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  • Straight Up, Between The Lines

    by Eugenia Kemble on April 12, 2011

    Read carefully between the lines in Rick Hess’ recent blog post, “Can the Common Core Coalition Keeps [sic] Its Finlandophiles in Check?"

    Predicting a “fifty-fifty chance that the Common Core effort will dissolve into an ideological clash," Hess writes that in “one short document, the Shankerites managed to do much to undermine the loose confederation that had supported the Common Core." He also lumps a broad spectrum of signatories into one supposedly errant educational faction. People such as former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Reagan appointee Checker Finn, George H.W. Bush appointee Charlie Kolb, George W. Bush appointee Susan B. Neuman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, and the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kate Walsh — all are labeled as being “a slew of left-leaning academics and consultants, dotted with my pal Checker Finn and a few long-retired Republican governors”—and the whole crew is charged with being “Finlandophiles." God forbid.

    What’s going on here? What have we wrought with the Albert Shanker Institute’s "A Call for Common Content?"

    I think Hess is doing more than cooking up a soup of crocodile tears and polemics. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the direction that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will take education in this country, but he's not willing to take a clear position either way. Given his dilemma, attacking a sound strategy for implementing the standards seems like little more than undermining them without the political risk of having to register a truly “straight up” objection. And this is not the first time he has attempted to evoke tensions among potential supporters of the Common Core standards. I cannot help but suspect that he has made up his mind, but can't quite bring himself to say so.

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  • What Democracy Looks Like When We Actually Show Up

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 7, 2011

    As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.

    No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.

    Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.

    But, as always, we should put this figure in context.

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  • The Elephant In The Classroom

    by Esther Quintero on April 5, 2011

    The current education debate seems to have developed a laser-like focus on teaching. In response, some have offered serious commentary; others have resorted to humor; many others have expressed outrage at the seeming myopia.

    Since common sense is said to be the least common of senses and a picture is worth a thousand words, here are my 1350 words—1000 of them in illustrations.

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  • Are Teachers Driving The Public/Private Sector Earnings Gap?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on April 4, 2011

    A great deal of the debate surrounding public sector unions focus on how much public employees earn versus private workers. Every credible analysis – those that account for huge differences between public and private workers in terms of characteristics like profession, education, and experience – find that public compensation is competitive or lower than that of private-sector workers (for recent examples, see here, here, and here, or a review here).

    I have, however, heard a few thoughtful observers make the point that virtually all these analyses include education workers, and that this might be a little misleading. It’s a fair point. Roughly one in five state/local government employees are in fact K-12 teachers, while another five percent are professors at public colleges and universities. This is important because analyses of public/private sector compensation essentially compare public employees with workers with similar characteristics (education being the most important one) in the private sector. The research above indicates that workers with more education pay a larger “price” for working in the public sector, whereas many lesser credentialed, lower-skilled government jobs actually pay more. Since many teachers have master’s degrees (and professors Ph.D.’s), and they are such a huge group, it’s reasonable to wonder if they might be skewing the overall estimates.

    So, I decided to see if a comparison of public/private compensation that does not include teachers and professors would yield very different results. Let’s take a look.

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  • College For All, Profit For Some

    by Esther Quintero on March 30, 2011

    The ideal of "College for All”—usually interpreted as meaning the acquisition of a four-year degree—is every bit as noble as it is unattainable, at least judging from actual graduation rates. It is within this tension that for-profit colleges wish to live—a kind of pseudo knight in shining armor riding gallantly into the battle for equal opportunity. But too many for-profit colleges (a.k.a., career colleges) are not solving educational issues. Rather, they are perpetuating inequalities and obscuring the fact that what is preached (e.g., “College for All”) has nothing to do with what gets achieved.

    Many have pointed out that, by enshrining a path so few end up traveling (to say nothing of completing), we may be doing a great disservice to our youth. This argument is loud and clear; what may not be totally obvious is the variegated ways in which this constitutes a disservice. By idealizing the B.A./B.S. path, not only are we discouraging young people from exploring equally valid post high-school options, but we inadvertently may have also made them more vulnerable to the allure of disreputable for-profit colleges and/or encouraged for-profits to exploit this vulnerability.

    As a matter of fact, one consequence (unintended, I am sure) of the “College for All” ideal may have been to widen the niche for for-profit career colleges. I am hardly the first to point out that the worst career colleges sell fake dreams by arm-twisting and sweet-talking potential students into taking out unsustainable—often federally-subsidized—loans for products of uncertain value. For-profit colleges did not create this dream. We did. They have only done what we would expect a for-profit entity to do: Exploit it.

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  • Teacher Quality Is Not A Policy

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 29, 2011

    I often hear the following argument: Improving teacher quality is more cost-effective than other options, such as reducing class size (see here, for example). I am all for evaluating policy alternatives based on their costs relative to their benefits, even though we tend to define the benefits side of the equation very narrowly - in terms of test score gains.

    But “improving teacher quality” cannot yet be included in a concrete costs/benefits comparison with class size or anything else. It is not an actual policy. At best, it is a category of policy options, all of which are focused on recruitment, preparation, retention, improvement, and dismissal of teachers. When people invoke it, they are presumably referring to the fact that teachers vary widely in their test-based effectiveness. Yes, teachers matter, but altering the quality distribution is whole different ballgame from measuring it overall. It’s actually a whole different sport.

    I think it is reasonable to speculate that we might get more bang for our buck if we could somehow get substantially better teachers, rather than more of them, as would be necessary to reduce class sizes. But the sad, often unstated truth about teacher quality is that there is very little evidence, at least as yet, that public policy can be used to improve it, whether cost-effectively or otherwise

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  • Among Charter Schools, Inconsistency Begets Opportunity

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 23, 2011

    Andrew Rotherham – who writes the blog "Eduwonk" – has also recently started writing a weekly column for Time Magazine. Most of his articles have been interesting and relatively fair, even on the controversial issues. He has a point of view, just like the rest of us, but usually makes a good-faith effort to present alternate viewpoints and the relevant research.

    His most recent piece was a partial disappointment. In it, Rotherham takes up the issue of charter schools. His overarching argument is that too many people focus on whether or not charter schools are “better” or “worse” than regular public schools, rather than why – which policies and practices are associated with success or failure.

    As I stated in my very first post on this blog (and others), I completely agree. Given the overt politicization of the charter school discussion, the public desperately needs a move away from the pro/anti-charter framework, towards a more useful conversation about how and why particular schools do or don’t work. Their inconsistent performance has caused controversy, but it also an opportunity.

    But, when Rotherham lays out the characteristics (“ethos and operations”) that these successful charters supposedly share, the factors he specifies are vague and unsubstantiated – it’s hard to figure what they mean, to say nothing of whether they actually have the stated effect.

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  • Settling Scores

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 21, 2011

    In 2007, when the D.C. City Council passed a law giving the mayor control of public schools, it required that a five-year independent evaluation be conducted to document the law’s effects and suggest changes. The National Research Council (a division of the National Academies) was charged with performing this task. As reported by Bill Turque in the Washington Post, the first report was released a couple of weeks ago.

    The primary purpose of this first report was to give “first impressions” and offer advice on how the actual evaluation should proceed. It covered several areas – finance, special programs, organizational structure, etc. – but, given the controversy surrounding Michelle Rhee’s tenure, the section on achievement results got the most attention. The team was only able to analyze preliminary performance data; the same data that are used constantly by Rhee, her supporters, and her detractors to judge her tenure at the helm of DCPS.

    It was one of those reports that tells us what we should already know, but too often fail to consider.

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  • Egypt: Workers Urged To Reject Constitutional Amendments In March 19 Referendum

    by Heba F. El-Shazli on March 18, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt’s fledgling independent unions have urged members to reject proposed constitutional amendments that are up for a referendum vote on March 19 and to demand a "new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt." In a statement released March 17, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), and the newly established Independent Trade Union Federation in Egypt, called the referendum a "constitutional patching"  

    The unions noted that the proposed amendments, which introduce term limits to the presidency and guarantee judicial supervision of elections, are identical to reforms proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. They argued that the current constitution has no legitimacy, which, after the January 25th Revolution, resides in the Egyptian people.

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  • In Performance Evaluations, Subjectivity Is Not Random

    by Esther Quintero on March 18, 2011

    Employment policies associated with unions – e.g., seniority, salary schedules – are frequently criticized for not placing the highest premium on performance. Detractors also argue that such policies, originally designed to protect workers against discrimination (by gender, race, etc.), are no longer necessary now that federal laws are in place. Accordingly, those seeking to limit collective bargaining among teachers have proposed that current policies be replaced by “performance-based” evaluations – or at least a system that would make it easier to reward and punish based on performance.

    Be careful, argues Samuel A. Culbert in a recent New York Times article, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You." Culbert warns that there are serious risks to deregulating the employment relationship, and leaving it even partially in the hands of the employer and his/her performance review:

    Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance ... is subjective.
    This viewpoint may sound obvious, but social science research reminds us that the whims of subjective human judgment are not random. The inefficiencies that Culbert mentions are inevitable, but so is the fact that bias tends to operate in a manner that disproportionately affects workers from traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as women and African Americans. What’s worse – it’s just as likely to occur within as between groups, and we often do it without realizing.
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