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The Longevity Increase—What?

Article by Paul E. Peterson, 18 April 2011

Teacher union leaders are outraged that the Watertown, Mass. school committee has rejected a negotiated contract that would give them a longevity increase.  A longevity increase!?!  That’s extra payment for just “Being There.”  If you just show up, you get more dollars in your pocket.

Never has a pay increase been so aptly titled.  The longevity increase goes to those teachers who have reached the highest step on the salary scale but want more money nonetheless.  They are the best-paid teachers in the system and, often, the most powerful members of the teachers union.   Since the longevity increase goes only to a few teachers, the cost to the district is not as great as an across-the-board increase. No wonder negotiators give in to the union on this one.

All of this would be just fine, if the most experienced teachers were the best teachers. But as I discuss in a previous post, teacher effectiveness actually tails off in the latter years of teaching.

Not that the longevity increase is the item that most irritated the Watertown school committee. The proposed contract calls for a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase in salaries in the coming year, and another 2.5 percent the following year—at a time when many Watertown taxpayers feel lucky if they just have a job. According to the town manager, the contract “would result in the layoff of eight young teachers” next year and “16 to 17 teachers” in the year following.  Young teachers get fired first, because those with longevity also have the seniority that keeps them in place, no matter how ineffective they have become.

Since the average Watertown teacher is already getting $70,826 as well as free medical care and a pension at no cost, the manager thought the town needed to give higher priority to the $1.5 million deficit it was facing.

But it is the longevity increase that strikes me as the most bizarre part of the proposed contract.  Why are we paying people just for aging in place?    How widespread and deep-seated is the practice? When and where was it invented? My hometown of Wellesley just gave their longevities an increase, and I heard about this practice in Illinois many years ago. But are those the exceptions?

If you know of it going on in your community, I would love to hear about it.

Still, I am not altogether opposed to longevity increases.  I’ve been at Harvard for 23 years and, even though my salary has crept upward nearly every year, it’s time my longevity be acknowledged. I’m going to the Dean about the matter next week. Harvard’s fiscal crisis is not so serious that he can’t comfort and support the more advanced members of the community. It won’t cost all that much.

Michelle Rhee v. Her Critics

Article by Paul E. Peterson, 12 April 2011

Not only have newspapers alleged cheating at a few specific schools in the District of Columbia during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of Schools for the District of Columbia, but Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U. S. Department of Education, claims that the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test where cheating is improbable, reveal her to have been no more effective than her predecessors.

In a blog post, Diane Ravitch makes the same point: “Gains under Rhee were no greater than the gains registered under her predecessor Clifford Janey, who did not use Rhee’s high-powered tactics, such as firing massive numbers of teachers.”

Yet the evidence to support such claims falls well short of its mark.

What’s the evidence that Rhee was no better than her predecessors?  And that other cities are doing just as well?

In “The Case Against Michelle Rhee,” I correct the data Ginsburg (and, presumably, Ravitch, who presents no data of her own) use and adjust it to take into account national trends.  The data need to be corrected so as to exclude the scores of students attending charter schools not under district control (whom NAEP included in 2007 but not in 2009).  And it is standard practice to correct for national trends when looking at district-specific factors that affect performance.

Once the data are both corrected and adjusted, it becomes evident that during the Rhee years, 4th grade students, in both reading and math, gained at a pace twice that observed during the tenures of her predecessors.  The gains in math by 8th grade students were nearly as great, though no 8th grade reading gains are detected.

Gains are not enormous in any one year, but over time they add up.  In 2000 the gap between D.C. and the nation in 4th grade math was 34 points.  Had students gained as much every year between 2000 and 2009 as they did during the Rhee era, that gap would have been just 7 points in 2009. Three more years of Rhee-like progress and the gap would be closed.  In 8th grade math the gap in 2000 was 38 points.  Had Rhee-like progress been made over the next 9 years, the gap would be just 14 points in 2009, with near closure in 2012.   In 4th grade reading, the gap was 30 points in 2003; if Rhee-like gains had taken place over the next 6 years, the gap would have been cut in half by 2009.

Of course, two years is too short a time to evaluate a Chancellor’s impact on student test-score performance, as Ginsburg wants to do. But his work is nonetheless taken as authoritative by Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. The reality is something quite other.

For my detailed findings, read “The Case Against Michelle Rhee.” You can also read a summary of the study in this press release, or you can listen to a podcast in which I discuss the findings here.

Why Mayoral Control Works: Evidence from New York City

Article by Paul E. Peterson, 11 April 2011

A blow for mayoral control was struck last week.  Contrary to Diane Ravtich’s complaints about mayoral control, voiced again on a New York TV station, Michael Bloomberg’s rapid-fire decision to replace Cathie Black with Dennis Walcott demonstrates the great advantage mayoral control has over the standard school board.

The key decision both school boards and mayors must make is the selection of the administrative head of the school system.  They depend heavily on that person to guide them through the complexities of operating a complex, modern bureaucracy.  Both boards and mayors have too many other obligations to attend to even the important details involved in running schools.

When mayors make mistakes, as Bloomberg did, they have strong incentives to correct those errors quickly.  Their popularity can be seriously endangered, as Bloomberg soon found out.  But school boards, both when hiring and terminating chief education officers, have to form a consensus, or at least put together a majority, before they can act.  That takes time, and too often ineffective superintendents remain in office until the end of their contract.

That, of course, is the reason the writers of the Constitution created a presidency, instead of letting a committee of Congress continue to exercise executive powers, as had been the case under the Articles of Confederation.  Alexander Hamilton gives the explanation in the Federalist papers: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”  No one has made a better case against school boards.

In New York City, Black was clearly finding it difficult to wrap her mind around the budgetary, administrative and political challenges of managing the country’s largest education system, and within three months of taking office, those closest to the Chancellor’s door were well aware that the tight ship managed by Joel Klein for so many years was floundering near a rocky shore.

It is hard to imagine a school board finding a way to reverse its decision within a three-month period.  But for Bloomberg, the price was too high. If he was to keep his own mayoralty on track—and leave open the possibility of a presidential bid—he had to master the problem at Tweed Hall now, immediately, without delay.

So he chose a consummate insider to replace Black, a man who knew the political ropes but still identified with the mayor’s agenda.  Smart move.

DC Children Can Thank Boehner— and Randomized Trials

Article by Paul E. Peterson, 10 April 2011

In a budget deal that swept virtually all the policy edibles off the table, one delightful delectable remained: the restoration of the DC school voucher program.  President Obama seems to have been unwilling to give a major address to the American people, explaining why it was necessary to shut down the American government so as to avoid giving low-income children in the District of Columbia the opportunity to go to private schools such as the one his own children were attending.  All things considered, that might expose his hypocrisy on the voucher question to a wee bit more public attention than was prudent. The speaker and the president understood the situation so well it did not need discussion. I doubt the subject even came up in that private, face-to-face confrontation the key players had in those final hours last Friday.

So Boehner deserves a thank you from the children of the District of Columbia for knowing how to play the one best policy card at his disposal.  But Boehner could not have played that card had he not had convincing evidence that the voucher program he was trying to restore had been effective.  For that evidence, we must thank the official evaluation of the voucher program conducted by University of Arkansas Professor Patrick Wolf and his research team.  That evaluation was conducted as a randomized experiment—something akin to a pill-placebo comparison that informs medical research.  All sides admit that these kinds of experiments are the gold standard for establishing what works and what does not.

A randomized evaluation proved possible in DC because more students wanted to use a voucher to go to private school than the number of vouchers available and the vouchers were distributed by means of a lottery (a la “Waiting for Superman”). When the results from the DC voucher experiment showed that the voucher students, who won the lottery, were going to college at a noticeably higher rate than those who had lost the lottery and remained in public schools, few could question the effectiveness of the program.

Just before this study was released, Obama signed into law a bill killing the program. Although government officials knew the study’s results at the time the president affixed his signature, the results were released to the public by the U.S. Department of Education only after the program had been killed.

So two years ago, the DC voucher story seemed to prove that research, no matter how well conducted, is generally too little and too late to have any impact.  Having conducted much of the early voucher research that led up to the DC evaluation, all these events were truly disappointing.  So in the account given in my book on the history of school reform (Saving Schools, Ch 7 & 8), I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the school choice movement may have to look to alternatives to school vouchers.

Boehner has proven me wrong. His tactical skill and personal commitment has resurrected a program in the District of Columbia—and a strategy for reform—that seemed as dead as Jack Robin. And policy researchers can be pleased that their work can, if circumstances are correct, provide a Speaker with the instrument needed to recall even politically contested programs, like school vouchers, to life.

Educating Rita: Digital Learning in the Sixties

Article by Paul E. Peterson, 8 April 2011

Educating Rita” makes the case both for digital learning and for end-of-the year external examinations. You can get the movie from Netflix; I recently saw a live version on stage at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, but the play’s season has come to an end.  Rita is the protagonist, but the play’s most heroic figure is the end-of-the-year examination.

Rita is taking courses from University of the Air, known today as “Open University,” an idea invented by the British in the 1960s. Students, even those without the usual academic credentials, could enroll in a public university which offered courses on television supported by materials sent through the mail.  Students like Rita came from all walks of life, including Liverpudlian hairdressing salons.

To complete a course on British prose and poetry, Rita has to pass an external examination by writing an essay that demonstrates she can write serious literary criticism.  To help her get the hang of it, she is entitled to a weekly visit with a tutor, who in Rita’s case is a university lecturer moonlighting in order to get the extra cash needed to support his vast consummation of hard liquor, served neat.

As the story begins, the drunken slob faces a serious challenge. Asked to suggest a solution to the problems encountered by stage directors of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” Rita writes a one line essay:  “Do it on the radio.”  That answer, he explains, won’t survive the scrutiny of the external examiners.

Exactly how Rita learns what is needed to pass the examination is hard to figure out from anything that happens on stage.  Her instructor seems more interested in her remarkable figure than helping her figure things out. So it must have been off-stage, when she was getting her on-line instruction, that Rita gradually learned how to think and write.

By the end of the story, the instructor is so besotted he embraces Rita’s anarchic view of literature—what’s good is what you like—but clever and hard-working Rita, knowing she has to pass that external examination, learns how to turn a phrase to good advantage and wins a “good pass,” which in the days before grade inflation was high praise indeed.

I leave the rest of the story for you to watch on your telly. But like all literary critics, I cannot resist giving away the moral to the tale:  if the technology is not 21st Century, the basic design for Educating Rita today, online, is there for all to see.