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  • A Quality-Based Look At Seniority-Based Layoffs

    Written on February 4, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    Eliminating seniority-based layoffs is a policy idea that is making the rounds these days, with proponents making special appeals to cash-strapped states and districts desperately looking for ways to save money while minimizing decreases in the quality of services.  Mayors, editorial boards, and others have joined in the chorus.

    There’s a few existing high-quality simulations that compare seniority-based layoffs with one alternative – laying off based on teachers’ value-added scores (most recently, one analysis of Washington State and another using data from New York City; both are worth reading).  Unsurprisingly, the simulations show that the two policies would not lay off the same teachers, and that the seniority-based layoffs would save less money for the same number of dismissals (since the least experienced teachers are paid less).  In addition, the teachers laid off based on seniority have lower average value-added scores than those laid off based on those value-added scores (as would inevitably be the case).

    Based in part on these and other analyses, critics have a pretty solid argument on the surface: Seniority makes us “fire good teachers” simply because they don’t have enough experience, and we can fire fewer teachers if we use “quality” instead of seniority. 

    To be clear: I think that there is a sound case for exploring alternatives to seniority-based layoffs, but many of the recent arguments for so-called “quality-based” layoffs have been so simplistic and reactionary that they may actually serve to deter serious conversations about how to change these practices.

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  • Schools As Battlegrounds

    Written on January 27, 2011

    We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter

    - Letter to Afghani teacher from Taliban insurgents

    These threats, in a letter from Taliban insurgents to an Afghani teacher, are emblematic of the deteriorating situation for teachers and students in many parts of the world. Between March and October 2010, for example, 20 schools in Afghanistan were attacked using explosives or arson, and insurgents killed 126 Afghani students.

    These and other atrocities were documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new "school battleground" report, which was released as part of the organization’s annual human rights survey summarizing conditions in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide.

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  • Meet The Bureaucrats

    Written on January 23, 2011

    You needn’t look far to see that state public employees are under intense scrutiny. Politicians and other commentators are using rhetoric that is simplistic and often misleading. But, in the debate over their relative value, these state workers have an additional problem: I get the strong feeling that most Americans have little idea what they do.

    If you ask the average person to describe what a public employee does, you might hear the word “bureaucrat." Those who wish to dismantle large chunks of the public sector have come to use the term as the pejorative for all public servants (most often in the federal government context) - probably in the hope that it will conjure up images of large government buildings filled with endless rows of faceless, overpaid desk workers collating papers.

    So, who are these state public employees? What are they actually doing? These are very basic questions, yet they are rarely addressed in detail, at least not lately. And, let’s be honest – in one way or another, our tax dollars do pay for these workers’ services, and regardless of your views on state budget troubles, it’s always good to know what you’re paying for. Luckily, of course, the question is easily answered. In the simple table below, using 2009 data from the Occupational Employment Statistics program of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, I present the breakdown of state government workers by occupational category (note: these categories are comprised of varying numbers of similar detailed occupations, and while my examples in the table are the largest, they are not the only ones in each category).

    In order to summarize this table, let’s suppose you’re invited to a party to meet ten people, who are a roughly representative sample of the 4.5 million state employees across the nation. Let’s meet the bureaucrats!

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  • The “Jobless” Recovery: Implications For Education?

    Written on January 21, 2011

    Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

    The headline of the USA Today article reads: “Tense Time for Workers, As Career Paths Fade Away” (January 13, 2011). The article notes that while most key economic indicators have improved over the past two years, the unemployment rate has remained persistently high. This is a jobless recovery.

    Is this a time for pessimism or a time for a reality check?

    This is not the first jobless recovery. The recession of the early 1990s spawned books with titles such as The Jobless Future (1994), A Future of Lousy Jobs (1990), The End of Work (1995), The End of Affluence (1995), and When Work Disappears (1996). Any one of those, and many other, similarly-titled books and articles could speak to today’s labor market crisis. Were these authors prescient or is the creative destruction in the labor market wrought by our relatively unbridled free enterprise system’s speeding up the cycles? I’ll leave that for economists to argue.

    What is new this time around is the effect of the recession on recent college graduates.

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  • No Comment

    Written on January 20, 2011

    Yale University will soon end two prestigious teacher training programs due to lack of interest, according to the January/February alumni magazine.

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  • Policy And Research: A Shotgun Wedding In New Jersey

    Written on January 18, 2011

    Earlier today, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced his plan to open 23 new charter schools in his state.  Just hours before this announcement, the NJ education department issued an analysis of new data on the performance of charter schools in the state (during the 2009-10 school year).   In an accompanying press release, the department claims that “the data affirms [sic] the need for Governor Christie’s reform proposals to grow the number of high-quality charter schools…” 

    The release also contains several other extremely bold assertions that the results support expanding the state’s charter sector.  The title of the actual report, which contains only tables, is: "Living Up to Expectations: Charter Schools in New Jersey Outperforming District Schools."

    Unfortunately, however, the analysis could barely pass muster if submitted by a student in one of the state’s high school math classes (charter or regular public).

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  • Treating Teachers Like Professionals

    Written on January 18, 2011

    I was very interested to see, in a post by my colleague last month, that elementary school teachers were again voted among the top five most “honest and ethical” occupations in America, by respondents to a November 2010 Gallup Poll

    According to Gallup, 67 percent of respondents rated the honesty/ethics of teachers as “high/very high," 24 percent rated it “average," and 6 percent rated it as “low/very low” (the error margin is +/- 4 percentage points). Only nurses, military officers, and pharmacists ranked higher (with doctors, who ranked 5th, in a statistical tie with teachers).

    I found this interesting because it contradicts a key underlying feature of much of our public education debate. I’ve heard many thousands of teachers speaking out against the market-based reforms that are currently in vogue among opinion leaders, and seen them effectively ignored. I’ve heard everyone from Oprah to big-city superintendents to major television networks tout "Waiting for Superman" — a movie that supposedly focuses on teacher quality as the key to improving education, yet fails to interview even a single teacher. I’ve read hundreds of articles and posts that imply (and sometimes state directly) that teachers who oppose a favored policy do so because they "fear accountability," or that they are more interested in their compensation and job security than in the children they teach. 

    Many teachers call this type of behavior "teacher hating" or a "war on teachers." In my view, however, the fundamental issue here is trust. And the public’s continued faith in teachers does not seem to be shared by many of today’s pundits and policymakers. These same people say frequently that they want to "treat teachers like professionals," but there's a lot more to that than personnel policies.

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  • PISA For Our Time: A Balanced Look

    Written on January 10, 2011

    Press coverage of the latest PISA results over the past two months has almost been enough to make one want to crawl under the bed and hide. Over and over, we’ve been told that this is a “Sputnik moment," that the U.S. among the lowest performing nations in the world, and that we’re getting worse.

    Thankfully, these claims are largely misleading. Insofar as we’re sure to hear them repeated often over the next few years—at least until the next set of international results come in — it makes sense to try to correct the record (also see here and here).

    But, first, I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better. Nevertheless, international comparisons of any kind are very difficult, and if we don’t pay careful attention to what the data are really telling us, it will be more difficult to figure out how to respond appropriately.

    This brings me to three basic points about the 2009 PISA results that we need to bear in mind.

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  • Death Of A Teacher Union Icon

    Written on January 4, 2011

    The New Year brings sad word of the passing of Szeto Wah, celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teacher union leader. He died on January 2 at the age of 79.

    Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong, and known by millions as "Uncle Wah," Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He was also a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004, and was the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement in Mainland China, which organized yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

    While condolences flow in from all over the world, the political question of the day in Hong Kong is whether or not the Chinese authorities will allow exiled democracy activists back into Hong Kong to attend Szeto’s funeral. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen Square democracy leaders, said that, for him, the loss is personal: "Uncle Wah has always been my personal mentor and a leader in the democratic movement. The greatest achievement he has made has been to pass on his beliefs before he left us. The younger generation now remembers June 4," he said.

    We at the Shanker Institute also feel this as a personal loss. We met Szeto in 2002, when he travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver the Institute’s Albert Shanker Lecture. In it, he credited Al Shanker with helping to shape his political and organizational perspective:

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  • The Year In Research On Market-Based Education Reform

    Written on January 4, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    Race to the Top and Waiting for Superman made 2010 a banner year for the market-based education reforms that dominate our national discourse. By contrast, a look at the “year in research” presents a rather different picture for the three pillars of this paradigm: merit pay, charter schools, and using value-added estimates in high-stakes decisions.

    There will always be exceptions (especially given the sheer volume of reports generated by think tanks, academics, and other players), and one year does not a body of research make.  But a quick review of high-quality studies from independent, reputable researchers shows that 2010 was not a particularly good year for these policies.

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