By Michael J. Petrilli
David Osborne, known for his best-selling Reinventing Government, is out with a new book, Reinventing America’s Schools. To promote it, he is blitzing the country and filling the nation’s newspapers with an argument that is familiar yet powerful: High quality charter schools are the best hope for urban education, so states and cities should do everything in their power to allow them to grow and prosper, and school districts should embrace them as well.
Meanwhile, the District of Columbia’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is out with a strategic plan that is also familiar and powerful, but not exactly aligned with Osborne’s vision. That’s because it doesn’t embrace charters, or even charter-like, schools. Though Wilson hints at granting principals more “autonomy to innovate,” there’s no “portfolio management” or talk about the system “steering instead of rowing.” Rather, in its call for “excellence, equity, and love,” it seeks to maintain DCPS’s reputation as one of the fastest-improving urban districts in the land—one that embraces the kind of systemic, top-down approach that Osborne abhors.
The question, for me at least, is whether D.C. and its recent success is sui generis, or is an exception that proves that reformers’ rules—about urban districts being obsolete—are themselves incorrect.
Let’s start with the part of Osborne’s argument that is hardest to refute: High-quality charter schools are getting incredible results, at increasing scale, and cities with the most of them are changing their students’ lives for the better. Osborne digs deep into the past decade of reform in New Orleans, D.C., Denver, and Indianapolis, and provides compelling evidence that the charter sectors in those cities are achieving breakthrough results. (Two years ago, we found this quartet to be the best cities for school choice as well.) He acknowledges that these cities are unusual for having combined charter quantity with charter quality, but Osborne believes that more urban communities can pull off a similar feat with the right policies and ample political courage.
So far so good. Any city in the country would be lucky to have large, dynamic, high-quality charter sectors like the ones Osborne lauds. And in places where the teachers unions still play machine politics with local school board elections, the central office bureaucracy is sclerotic, and the district educator workforce is mediocre or worse, I am all for growing the “market share” of charters to 100 percent.
But that’s not exactly what Osborne advocates. Instead, he wants urban districts to embrace a charter schools strategy, too. They need not dub them charter schools, mind you, but he wants them to empower principals with real authority over staffing and budgeting, and everything else. “Innovation schools” in Indianapolis—some of which have seen great success—are his model.
Let’s return to Washington, D.C., where almost half of kids attend charter schools, most of which are quite good. I for one would be happy to see high quality charters in the District continue to grow, taking 50, 60, 70 percent of the kids. But not within the DCPS structure. After all, D.C. has an effective charter school authorizer, and ample charter funding. If I’m a philanthropist, or an educator who wants to start a charter, why on earth would I want to do it with the school system rather than the D.C. charter board? Very few urban districts have figured out how to oversee high quality charter schools; more often than not they are terrible at it. In fact, once upon a time DCPS was allowed to charter schools, and they did a terrible job at it. Why ask them to do a job they will almost surely mess up?
The pragmatic answer, I suppose, is “real estate.” Urban districts own lots of school buildings, some of which have been recently renovated, and it sure would be nice if those could be used for charter or charter-like schools. That’s fine, but it’s a work-around. It would be better to fight and win the advocacy battles that would result in true charter schools getting access to these facilities outright. Charters are public schools, too, after all.
And what about the Antwan Wilsons of the world? If you are an urban superintendent, should you embrace the “innovation schools” approach? “Relinquish” power to school leaders, try to spark excellence through empowerment, as Osborne and many other reformers would have you do?
Maybe. Do you have a supportive school board (or mayor) that will allow you stand up to your teachers’ union, so that your principals will actually have the power to staff (and when necessary “unstaff”) their schools? Do your schools and their leaders, or at least a subset of them, have the capacity to be able to deal with greater authority and do something positive with it? Do your principals understand teaching and learning and curriculum alignment and all the rest? If not, do you have a strategy for recruiting leaders with those skill sets?
Ironically, DCPS may be the one urban district in the country right now, other than Indianapolis and Denver, that could mark all the boxes on this checklist. Its exceptionally weak union, unusually strong mayor, and years of productive instructional reforms—the best teacher evaluation system in the country, one of the strongest Common Core aligned curricular efforts as well—may make it well suited to an “empowerment” strategy.
Maybe this is what Chancellor Wilson has in mind when he writes that “we must build on what has worked—ranging from strong curriculum to a deep investment in talent—while giving schools and their leadership greater autonomy to innovate.”
Perhaps. But there’s also an argument for not changing what’s not broken, at least for the majority of DCPS schools that are showing real improvement. Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson proved that it is possible to replace central office bureaucrats with thoughtful, energetic staff; to roll out and continuously improve a smart teacher evaluation and feedback system; and to develop a great curriculum with teachers and for teachers. They put teaching and learning at the center of the system and have the results to show for it.
To be sure, “empowered” principals play a key role in all of this, but they aren’t expected to invent everything themselves. Perhaps because he’s a government reform guy, Osborne is apt to distrust centralization and laud school-based decision-making. But do we really want every school creating its own curriculum? Coming up with its own unique approach to evaluating teachers? At what point does “relinquishment” bleed into recreating the wheel, and wasteful, ineffective inefficiencies?
Rather than ask DCPS and other urban districts to be something they aren’t—akin to asking a leopard to exchange its spots for stripes—why not encourage them to play to their strengths, especially their biggest advantage—scale? This will allow them to offer continuity (in curriculum, expectations, etc.) to the significant percentage of urban students who bounce around from school to school; to influence the local teacher preparation programs in meaningful ways; to intersect with other social service agencies serving low-income children. Let the charters do “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” and let the districts do “systemic reform.” And if there are schools that districts simply cannot improve—and Osborne makes the case that DCPS has quite a few, concentrated in the poorest parts of the city—don’t waste time, money, and political capital trying and failing to fix them. Allow them to die a quiet death as their students move to great new charter schools instead.
By all means, let’s keep growing the high-quality charter schools sector in as many cities as we can. But as to what the legacy districts should do in response, let’s be honest that nobody knows the right answer for sure—which means that nothing that shows promise should be dismissed out of hand. Even the idea that (some) 100-year-old systems might be able to improve, reinvention, or not.
We're going to have to update a talking point. Those of us working in the pension world have long used the shorthand that “nine out of ten teachers” participate in a defined benefit pension plan. But on further look, that’s not quite right, and it’s changing faster than commonly recognized.
Like any good talking point, it has some kernel of truth. The stat comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and as of March of 2016 the BLS reported that 87 percent of “Primary, secondary, and special education school teachers” employed by state or local governments participate in defined benefit pension plans (Table 2 here). We could round up that figure and call it a day, but it’s worth digging deeper.
The BLS has tracked retirement benefits of state and local government employees since 1987, and the longer trend line has some interesting nuance. Back then, the BLS only reported a broad category of “teachers” that included all personnel in primary and secondary schools, plus those employed by state colleges and universities. If we follow this broader category of “teachers” over time, here’s the percentage that participated in a defined benefit pension plan by year:
That’s a 19-percentage-point decline in twenty-nine years. That’s much different than the conventional narrative, and it may even be under-selling things a bit, since existing employees are typically allowed to keep their benefits even as new employees are enrolled in something different.
So what’s driving this change? Beginning in the year 2007, the BLS began disaggregating the data by type of employer, and it became clear that “junior colleges, colleges, and universities” were responsible for a big part of the fall in the larger “teacher” category. In 2007, 68 percent of employees at public colleges and universities participated in a defined benefit plan, and that number fell to 62 percent in 2016.
This decline is noteworthy in itself, but it also suggests a growing divergence in the retirement plans offered to employees working in public K–12 schools and those working in public colleges and universities.
But even if we focus on K–12 schools, there’s movement there as well, although not as much. In 2007, the BLS reported that 94 percent of K–12 teachers participated in a defined benefit plan. But by 2016, that number had fallen to 87 percent.
Slowly but surely, more and more states are making changes to their teacher retirement plans.
But which states? To illustrate this, the timeline depicted in the graphic below charts major teacher pension reform legislation over the last two and a half decades. While the majority of teachers are still enrolled in defined benefit (DB) pension plans, other options have emerged, including:
- Defined contribution (DC) plans, in which both employers and employees contribute a set, or “defined,” amount, like a 401(k);
- Cash balance (CB) plans, a specific type of defined benefit plan in which an employee’s retirement benefit is set in terms of a stated account balance. Unlike traditional DB plans, CB plans are portable, and their benefits accrue more evenly than back-loaded DB plans; and
- Hybrid plans, which include a mix of DB and DC components.
The timeline below shows the adoption of alternative teacher retirement plans. Washington was an early outlier, adopting a hybrid plan in 1995. From 2001 to 2005, in the wake of the dot-com bubble, five more states made changes: South Carolina, Ohio, and Florida created DC options; Oregon switched to a hybrid plan; and Alaska, notably, began enrolling all new teachers in a DC plan in 2005. After a pause, reform picked up again in 2010, with both Virginia and Michigan adding hybrid plans—though Virginia introduced it as an option, while Michigan defaulted all new hires into the system. Five more states made changes soon after, with Indiana, Rhode Island, Utah, and Tennessee offering up alternatives. Most recently, in 2017, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida made changes. Both Michigan and Florida switched to default DC plans, while Pennsylvania adopted a hybrid plan alongside a DC option.
Though the majority of states still enroll their teachers in traditional defined benefit systems, we’ve seen an uptick in states moving toward alternative plans. As more and more new teachers enter the workforce in those states, and as other states follow the early adopters, we’ll see higher and higher percentages of teachers enrolled in alternative retirement plans. These options will be a financial win for state and school budgets, while still offering teachers a secure retirement as well as greater portability. Our talking point needs to change, because progress is happening.
*Note: We attempted to look every ten years, but the data weren’t collected in 1997, and haven’t been released for 2017 yet.
Chad Aldeman is a principal at Bellwether Education Partners and the Editor of TeacherPensions.org. Kirsten Schmitz is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.
Last week, major education policy news came from an unlikely source—Illinois—as Governor Bruce Rauner signed significant school funding reform. For a state that has struggled for more than two years to pass a budget, this was especially noteworthy. It also serves as an object lesson in the importance of ongoing advocacy work.
The package of reforms overhauls overall education funding for the first time in thirty years. The new law provides a fair funding system for children across the state—whether they live in Champaign, Collinsville, or Chicago—and, for the first time in state history, equitable funding to those who attend charter schools.
This is the result of years of work, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, paired with a coordinated political strategy that was aligned with strong policy advocacy. We at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools are proud to be a part of this push and congratulate the advocates, parents, teachers, and elected officials who made this victory possible.
Here’s what this new law does:
Reforms statewide K–12 funding formula: Illinois has historically been either forty-ninth or fiftieth among states in two key school funding metrics: state support provided to school districts statewide and equity among districts. The new law drives additional state funding to districts with higher concentrations of poor students and districts with lower levels of property wealth. Most importantly, funding will now flow first to districts that are farthest away from their adequacy targets. Because Illinois recently increased personal and corporate income tax rates, which will generate billions in additional revenue annually, the timing of the formula change is critical.
Provides charter funding equity: This law requires that every charter school in Illinois be funded between 97 percent and 103 percent of the host district’s per capita tuition charge (PCTC), up from a minimum of 75 percent to a maximum of 125 percent per the current law. PCTC is a calculation required by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) that quantifies the amount a school district pays from its own resources for each student. With the exception of schools approved by the Illinois Charter School Commission, most charter schools in Illinois are currently funded in the 75–85 percent range. The new law will require operational funding parity for charter schools for the first time in Illinois history.
Provides pension parity for Chicago Public Schools (CPS): CPS will receive approximately $315 million in new money from the state: $221 for the district’s payment of normal pension costs, giving CPS the same treatment as all other districts; $76 million from the formula adjustments; and $19 million from the Early Childhood Education Block Grant.
Establishes a new tuition tax credit program: Modeled on similar programs elsewhere and pushed by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, this law creates a $75 million tuition tax credit program that allows donors to give to a student scholarship program and receive a 75 percent credit on their state tax liability. The proceeds will then be donated by the scholarship granting organization to a student for tuition use at a private school. There is no plan to annually increase the $75 million cap, and the plan has to be renewed in five years. Nevertheless, this represents the largest tax credit program at inception in the country. And it has a few interesting features. First, it is means-tested, meaning that students are eligible only if they come from families who make up to 300 percent of the poverty line in a given year (for a family of four, that amounts to $72,900 this year). For the first time in Illinois history, both public and private schools will be required to administer the same set of standardized tests, allowing the potential for comparability.
Gives CPS ability to raise taxes locally: The law provides Chicago some flexibility in their annual property tax levy, allowing CPS to go above the current statutory limit on annual property tax increases to raise local dollars. The law empowers the appointed Chicago Public Schools Board to make this change, which is significant because the Chicago City Council has already increased property taxes over the past year.
Provides potential for local districts to implement property tax relief: There is now a legal mechanism for local residents to petition for a referendum to lower their property taxes. Illinois has a number of school districts with substantial reserves—in some cases these reserves amount to more than a year of operating revenue. In districts operating at 110 percent of their adequacy target, residents can now gather signatures from 10 percent of registered voters and call for a binding referendum to reduce property taxes. These are not the property tax caps the governor sought, but they represent a meaningful check on local property taxes for residents in relatively high-wealth districts
Offers charter-like mandate relief for districts: The law provides mandate relief for school districts through a streamlined School Code waiver process, reducing physical education requirements and allowing districts to use commercial driver training schools for driver education without requesting a waiver.
This landmark education reform legislation is the product of many years of work on reform, choice, and related advocacy efforts here in Illinois. While we’re thrilled to celebrate this milestone, there is still more work to be done. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools will not rest until every child in our state is afforded their basic human right—a high-quality education that prepares them for the life that awaits them. We stand ready to work with any organization seriously committed to making that a reality.
Andrew Broy, a former public school teacher and civil rights lawyer, is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), a group that supports and advocates on behalf of Illinois charter public schools.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Constance A. Lindsay, a research associate at the Urban Institute, joins Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright to discuss New York City’s controversial new plan to use its Absent Teacher Reserve Pool to fill its teacher vacancies. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines an imperfect study of classrooms’ use of technology.
Amber’s Research Minute
Ludwig van Broekhuizen, “The Paradox of Classroom Technology: Despite Proliferation and Access, Students Not Using Technology,” AdvancED (September 2017).
Three years into his first gig as a recruiter/trainer at a job skills program in San Francisco, Mauricio Lim Miller recognized a striking contradiction that changed the trajectory of his life and work. As a person whose family had overcome great personal hardship and who was now trying to help others do the same, he could not reconcile the way he ran his own life with the way he was expected to run a social service program. The proscriptive, top-down structure of so-called benefits programs like his emphasized the “deficits” of their clients and often sought to substitute narrow program rules for individual options. Those rules were sometimes contradictory (as when multiple programs were involved) and sometimes self-defeating (e.g. child-care subsidies that lapsed if a program participant earned a little too much money from work). Even worse, he became convinced that such service programs were conferring greater benefit on their employees than on their clients.
When he was invited to attend President Clinton’s State of the Union address as recognition for his work, Miller says he nearly declined out of guilt. As soon as he was given a chance by California Governor Jerry Brown to reshape the assistance available to poor families in his native Oakland, Miller began formulating what he calls The Alternative—a new approach to supporting families experiencing poverty by focusing on strengths and supporting individual efforts toward upward mobility. This approach characterizes a fast-growing effort called The Family Independence Initiative (FII). Miller’s new book chronicles his journey and the expansion of FII from California into Michigan and now Ohio.
The book’s premise is deceptively simple: Miller believes that both parts of the old “give a man a fish” aphorism are wrong. People aren’t fishing not necessarily due to a lack of knowledge; rather they lack the money for a pole or transportation to the water. Or they might not have the time to wait for the fish to bite because of family commitments. But assuming people “don’t know how to fish” and that large scale programs must exist to teach everyone has long been the default version of social service in the United States. Despite good intentions, this has led to paternalistic, expensive, and hidebound service-providing agencies that force poor families into the service pipeline and hold them there. They have been designed to address perceived “deficits” in people’s lives and they ignore–or even quash–families’ and communities’ own efforts to move upward.
The alternative approach, the one that animates FII, assumes nothing of families except that they are the “experts of their own lives” and provides nothing to families except support for what they are already working toward on their own. The key missing ingredients in traditional social services are client agency and choice, the very things that often define middle- and upper-class families. “Taking control away from people, or trying to induce them with carrots or sticks,” Miller writes, “is…the opposite of what most of us with privilege would accept.” While he doesn’t talk much about education except as a key recurring goal for the children of families he works with, those of us who support school choice should recognize this mindset and echo its aims.
The alternative approach is so revolutionary as to defy easy description–hence the need for a book to explain it and hence Miller’s well-deserved MacArthur Genius Award. It is an effort to empower families and communities to be their own change agents, mainly by telling them they can be—a new and different message for most FII families. I won’t rob readers of the pleasure of hearing Miller’s own account of the evolution, structure, and successes of FII, but other key features include:
- Partnerships with families and communities are central. FII’s efforts are led by families that come voluntarily and recruit others to join. Goals are set by participants based on their needs—a community center here, a scholarship fund there, a babysitting co-op elsewhere.
- Data gathering and analysis are the central “work.” FII staffers establish baseline family and community data, analyze progress toward participants’ goals, and publicize that progress both within and outside of the participating communities. Families are given computers and paid nominally for their data input time, which is considerable.
- FII staffers do not “help” participants. In fact, Miller makes it clear that he has fired staffers for such simple acts as translating a letter for a family into their native language; families know what they need and will figure out how best to access it themselves.
- Locating positive deviants (individuals with uncommon behaviors and strategies that enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges) and early change adopters to follow them are first steps of the data analysis process. Supporting their progress and making sure the community knows the success stories are the next steps toward the ultimate outcome of self-directed upward mobility.
Miller’s own mother would not take a “handout” while struggling to support her family, believing that action to be an admission of helplessness. But despite working three jobs at a time and having the talent to design and make clothing, investment in her strengths and abilities was nowhere to be found. So she struggled. Middle- and upper-class entrepreneurs can regularly access angel investors and seed capital to “bet” on their eventual success, while low-income entrepreneurs can perhaps access a loan that must be paid back, however low the interest might be. FII invests in the efforts of individuals and groups to provide for their own needs, working to nurture those positive deviants and early adopters (entrepreneurs, college graduates, community builders, etc.) to Gladwell’s tipping point. FII also tells the stories of positive change to show that, far from being “needy,” families experiencing poverty are resourceful and capable.
“Our experts and service providers have a very shallow, often siloed view of the complexity of life in and around the poverty level,” writes Miller. “If the various programs want to be helpful, as well as protective of their funding, they need to be more effective and efficient. They need to understand the issues from the perspective of those they want to help and not just the silo of help they represent. To truly assist in solving any problem they need to take direction from the very families they seek to help since they are the experts of their own lives.”
This novel perspective should resonate with the work of education reformers at least as much as it does with social service providers. Stagnant learning environments, low expectations, social promotion, education systems that are more rewarding for the adults working in them than the students supposedly learning in them, and college access without ensuring college readiness are all forms of well-intentioned “handouts” that end up doing more harm than good for the most part. Mauricio Miller’s efforts to change social service work into the type of supports his family truly needed–rather than a rigid and self-perpetuating pipeline of dubious “help”–could be a new pattern for education reform efforts going forward.
SOURCE: Mauricio L. Miller, The Alternative, Lulu Publishing Services (August, 2017).
It’s no secret that high-quality early childhood education can lead to significant and positive short-term impacts for children, particularly those from disadvantaged circumstances. Unfortunately, much of the current research also points to a troubling “fade out” trend—the academic gains that students make in preschool gradually decrease until they disappear completely.
A recent study from Mathematica seeks to add to this discussion by investigating whether the pre-K programs offered by some KIPP charter schools produce more lasting impacts. Researchers selected KIPP for several reasons, including the fact that it employs several practices that are considered high quality (such as well-educated teachers and low teacher-child ratios). Most significant, though, is that many KIPP pre-K students continue their education in a KIPP elementary school—increasing the probability that their elementary school experience will align with their pre-K experiences, and thereby potentially lead to longer-lasting impacts.
The study explored three research questions and used slightly different methods to examine each. The samples were relatively small, but the analysts were able to employ experimental methods that allow us to draw stronger conclusions about the effects of KIPP pre-K. A series of achievement tests (like the Woodcock-Johnson III) were used to measure both academic achievement and executive function (skills that help students do critical things, like focus their attention and multi-task). Interviews of KIPP staff were also conducted.
First, the study examined the effects of attending a KIPP pre-K and elementary school on student achievement. Specifically, it compared outcomes for students who won KIPP admission via lottery in pre-K and remained in a KIPP elementary school through second grade to the outcomes for students who were not offered admission. Researchers looked at three oversubscribed KIPP elementary schools that offered pre-K in two cities. There were two key findings: First, students who attended both KIPP pre-K and elementary schools made significant gains on reading and math achievement by the end of second grade relative to students who did not win the pre-K lottery. Second, KIPP pre-K and elementary schools may also have had a positive impact on student executive function, though the findings were not statistically significant.
Second, researchers aimed to isolate the effects of KIPP pre-K by comparing outcomes for students who enrolled in a KIPP school starting in pre-K to those who enrolled in KIPP starting in kindergarten. The kindergarten cohort was made up a sample of students from five oversubscribed KIPP schools that did not offer pre-K in four cities. Researchers found that KIPP pre-K may provide an additional benefit for reaching achievement above and beyond just attending KIPP elementary schools. Although the results did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance due to small sample sizes, the researchers found that the magnitude of reading impacts was larger for KIPP schools that offered pre-K than for those that did not, which suggests that “earlier and longer exposure to KIPP improves reading outcomes.”
Third, the study sought to determine how the size of KIPP’s impact changed over time for students who attended KIPP pre-K. To answer this question, researchers examined the impacts for the pre-K cohort in kindergarten and then again in second grade using the same academic tests. The sample was restricted to students who had test outcome data for both kindergarten and second grade. Researchers found that the impact on reading skills persisted over time, but impacts on reading comprehension dissipated by second grade.
Overall, it’s clear that the cumulative impacts of KIPP pre-K and elementary school are positive and substantial—the earlier students are enrolled in a KIPP school, the better. But the biggest takeaway extends beyond the performance of a single charter network. High-quality pre-K is good for kids, but high-quality pre-K plus a great elementary school experience could be the key to avoiding the fade out trend—and that’s why it’s so important that more charter schools be permitted to provide pre-K.
SOURCE: Virginia Knechtel, Thomas Coen, Pia Caronongan, Nickie Fung, Lisbeth Goble, “Pre-Kindergarten Impacts Over Time: An Analysis of KIPP Charter Schools,” Mathematica Policy Research (August 2017).