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.


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 decentschools.org. 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.


PoliticAli said...

Wow!!! You really have been reinvigorated. As always, verywell researched, thought out and articulated.

PoliticAli said...

Wow!!! You are really reinvigorated. Very informative. As always, well researched, thought out and expressed.