim to want is disagreeing with liberal orthodoxy.

3. Dedicated educators have to continue putting points on the board, with more easy-to-understand, real-world successes that prove reform can matter. Stories like this and this will do far more to advance the cause than anything Washington wonks write.

4. Most everybody in the Eduworld could tone it down. I was sad when I visited the AFT’s new blog and found a post critiquing national standards under the alternative titles of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “slouching towards gomorrah.” This is not how the center will hold. And the reform types–me included–need to tone it down too. We could speak less harshly and question personal motives less quickly. From a great post on a progressive site: “the most powerful voices of change in the country, from Lincoln to King, have been those who can speak with the utmost conviction about the great issues of the day without ever belittling those who opposed them, and without denying the limits of their own perspectives.”

Easy enough, yes?


Can America Reform Teacher Pay?

Sweden did: ($$):

In Sweden the fixed pay scheme for teachers was abolished in the mid-1990s as part of an agreement designed to enhance local autonomy and flexibility in the school system. The government committed itself to substantially raise teacher salaries over a five-year period, but on the condition that not all teachers received the same increase. There is accordingly no fixed upper limit and only a minimum basic salary is centrally negotiated, along with the aggregate rise in the teacher salary bill. Salaries are negotiated when a teacher is hired and teacher and employer agree on the salary to be paid upon commencement of the term of employment. Teachers’ work roles and performance are considered in the negotiation and linked to the pay. There is now much greater variety in teachers’ pay, with those in areas of shortage and with higher demonstrated performance able to negotiate more.

It may seem strange that a social democracy so willing to limit economic freedom would embrace market-oriented reform of teacher pay. But according to this, Swedish policymakers concluded that “an expansion and improved quality of social services could not be accomplished without improving the efficiency in the public sector.” And the unions agreed, “in order to improve salaries and working conditions.”

Too often in America, we are forced to choose between destroying the public sector and preserving its every bad feature. But this guy was on to something. There is, well, a third way. And it’s a little sad when Sweden is working harder to find it than we are.


[Thanks to my colleague Cindy Brown for the Sweden tip.]

Vouchers Tax Credits in New York

Many on the left have long argued that the school voucher movement would sap money from public schools and destroy public education. Many on the right have long argued that public support for private schools is the last best hope for poor children trapped in poor schools.

From New York, news of a third possibility: public support for private schools will be a costly tax goodie for middle-class swing voters.

Gov. George E. Pataki’s proposal to give some parents a $500 tax credit that could be used to pay for private or parochial school tuition is drawing some unexpected support in the Democratic-led State Assembly….

The backing is coming from some legislators from New York City who say that they are tired of waiting for Mr. Pataki to increase aid to schools and say that they see the tax-credit plan as a way to help parents frustrated with the quality of their children’s education….

Some Democrats denounce the proposal, which has come under fierce attack from teachers unions, as a stealth voucher system that would encourage parents to remove their children from public schools. And they question why they should authorize a $400 million program that could help private schools while the governor has not spent more money on public education to comply with a court order that found that the state had shortchanged schoolchildren in New York City.

Five hundred dollars is not going to do much to help parents get their kids into private schools. According to NCES, in 1999-2000, the typical parochial school nationwide cost $3,236 (surely more in New York); the typical nonsectarian school, $10,992. So that tax break will cover six weeks of school, tops.

Nor is the $500 targeted to the parents who really need it. Although the credit is refundable, the program does not fully phase out until $90,000–far from rich in NYC, but still nearly twice the city’s median family income.

If your goal was to kill the public schools, you wouldn’t do this. If your goal was to help poor children, you wouldn’t do this. If your goal was to show that you and your party care about swing voters in the outer boroughs and upstate … now we’re talking!


The Hobgoblin of Little Wonks?

Thanks to Eduwonk for lending me this space. He really knows everything–even Rockabilly. And it was kind of him to confuse me with this Robert Gordon rather than this one or this one. I am less talented than them all, except maybe as an Eduhack.

Eduwonk has said some not-so-nice things about the progressive critique of NCLB in the name of local control. I agree with him, but I also agree with the progressive critique of George Bush’s efforts to override state prerogatives on other issues—the right to die, marriage, and, generally, tort law. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Maybe it is too much to expect consistency over federalism. But it would be nice if there were a principled way through the thicket.

Maybe there is. To follow up on a post the other day: National standards are a very good idea, even though federalizing the right to die is not.

  • State control makes some sense when different states doing different things will teach us something useful. Oregon can show us whether, for example, a right-to-die statute will inevitably create terrible pressures on sick people. But the 50-state, 50-standard regime under NCLB discourages learning by making it more difficult to compare students across state lines. National standards teach us more than federalism.
  • State control makes some sense when state laws reflect local values. If most Oregonians believe in euthanasia, that’s an argument for letting them have euthanasia–without imposing the same law in Alabama. But it is hard to imagine that different state education standards reflect different attitudes toward education. Diane Ravitch says that five states have aligned their standards with NAEP’s challenging ones: South Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Wyoming, and Massachusetts. A nickel for anyone who can find what unites those states, except that their names begin with letters sort of late in the alphabet.
  • State control makes some sense when competition among states will drive them to do better. This is not a factor on values issues. It seems to be an argument against national tort reform (presumably states have plenty of incentives not to drive their own doctors out of business). But on national standards, this factor points the wrong way: NCLB’s content-free demand for “proficiency” encourages states to define proficiency down.
  • State control makes some sense when, well, the issue’s just not that big a deal. It is hard to get too worked up if different states want different standards for barbershop licensure. The values issues are a big deal, but we don’t have national consensus on them. Education is clearly a big deal, and we are much closer to a national consensus. That is true at a policy level: globalized economy, flat earth, what you earn depends on what you learn, yadda. No one seriously doubts that that reading and math are now essential to successful American citizenship. And it is also true at the deeper level of constitutional values, from Reconstruction through Brown to the present, as Goodwin Liu powerfully argues in a forthcoming article.

The opposition to national standards seems to me to be driven by two thoughts. One is wild suspicion of the federal government. And it is true that the feds, unlike any state, can ruin standards for everyone. But if we actually had national standards, the stakes would be high, public scrutiny intense, an opt-out for states available, and control over standards given to an independent body that even the current administration would have difficulty screwing up.

The second basis for opposing national standards is that people want local control. They’re afraid of a “national school board.” But it’s not as though the local school board chooses standards and tests. Some state entity does. If you want local control, your beef is with the entire standards and accountability movement, not with national standards.

And here’s where we might address Eduwonk’s correct concern about the politics. If people want more local control, we should find ways to give it to them. That doesn’t mean keeping the definition of standards in an out-of-touch state capital rather than an out-of-touch national capital. It means … well, that’s a longer conversation. More public choices for parents about where to send their kids? More control for community members over the structures of their schools? More control over hiring and firing of school personnel?

There has to be grand bargain in there somewhere.

–Robert Gordon

Unserious Ideas from Ann Quindlen

Anna Quindlen wrote this column a few months ago about the new Frank McCourt book, Teacher Man (see fellow guest-blogger Sara Mead’s take on the book here). It’s worth reading, in that it stands as a kind of monument to the wooly-minded thinking on teacher issues that passes for conventional wisdom in many circles today.

Quindlen begins by asserting that “Teaching’s the hardest job there is.” This she knows because she tried it once, for half a day, and found it to be really hard. Where teaching might end up on the hard-job hierarchy if Quindlen were to spend a morning trying to be an airline pilot, heart surgeon, auto mechanic, certified public accountant, or any other job requiring skill, experience, and training that she lacks, we are left to wonder.

She notes that teacher turnover in the early years is significant, and assures us that “If any business had that rate of turnover, someone would do something smart and strategic to fix it.” Of course, lots of businesses actually do have that rate of turnover or higher–but never mind. Because instead of fixing this problem by instituting a blanket pay raise, “pols have wasted decades obsessing about something called merit pay.” In fact, the number of pols who obsess about paying our best teachers higher salaries is surpassingly small–would that it were otherwise.

Merit pay is “a concept that works fine if you’re making widgets, but kids aren’t widgets,” she says. It’s also a concept that appear to work splendidly if you’re making best-selling novels and columns in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines.

Quindlen identifies Frank McCourt as an unusually good teacher, and offers some examples that seem to demonstrate this conclusively, before proceeding to explain at some length why merit pay can never work, because it’s impossible to identify unusually good teachers, or demonstrate their value conclusively.

Because while Anna Quindlen may see the what is right and good in fine teachers like Frank McCourt, we apparantly cannot build a school system that relies on teachers with McCourt’s virtue or principals with Quindlen’s keen judgment. To her, McCourt’s creative teaching is obvious, but “you can easily imagine the principal…who would find it unseemly.” On the other
hand, “tying raises to pass rates is a flagrant invitation to inflate student achievement.” Teachers, it seems, just can’t be trusted to act with integrity, and it’s not fair to them to expect otherwise.

She then turns to the NEA’s cynically unserious proposal to create a national minimum salary of $40,000 for all teachers. “Why not?” she aks. “surely we can do the math to get them a decent wage,” preferably through “a tax on corporate profits.” The price tag on that proposal is tens of billions of dollars in year one and skyward from there, but hey, the corporations don’t need it, they’re just using it to create huge mountains of money on which fat-cat executives can go sledding, Scrooge McDuck-style. If only more Americans had the conscience of Anna Quindlen, if only more people cared like she does, we would have long ago grown a money tree that could painlessly solve problems such as these.

Finally she returns to McCourt, who at the end of his story “is preparing to leave teaching with the idea of living off his pension and maybe writing…” A lifetime spent as a remarkable teacher in an urban school system, and only a modest teacher’s pension to show for it. We can all agree that’s just not good enough. How, then, to solve this problem? Seek out the Frank McCourts
of the world, recognize their achievement, and give them the reward they deserve? Or wait to find money that does not exist to pay all the teachers who lack Frank McCourt’s dedication, talent, and success the same amount of money as he? To Anna Quindlen, the answer could not be more clear.

– Kevin Carey

Roethlisberger 1, Elway 0

Of course, we can all agree that this could have been handled better. In an “ethnicity” class, no less? That said, we are talking about western Pennsylvania two days before the AFC championship game. The dictionary defines “ethnic” as “Of or relating to a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.” I have family from that area and Steelers fandom seems pretty close to a defined ethnicity to me….

– Kevin Carey

Programming Note

Eduwonk’s off for a few days of R and R. But you are in great hands. On Thursday and Friday Robert Gordon no this Robert Gordon of CAP will be here to entertain and enlighten you. Recall that he took a break from his march to the Supreme Court to write this provocative and important article and he’s doing some other interesting eduwork.

On Wednesday Education Sector’s Mead and Carey may drop in to warm up for their new blog, — working title “The Duece” — which will debut next month.

Back Monday.

Clint’s Coming

Ed Week’s Hoff has more info on the preparations as Clint Bolick is loading his pro-voucher ships to sail for and lay siege to the NEA Troy in what could be an epic edubattle. Background here. Stay tuned.