Monday, February 08, 2010

Balancing act: conservatives weigh means against ends as liberal opinion-makers embrace teacher accountability and school choice

THE Obama administration's signature education initiative, Race to the Top, has produced genuine headline news: The Democrats, usually seen kowtowing to organized labor's demands, for once are standing up to a powerful union constituency. The Race to the Top grant competition would remunerate states for using students' test scores in teacher evaluations, a practice the teachers unions have fought for years. A number of conservative reformers are backing the measure, but Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, recently announced that his state would not participate in Race to the Top. What's the catch?

The situation is reminiscent of another time Democrats stood up to organized labor: in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton backed passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over the objections of the unions. In both cases, the fight between the Democratic party and its union backers dominated the media's coverage. But then as now, a different and more interesting question preoccupied conservatives: Does the policy in question cede too much local power to a national or transnational authority?

At the heart of the question is a debate over means and ends. Not many conservatives in the 1990s argued, as the unions did, that NAFTA would result in the loss of tens of thousands of American jobs. Nor do many conservatives today side with the teachers unions in support of rules that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent educators. In each case, mountains of empirical evidence slowly persuaded liberal elites and Democratic reformers to agree at least partially with conservatives that a certain end--free trade and teacher accountability, respectively--was worth pursuing.

By 1993, it was no longer plausible to argue that free trade was on balance deleterious to a nation's prosperity. Economists across the political spectrum agreed then, and still do, that removing trade barriers between two countries allows each to increase its total output and thereby grow richer. The only intellectually defensible way to argue against free trade is to make the debate about something other than wealth, such as equality, labor rules, or environmental standards. In the NAFTA debate, accordingly, opponents argued that U.S. companies would move jobs requiring fewer skills to Mexico, weakening the power of unions to bid up the price of unskilled labor and causing the gap between rich and poor to widen.

But liberal opinion-makers were not persuaded that the country should sacrifice its overall prosperity to preserve union clout. NAFTA supporter Michael Kinsley, then of The New Republic, zeroed in on the opposition's advantage in the debate when he wrote that "the person who will get a job because of NAFTA isn't even aware of it yet; the person who may lose a job because of NAFTA is all too aware." Newsweek admonished Americans to "beware the new protectionist preachings. Trade is good for you." And the most influential liberal in the country, Bill Clinton, supported NAFTA.

It is equally difficult to argue now that teacher quality and student test scores are not correlated. Empirical studies from groups such as the New Teacher Project, Teach for America, and the Brookings Institution have demonstrated that teachers matter, and that test scores are a reliably accurate tool for measuring how much they matter. A Brookings study of Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 concluded that "having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap."

As in the debate over free trade, liberal journalists and policymakers are increasingly embracing the evidence. I first learned of the Brookings study from a Steven Brill article in The New Yorker that absolutely eviscerated New York's United Federation of Teachers for blocking reforms that would make it easier for schools to use tests in teacher evaluations. Amanda Ripley of The Atlantic recently wrote about Teach for America's groundbreaking efforts to track test-score data, link it to each of the organization's teachers, and use it to assess their effectiveness. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, wrote a column in January praising Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, for her grudging acceptance of the notion that standardized test scores should be part of the evaluation process. (The National Education Association, AFT's much larger cousin, remains opposed.)

In large part, these journalists are following the administration's lead. Obama's appointment of former Chicago public-schools CEO Arne Duncan to lead the Department of Education was viewed by many conservatives as a decent pick, based on Duncan's advocacy of teacher accountability and charter schools. Race to the Top reflects Duncan's support for these concepts: States with laws prohibiting the use of test scores in teacher evaluations are not eligible to compete for the $4.3 billion in grant money available under the program, and other eligibility requirements encourage states to lift caps on charter schools. In general, states make themselves more attractive applicants the farther they move in the directions of accountability and choice.

This is not to say that Obama has been great, or even good, on education. To the dismay of conservatives and inner-city Washington parents, he signed a bill that stripped the District of Columbia's school-voucher program of its funding. He supports a bill that would effectively nationalize the provision of student loans. And one of his appointments to the Department of Education, Kevin Jennings, founded a group that advocated the inclusion of gay-and-lesbian-themed literature on school reading lists, including books that contain graphic descriptions of sex acts between minors and adults.

For these reasons alone, conservatives would be right to approach any of this administration's education initiatives with a profound skepticism. But conservative objections to Race to the Top go beyond Obama himself. Many on the right (including NATIONAL REVIEW's editors) opposed President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act on the grounds that conservatives should fight any bill that entrenches the federal role in education--even if, in theory, it would put the government to work toward laudable ends. Governor Perry reflected this point of view in announcing that Texas would not apply for Race to the Top funds: "Our state and our communities must reserve the right to decide how we educate our children, and not surrender control to the federal bureaucracy."

Few remember now, but similar sovereignty concerns bedeviled some conservatives when Bill Clinton, in an effort to make NAFTA more palatable to union interests and environmentalists, negotiated side agreements on labor and the environment to placate them. Conservatives worried that these deals would create panels with authority to recommend sanctions and other measures to compel compliance.

Though the sovereignty concerns were not without merit, those powers of punishment have proven to be a net benefit in the enforcement of U.S. trade agreements. Consider the World Trade Organization (WTO). One of the best things about the WTO is that it presents a solution to the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. The Bush administration's decision to levy tariffs on imported steel imposed a tax on steel consumers for the benefit of a few domestic steel companies. The WTO ruled against the U.S. and authorized the EU to levy retaliatory sanctions, thus concentrating the cost of the tariffs on other industries, which were better organized than steel consumers and better able to fight back. Under pressure, Bush relented and repealed the tariffs.

Race to the Top seeks to address the same problem, using a carrot instead of a stick. Tenure rules and caps on charter schools benefit a powerful and well-organized special-interest group at the expense of unorganized taxpayers and parents. But state governments, going broke and desperate for federal funds, have already responded to Race to the Top's incentive structure. So far, eleven states have amended or repealed bad laws to make themselves more competitive candidates for the money, despite union opposition.

Conservatives have legitimate concerns about delegating power over education to the federal government. But state governments have their own flaws, which a little delegated power can mitigate. It's a delicate balance, and it's hard to say right now whether Race to the Top tilts too far in the direction of centralized decision-making. But at least conservatives can take heart that the tide of elite opinion is turning against the teachers unions--and in favor of accountability and choice.


New British teachers lack the training to handle violence in the classroom, survey reveals

Nearly half of new teachers have not been given enough training to deal with violence in the classroom, a survey showed today. Figures also suggest two-thirds of newly qualified teachers have received no clear guidance on restraining violent students. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which carried out the survey, has called for such training to be made compulsory.

According to the union, 49 per cent of newly-qualified teachers and probationers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland felt they had not had enough training to deal with challenging behaviour. One in five said they had been provided with clear guidance on restraining violent pupils, with nearly 30 per cent saying they had not yet covered this area ofthe job in their training.

Guidance by the Department for Children, Schools and Families lists the types of force teachers can use on children. It can include passive physical contact such as blocking a pupil's path and active contact such as leading a pupil by the hand or arm. In more extreme circumstances, 'appropriate restrictive holds, which may require specific expertise or training', may be used, it says.

ATL says the problem with the official guidance is that teachers are not clear on how to interpret it. Sharon Liburd, from the ATL, told the BBC: 'These violent confrontations can erupt very very quickly, they [teachers] need to be clear about what sort of steps they can take to try to stop the situation from escalating, if they have to physically intervene and how, in fact, they do that.'

But National Association of Head Teachers general secretary Mick Brookes said there was no need for compulsory training in schools because many never saw a violent incident. The ATL surveyed 1,001 of its members across the UK.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said new teachers were given support to ensure they had the skills they needed and said the Government's 'behaviour tsar' Sir Alan Steer had noted progress in pupils' conduct across Britan. He said: 'Good behaviour and an atmosphere of respect should be the norm in all schools. 'In his recent review, Sir Alan Steer said that behaviour standards have improved and are good in the majority of schools. 'We are determined to tackle poor behaviour and raise overall behaviour standards - that is why we have given schools clearer and stronger powers than ever before to ensure good school discipline.'


Australia: Something's rotten in the state of NSW - comprehensive public schools

The comprehensive public school classroom is an unreformed rotten borough of public policy. The My School website represents the first significant, successful reform of the Rudd/Gillard era and a welcome departure from decades of union resistance to desperately needed educational change.

Education is a sector sufficiently charged with mythology and vested interests that it's virtually impossible for us to tell each other the truth. At the risk of unfairly disparaging a legion of inspirational teachers, I will now have a crack at that task.

Education in NSW is delivered in five distinct packages: state selective schools, elite private schools, other independent schools (Anglican, Muslim, other religious and non-religious), the Catholic parochial schools, and the state comprehensive schools. The competing power centres, in order of influence, are the NSW Department of Education, the education unions, the federal Ministry of Education (essentially a funding and testing body), principals, teachers and parents. Four out of five pistons are firing - all effort must now be concentrated on lifting the teaching and learning environment of the comprehensive public school.

From a "consumer value" perspective" the selective state school is at the top of the food chain. It costs little to attend, requires little parental involvement and is the most ruthlessly exclusive model. Almost all students attending these schools are the children of first-generation migrants, mainly from Asia and the subcontinent. The smart parents of these smart kids worked out quickly which side of the bread the butter was on. By spending a few thousand dollars on coaching in primary school they can avoid shelling out 50 times that amount to gain access to the quality of teaching and the peer group they want for their children. In terms of results, it's a subsidy worth paying. The Anglo Australians are either too dumb or too complacent to make the same commitment to their children's future.

The selective government school system was extended in the 1980s and '90s as a response to the growing tide of evacuation from public to private schools - worse in NSW than any other state. The NSW Department of Education widened the range of selectivity from academic and agricultural to include centres of excellence in sport, technology and the performing arts. The move was largely successful in fostering great public schools, by drawing on motivated teachers and creating a positive peer-pressure environment.

The problem for public schools generally had been a vacuum of culture. While the non-government schools could define themselves by some coherent religious (or Steiner or other) ethic and community, the public system, in the absence of selectivity, took refuge in concepts of inclusiveness and tolerance, which lacked the horsepower to inspire commitment from parents, teachers and students. The resulting vacuum has been filled by behaviourally challenged students and defensive, disengaged parents - a problem massively exacerbated after the state selective schools and the non-government sector hoovered up the most talented and motivated students.

The so called "comprehensive" school lost its student role models. One public high school principal confessed to me the difficulty he was facing in getting students to accept academic awards at speech day for fear of being mocked and bullied in the playground.

In that climate, the academic results and overall school discipline went into free fall. Many outer suburban "comprehensive" schools, with no effective means to discipline chronic misbehaviour, became a chapter out of the Lord of the Flies. There is a tipping point where the forces of bullying, abuse, high staff turnover and low common-room morale, vandalism and outright violence overwhelms the educational project. Teachers become mere child minders, enduring a job they hate, trying desperately to do something for the few kids who really want to learn. With limited government budgets and without a supportive school community, there is no money for new initiatives.

The comprehensive primary school often evidences a complete drought of male teachers. Low remuneration, low prospects of merit promotion, the risk of sexual allegations in a low-trust culture, and the militant feminism of the teacher unions, creates an intensely male-unfriendly environment. The absence of strong, sporty male teachers is a disaster for boys' education. Education unions, rightly sensing the odds were stacked against them, adopted a strategy of resisting any kind of accountability for teacher and school performance and resisting the empowerment of principals that might distinguish one school from another. Most have no ability to select their own staff or nurture their own ethic, instead suffering a revolving door of department-directed staff transfers.

The unions have worked to maintain a victim culture under which the answer to every question is "more funding", putting all their creative energy into political campaigns that are designed to provide cover for the abysmal performance of most (but not all) outer-suburban comprehensive public schools.

However, there is hope. All the research shows the strongest ballast against the forces of darkness is an inspiring principal. I have witnessed non-selective public schools, drawing heavily from housing department estates and low-income suburbs, that bristle with pride, energy, courtesy and learning - invariably revolving around an inspirational principal..

The My School website is an excellent first step towards parent empowerment and engagement. It allows high-performing public schools to receive the credit they richly deserve, and flushes out the complacent among the privileged private schools.

It should be expanded to include: the number of teacher absences, the turnover of teaching staff, the number of teachers on stress leave, the number of former teachers in litigation with the department, physical assaults, the ratio of male to female staff and some metric for the effectiveness of the school council and the P&C association. It must now be accompanied by genuine devolution of budget and policy autonomy from the department to principals, and opportunities for merit promotion and more money for the motivated teachers we so desperately need to retain.


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