The first few weeks of 2013 have greeted us like a trip with old Marley revisiting school reforms of the past. In the very first weeks, we have Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst lobby announce letter grades for states based on their adherence to her favorite pillars of reform policies. John Merrow provided us with a reprise of her greatest hits as the head of DC schools, along with some news regarding the cheating that accompanied her regime.
And next the Gates Foundation has provided us with another example of the perils of mixing research with advocacy. Their multi-year, multi-million dollar Measures of Effective Teaching project has once again supported their belief that we can predict which teachers will get the best test scores next year by looking at who got the best test scores this year. The practice of actually observing a teacher to see how "effective" they are does not apparently add much accuracy to the prediction, but they keep it in there nonetheless, perhaps for sentimental reasons. Then we have tossed in a new element - student surveys. And the perfect evaluation is some balanced mixture of these three elements, which will turn VAM lead into gold.
One reformer, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation, has come right out and admitted what public school advocates have contended from the start. Many charter schools filter out difficult students, and whatever competitive performance advantages they have demonstrated are not credible evidence that they can do more with less. They can do more with more - and with fewer of the students most damaged by the scourge of poverty. Of course, Mr. Petrilli believes this ought to be celebrated, because like the Makers of Romneyan mythology, these students are "strivers," who ought to be well-served. The laggards they leave behind are of little concern. This is a frightening educational philosophy that runs counter to the main reform narrative, which has called upon civil rights rhetoric to justify school closures and charter expansion. But how can we reconcile an ethic supposedly based on equitable opportunities for all with a bare-knuckle life boat strategy that leaves many students behind to sink in under-funded public schools?
But alongside these visits from the ghosts of reforms past, we have some auspicious evidence that there may be a different future ahead.
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Michelle Rhee gained notoriety as the chancellor of DC's public schools under Adrian Fenty's administration from 2007 to 2011. Her conduct in this position was one of the main reasons he was not re-elected. Among other things, she publicly took pleasure in firing large numbers of teachers and administrators. Incredibly, she also claims not to have realized that high stake testing would provide incentives for teachers or administrators to cheat on the scoring of exams.
Since she left the DC school system she started a new organization, StudentsFirst, which was created to push for the sort of changes to the school system she sought to implement as chancellor. The organization received considerable media attention for a report card it issued on the public school systems in the 50 states earlier this week. While most of the items on the report card were part of an educational agenda of questionable merit (see Diana Ravitch's blog for specific critiques), one item had nothing to do with education whatsoever.
Rhee's report card gave schools a failing grade if teachers received a defined benefit pension (worse if it was backloaded). The school system gets an "A" in this category if teachers only had a 401(k) typed defined contribution plan or a cash balance account.
Pensions are now and have historically been an important part of teachers' compensations. Teachers, like most public sector employees, are paid less in wages than workers in the private sector with comparable education and experience. They make up much of this gap with a better benefit package, including better pension benefits, than workers in the private sector receive.
Given this reality, it is difficult to see how students are helped if a school system replaces a defined benefit pension that guarantees teachers a specific level of income after they retire, with a defined contribution plan, where retirement income will depend on the teachers' investment success and the timing of the market. Since state governments don't have to care about the timing of market swings, only overall averages, assuming timing and investment risk is an important benefit that governments can provide their workers at essential zero cost. A defined benefit pension will make a job more attractive to workers than if the state gave teachers the same amount of money in the form of a contribution to a 401(k) account.
In short, Rhee's report card means that states get credit for making their teachers more financially insecure without saving the government a penny. This position might coincide with a business agenda to eliminate defined benefit pensions, but it is very difficult to see how it will improve our children's education.