Education News

Years ago, at a lunch with Kevin Drum, I kind of outraged him by suggesting that we simply ought to close LAUSD down, fire everyone, clean and update the buildings, and start over.

Here’s news from Rhode Island:

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. – The full force of organized labor showed up in Central Falls Tuesday, with several hundred union members rallying in support of the city’s teachers and bringing plenty of harsh words for the education officials who were about to fire the entire teaching staff at Central Falls High School.


Gallo and the teachers initially agreed they wanted the transformation model, which would protect the teachers’ jobs.

But talks broke down when the two sides could not agree on what transformation entailed.

Gallo wanted teachers to agree to a set of six conditions she said were crucial to improving the school. Teachers would have to spend more time with students in and out of the classroom and commit to training sessions after school with other teachers.

But Gallo said she could pay teachers for only some of the extra duties. Union leaders said they wanted teachers to be paid for more of the additional work and at a higher pay rate – $90 per hour rather than the $30 per hour offered by Gallo.

And from Los Angeles:

Los Angeles Unified School District, with its 885 schools and 617,000 students, educates one in every 10 children in California. It also mirrors a troubled national system of teacher evaluations and job security that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says must change. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have described teachers who draw full pay for years while they sit at home fighting allegations of sexual or physical misconduct.

But the far larger problem in L.A. is one of “performance cases” – the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired. Their ranks are believed to be sizable – perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children. But in reality, nobody knows how many of LAUSD’s vast system of teachers fail to perform. Superintendent Ramon Cortines tells the Weekly he has a “solid” figure, but he won’t release it. In fact, almost all information about these teachers is kept secret.

I still believe it. Fire them all, and start over.

Personally, I think that districts need to be smaller – our home district in Torrance has 4 high schools, which seems to be about the right size for a school district, and offers the chance for parental engagement at the school board level, which is necessary to maintain accountability.

But basically, there’s a point when an organization just isn’t functioning and is harming those it is supposed to help.

10 thoughts on “Education News”

  1. I think that a better way, both less expensive and more likely to succeed in the long term than simply starting over with new people, would be to allow competition. If school districts had to compete with each other and with other forms of education, I suspect that quality would improve very, very quickly.

    I think that a public system does need to be in place, and it is clear that any public system is going to require infrastructure and overhead that private systems simply would not require. For example, public systems are required to take all comers, regardless of physical or mental ability, and to provide the best possible instruction for them. For that reason, it is not unreasonable to put a thumb on the scale for funding public schools. So here’s my thought:

    Divide education spending in half at the local level. Half goes to the school district, half to the parents in the form of vouchers. (At the Federal level, the Department of Education could be abolished, with the IRS simply handing out the funding, evenly divided, based on school-aged children claimed on tax returns the prior year, which would actually put more money into actual education, since the bureaucratic overhead would drop.) The public schools would be required to accept the local and Federal vouchers as the full cost of admission for a student, and with that to provide an education as they are now, including accepting all comers. Or, the parents could use the vouchers for education, whether private school tuition, tuition at a different district’s public school, or homeschooling expenses.

    The net result would be that the public schools would remain, likely with improving standards of education (since they get more money if they’re better, as more parents send their kids there), and other methods of education would exist at a higher availability and affordability.

    Heck, you could even play with the percentage, and give schools 2/3 or so of the funding. Consider that in my area, each child costs about $11,000 per year to educate. That’s $5500 per child that would be available in vouchers. For all curriculum material, sports, educational activities and the like, we spend maybe less than $5500 (actually, more like $3000 total) per year homeschooling, and that’s for four kids. Basically, what I’m getting at (somewhat incoherently) is that it costs a vast amount to publicly school kids, for too little result, and we’d be better off introducing competition and letting the public schools improve or shrink down to only those who have no other options.

  2. @AL: Firing all the teachers won’t accomplish much without ditching the system that makes their rules. You’ll have to defang the unions and their work rules; totally rewrite the teacher accreditation system; and institute parent-driven evaluation criteria with real bite. You’re talking systemic reboot, not just 100% staff turn-over. (I assume you meant to fire the administrators along with the teachers.)

    So this isn’t going to happen, short of utter catastrophe (specifically, a CA constitutional reboot that repudiates the thicket of dedicated funding obligations that are currently in state law). Ten years ago, I’d have argued for a voucher system; but now I think we’ll run out of time before we can establish an orderly market in education. So we’ll get a disorderly one. Serves us right. :-(

    @Jeff: I’m afraid that your half-and-half approach is unlikely to work. First, many schools will settle for half the guaranteed income rather than fight it out in a marketplace. More fundamentally, you can’t have subsidized (by “public” payments) schools compete with unsubsidized ones – the subsidized ones will use their financing advantage to destroy the market you’re trying to create. Think Ford-vs-GM today, or Fanny Mae 5 years ago.

    Actually, I don’t agree that we need public schools “to take all comers,” which I read as a euphemism for underperforming or “difficult” students. If we have a market to discipline school performance, why not pay extra for schooling the hard cases? If you want to socialize the cost, just issue special “difficult student” vouchers that are worth more; allow parents to volunteer their children for “difficult” status; and allow any school to categorize any of their students as “difficult”, perhaps with an associated penalty payment that rises the more they do it. That creates a market for “handling difficult students” that helps allocate the cost. (As an extra bonus, it will lead to death by apoplexy of the self-esteem peddler brigade.)

    Since we’d need a transition period anyway, why not start with 20% vouchers and credibly commit to moving to 100% vouchers in 10 years (say)? That should apply a powerful squeeze and yet give schools a chance to measure up…

    — perry

  3. You’ll have to defang the unions and their work rules;

    That’s simple: ban unionization of government employees. (Of course, that’s “simple” in the Clasewitzan sense…)

  4. You can’t have this conversation without talking about pensions. Gold plated is pretty much an understatement. This concept of retiring at 55 with a big pension just isn’t sustainable. Its not even a question.

  5. Well, in some places you have excellent schools with unions. In other places you have failed systems that don’t have unions. It really depends on how the system runs, and how the guidelines for firing are set up. The town I grew up in has very strong unions, but 4 of 5 highschools are in the top 100 highschools in the country. Clearly, the unions are not the problem here.

    I think one of the big issues that the public miss is teacher support, and it’s notoriously bad in places that have large bureaucratic teaching systems (California for example). It’s also one of the reasons inner cities have so much trouble holding on to teachers… the pay is fantastic, the students are bad, but not as terrible as implied…. it’s that the teachers have no departmental or community support structures. No one to handle problem students, enforce guidelines, help new teachers learn the process, and enforce discipline on bad teachers/situations. The system is overwhelmed.

    _Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have described teachers who draw full pay for years while they sit at home fighting allegations of sexual or physical misconduct._

    Well… what are you supposed to do? If they fire these teachers, and they’re not guilty… then you’re going to get sued for backpay (at least). IF that scandal breaks, and they’re innocent, they may still never work again. (so you may be looking at a lawsuit against family/school for life support). This is about to happend to a friend of the family, who was acquitted of all abuse charges (in fact, the court believes that the family fabricated every shred of evidence)

    _I still believe it. Fire them all, and start over._

    Do you have any idea how long this takes? How much effort? Now, you could dismantle the bearocracy, set up new rules, and say if you don’t follow these rules we’ll fire you… teachers go on strike. You have to replace every teacher that’s gone (good luck finding math, science or special needs… because they’re aren’t enough already). The teachers hold the power because the system is completely broken.

    I agree that most districts need a better system for removing bad teachers. But that is not the fault of the teachers (most of whom work their ass off), that’s the fault of the system that does not know how to function.

    The second problem is that it is incredibly difficult to gauge teacher performance. Since I’m not sure how California gauges it now, it’s difficult to understand how to improve on that. (preview of comments to come: No child left behind is a terrible system for that process)

  6. _”I agree that most districts need a better system for removing bad teachers. But that is not the fault of the teachers (most of whom work their ass off), that’s the fault of the system that does not know how to function.”_

    How can you possibly separate ‘the system’ from the contracts the teachers work under?! Have you seen the union contract for firing teachers in NYC? “Here’s”: The flowchart. You’re telling me that’s reasonable?! ‘The system’ didn’t set this up- the union negotiated it.

    _”The second problem is that it is incredibly difficult to gauge teacher performance. “_

    And teachers have ensured that that is the case.

    This isn’t that difficult. Testing is great. If the kid didn’t learn anything after 3 or 6 months and can’t prove it on a test, they didn’t learn anything. You start somewhere and you end somewhere, and if you made no progress, what good are you?

    Trying to turn that on its head is just excuse making, plain and simple.

  7. _You start somewhere and you end somewhere, and if you made no progress, what good are you?_

    I’m not saying that scores should never be used, but they need to be interpreted in a larger scheme of evaluations. There are much larger factors on “where you end” than just teacher performance.

    Sometimes, it is the teacher. other times it’s the class. I teach at a CC, most semester I teach several courses with multiple sections. Even though I teach exactly the same thing in each section, any little difference (like time of day) can dramatically effect the quality of students, and their learning.

    But I have 150 students all together, so it’s easy to get an average. Say you teach 5th grade, and you have only 20 students. And it’s a particularly bad class. Your scores (for 1 year) drop by 100 pts. The next year, you have a great class, scores increase by 200 pts.

    Did this person learn to teach better? Nope, just luck of the dice. And that’s part of the problem. If that’s the only way you measure (like No Child) schools are punished or rewarded for things beyond their control.

    Now, if you try to compare schools from different districts, different family expectations, different support structures, different technologies (Etc) the nicer school is almost always going to get nicer scores, despite the teaching talent. (In that frame, my grad school had far more traditional students who could actually do algebra… compared to the students I have today). But I have no complaints, my scores are still very high.

    Still, a pattern develops when testing is the sole criteria. Cheating. From the bottom to the top, when a large beaurocratic network is set up around money, cheating becomes common. The school doesn’t mind, because it profits. The district doesn’t mind, because it profits too. Even the states look the other way (It is rather ironic that after Bush pushed no child left behind… it was discovered that the “gains” made in Dallas were only made by making sure certain students were “ignored” by the exam). Nobody care about the quality of learning, just the quality of score.

    In college, our reputation is made by the quality of students set out, (not quantity or our “scores”). As a result, our incentive is too release the best students. If my pay was dependent on how many students circled (b) on problem 13, my guess is that a disproportionate amount of effort would be focused on Q13, even if I considered it a stupid question.

  8. I have nothing to argue about with any of that. Testing needs to be done thoughtfully. Controls are critical.

    But that being said, the NEA is arguing not that these things are difficult, but that they are both impossible and illegitimate.

  9. Perry,

    As attractive as parent-driven review processes sound, I’m not sure how they’d work in real life given some of the parents I’ve actually met.

    These would be the ones who insist that little Timmy isn’t really a discipline problem, that little Sally really doesn’t need to be put in remedial class, and that little Johnny really deserves an A because even though his test scores never show it, he can still read.

    (These go on to become the parents of college students who call the deans to harass them about Big Johnny’s failing grades in just a few short years.)

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