How Teachers Union Work Rules Harm Public Education

The state of public education in America is not good.  The Organization of Economic Cooperation reported in 2016 that students in our public schools scored below average in math, tied with five countries for 37th out of 70; average in science, tied with 12 nations for 19th out of 70; and average in reading, tied with 13 nations for 15th out of 70.  For a country that is the unquestioned leader of the free world in wealth and technology, these are deplorable results.

California public schools are even worse.  In a recent survey, WalletHub ranked California’s schools ninth worst among the fifty states, forty-seventh in reading scores, and third worst in safety for students.

Any business with these results would fire everyone at the top.  But who can we fire?  Who is in charge of our public schools anyway?  Who should be accountable for the poor performance of our public schools?

Everyone associated with public schools knows the answer:  the teacher unions run our public schools and have been in charge for a long time.  This is thoroughly documented in the definitive book written by Stanford professor and Hoover Institute fellow, Dr. Terry Moe,  Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Brookings Institution Press 2011).  Professor Moe walks through the history of teacher unions, describing the changes that occurred when teachers were given the legal right to engage in collective bargaining during the 1970s and 1980s.

While wages were important to union leaders, Moe reports, equally important was union success in negotiating work rules that often went unnoticed by the public but became fixtures in union contracts.  These work rules governed everything that took place in the workplace, from hiring and firing teachers to seniority, layoffs, and a uniform pay scale.  While these work rules always increased union power and favored teachers, they often were harmful to student outcomes.

When work rules became comprehensive and detailed during the 1980s, all of the important discretion over teacher behavior had been acquired by the unions, and soon this included policy as well.  For example, work rules often require that principals give notice before looking in on a classroom teacher, removing a supervisory tool that used to be effective; and work rules typically allow a teacher to bump another teacher and take her job based on seniority, removing the principal’s discretion to form a team whom they feel will work well together.

Work rules also required that important questions, usually decided by management, be referred to committees populated by teachers.  Once the unions controlled who taught our kids and how they were taught, the unions had appointed themselves the bosses of public education.

Some of the areas most in need of school reform originated as work rules. Studies show that teacher quality is the most important ingredient to a quality education, yet work rules establish a single pay scale for all teachers regardless of quality, removing a tool, incentive pay, which is used in the private sector to hire the best employees.  Work rules also require school districts to grant tenure within two years, which is too short a time for a thorough evaluation, especially when other work rules make it impossible to fire bad teachers who have tenure.

No matter which reforms have the most merit, no one can deny that someone else should be running our public schools.  Teacher unions have had their chance, and it is time to make someone else the boss.  Professor Moe tells us how:

“If reformers want to stand up for children—and win for children—there is only one way out of the current bind.  The power of the teachers unions must . . . be drastically reduced, so that the interests of the children and effective schooling can take priority among the nation’s policymakers and real reform can go forward.  This is the goal.  Baby steps won’t get us there.”  (Special Interest p. 344.)

Now is the time for change.

Bob Loewen is the chairman of the California Policy Center.

Charter Schools Highlight the Inequity of Traditional Public Education

There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.

The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.

A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools.  That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.

There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools.  There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.

However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other.  This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school.  Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.

In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City.  Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.

So far, so good.

Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results.  First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty.  That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present.  Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents).  Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.

The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities.  They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches.  Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.

However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools.  Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively.  In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between  every four and five years for the local traditional schools.

The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification.  Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees.  The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond.  In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.

Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?

One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive.  There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..

The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.

The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools.  There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children.  It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.

Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success.  In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries.  We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.

Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.

Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.

What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.

How America’s Business Lobby Often Opposes Free Markets

Traditionally, business was the most important political backer of free markets, which made sense because business needs markets in order to exist at all. However, in the last generation, the views of business, as expressed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other outlets, have increasingly diverged from the free-market ideal. As crony capitalist ideas have come to dominate business thinking, so crony capitalism itself has come to dominate the U.S. economy, with dire results for productivity growth and the living standards of Americans.

In some respects, the Chamber of Commerce and domestic business generally remain committed to the remnants of free-market principle in an environment where they have been beleaguered. The Chamber vehemently opposes the efforts of trial lawyers to divert shareholder funds to their own pockets. It generally supports free trade; indeed it is especially adamant in supporting the freedom to offshore operations from the U.S. to emerging markets where costs are lower. It supports the Keystone pipeline.

As might be expected, the Chamber also opposes a number of Obama administration initiatives that directly increase business costs. It opposes Obamacare in general and is especially vehement against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s lack of accountability and surplus of regulations. It also, as might be expected, opposes restrictions on atmospheric carbon and retains its historic opposition to the trade union movement.

The Chamber would naturally oppose legislation that imposed costs on business; in the same way, it naturally favors provisions that reward business with tax breaks not available to the public as a whole. However, in general its anti-market positions bear only modest relation to the economic interests of business, and instead reflect a corporatist agenda that is thoroughly detrimental both to the interest of ordinary people and to the overall U.S. economy.

The most egregious anti-market attitude of modern business, at least the largest businesses, is on immigration. Here it favors essentially the abolition of all restrictions. Thus, it wants to import high-skill immigrants in tech sectors to compete with U.S. STEM graduates for the limited number of jobs available (we learned this week that Microsoft, one of the advocates of increased immigration, is to lay off 15,000 U.S. workers.) This is a very shortsighted policy indeed; by driving down the wages paid to STEM graduates, so that computer scientists earn less now than they did in 1999, business lobbyists are ensuring that the best and brightest U.S. students head for careers in areas such as law where they are better protected from foreign competition.

At the low-skill end of immigration, business generally favors both legalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country (thus encouraging a further flow, as we are seeing currently) and the establishment of not one but two guest-worker programs, under which further low-skill workers can be imported to drive low-skill wages down to subsistence levels. Needless to say, this is not in the interest of the U.S. people as a whole, who are impoverished thereby. It is not even in the long-term interest of business. Very high low-skill immigration and declining U.S. living standards degrade the gigantic domestic market so that it is no longer the template against which international competition must measure itself. Without the world’s richest and most sophisticated consumers, U.S. business will be at a growing disadvantage against competitors from richer and better-ordered countries such as Japan, Germany, Scandinavia and eventually South Korea, Taiwan and others in South-East Asia.

The free-market approach to immigration recognizes that people are not goods and that the arguments for free trade in goods break down when the item moving from country to country is an immigrant. Barbers are paid more in Boston than they are in Bangalore because of the greater wealth surrounding them, and an extra barber imported to Boston competes directly with the local workforce and plays far more havoc with domestic living standards than an imported car, machine tool or item of software. Hence, to prevent Boston barbers’ living standards from being driven down to those of the Congo, we must restrict imports of people. The cheap labor lobby, whether in the tech sector, in agriculture or in low-wage service sectors, is attempting to enrich itself by immiserating its fellow citizens.

Business in general and the Chamber of Commerce in particular are further violating free-market principles by their approach to education, for which they favor a “Common Core” standard imposed by a remote bureaucracy in Washington. Raising educational attainment is desirable, but in most respects the Common Core standards are dumbed down and politicized compared to the state standards that preceded them. The problem becomes worse if education funding is made dependent on standardized test results. At that point, all effort goes to satisfying the test results rather than getting the best out of the academically gifted, and study beyond the core syllabus more or less disappears.

The free-market approach to education is precisely the opposite of that favored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: to decentralize it as far as possible, introducing competition between schools and localities and allowing parents to choose both where they live and where within that area their children go to school. Of course, top-up payments should be made to ensure that schools in poor or educationally deprived communities are capable of raising the standards of their pupils, but this is best achieved by a voucher system, with additional vouchers for poor or disadvantaged families. While parents lack the knowledge to choose optimally between different educational approaches, so do educational bureaucrats, and the parents are much more likely to choose approaches that fit the needs and aspirations of their children.

A third policy area in which business opposes the free market is in infrastructure spending, typically funded by the state. Here costs have escalated far in excess of general inflation, by a factor of five or 10 times in real terms in the last 50 years, yet business still pushes for high spending, expecting it to be funded by the taxpayer, and does little or nothing to dynamite the union rules, environmental constraints and sheer mindless regulation that makes it so impossibly expensive. The free-market response to the infrastructure problem is a moratorium, refusing to fund any new projects until costs have been returned to their historic level in real terms (ample documentation is available to show where cost savings must be made.) Only when a bonfire of regulation and litigation has occurred should infrastructure spending again be resumed, this time at reasonable cost to the tax-paying public.

Business is also anti-free-market in the patent and copyright area, where it favors excessive and costly patent grants and copyrights extending far beyond a reasonable return for the creation concerned, so that 1923 seems destined to survive forever as a fixed date after which copyright will be eternal. It plays games with pension funding, hoping to pass off much of the cost of eventual defaults on taxpayers through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. It favors the US Eximbank, even though that crony capitalist institution supports a tiny minority of businesses, lands taxpayers with credit losses and provides subsidized competition to other businesses such as Delta Airlines.

Finally, the most damaging betrayal of free markets by U.S. business is its support for the Fed’s current extreme monetary policies. Here there is a disconnect between the needs of business itself, which wants at all costs to avoid another destructive meltdown like that of 2008, and those of corporate management, who want a continual bubble-led inflation of stock prices to maximize the value of their options. The Chamber view even extends to decrying the 2008 Fed as having been too tight – something that can have been true for at most a week or so, given the persistent negative real interest rates of that year.

Business in general and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in particular retain a theoretical support for the free-market system. But that support is increasingly counterbalanced by practical opposition to it on issue after issue. It’s not very surprising; as the economy gets pulled further and further away from a true free market, with larger and larger government, more and more regulation and an increasingly destructive monetary policy, the interests of business increasingly become locked into the statist status quo. The beneficiaries of crony capitalism are rich and thriving in a crony capitalist world; those of a true free market are increasingly beleaguered, as they represent businesses that never came into existence or were stifled early on by monstrous regulation.

If a full free market, with Volckerite or gold-standard monetary policy and regulation sharply cut back were ever re-established, much of today’s business would bitterly oppose it, as no doubt would the Chamber. We even saw a simulacrum of this process in the run-up to the 1980 election and the early Reagan years, when much of the business establishment was dragged kicking and screaming into the new world. The effect today would be much stronger as the deviation from a free-market economy has gone much further since 1988.

We are at present in the gloomy world of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” in which an alliance between the crony capitalist James Taggart and the regulator Wesley Mouch is driving the innovators into bankruptcy—or in that case, into a secret hideout in the Colorado mountains that was, alas, pure fantasy. There is still hope for a reversal into something better, but the business lobby will initially oppose bitterly any such move.

About the Author:  Martin Hutchinson is the author of “Great Conservatives” (Academica Press, 2005) which examines the British governments of 1783-1830. He was formerly Business and Economics Editor at United Press International. Martin’s weekly column, The Bear’s Lair, is based on the rationale that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. This article originally appeared on the economics website “The Prudent Bear” and is republished here with permission.

Common Core: A Trojan Horse?

The deceptively innocuous-sounding name belies the crippling effects a centralized K-12 education curriculum will have on the United States once it is allowed to take effect. Ze’ev Wurman, software architect, electrical engineer and longtime math advisory expert, feels Common Core is a federally-enforced “mediocre national benchmark” that “marks the cessation of educational standards improvement” and will consign the country to a non-first rate future.

Incursion by the federal government in matters pertaining to the curriculum or content in public education is prohibited by the Constitution and echoed in the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1970 General Education Provisions Act and 1979 Department of Education Organization Act.

The 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind legislation, marked a shift that squarely involved the government in establishing education standards and student assessments. With Common Core, however, the reach and scope of federal control and the lawlessness are breathtaking. This essay attempts to outline the main issues. The initiative deserves further analysis.

The Common Core States Initiative was part of 2009 stimulus package. Prohibited by law from direct control of public education, it represented an attempt by the federal government to establish a straw horse, a public beard to induce states to adopt the program to compete for gain shares of $4.35 Billion in Race To the Top grant funds.

CCSSI was presented as a state-led effort “coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards, assessments, curriculum, texts and instructional materials were all developed by two independent private consortia, SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium. They were selected by the Department of Education and awarded more than $300 Million in federal grants.

Although SBAC and PARCC had not yet written the standards for mathematics and English Language Arts, the states had to commit to them sight unseen in order to receive the RTTT funds, the states were in desperate financial straits due to the economic downturn. Forty-five states and Washington, DC all agreed to accept CCI. NY and Florida each got $700 Million.

CCSSI is a national initiative masquerading as a state-sponsored program. States will be required to develop massive databases involving personal information about students and their families. This is an invasion of privacy that is prohibited by the Family Education and Privacy Act. The information will be shared with the Department of Education and the Executive office as well as other federal agencies.

The standards, curriculum and assessments in mathematics and English Language Arts were developed by a 29-member Common Core Standards Development Work Group. The members represented testing experts, professors of education, one mathematician and several teachers and school administrators.

Instead of experts in the much-needed STEM subjects, the work group and the 25-member Validation Committee consisted of employees of testing organizations like ACT, College Board and Achieve. The members of the two three-person committees that wrote the entirety of the national K-12 standards for mathematics as well as ELA were non-education professionals as well.

Sixty individuals who lacked adequate qualifications or credentials were designated by the federal government to undertake the Herculean task. That the product designed to develop critical thinking and to teach 21st century standards for college and career readiness in the global economy without approval of oversight by the public or nation-wide consultation with educators and experts has caused such furor and outrage is both understandable and appropriate.

There was a single college professor of mathematics, James Milgram from Stanford University but not even one college or PhD-level professors of science, technology or engineering. Milgram refused to sign off on the final draft. He warned that by the seventh grade, the CCI math standards would put American students two years behind their peers from Singapore, Shanghai, Japan and the other high-performing countries.

John Goodman, a math professor at New York University, echoed Milgram’s concerns. He felt the CCI math standards imposed “significantly lower expectations with respect to algebra and geometry than the published standards of other (leading) countries.”

The concerns were prompted by the shift from 8th to 9th grade for Algebra I and the reduction in emphasis in basic principles such as addition, subtraction, fractions and division in elementary school in favor of abstract reasoning and problem solving. Panel member Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas expressed similar misgivings about the math standards.

The ELA standards are equally sub-standard. 50% of classic literature will be replaced by informational texts from kindergarten through 10th grade. In the last two years of high school, 70% of what students read will consist of informational texts, political speeches and magazine article. Gone are Mark Twain, John Milton, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and countless other great Western writers.

A significant number of the literary selections chosen reflect the strong emphasis in multiculturalism. An emphasis on Islam is equally striking that is amplified by a $135 Million federal grant to install books on Islam in every public school library with no funds allocated for books on Judaism or Christianity.

Pioneer Institute estimates the costs to implement Common Core to be $17 Billion for the 1st seven years in addition to the funds each state allocates for education in its annual budget. The Congressional Budget Office was not asked to prepare an estimate lest it become obvious CCI is a federal program.

The public is waking up to the specter of national overhaul of public education, lowering of standards and federalization of the system. States are backing out of their commitment and refusing or delaying the implementation of the standards.

Massachusetts, the only state to score in the top three on PISA assessments, dropped significantly in rank after implementing Common Core. In New York, 70% of 8th graders failed the math exam and 74%, the English exam. In one Harlem school, just 7% of students passed in English and 10% in math.

Where do we go from here? There is only one answer. Michelle Malkin is right. She minced no words in her indictment of CCI as “rotten to the core” and her warning that “the corruption of math education is just the beginning.” It must be rejected and rescinded. Our children and our country deserve better.

About the Author:  R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

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