Thursday, December 8, 2011

the kids of saint augustine and saint bernardus

Once upon a time there were two small towns, Saint Augustine and Saint Bernardus. The children of both towns went to the same school.

The citizens of these towns decided to get together and figure out how well their students were doing in school, since this seemed to be all the rage in other towns at the time. So the people adopted a test that their state government had created to see how well kids were learning. They administered the test and were surprised to find out that Saint Augustine kids did significantly worse than Saint Bernardus kids. When averaged together the two town's kids did worse than the average in the state, with Saint Bernardus doing better than the state average and Saint Augustine doing much worse.

Word of the overall result being below state average got back to state officials who soon showed up and had a meeting with the mayors of both towns.

'The school', said the state officials, 'would have to be closed down.' It was state policy that schools that scored below average were disbanded and the students sent to other schools, he further clarified.

The mayor of Saint Bernardus spoke up, 'but our town's children are doing better than the state average', he objected.

'Dont play games with numbers with me, it's the school we rate, not towns', was the response.

Next the mayor of Saint Augustine spoke up. 'I do some statistics as a hobby on the side and I took a closer look at our test results and noticed that many of our kids missed all the same questions. I got a copy of the test and noticed that these were questions that required identifying a color as part of the solution.'

'So?' asked a state representative with a hint of disdainful boredom.

'Well, half of the kids in our town are color-blind', responded the Saint Augustine mayor. 'None in Saint Bernardus are.'

'I'm afraid I can't help that', stumbled the state official, suddenly nervously pulling at his collar. 'The policy is to use the overall numbers. People are not interested in studying every school in detail to decide whether you are making excuses or whether there may in fact not be a reason our tests don't accurately reflect the quality of your learning environment. That would cost money you know!'

With that the state officials hurriedly stood up, left the room and drove out of town.

The school was closed the following month.

The state official gave a toast at the state-sponsored annual school reform extravaganza, praising the virtues of his own department, using as an example how he and his colleagues brought improved education to the children of Saint Augustine and Saint Bernardus.

Friday, August 19, 2011

a PISA what?

A study attempting to characterize the level of student achievement by country was released recently. It also concludes that continued lagging in math performance could have a negative impact on the future of our GDP. Although the report does not attempt to prescribe policy to address the issue, some concerns did arise for me regarding the methodology.

This study required a mapping of NAEP scores to PISA scores. Both tests are only representational (not taken by all students). One test was given to a subset of students while they were in 8th grade, the other was given to a different set of students (from the same graduating class) while they were in 10th grade. A couple points to make about that: first off, the difference in proficiency between the 8th and 10th grade can be enormous, even for the same kids, let alone from different representational samples. Second, about 30% of kids entering high school dont graduate with their peers. About a third of those (ie 10% overall, drop out before 10th grade). In theory that should have a positive impact on 10th grade scores, however, the flip side is that two-thirds of students who will eventually drop out are still there to be tested in 10th grade. It seems clear that would have a net depressant effect on scores. That of course does not mean that those dropouts dont exist as part of our student demographic, but the point is that even if they have some skills, the attitude associated with dropping out will likely lead them to underachieve on any test, which would misrepresent actual skill.
I also find it concerning that there is an statement in the report that 'even the richest' states dont do well, and some examples of the 'richest' are New York, California and Florida. These states have some of the highest levels of minority and poverty concentrations around and have increasing charter populations, which is leading to increased segregation and poverty/minority concentrations. The report also uses white scores as a way to try to dispel the claim that some US subgroups score well. Despite the fact that whites are correlated to high income in many areas, there are many others where the exact opposite is true. I question why the Asian subgroup was not examined and I question why the word 'poverty' does not even show up once in this report or why that metric was not addressed instead of the racial one.
Regardless, the report is descriptive more than prescriptive, so at least it is trying to identify the cost associated with some reality. Many of these same scholars have written studies that blame virtually all of this on teachers. I think it would be interesting to have a study of the impact of poverty on our education system, and perhaps thus our GDP. Having a good grasp of the input to our education system is necessary if we are going to try to assess why the output of that system is not as we would like.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


This morning, after standing in a nervous line of 20 people at Peet's coffee, I was finally summoned to the register. The lady taking my order was a barrista who had come over from her espresso station to help bring the line down more quickly. I ordered my usual: a large latte. Her response was, 'what kind of milk? Whole? Lowfat? Non-fat? Soy? ...'
It seemed like she might have gone on for a few minutes, so in the short pause after 'Soy?'--and because I like playing games with confusing cultural norms--I interjected, 'Normal.' She smiled knowingly and looked down to the register to key in the decision.
Not being able to leave it alone, I tested, 'That still means whole, right?'
'It does to me,' was her response.
'So, I'm waiting for the day when that will no longer be the case. How long do you think that will take?', I pressed.
'Well, technically...', she started with a hint of disdain, looking over her shoulder like an undercover agent trying to avoid having her cover blown.
'No way!' I waved my head in disbelief. 'So, technically, normal means lowfat now?'
'HA!' she snorted, 'Non-fat!' She leaned forward to get the words to me just that tiny bit more quickly.
'Can you believe that?', she asked, 'I mean, non-fat..., that's just..., well, gross!'
'No kidding, you might as well be adding water.'
'You know, its all about the calories now. People want fewer calories and I guess don't care so much about taste,' she explained, trying to make some sense of the world.
'Yeah, but still...,' I trailed off. 'So do people even order non-fat though?', I queried naively.
'Oh yeah!, she stated, closing her eyes and pursing her lips while nodding in a diagonal direction.
'But not more than lowfat..?', I stammered, hoping I had heard the extent of the shocking news.
'OH YEAH!', she gurgled emphatically in a voiced glottal fricative.
'Yikes!', I laughed, 'You know, I guess the world really is a crazy place, eh?'
'No kidding,' she laughed even more loudly, turning to go back to her battle station.
I went and stood by the wall to wait for my latte. She was making drinks, calling people by name, then at one point simply raised her eyes, looked straight at me and pointed to the counter that my coffee was ready. I walked over and picked up the cup. 'There you go, non-fat latte,' she chortled.
'With extra water?' I giggled.
She laughed, then stopped her milk spoon mid-air for a second and leaned forward and said, 'Did you know some people order with powdered milk?!'
'Ew, do you even have that?', I walked away guffawing, not waiting for an answer.
She smiled and settled back into her work.
I walked out the door; the sun glistening off my teeth laid bare by an ear to ear grin.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

my downgrade reaction

Although I am not an expert in international economics (or anything else for that matter), I do have some thoughts related to the downgrade. my initial reaction was three-fold: 'HOLY SH*T', 'meh, who cares' and 'maybe this is actually good'. The first is mostly as a result of the fear of how people (ie investors) will react to this come monday morning and the impact it will have on world markets. Many have said this was inevitable and even should have happened months ago, so perhaps its already priced into the market. The past weeks' performance may have been the 'final adjustment'. Regardless there will surely be some panic. But its questionable where the money would flow, so we'll see whether the reaction is really all that bad.

The second reaction is a reflection of the fact that these rating agencies were a primary factor in creating the environment for the recession. And when they had the chance, they got that completely wrong. Maybe we should re-think their role in our system. Our yields are near record lows, which of course means people are clamoring head over heels to lend to us. If you want to believe something, believe the market, not the guys who tell you what the market should be. One of the interesting things about this downgrade was the admission that this might require a 'readjustment' to other countries' ratings in order to keep the proper relation between them. In other words, although we may not deserve the safest rating overall, we may still deserve to be comparatively ranked as the safest investment.

And the third is because maybe we do actually need a bit of a wakeup call. We continually refer to ourselves as the greatest nation on earth. While there are many reasons for this, I think its fair to question whether our implementation of our ideals is as good as it could be. While we have created immense wealth and technological progress and have modeled our system on the concepts of personal liberty and equality before the law, we also have extreme poverty, extreme income inequalities, excessive crime and inequality in the access to all sorts of quality of life metrics. Its possible that our reaction to the downgrade is evidence that we felt a sense of entitlement to that AAA rating, and that has perhaps been preventing us from working hard to do the work required to actually earn what we think we deserve. Not only with respect to these ultimately meaningless credit ratings, but in the way we run our society and treat our fellow citizens.

Finally, I know a lot of people are looking to lay blame. Although I don't think thats too constructive, I will say that the fact that we are garnering low yields and the specific mention by S&P that the inability to come to agreement on additional revenue was their primary worry implies that this blind adherence to 'no taxes' needs to be 're-evaluated'. 'Starving the beast' is definitely one strategy toward reducing spending, but, in my opinion, it rarely (if ever?) results in a truly positive outcome. I am reminded of a saying that includes the words, 'nose', and 'spite' and 'face'..

Thursday, August 4, 2011

negotiating with the friend

This morning I read an interesting article in sfgate about why public employee collective bargaining should be considered different than private employee collective bargaining.

The argument is essentially that, in the private sector, unions negotiate with people they have no influence on, whereas in the public sector they can wield some influence over the politicians, with whom they negotiate. There is a tangential claim that public employees are already afforded job protections as the result of existing and earlier laws. Michael Bloomberg also hinted at this in his recent statement that tenure is no longer needed in public schools, though I have a real problem with his claim that tenure is no longer needed because it originated out of a desire to protect political speech; implying for me that education is not political, which is of course absurd. Perhaps he was being lazy connecting his dots and he did later point to the existence of civil service protections as the ostensibly pre-existing protections.

The argument that existing laws might be a duplication of some aspects of union protection is an interesting one. I've often felt if states were able to guarantee the same kinds of protections that unions do, that public employees would have much less problem with who it was that was providing it. I also, however, believe that logic is flawed because the 'provider' of that protection in the public case would be the same entity from whom the protection is sought (conflict of interest?). In other words, the fact that private ownership is 'independent' cuts both ways. My guess has always been this was the reason unions were pushed in the public sector as well, even if it was done in spite of pre-existing protections.

Regardless, I do think there is some difference between teachers and the rest of the public sector employees in that teacher's unions negotiate with school boards, which are local and elected members of the school community. While I guess it is possible for a local union to lobby or even contribute to a local school board candidate's campaign, that seems something quite different than being able to donate large amounts of money to state-level politicians, who only set policy at the abstract level (and don't negotiate with unions on behalf of each district).

That said, a while back I read an article that implied that contract negotiations between school districts and unions are exempted from the public disclosure laws. This is supposedly why we generally are not able to get specifics about any ongoing negotiations. The article implied that unions had worked for this exemption in the mid 90's. I asked at least one of my local board members about this and they did not know that that information was exempt. My belief is that any influence over politicians at the local level would be significantly reduced if the community were able to follow the negotiations and provide feedback to them during the process. I could imagine some arguments for why that might not be a good idea for anyone, but none seem too compelling.

Politicali, I am particularly interested in your opinion on this since you have put a lot of thought into the question of labor and unions.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

easy deasy

Recently John Deasy, the new superintendent of LAUSD, wrote an op ed in the latimes related to his ongoing efforts to negotiate a new union contract. I wanted to provide some thoughts on what he said.,0,2996271.story

Maybe I take a bit of an unconventional view on all this but most of the things that Deasy talks about in this article are part of the ongoing, American education reform 'platform'. It is likely that regardless of what we feel about it, these kinds of reforms are going to happen because education has become politicized and our politics is no longer about reality but about anecdotes.

First things first: I am not 'pro-union', nor am I 'anti-union'. I view unions kind of as a necessary evil of our current system. I believe unions exist because our economic system is designed to make human labor a commodity at the expense of virtually everything else we believe it means to be human. That's not necessarily intended as a value judgement. Virtually everyone in our society freely participates in that system, including myself. In the context of teaching, I read a book a while back written by a teacher in which he said something like, 'I don't like unions, but I have to admit if they didn't exist, we'd probably have 60 kids per classroom and teachers would be making $2,500 per year.' That does a relatively good job of characterizing my take on teacher unions.

That said, probably my biggest problems with the call for educational reform (or, more accurately, the politicized version of it), is that these kinds of 'reform' approaches draw people who have no interest in improving public education. For example, they draw people who are anti-union, either simply ideologically or because they see it as the most effective means to reduce political contributions to the Democratic party. They draw people whose desire it is to reduce funding for education, for whatever reason. And they even draw people who don't believe public education should exist at all (surprisingly, there are more of these than one might expect). So while some people may believe in reforms like these as a way to make things better for our kids (that's really what it should be about, right?), there are many who will push them for very different reasons. That is why any kind of educational reform should be looked at very critically. While Deasy seems like a good and genuine guy, he is essentially a politician. I have to admit being surprised at his stance on some of these things, but he does have to negotiate a contract with the union. This may be part of his negotiating his position. It may also partly be him succumbing to his community's voices of activism (whether they truly understand public education or not). Or it could actually be that he believes these things. Its hard to say from the little he wrote.

Generally speaking, the reforms mentioned in the article are primarily an attempt to reduce union power (that makes sense given he's discussing negotiating a union contract and he's head of 'the other side'). While some people may feel unions stifle education, a few things should be said in response to that. First, states in which unionized education exists perform better than states where it does not. while it is valid to question whether that is a causal relationship, the correlation surely makes it more difficult to argue that unions inhibit student performance in any significant manner. Second, while union contracts are criticized for putting teachers above students, they invariably include such guarantees as access to instructional materials and quality facilities, safe learning/teaching environment, limits on class size, etc., which all work to the benefit of kids (by helping make it easier for teachers to be effective). Without these kinds of guarantees, there will be pressure from the system to undo these things. If you don't believe me, here are some examples of why I believe that.

Pro-reform education researchers have consistently argued that class sizes don't matter. There is, they claim, citing studies, virtually no statistical relationship between class size and student performance. There is also, of course, strong disagreement on this point, specifically whether the studies in question were accurate and/or the whole story and even the existence of studies to the contrary, but that's not the point. Rather, education reform sees increasing class sizes as a way to reduce education spending, and if they can convince voters that there is no statistically significant impact on student performance between a class size of 20 and one of 45, then its pretty easy to see where we will end up. Anyone who believes education is completely broken, or that we spend too much money on education or that public education should not exist will argue the class size point in spite of whether small class sizes really are good for kids. (on a side note, for those who believe education is broken for everyone, check out the PISA rankings when broken down by economic status and/or race. Hint: public education works really well for some people in our society).

California's legislative analyst's office recently issued a report calling much of our state's education funding broken. It suggested some fixes, some of which were reasonable. It also suggested that raising class sizes would be an appropriate way to stretch our funding dollars. Their report was largely based on a study funded by the bill and melinda gates foundation, who people may recognize as one of the primary private funders of the education reform platform, including a strong investment in a more privatized education model. The state has already passed some bills that were influenced by the LAO's report and I believe funding has already gone away for k-3 class size reduction, which puts schools under increasing financial pressure to raise class sizes to address funding shortfalls. One of the classic arguments heard from school boards is that, 'research seems to show the most bang for the buck coming when class sizes are under 20, so if we're already at 25, going up to 30 cant hurt very much'. While Deasy didn't mention class size reduction specifically, he did predicate his whole position on the budget crisis and many of the reform items he did mention are often found in lock-step with raising class sizes.

Importantly, there are some who believe reducing class sizes is really the only way to improve education. I find it ironic that many of the people who argue that class sizes don't matter pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to send their kids to private schools that have class sizes that are less than half of those found in public schools and often with student to teacher ratios in single digits. Apparently quite a lot of people believe class sizes do matter, so much so that they're willing to pay extra for it. Apparently they only think it matters and are willing to pay extra if it's for their own kids. Anyway, you don't need to believe me. Ask a teacher whether and how class sizes impact their effectiveness.

What about some of the other policies that unions help drive; things like access to quality facilities, instructional material, personal development, qualified teachers, etc? Well, one might argue that those things are self-evident. If we didn't have unions they would still exist, right? Let me introduce you to the Williams vs. California lawsuit that, I believe shows, even in spite of attempts to guarantee these things, public policy and its process has incentive and momentum to deny them of our kids. Well, at least those in public schools.

The Williams lawsuit was filed by a group of parents and organizations who claimed the state was failing to provide these things to public schools, especially in an equitable manner. The case was eventually settled by the state in 2004 (districts now get settlement money to supposedly help alleviate these inequities), however, before the case was settled, the state tried to present a defense. One might imagine that they tried to argue that they were in fact funding schools adequately and fairly. Well, one would be wrong. Instead of taking that line of defense, the state admitted they were inequitably funding poverty and minority students and schools, but tried to prove that that fact did not matter in the context of educational achievement. The state called in experts to argue that research proved that the primary factor in whether a student was successful was their economic circumstance. They argued that spending on schools for kids in poverty was a waste of money because those kids were bound to fail anyway. They had experts argue that--in spite of literally crumbling buildings in some cases--that they had not yet seen a building so bad that a student couldn't learn in them. They argued that kids didn't need their own textbooks, rather they should simply learn to share.

So after you pick up your jaw off the floor, just let me remind you that this isn't some rogue district or some fanatic school board. This is the State of California trying to justify public policy! This in spite of both unions that attempt to demand these things, and probably one of the strongest sets of equal access laws in the nation. Again, you don't need to believe me. You can read the court and deposition transcripts at Jeannie Oakes also wrote a good overview piece titled 'schools that shock the conscience' (this can be found in book form in a collection of essays titled 'quality education as a constitutional right', Perry, Moses, et al--a great book btw). Some of these 'state experts' are regular contributors to Students First (Michelle Rhee's 'reform' effort) blog and that organization uses these same experts' 'research' as basis for its reform policies. You can decide for yourself whether that is relevant.

Since a few years after the lawsuit was settled--though I dont believe because of it--California has been using accounting tricks to balance its budget. One aspect of these tricks was to defer guaranteed payments to school districts. Essentially there is a law that says a district is supposed to get a relatively fixed, minimum amount of funding for every student that attends its schools. The 'trick' consists of the state figuring out what this amount of funding should be and then saying, we're not going to pay you all of it right now, rather we're going to defer some of it to next year. They've been doing this for a few years now. As of earlier this year, that deficit had added up to about $23M missing from our own district's funding. Note, this number keeps changing depending on a given year's budget, and even different versions of Jerry Brown's recent budgets had varying impacts on the balance of this deficit (one version wanted to close it altogether, though I don't know whether that will happen).

Recently, Michelle Rhee and her Students First group worked in conjunction with Florida lawmakers to pass one of the first 'education reform' bills in the country. This bill removed seniority based tenure and made the determination of teacher effectiveness dependent on an 'evaluation' process. Shortly after the bill was passed the legislature admitted it didn't really have funding for the evaluation process, but tenure was removed and since the law specifically mentioned that 'at least' 50% of a teacher's evaluation will depend on student test scores, the 'evaluation process' could simply be the test results. Gee.. One irony of that bill was that it disallowed 'correcting' test scores for demographics and it required that teachers not only be fired after 2 years of 'failure' (as defined by their students' test scores) but that those teachers be publicly admonished (published on a website) as failures. Imagine what kind of incentive that kind of law provides for a teacher (even good ones) to teach in the most difficult schools, those schools and students who need great teachers the most.

John Deasy was smart enough to look at providing incentive--instead of disincentive--for teachers to teach at these more difficult schools. Of course no one will remember or admit that it was UTLA who originally floated this idea when the ACLU brought suit against the district for policies (ie seniority based layoffs) that resulted in some of LAUSD's worst schools losing up to 60-70% of their teachers during a round of layoffs recently (while some higher performing schools lost none). The claim was that the policy of seniority was destroying schools like that, but that claim ignored the fact that 20-25% of teachers at those worst schools choose to leave the school each year! (that is the underlying reason there were so many low-seniority teachers employed at the school in the first place). Removing seniority in that case seems like the perfect example to a market-driven society for how to be most responsible, but in a case like this, it does zero to address the problem of teachers leaving of their own volition, which is one of the underlying reasons for the failures of such schools. Remember, that was an UTLA proposal.

Recently, our local district tried to pass a parcel tax (additional real estate tax designed specifically for the local school district). Anti-tax voices immediately spoke up and pointed out that the state was going to redirect funds from local redevelopment agencies to local school districts and thus that the district did not need any extra revenue. The measure failed. Turns out there was in fact a law to redirect local RDA funds to local school districts, however, those funds were to be offset, dollar for dollar, by reductions in state funding obligations to schools, resulting in an effectively net-zero addition in school funding (ie another state accounting trick). In the wake of the failure of that measure, the local district laid off about 15% of their teachers and closed 10% of its elementary schools. Because of the Federal Government deciding later to allocate more stimulus funds specifically to maintaining teaching jobs, most of those teachers were saved (the schools were not). However, those same voices once again spoke up saying that the fact that most teachers were hired back was proof that the parcel tax had been unneeded; ignoring the fact that it only became so because of additional help from the Feds. Those same voices are the ones now saying that the Feds should be cutting discretionary, domestic spending, including on education. Mmmm, irony.

Are you starting to get the picture? Kids in San Marino probably don't care whether their teachers are unionized. People running for-profit charter networks, private schools or leading tax reform (reduction) efforts care a LOT. Again, I don't want you to believe me. Ideally every person would read, research and form their own opinions about what impact reforms would have on education (either positive or negative). I also don't want to give the impression that unions are nothing but altruistic and world-saving things, quite the contrary. Unions address a need. Some overstep their bounds, some understep them. But attacking them and their members in a broad, one-size-fits-all manner is nothing but political posturing and will do nothing to help kids, and could very well even hurt them.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, what about the things Deasy specifically mentioned?

Mutual consent in hiring. This one seems like something of a common sense idea, though it would clearly conflict with the idea of tenure. In essence, it would be making whether a teacher fit with the school one metric of the layoff policy. If in fact this decision were truly a school-only one, then I think it would be a good one. If the decision could be influenced by the district administration or board, then it would endanger the ability of a teacher to stand up and speak to what is right for students without fear of retribution (the primary reason tenure protection exists in the first place--but don't believe me, go find a retired teacher and ask them about this). Note, there is an attempt to give schools more control over their finances, and if that happens, and tenure and seniority going away remove the requirement that some teachers simply stay in place, then I could see the district being able to essentially push the decision between low cost and effective teacher onto the schools themselves. Given that most anecdotal 'news' implies that tenured teachers are, by definition ineffective, it's probably not difficult to imagine what will happen in that decision making process.

A robust and meaningful evaluation system. I always cringe when I hear 'evaluation system' (see the Florida example above). As Deasy points out, test scores would be part of it and once that happens there are all sorts of reasons to question the validity of the evaluation process. I also do not agree that it is good to have parents evaluate teachers. Very few parents spend enough time in the classroom to be able to formulate a valid opinion on the effectiveness of the teacher (I don't even think parents should be allowed to provide feedback on school surveys unless they can name their child's teacher, his/her principal, the superintendent and at least a couple board members). School and classroom choice are already ways parents can decide for or against a certain teacher. Personally, I think a strong principal is the most important factor in having an effective evaluation process. I do think fellow teachers are the next most relevant source of input to an evaluation process. Short of those, probably no one else is qualified to provide input to such a process, imho, of course. :-)

A better process for granting tenure. This is a tricky one. While it seems that if waiting 2 years is good, waiting longer would be better, however, I have heard teachers claim you can tell within a few months whether a teacher will be ineffective. Increasing the tenure time doesn't seem have too many additional negative consequences, but tying that to the fact that salaries will remain depressed until tenure is granted, there will be an incentive to deny tenure. Also note that not all contracts actually require tenure be granted after a fixed amount of time, rather it is still up to the district to decide whether it happens, ie, the timeframe issue is more one of eligibility only. I am not familiar with LAUSD's contract in that regard. We should not forget that about half of all teachers give up on their own within the first 5 years of teaching. Teaching does a pretty good job of eliminating those who aren't appropriate for it. People always forget that when arguing that the low number of tenured teachers being fired is somehow 'proof' that there are a bunch of ineffective tenured teachers.

Compensation reform. Again John is being tricky here. The idea of making teaching a respected profession is something that we very much need to do. That, I agree with. He adds, however, that this should be done in exchange for basing compensation on advanced degrees. There are many who argue that a masters or doctorate has no bearing on the effectiveness of a teacher and thus they shouldn't be paid more for them (as they currently are). This ignores the fact that people with higher degrees will be more sought after in other fields and thus harder to compete for. In Finland every teacher has a masters. That and their selectivity and amount of respect for the teaching profession is touted as one of the reasons for the amount of their success (near tops of the PISA standings at the moment). Its also worth noting that there is a move in education reform away from teaching as a profession, both in the form of charter schools (which don't require certification in some states--CA does--and no requirement for unionization) and increased support for TFA, which is an organization that asks non-education majors to dedicate 2 years teaching at inner-city schools (Im not knocking TFA, what they currently do probably provides a net benefit, but expansion of the program will put pressure on the system to de-professionalize teaching, imho). He also mentions granting raises based on results. While this seems ideal, how will it work? What results and how will that be fair? And what of schools that are already far and away successes. Do those teachers get paid twice as much as teachers in the inner city? And what if all our teachers turn out to be good? As taxpayers, will society be willing to double the cost of education, even if it means more successful students? Michelle Rhee tried something like this when she was superintendent of DC and she had to solicit funding guarantees for the program from private donors (including the gates foundation). Are we as taxpayers really ready and willing to step up to this plate? Some people think teachers already make too much. Imagine if they made double what they make now.

No cap or limit on teacher-led reforms. Actually, this is something I can get behind. I think the more responsibility a school can take for its own success, the more successful it will be. I especially like the idea of allowing teachers, whose profession its supposed to be to educate kids, have a significant say in what works and what doesn't. In the past, teachers who had tried to push things like this in districts where it wasn't welcome experienced career-ending fallout, even with their tenure. The only concern I have for this is that without tenure, the direction of such efforts can lead to politically sticky situations.

So what about the things he didn't say? The thing that always gets me about education reform speak is the incessant focus on teachers. I understand that they are the ones in front of the class, but whether a school is successful, and in fact, whether a teacher can be effective, depends on many factors, including but not limited to the school demographics, the principal and the district administration. On rare occasions, principals are mentioned in school reform talk. Never have I seen central admin behavior targeted, and rarely state policy (unless it happens to be applicable to teachers). If a teacher is ineffective today, the principal and central admin staff have not done their job, plain and simple. Let me repeat that: if a teacher is ineffective today, the principal and central admin staff have not done their job, plain and simple. Its easy to target teachers, because of course, they make the most money and thus are the easiest to scapegoat. But if someone else not doing their job helps to create and perpetuate that situation, then focus should also (primarily?) be on reforming their behavior. Note that all of these reform efforts effectively put more power into the administration's hands. The assumption being that we can trust them to do whats best for the kids, while teachers we cannot. There is something dangerously flawed with that argument, because if they would be doing their jobs now, we wouldn't be able to argue there are ineffective teachers, ie, assuming ineffective teachers abound clearly means an admission that principals and admins have failed at their jobs. Why would we then trust them to do better with more power? I, for one, would like reform efforts to focus on administrative and principal behavior and effectiveness. I also think having unions share or bear the cost for teachers on administrative leave would be an effective way to remove any question of procedure as a barrier.

As a side note, I'd like to point out that teacher compensation makes up for probably about 60-65% of all K-12 education expenditures in California, while administrative compensation is probably closer to 15%. We've had single years recently with nearly 15% funding cuts, which would be equivalent to laying off every single administrator (which is obviously not feasible). It should be clear there is much more 'bang for the buck' possible by targeting teachers, either by cutting their salaries, their ranks or their benefits. These things are much easier to accomplish when the role and influence of the union is reduced. And bang for the buck is increased even more if you can fire/lay off the most senior teachers at-will. Keep that in mind when trying to assess the nature of the drivers behind education reform.

I guess it is of course valid for a society to decide education simply isn't important enough to fund properly (in fact, I expect that's pretty much already or very nearly happened). But I think its important for people to be aware that this is often what their decisions imply.

In the end, what really worries me about Deasy's comments is his focus on the budget crisis. While its clearly an important aspect of the discussion, one of the reasons we have policy in society is that purely economic driven decisions are rarely good for best interests of society. If you are a board member and are offered the option of keeping n effective, and highly paid teachers while having high class sizes, versus the option of keeping 2n less effective, but low paid teachers (implying lower class sizes), what decision do you think you will make? Will there be no incentive but to choose the most effective teachers only? Quite the contrary, imho. I have already seen examples in the current system, where the cost of a teacher was the primary factor in choosing between two different options. Luckily that decision doesn't come along too often given our seniority rules, but imagine they don't exist. Virtually every decision will come down to finances. And remember, our school funding runs through the state legislature. There is really no way (other than things like parcel taxes) to make the desires of a local community match the amount of funding it actually gets. Generally speaking, voters want lower taxes and don't want to pay for even the things they want and/or are working, let alone things they don't want or believe (accurately or otherwise) are not working. And even worse, the richest in our society, who generally pay the most taxes (as an absolute amount), have much less financial incentive to cover education costs for the rest of society. Especially when their kids don't even attend public school. These facts mean if 'free market' concepts are applied to education policy, there will be an increase in the incentive to make decisions that maximize cost efficiency, at the expense of educational effectiveness. That is, of course, exactly what education reform is NOT supposed to do.

Reform should not be a catch-all policy. I have long argued that the 'reforms' needed at Muir high school are much different than those needed at San Marino high school. Much different for Locke high school in LAUSD than in Rancho Palos Verdes. It is true that LAUSD is only one district, however, it is the second largest district in the United States, with nearly three quarters of a million students, and between 30 and 40 thousand teachers. Reforms that are applied in a broad, non-specific manner can even end up hurting schools on both ends of the performance spectrum and everywhere in between.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I do apologize for the semi-chaotic nature of my writing. I wanted to touch on more things than I really had time for and may have jumped around as a result. I hope this at least helps to better understand some of the issues/questions.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

merit pay for parents

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the concept of merit pay in the educational system as a way to improve results. Personally I have always had a problem with this approach for a number of reasons. First, a meritocracy requires a metric. The metric in education is essentially a person's eventual success (happiness?) in life. How can you measure this and reward in a way that is reactionary (ie improves the current system)? If you tie compensation to a metric then people tend to focus on improving on that metric to the exclusion of everything else. I recently read a comment somewhere about a CEO who decided to tie a small part of his direct reports' compensation to a metric that was intended to represent about 10% of that person's job duties. The result was that those people spent almost 90% of their time trying to make sure they met that 10% duty.

Second, focusing on merit pay for teachers ignores the roles of other factors in educational success. Many 'reform' organizations are quick to qualify their claims of teacher quality being the most important factor in educational success by adding that its only the most important in-school factor, i.e., admitting that there are other, more important factors that may lie outside of the school environment. So we might not only be ignoring the real factors in success, but we could be making the problem worse by choosing 'reform' that has negative consequences in the school environment.

I also have a concern about whether merit pay is tenable in our political and economic reality. There are many who already believe we spend too much money on education and even many of those admit teachers are often (though not always) underpaid. This means having a truly successful merit pay system would cost us more money, not less; probably a LOT more. Granted, we'd be getting something good from it, but I think that ignores the fact that not everybody is willing to spend more money even if it means a better 'product'. Just look at how we prioritize cost vs quality in our throw-away consumer economy. This would be even more of a problem given the current, 'anti-tax' leaning of today's society.

So, I guess my question is, for those people who believe merit pay elicits results, perhaps we can think about what it is in education that causes success and how we can incentivize that behavior. In other words, what about providing an incentive to be a good parent? Admittedly, that may be too controversial given the myriad cultures we have in this country. At minimum, how about making sure we have a society and support structure that makes it easier for people to be good parents. Obviously, we should question whether it is even possible to 'incentivize' cultural behavior (that same concern should apply to the educational system culture as well), but if we are going to focus on incentivizing something, perhaps we should at least try to make it something that makes a difference.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

why heros?

I was thinking about the term 'hero' today and started wondering why humans so readily create them. Obviously heros have existed (been created) pretty much forever so its likely that the need stems from human nature. In thinking what the lack of heros might look like, one is forced to imagine (relatively) more collective efforts. It feels odd that equality in society is such a recent and even (still) limited phenomenon, and again, this seems to reinforce the notion that heroism and maybe conceptual relations to it, ie hierarchical societal divisions (castes, classes, etc) are somehow the natural state for the human psyche.

I also wonder whether the need for heros and/or leaders (are they the same thing, conceptually?) changes with the structure and goals of society (leaders are much more critical in warfare--or at least we say that--and may be more critical for a roving band of hunter-gatherers than for a metropolis of millions). What is freedom's role here?

Oddly enough, I've never really bought into the hero concept and perhaps this explains my tendency toward collective responsibility instead. Are heros more a function of personality, culture or human nature?

Maybe I should drink less coffee... or perhaps read more Joseph Campbell books..

Monday, April 25, 2011


The other day a friend of mine asked me whether I thought humans had evolved to anthropomorphize so that we didnt simply trample over everything else in the world.

I admit it seems like an appealing notion that somehow our empathy serves a purpose. Unfortunately it seems like we're doing a fine job of trampling over everything else in the world in spite of that, though admittedly, thats likely more a function of how, in large human groups, other forces trump quaint, more personal notions like empathy.

For some reason, this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (Thomas Hardy):
"In common with most rural mechanics, he had too much individuality to be a typical 'working-man'--a resultant of that beach-pebble attrition with his kind only to be experienced in large towns, which metamorphoses the unit Self into a fraction of the unit Class."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The D Word

Could it be anything other than 'deficit'?

Recently, Orrin Hatch issued a press release that made a few statements that were bothersome. The first is the claim that spending is out of control:
"...we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. Federal spending is up to 25 percent of our nation’s economic output – up from the 20.6 percent post World War II average."
While this in itself may be true, our deficit is nowhere near the levels of post World War times if any of the numbers are to be believed. And that in spite of the fact we are leading 3 (depending on who you talk to) wars, have put the burden for a humungous bailout on our books, and are continuing to reduce tax revenue, both through policy and through the impact of the recession. It may be true that spending is out of control, but you wont make that point very well by comparing the deficit with historical values. We've been in worse positions.

The other thing that troubled me was the statement:
“Well, the day before what is typically tax filing day, I feel obligated to inform Mr. Plouffe, the President, and all of those rich liberal Democrats who are eager to pay higher taxes, that they can do just that.

They can write a check to the IRS and make an extra payment on their tax returns to pay down the federal debt. There’s still time before the filing deadline for them to give Uncle Sam some more money."
Are you kidding me? Is this guy the best representative Utah could find? Maybe we should just make all taxes voluntary, since he apparently doesn't believe taxes serve any useful purpose (ironically implying that his role as a Senator is also of no value). To be fair, the Senator went on to point out that he may have, in fact, been joking. But this is from an official press release, so he wasn't really joking, of course. Note, this is the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, which includes subcommittees on Taxation, International Trade and Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The "solution" to underfunded pensions? .. underfund them even more!

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about an impending public pension disaster. Unfortunately, as appears not to be uncommon in other topics of discussion in society today, the solution is to look for the 'silver bullet', or perhaps more appropriately, for a way to kick the can down the road. In the context of 'pension reform' this invariably has become a call to move everyone to an undefined type of retirement plan, i.e., 401k. Such a call has the political advantage of appearing to move the responsibility for one's retirement and life onto the employee (as if this were really the goal), ignoring the fact that the public generally does end up taking responsibility for members of our society who fall into poverty, paying for them with direct subsidies once they reach that point, as well as indirectly in the form of reduced participation (investment and tax base) in society, and increased need and costs for prisons and schools and other public services.

My impulse is to provide a long, detailed argument for why this call to a move to 401ks is flawed, because I think it would help people understand what the real reason for such a call is, however, it may be more effective to simply start at the conclusion and work my way backwards.

Simply put, research shows that retirement that is based on an undefined and voluntary investment plan will result in a significantly lower level of funding than one that is defined and non-voluntary. So, as the title of this post suggests, the proposed solution will in fact make the problem of underfunded retirements worse, not better. Furthermore, assuming for a moment that employees even were to fund their 401ks at the same rate as pensions are funded by the employee and employer today, they are significantly less likely to have anywhere near a similar return on investment than is achieved by pension fund managers. Ironically, those who earn the least tend to have the lowest rate of return on any investment they have made, often times actually losing money.

So why are these types of retirement plans funded less than traditional pension plans? The first reason is surely due simply to the fact that they are voluntary. We are a society that does not think about the long term much at all; probably a function of both the reactionary politics that has been brought on by our sensationalistic media and the strong individualism that helps to define our culture. But more pragmatically, there is financial incentive not to. In an economic system that relies heavily on the influence of profit to drive behavior, costs for goods and services (and wages) are 'streamlined' to remove all but the essential (this is one of the true advantages of capitalism). Unfortunately, retirement (and generally speaking, anything longer term or that doesn't have a direct impact on current output) is rarely if ever seen as one of those essentials by much of society and so its costs are not factored into the equation.

The reasons why lower income earners tend to have a lower rate of return should be obvious (they also tend to have a lower level of education, means for proper research, amount of money invested to make it imperative, etc, etc..). What may not be obvious, however, is that one of the reasons that companies find 401ks so appealing (besides the fact that they significantly reduce cost--and responsibility) is that the people making the decisions to implement them generally gain more from them than the general employee population.

Required reading for this topic is this interview with Brooks Hamilton (one of the pioneers of 401ks, by the way so its not like he's coming at this from an unreasonable point of view). Note especially the parts that talk about the level to which overall funding in pensions changes when moving from a defined pension plan to a 401k. Can you say ├╝ber-under-funded? It almost makes me glad people pushing this move use the terms 'underfunded' and 'unfunded'.

The furor over the fact that public pensions are underfunded ignores the question of why they are in that position today. Surely, one aspect of that is the nature of the benefits that have been promised (all provided and/or approved by elected politicians and/or the electorate directly), but the other is the economic environment we find ourselves in today. The stock assets of CalPERS (the California Public Employee Retirement System), for example, lost approximately 40% of their value as a direct result of the recent market crash (something 401ks were also not immune to, and in fact, which likely suffered worse due to lower level of diversification). While it does not necessarily help the problem to talk about why we are here, it does beg the question as to why so much of its assets (public money, after all) were invested in stocks. The answer, of course, is that the electorate passed a ballot measure back in 1984 that allowed it to do so, and then, based on the gains it was getting in the roaring 90's as a result of that reallocation, led directly to a legislative bill in 1999 that increased public retirement benefits in a way that seemed to make sense at the time (at least to those with stars in their eyes). Some of this context is described here. Its ironic that the call today is to move to more of a privatized system, because if you want to see what moving to 401ks would look like from an investment/return standpoint, these things are a direct result of having done just that over the past few decades.

And if that is not enough of an indication of the public's responsibility in this disaster, lets bring to the discussion perhaps the primary reason public pensions are underfunded today, which is, of course, that state governments have simply not been funding them. Lucky for us, the Pew Trusts has been gathering data on this issue and in its Trillion Dollar Gap report we see that only 21 of the 50 states have adequately funded their public pension funds over the past 5 years. New Jersey is particularly notorious for not making any of its pension contributions during apparently 13 of the past 17 years, and they are not the only ones. Even worse, there are reports that deductions that have come out of employee paychecks and given to municipalities/states with the intent of funding pensions have instead been used for other things. So again, if you want to see what the move to 401ks would look like in terms of funding level, look no further than what is happening today in most states. The only difference would be that we wouldn't know that retirement is being underfunded until those employees try to retire. A minor consolation--if there is any to be had--to the nature of today's problem is that at least these liabilities show up on our states' balance sheets and thus we are aware of the problem. One might argue that in fact that is no consolation, however, when it comes to retirees, what doesn't show up on our balance sheets today will not simply disappear. In the Brooks Hamilton interview, he estimates that over 90% of 401k holders will retire into poverty. This is not just a problem for them, but those retirees (an ever-increasing portion of our population) will, in effect, simply stop consuming (remember that whole capitalism thing that relies on consumption?), and perhaps worse, they will disappear as a tax base--what will that do for our government services?

This last point brings up a subtle twist to the basic premise of 401ks. Their tax benefit appeal is designed explicitly on the assumption that a retiree will make less income upon retirement than they did while working (what is an appropriate level of retirement income is a discussion that needs to be had, but not here or now). That seems to make sense for the most part, though increased health care costs for seniors and an increasing percentage of them retiring while still owing on their mortgage should lead to questions about that. But think a moment about the lower tax rate assumption. This, by definition, means that 401ks provide an incentive to underfund the future. While I wont try to argue whether this is inherently good or bad, I will, however, point out that there will be a clear and direct economic and social impact as a result of an increasing portion of our consumers becoming less and less of a tax and consumer base, while the share of people who represent the stronger portion of that base become smaller and smaller.

One other critical aspect of the Pew report is the fact that pensions are only one part of the underfunded problem. Health care and other non-pension retirement benefits are in even worse shape. Not a single state has adequately funded this liability over the past 5 years, and overall they currently stand at a 3% funded rate today. Yes, that's a single digit number. Admittedly, the total liability for those is a much smaller number, but I believe this issue makes the need for some kind of health care reform much more pressing.

Although much of this information is available here and there by simply looking around, one thing that I have yet to see discussed is where all the currently public 'funded' money is residing, and what will happen when that money stream goes away. This should not be part of the question of how retirement (assuming we still care about that) should be properly funded, but it would be useful to understand how such a move would impact other parts of our economic system. Brooks Hamilton made the point about the change in mutual fund share of 401ks as laws were eased to reduce liabilities for failures. It could even be argued that this increase is part of what led to the bubble that caused the crash.

Our society needs to stop blaming people and have some public discourse on whether we still value retirement, and, if so, make a real effort to properly fund it. Shirking responsibility will get us by for only so long. Recently a small southern town simply decided to stop sending out its pension benefits. The direct result was that some of their retirees died and most of the rest went bankrupt. We, as a society, cannot afford to have something like that happen on a national scale, and, I can pretty much guarantee that those retirees as a growing--and more importantly--voting block, will not stand for it. We can either take responsibility and invest in our future now, or we can ignore the issue and really pay for it later, when it will cost us a whole lot more.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The "impact" of Teacher Unionization and Dollars spent on NAEP proficiency scores

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether money matters in education and whether union and/or tenure are good or bad. So recently I went to find some data that might give us at least a general characterization. I found a report released by the NAEP with state scores for 4th and 8th grade reading and math proficiency in 1992 and 2005 (NAEP scores, although only representative, have the advantage of being consistent across states. It is of course debatable how much value they should be given because of their representative nature, but people do use them as 'evidence' on both sides of the debate). Here is the data in excel format along with dollars spent per student from

I sorted the states by percent proficient in 2005 and then looked at two things for each state: their rate of unionization (based on data from and how much they spend per student. If unionization is bad for kids (as the argument goes, since it places teachers' needs above kids' needs) then we'd expect to see performance to drop as the percent of unionization increases. Similarly, if the amount of money spent did not matter for education, then we'd expect to see no correlation between the performance and dollars spent per student. As it turns out, performance not only doesn't decline but it even increases with an increase in unionization. Similarly, an increase in kids' performance accompanies an increase in per-student dollars spent (actually, this should not be too surprising given that its likely the rate of unionization will generally correlate with dollars spent).

Because my goal is not to be an ideologue, I will readily admit that correlation does not equal causation. In fact if I were to attack this data, I'd use that as one point, the other being the representative nature of NAEP scores. Here is a good discussion on why NAEP state score comparisons should be done with caution. Regardless, correlation is a useful indicator in and of itself, and if the graphs were not consistently indicative of these correlations I'd be much more likely to question whether NAEP scores mis-represent the population by virtue of their representative nature.

A couple clarifications. Because it is difficult to 'see' a slope when the rate of unionization data is graphed directly on a state by state basis (variation between states that are 100% unionized vs ones that are 0% unionized dont provide much value) I did a running average of 10 states to get a more generalized trend to the data. In other words, the first rate of unionization value is an average of the lowest 10 state's rates (1-10), the next is an average of the next 10 (2-11) etc.

NB: the reason there is a dip near the right hand side of the math scores is that there are two states with low single-digit unionization (Texas and South Carolina) that score at about the 75th percentile among a number of states that are almost 100% unionized.

Please feel free to provide an alternative interpretation.


sorted by % proficient 4th reading 2005 NAEP

sorted by % proficient 4th math 2005 NAEP

sorted by % proficient 8th reading 2005 NAEP

sorted by % proficient 8th math 2005 NAEP