Monday, July 27, 2009

Detroit’s Schools Are Going Bankrupt, Too

Now’s the time to cast off collective bargaining agreements and introduce school choice

‘Am I optimistic that they can avoid it . . . ? I am not.” That’s what retired judge Ray Graves said this week when asked whether the Detroit public schools, which he is advising, would be forced into bankruptcy. Facing violence, a shrinking student body, and graduating just one out of every four students who enter the ninth grade on time, the city’s schools have been stumbling for years. Now they face a seemingly insurmountable deficit and are expected to file for bankruptcy protection at about the time that students should be settling down in a new school year.

As embarrassing as such a filing would be, it also may be the only thing that can force the kinds of changes Detroit schools need—as the financial turmoil is just the latest manifestation of a system in terminal decline.

Detroit is like many urban school districts—large, unwieldy and bureaucratic, with a powerful union that makes the system unable to adapt to changing circumstances and that until very recently had an indulgent political class that insulated it from reform. That insulation came in two forms. The first was neglect. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick spent several years distracted by a scandal stemming from his affair with a staffer. He resigned last year, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to four months in jail. Had he been an effective mayor, he might have also been a powerful advocate for students.

The other insulating force was a conscious decision to wall off Detroit from charter schools. In 1993, Michigan’s legislature made it difficult to create new charters in Detroit by declaring that only community colleges could authorize charters for primary and secondary schools in “First-Class Districts”—defined as those with more than 100,000 students. Detroit was the only First-Class District. In 2003 the state, under pressure from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, turned down a gift of $200 million from philanthropist Robert Thompson that would have established 15 charter schools in the city. Those charters are needed today.

The net result has been a school system that’s been coming apart as the teachers union has dug in its heels. In 2006, the union illegally went on strike, killing a plan to force teachers to take a pay cut to balance the system’s books.

In June, seven students were wounded in a shooting near Cody Ninth Grade Academy just two weeks after 16-year-old Tenecia Walter was shot in the chest shortly after leaving class at Denby High School. Earlier this year a gunfight broke out in Detroit’s Central High School and last year a student was shot and killed walking home from Henry Ford High School. All of this has forced school officials to step up security measures, including increasing the number of police patrols.

Meanwhile, only 16.2% of the city’s 11th graders scored proficient in math this year on the state’s standardized Merit Examination, compared to 49.3% statewide. Detroit reading and science scores are just as bleak. And this in schools that spend $1,700 more per student than the state average.

The school system also has been rocked by corruption. A few years ago, an audit revealed that Detroit’s school system misused more than $46 million on insurance and other contracts and was forced to sue venders to get some of its money back. Two of the system’s employees were recently indicted for allegedly embezzling $400,000 from the school system over the past couple of years.

To clean up the mess, the state took control of the district earlier this year and brought in Robert Bobb as an “emergency financial manager.” In June, to stem pay-check fraud he required that employees pick up their paychecks in person. Paychecks for 257 suspected “ghost” employees—people who had improperly been getting checks—went unclaimed.

Mr. Bobb has been energetic in tackling problems. At the outset, he faced a $306 million shortfall in a $1.3 billion budget. He responded by closing 29 schools, laying off 2,500 employees, and cutting 80% from the budget of the department that draws up the district’s curriculum. He plans to overhaul 40 schools and has hired private companies to run 17 of the district’s 22 high schools. He also tapped Mr. Graves, a bankruptcy expert, for advice.

The Detroit Board of Education has gone along with many of these changes. But it is now seeking a court injunction to block private companies from running district high schools. The board says Mr. Bobb exceeded his authority in hiring the companies. But a court fight will only bog things down at a time when the district still faces a $260 million deficit.

This is why Mr. Graves and others see little alternative to declaring bankruptcy, and why doing so would likely be a net benefit. It would allow the city to tear up union contracts, cut some of its debt, and forge a political consensus for lasting reforms. No one will want to repeat the bankruptcy experience any time soon.

What the city needs is a multitude of charter schools and other school-choice provisions that would give students a means to escape. It also needs to break free of collective-bargaining agreements. Collective bargaining for government employees is not a constitutional right; it is a special privilege, and one that has been abused. Michigan’s education laws could be amended to allow school districts to suspend collective-bargaining agreements when that district fails to meet minimal academic standards, is pushed to the brink of bankruptcy, or when the union goes out on an illegal strike.

Over the past seven years, Detroit schools have lost 60,000 students. Its system is now, according to the state’s attorney general, so small that it no longer qualifies as a First-Class District.

That gives the state legislature and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm an opportunity to do what they needed to do all along: Treat Detroit like other school districts in the state and hold local officials accountable when the schools fail to perform. Walling off Detroit from the rest of the state may have some appeal and was once the politically easy thing to do, but it’s only given Michigan a larger mess to clean up.


Estimating the effects of teacher quality

A report from Australia

The Rudd Government's education revolution will amount to little if it fails to lift teacher quality. Computers, libraries, arts centres and well-functioning buildings are vital in improving the learning environment, and the appeal of schools. Only a curmudgeon would quibble over the extra expenditure. But unless teacher quality also improves, the revolution will be half-baked.

With so many baby-boomer teachers retiring over the next seven years - in NSW virtually half the teaching population - there is both opportunity and imperative to raise the standard.

Any parent knows the quality of the child's teacher is critical. That is why the pushier parents lobby to secure the best teacher for their child, and more reticent parents accept with sinking hearts the lost year or lost marks a bad teacher represents.

Now economists have quantified the effect of a good teacher compared to a bad teacher - not only on a child's academic attainment and future earnings but on the health of a national economy. The difference a good teacher makes is large.

Professor Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has just visited Australia, bringing a body of research that should focus the minds of politicians on teacher quality. It's not easy. Rolling out laptops is child's play in comparison.

Based on extensive work, conducted partly in the Texas school system, he estimates the students of a bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in a year. The students of a good teacher will learn 1 ½ year's worth of material. That's a whole year's more learning with a quality teacher.

To people who say family background is the most decisive influence on children's academic attainment and that teachers can't compensate, Hanushek says: "Dead wrong." If a disadvantaged student had a good teacher instead of an average one for three or four years in a row, the achievement gains would be dramatic, he says. Put another way, a student who starts at the 50th percentile of the state's distribution on test scores after a year with a good teacher will move up to the 59th percentile.

Teacher effects dwarf school effects, his work shows, so that it is better to be in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher; and better to be in a big class with a great teacher than in a small class with a hopeless one.

In Australia he was talking about the effect of better schooling on economic growth. In a dazzling comparison of 50 countries over four decades, he was able to demonstrate the huge importance of a nation's cognitive skills in explaining economic growth. Countries that have improved their schools - as measured by student scores in international tests of maths, science and literacy ) have also improved their economic growth rates. This applies to developing and developed countries.

Just by getting rid of the bottom 5 per cent to 10 per cent of bad teachers and replacing them with average ones could improve Australia's brainpower, and its economic performance, he says.

Not everyone agrees that teacher quality is so critical. For a start, if this is the main problem it gives governments a handy excuse to minimise expenditure on facilities, or on lower class sizes. A study led by the University of New England that monitored 500 pairs of identical twins through the first three years of school says the "teacher effect" is about 8 per cent, not the 40 per cent other researchers have found. But even if the effect has been overstated in the past, it is still important. Imagine having three talented teachers in a row; even a single gifted teacher can change lives.

Yet improving teacher quality is harder than economists' PowerPoint presentations make out. Good teachers are hard to identify in advance of doing the job - teacher credentials and even years of service are no guide.

It is only when they teach they demonstrate their abilities and, in our system, teachers have virtual tenure for life once they are admitted to a classroom. Little can be done about poor teachers. Even in-service training, Hanushek, claims, has disappointing results.

His own suggestion for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is the much-lambasted idea of performance pay. Under the single-salary structure that operates here, a bad teacher costs the state as much as a good teacher; across-the-board pay increases give the bad teacher no incentive to leave, and the talented no incentive to stay. The idea is so resisted by teacher unions around the world there is little empirical evidence that performance pay delivers for students.

Thanks partly to the number of bright girls who entered teaching in the 1970s, the baby-boomer teacher generation can boast a high proportion of talented teachers. Australia's respectable international tests scores reflect a reasonable standard of teaching overall. With this generation retiring, it is imperative the replacements are even better teachers. A well-constructed incentive pay scheme deserves consideration, as does better ways to weed out bad teachers. Above all, we have to make schools places where talented people will want to work.


It’s not pushy parents Britain needs, it’s pushy schools

Education in Britain is bedevilled by social class considerations and the British Left have never been able to decide whether middle-class families should be a model for the workers to aim at or an evil to be avoided. Generally, however, they do their best to destroy the middle class, but tend to destroy the working class even more in the process

With its usual self-serving incoherence, Gordon Brown’s government has come out, in the person of the Blairite MP Alan Milburn, in favour of “pushy parents”. Milburn’s report for Brown on social mobility found that “parental interest has four times more influence on attainment by the age of 16 than does socioeconomic background”. He said last week that he wanted “more pushy parents, not fewer”.

How odd it is to hear such talk from a man authorised by the prime minister to say things that sound just the opposite of what Brown and old Labour have always stood for. It seems only yesterday that Brown’s blue-eyed boy, Ed Balls, the schools secretary, and his people were being sniffy about pushy parents.

It reminds me of Peter Mandelson’s notorious remark that he was “intensely relaxed” about people being “filthy rich”.

Personally I am not only relaxed but rather in favour of pushy parents, up to a point, being one myself. But I think the government should be careful of what it allows itself to say it wishes for. Its members may not all realise what pushy parents are like.

Pushy parents are not just mothers and fathers who show “parental interest”, which is highly to be desired and all too rare. Pushy parents are red in tooth and aspirational in claw; they are social Darwinists to a man and a woman and while I think their struggles are natural and largely unstoppable - pushy parents, like the poor, are always with us – I do not think a socialist-lite government ought to be crying out for more of them.

In any case, it can’t; it won’t work. The soft left culture of the Labour party and of nearly all our national institutions, particularly of our state schools, is entirely at odds with the culture of pushy parents.

Being a pushy parent begins even before parenthood. Pushy parents-to-be, in their quest for the best possible of everything, put their babies down for favoured schools, or move to a good school catchment area, before they are even born. Pushy mothers-to-be eat carefully chosen super-foods to push the embryonic brain to the peak of its potential and listen to carefully chosen music to ensure high-level music appreciation later in life. I admit I myself thought like that.

But then I was the child of a pushy parent - a single mother whose determination ensured that I, like my brothers, did well enough to get scholarships to private schools and full grants to university - something denied to poor but aspiring teenagers today. She even tried to persuade me, years later, to teach my own infant children maths according to some American baby-genius method, when they were still almost too young to speak.

Unusual then, such extremes are now common among hyper-competitive pushy mummies. I am glad to say that I refused; nor did I make my children do Suzuki violin lessons at three or competitive tennis at six, as did so many other mothers of my acquaintance.

That’s because the cost, I know, of such expectations on children can be high; it means forcing them to confront the constant fear of failure, including failing to pass into a school at the age of four when your elder sister did before you - something our politicians seem unable to understand and many teachers seem quite unable to accept.

Is that what Milburn is recommending? In my case it meant going into several exams with a chamber pot, as extreme anxiety regularly made me throw up because I had been encouraged to be so desperate to win. Per ardua ad astra - which, as those who’ve been crammed into elitist schools by pushy parents will know, means the way to the stars, whatever they may be, is pretty damn hard – and, of course, a lot of people fall by the wayside.

Although pushy parents never stop pushing themselves, they also contract out whenever they can to professional pushers in the form of private schools, evening tutors and even live-in holiday tutors.

My day at a good private school in the West Country began about 6am when, under parental pressure, I got out of bed to catch up with homework. I had to be in school by 8.10am and couldn’t go home until 7pm – in that time I had nine 40-minute periods of lessons or study each day (and five on Saturday mornings), one period of compulsory games, one of music practice and some time for eating; at home later I had more homework and reading.

To my astonishment, my daughter’s day at a top London day school was (and is) just as long and much more competitive, as the girls were all much cleverer than those at my school. There are also casualties to match among children at such academic private schools – boys and girls who collapse under the strain, who drop out with addictions and eating disorders.

This is what it means to push a child, for better and for worse. It takes not only a lot of money and effort all round, but also a lot of time. It astonishes me how short the day is, by comparison, at state schools – how can clever state school children hope to accomplish anything like as much as their private school competitors, or foreign competitors from pushy cultures, if they have less than half the amount of teaching or carefully supervised study?

Equally, seeing children come out of state school in the early afternoon, I often wonder how many of their parents would really want to see them studying as hard as private school children - particularly if their children are not bright. Putting such intense demands on the brightest children, even agreeing to select precisely which are the brightest children, is outside the mindset of the state educational establishment. Private schools don’t question it; state schools cannot accept it. It is anathema to the all-shall-have-prizes, all-shall-have-A-levels culture. And while that culture may be beginning to change, even the notion that one child is much more intelligent than another is still widely unacceptable among educationists.

The government should be calling not for pushy parents, but for pushier state schools, and for a system that can find an acceptable way of selecting and teaching all children according to their real aptitudes; the failure of our education system cannot be either blamed on or solved by parents. It is the educational culture that is to blame. And what will save our schools is a recognition, which is indeed characteristic of pushy parents, that the world is a painfully competitive place.


1 comment:

Robert said...

Now I get the "Well where was I going to go, Detroit?" line from South Park when a character in Hell got killed again, then was back again, much to the surprise of whoever killed him in Hell and his, "But I killed you" line.