Friday, May 20, 2011

The Failure of American Schools

By JOEL KLEIN, former Chancellor of NYC schools

TO COMPREHEND THE depth of the problem, consider one episode that still shocks me. Starting in 2006, under federal law, the State of New York was required to test students in grades three through eight annually in math and English. The results of those tests would enable us, for the first time, to analyze year-to-year student progress and tie it to individual teacher performance—a metric known in the field as “teacher value-added.” In essence, you hold constant other factors—where the students start from the prior year, demographics, class size, teacher length of service, and so on—and, based on test results, seek to isolate the individual teacher’s contribution to a student’s progress. Some teachers, for example, move their class forward on average a quarter-year more than expected; others, a quarter-year less. Value-added isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s surely worth considering as part of an overall teacher evaluation.

After we developed data from this metric, we decided to factor them into the granting of tenure, an award that is made after three years and that provides virtual lifetime job security. Under state law at the time, we were free to use these data. But after the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, objected, I proposed that the City use value-added numbers only for the top and bottom 20 percent of teachers: the top 20 percent would get positive credit; the bottom would lose credit. And even then, principals would take value-added data into account only as part of a much larger, comprehensive tenure review. Even with these limitations, the UFT said “No way,” and headed to Albany to set up a legislative roadblock.

Seemingly overnight, a budget amendment barring the use of test data in tenure decisions materialized in the heavily Democratic State Assembly. Joe Bruno, then the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, assured me that this amendment would not pass: he controlled the majority and would make sure that it remained united in opposition. Fast-forward a few weeks: the next call I got from Senator Bruno was to say, apologetically, that several of his Republican colleagues had caved to the teachers union, which had threatened reprisals in the next election if they didn’t get on board.

As a result, even when making a lifetime tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher’s impact on student learning. That Kafkaesque outcome demonstrates precisely the way the system is run: for the adults. The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.

Let’s start with the politicians. From their point of view, the school system can be enormously helpful, providing patronage hires, school-placement opportunities for connected constituents, the means to get favored community and business programs adopted and funded, and politically advantageous ties to schools and parents in their communities.

During my maiden testimony before the State Assembly, I said that we would end patronage hires, which were notorious under the old system of 32 school districts, run by 32 school boards and 32 superintendents (a 2002 state bill granting Bloomberg mayoral control of the city’s schools abolished the 32 boards). At my mention of patronage, the legislators, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, purported to be “shocked.” Nevertheless, after the hearing, when I went to thank committee members, one took me aside and said: “Listen, they’re trying to get rid of a principal in my district who runs a Democratic club for us. If you protect him, you’ll never have a problem with me.” This kind of encounter was not rare.

Similarly, I faced repeated requests for “constituent services,” meaning good school placements for wired constituents. After we reorganized the system and minimized the power of the 32 local superintendents—the go-to people for politicians under the past regime—a local official called me and asked, “Whom do I call for constituent services after your reorg?” I replied, “What’s that?” Impatiently, he asked, “How do I get a kid into a school when I need to?” I jokingly answered, “Oh, we must have left out that office in the reorg” (actually thinking, silly me, that the school system should use equitable rules for admission). He said, “Go fuck yourself,” and hung up. Despite our constant efforts, or because of them, this kind of political pressure—and payback if we weren’t responsive—happened at every level. Even more important, politicians can reap enormous political support from the unions representing school employees. The two national unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—together have some 4.7 million members, who pay hundreds of millions of dollars in national, state, and local dues, much of which is funneled to political causes. Teachers unions consistently rank among the top spenders on politics.

Moreover, millions of union members turn out when summoned, going door-to-door, staffing phone banks, attending rallies, and the like. Teachers are extremely effective messengers to parents, community groups, faith-based groups, and elected officials, and the unions know how to deploy them well. And just as happy unions can give a politician massive clout, unhappy unions—well, just ask Eva Moskowitz, a Democrat who headed the City Council Education Committee when I became chancellor in 2002. Brilliant, savvy, ambitious, often a pain in my neck, and atypically fearless for an elected official, she was widely expected to be elected Manhattan borough president in 2005. Until, that is, she held hearings on the New York City teachers-union contract—an extraordinary document, running on for hundreds of pages, governing who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to hall-monitor or lunchroom duty and who can’t, who has to be given time off to do union work during the school day, and so on. Truth is, the contract defied parody. So when Moskowitz exposed its ridiculousness, the UFT, then headed by Randi Weingarten, made sure that Moskowitz’s run for borough president came up short. After that, other elected officials would say to me, “I agree with you, but I ain’t gonna get Eva’d.”

In short, politicians—especially Democratic politicians—generally do what the unions want. And the unions, in turn, are very clear about what that is. They want, first, happy members, so that those who run the unions get reelected; and, second, more members, so their power, money, and influence grow. As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly put it, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” And what do the members want? Employees understandably want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say, 55) with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits; for their part, the retirees want to make sure their benefits keep coming and grow through cost-of-living increases. The result: whether you work hard or don’t, get good results with kids or don’t, teach in a shortage area like math or special education or don’t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you’ve been around for another year, in which case you get more. Not bad for the adults.

But it’s just disastrous for the kids in our schools. While out-of-school environment certainly affects student achievement, President Obama was on to something in 2008 when he said: “The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of [students’] skin or where they come from. It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.” Yet, rather than create a system that attracts and rewards excellent teachers—and that imposes consequences for ineffective or lazy ones—we treat all teachers as if they were identical widgets and their performance didn’t matter.

In fact, notwithstanding union rhetoric that “tenure is merely due process,” firing a public-school teacher for non-performance is virtually impossible. In New York City, which has some 55,000 tenured teachers, we were able to fire only half a dozen or so for incompetence in a given year, even though we devoted significant resources to this effort.

The extent of this “no one gets fired” mentality is difficult to overstate—or even adequately describe. Steven Brill wrote an eye-opening piece in The New Yorker about the “rubber rooms” in New York City, where teachers were kept, while doing no work, pending resolution of the charges against them—mostly for malfeasance, like physical abuse or embezzlement, but also for incompetence. The teachers got paid regardless. (To add insult to injury, these cases ultimately were heard by an arbitrator whom the union had to first approve.) Before we stopped this charade—unfortunately by returning many of these teachers to the classroom, as the arbitrators likely would have required—it used to cost the City about $35 million a year.

In addition, more than 1,000 teachers get full pay while performing substitute-teacher and administrative duties because no principal wants to hire them full-time. This practice costs more than $100 million annually.

Perhaps the most shocking example of the City’s having to pay for teachers who don’t work involves several teachers accused of sexual misconduct—including at least one who was found guilty—whom the union-approved arbitrators refuse to terminate. Although the City is required to put them back in the classroom, it understandably refuses to do so. And the union has never sued the City to have these teachers reinstated, even though it knows it could readily win. It has also never helped figure out how to get these deadbeats off the payroll, where they may remain for decades at full pay, followed by a lifetime pension. No one—and the union means no one—gets fired.


Are Teacher Unions Gouging Teachers?

How much money do teachers unions really need to collect from their members to represent their interests with their employers?

One way we can find out is to see how much money the various branches of the national and state teachers unions have left over after paying the people who work directly for the unions themselves, whose jobs are to represent the member teachers at their school districts and perhaps also to represent their interests at the state and national level as well.

With that in mind, any money collected from mandatory union dues that sharply exceeds the costs of compensating the union's own employees or the costs of operating the union itself, such as rent for office or meeting space for the union's employees, would have to be considered to be excessive. If excessively excessive, the amount of dues above that basic level would constitute gouging on the part of the union bosses, who set the level of their represented teachers' dues, as they would be collecting far more in dues than what is genuinely necessary to represent their members' at their employers..........

Using these mean and median figures as a baseline value, we identify any union affiliate with a surplus percentage of member dues greater than 25% of the total member dues collected as potentially having set their member dues in excess of that required to legitimately represent the interests of teachers at their employers. We've shaded the rows of the table where the union affiliate's surplus dues exceed this level.

We also note several union affiliates that appear to have been substantially mismanaged in 2008-09, in that their expenditures for compensating their direct employees exceed the revenue collected by dues imposed upon their union's member teachers. The states that fall in this category include Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Oregon and Washington. The rows for these states have been shaded red in the table above.

But to answer the question we asked at the outset, some teachers are indeed being gouged by their union's bosses - the ones whose state legislatures were controlled by the Democratic party in 2008-09 and whose union bosses are sending the member teachers' money. The amount of the gouging would be approximately the amount in excess of 25% of each education union affiliate's total revenue from their members' dues.

We see that at the national level, where surplus member dues exceed 63% of the total member dues collected. Using our 25% threshold as the cap for "legitimate" union representation expenses, this suggests that the portion of teachers union dues that go to the national affiliate of the NEA could be reduced by 40% without impacting the ability of the teachers to have their interests effectively represented at this level.

The states whose education unions are most gouging their teachers members include Hawaii (with surplus member dues of 66% and 34% for the state's two NEA affiliates), California (54%), Ohio (50.7%), Florida (42.0%), Nevada (41.6%), Massachusetts (37.6%) and Wisconsin (35.6%). At a minimum, teachers' union dues could be reduced by anywhere from 10% to 25% in these states without impacting the union affiliates ability to just represent the teachers at their employers.

Finally, we note a significant divergence between states with legislatures controlled by members of the Democratic party and those states whose legislatures are either controlled by the Republicans or are split between the two major U.S. political parties.

Here, after adding up the amount of surplus revenue remaining after the union affiliates employees compensation has been subtracted from the total member dues collected, we find that states with Democratic legislatures account for $237,616,324 of the total surplus dues collected, or 70.7% of the $335,937,045 of the total surplus member dues collected in 2008-09 for the NEA's state affiliates.

By contrast, union affiliates in states with divided legislatures account for $66,067,598, or 19.7% of the total surplus collected, while union affiliates in states with legislatures controlled by the Republican party have surplus member dues collections of $32,253,123, or 9.6% of the total surplus collected among all states.

There are some different ways to interpret what this divergence means. First, it could indicate that teachers in states with legislatures with at least one division of the state legislature controlled by the Republican party are happier with that situation, as it indicates that the teachers aren't massing funds to support a prolonged strike in those states. That would also mean that teachers in states with Democratic-party controlled legislatures are less happy with that situation, and that they were preparing to support massive walkouts in 2008-09.

Yes, we laughed at that idea too! More likely, what's going on is that the teachers unions in states with Democratic party-controlled legislatures have been effectively captured by Democratic party members, who are using the surplus member dues to fund their party's political candidates at all levels in those states.

But we'd love to see the reaction of the state union bosses with high levels of dues gouging if anyone ever asks them if the reason why union dues would seem to be so much lower in the so-called Republican-controlled states is because Republicans are better at keeping unionized teachers happy!

Much more HERE

Australia: Harsher penalities for school thugs in Victoria

TOUGHER penalties for violent parents and students are on the way as more schools resort to lockdowns to protect students and staff. More than one state school a week is now locking students in to protect them from violence and aggression, compared to less than one a month five years ago.

Education Minister Martin Dixon yesterday told the Herald Sun he planned to increase penalties for the sorts of behaviour that often spark lockdowns. "There is a high expectation in the community that schools are safe places," Mr Dixon said. "Teachers expect that, parents expect that and children expect it and we've got to do everything in our power to ensure that remains the case."

Mr Dixon said schools were generally safe places, but there were some worrying trends with violence that needed to be addressed. He said a department taskforce was working to determine appropriate penalties.

Australian Principals Federation president Chris Cotching said the federation had been pushing for tougher penalties for all illegal behaviour on school grounds. He said higher penalties - as applies to attacks on emergency service workers - were needed to curb a marked upsurge in violence, particularly from parents, in the past two years. "We want schools to have a status that is greater than that of a public park," Mr Cotching said. "When (people) come into a school there should be an understood and accepted requirement about how they behave."

New data obtained by the Herald Sun shows 11 schools locked in students in the first two months of the school year - nine of them because of aggressive or antisocial behaviour. In 2010 there were 23 school lockdowns for aggression and antisocial behaviour for the entire school year. Across 2008 and 2009 there were 53 violence-related lockdowns, up from 20 in 2006 and 2007.

Last month Flemington Primary was forced to hire a security guard after a father who was angry over a personal issue allegedly became threatening and aggressive.

Mr Cotching said principals have no protection or timely support in dealing with parents "who seem to think it is their unrestricted right to abuse, harass and intimidate" principals and teachers.


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