All posts by Wayne D. Lewis

Wayne D. Lewis, Jr. is the author of The Politics of Parent Choice in Public Education. He is Executive Director of Education Programs in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, and an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky’s Dirty Little High School Graduation Secret

I have always loved this time of year. Commencement exercises are our opportunity to give public recognition and affirmation of the academic accomplishments of scholars. These rites of passage are significant, not only for graduates, but for their schools/institutions, families, and communities. Whether it is a ceremony celebrating the successful completion of elementary school, middle school, high school, or college, we pause to celebrate what graduates have accomplished and we look forward with optimism about what is to come for them.

Unfortunately, however, I have now come to the place where high school graduation in Kentucky saddens me. It is true that Kentucky ranks in the top five states in the South and the top ten states in the nation in graduation rates. With a state high school graduation rate of 88%, more Kentucky students are graduating high school today than ever before, and that’s positive. The results of education and workforce research are clear; having a high school diploma will very likely lead graduates to greater employment and economic outcomes than than peers who do not earn high school diplomas. But it is Kentucky’s dirty little secret about high school graduation that troubles me so much. While 88% of our students are graduating high school, many of the students we award diplomas to are neither prepared to be successful in a two-year or four-year college nor in a job with a decent wage, and we know it when we hand them the diploma. In fact, we publicize it.

In 2016, 44,756 Kentucky seniors graduated from high school. About 32% of seniors receiving a high school diploma were classified as neither ready for college nor a career. The figures are even more troubling in some school districts. In Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), of the 6,108 seniors who received high school diplomas in 2016, nearly 37% of those graduates were deemed neither ready for college nor a career. Of the 2,314 high school graduates in Fayette County, about 39% of 2016 graduates were deemed neither ready for college nor a career. In sum, while Kentucky’s high school graduation rate is now among the highest in the nation, we graduate extraordinary percentages of students who we know are not well-prepared to pursue anything meaningful after receiving their diploma.

Kentucky’s dirty little graduation secret is that while record numbers and percentages of Kentucky students are receiving high school diplomas, meeting the minimum standards for graduation in Kentucky is currently a pretty low bar. And while the state does administer end-of-course assessments in a few high school subject areas, most students fail those assessments, receive passing grades from their teachers in the courses, and go on to receive their high school diplomas without a problem. In 2016, only 42% of Kentucky high schoolers posted a passing score on the Algebra II end-of-course assessment, and only 38% of students passed the Biology end-of-course assessment. Students fared slightly better in English II (56.5% passed) and U.S. History (59.2% passed), but even scores in English and history should raise significant questions about Kentucky students’ mastery of academic content at the high school level.

To be clear, I want Kentucky to continue to post high school graduation rates that lead the nation, but our high graduation rate is meaningless if we continue to issue diplomas to students we know to not be well-prepared for careers and/or postsecondary success. Our minimum standards for high school graduation are minimal and not aligned with what we know to be minimum standards for preparing students for success in a career or at a postsecondary institution. Frankly, I would rather post a high school graduation rate that’s lower if we can assure graduates, their families, postsecondary institutions, and employers that a Kentucky high school diploma is truly meaningful. Currently, I cannot recommend putting much stock in a Kentucky diploma.

We must improve.

Performance Accountability for All Kentucky Public Schools, or Just Charter Schools?

Over the last year as Kentucky lawmakers, educators, and educational leaders have debated the merits of adopting charter school legislation, demands for accountability for charter schools from the traditional public education community were heard all over the state. In fact, concerns about accountability for Kentucky’s charter schools came second only to concerns about funding following children who exited traditional public schools to attend charter schools.

Personally, I welcome and encourage public accountability for schools specifically, and government more generally. I believe tax payers, students, and their parents should expect and demand transparency from public schools and school districts, and that schools should be held accountable for their outcomes, including students’ academic performance and authentic measures of students’ career and postsecondary readiness. I have encouraged that conversation with the consideration of charter school legislation in Kentucky, and I will be a fierce proponent of performance accountability for charter schools as they are established in Kentucky.

The end result of our charter accountability conversations is that Kentucky’s charter school law will hold Kentucky’s charter schools to a very high standard, as it should. Truthfully, there wasn’t much to debate, as charter school advocates in the state were as adamant about performance accountability for charter schools as charter school opponents were. Central to what charter school advocates argued for was providing charter schools with greater organizational and governance flexibility and autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. That’s what the new law now requires. Kentucky’s charters will participate in the same assessment and accountability system as traditional public schools in the state. Additionally, because charter contracts will be granted for periods of no longer than five years, charter schools will be required to make the case to their authorizers for charter renewal and continued existence based on their performance. As well, because no students will be assigned to or required to attend a Kentucky charter school, charter schools face consumer accountability, in that a failure to attract and retain students will result in the school having to close its doors for lack of enrollment and funding.

What is unfortunate but not surprising, however, is that I’ve never heard demands for performance accountability for Kentucky’s traditional public schools with anywhere near the same intensity as I have heard from educators and educational leaders concerning charter school accountability.  I don’t believe I have ever heard the school boards association, or teachers unions, or superintendents associations demanding that traditional public schools be held accountable for their outcomes. Do Kentucky’s educator and educational leadership organizations only believe in performance accountability for charter schools? Should traditional public schools simply be trusted to work hard and do the best they can with students? Given that a healthy and successful charter school sector in Kentucky is not likely to directly serve more than 5 or 6% of Kentucky’s public school students, a focus on performance accountability for only charter schools leaves the rest of Kentucky’s public school students in a bind.

Kentucky does have an assessment and accountability system for public schools, but that system has been woefully inadequate in holding schools accountable for closing achievement gaps and preparing students for success in careers and postsecondary education. Under that system gaps have grown in some school school districts. Further, the system is far from being transparent with parents about the performance of schools. For example, one Kentucky high school classified as Distinguished in the current school accountability system posted the following assessment results for the 2015-2016 academic year:

  • 39.6% of students scored proficient or higher on the K-PREP Language Mechanics assessment (lower than state average)
  • 47% of students scored proficient or higher on the English II End-of-Course assessment (lower than the state average),
  • 49% of students scored proficient or higher on the Algebra II End-of-Course assessment,
  • 20% of its students scored proficient t or higher on the Biology End-of-Course assessment (lower than the state average)
  • 47% of students scored proficient or higher on the U.S. History End-of-Course assessment (lower than the state average)

As troubling as those numbers are, those are the averages across all students. The scores for low-income students and students of color are much worse. There is absolutely nothing Distinguished about that school’s results. And while I celebrate the progress the school has made, or any school similarly situated, we are at best misleading parents and students when we say  school performance like that is distinguished. It is not. Yet I have not heard of teachers unions or organizations of school boards or educational leaders decrying the ineptitude of a school accountability system that inappropriately labels schools as being high achieving when we know in fact they are not.

It is past time for Kentucky’s educators and educational leaders to get serious about performance accountability for our public schools; as serious as they were about accountability for charter schools. Kentucky will not move the needle on postsecondary success, degree attainment, or workforce participation until we design and implement accountability systems that center on students’ academic achievement, significant and meaningful achievement growth, and authentic measures of college and career readiness.

 

In Response to “A [Kentucky] superintendent’s concerns about the charter school bill”

The State Journal (Frankfort, KY) recently published an op-ed authored by Chrissy Jones, Superintendent of Franklin County Public Schools. In the piece Supt. Jones shared her concerns about Rep. John Carney’s House Bill 520, the charter school bill currently making its way through the Kentucky General Assembly. With so much misinformation about the bill and public charter schools generally, I thought it would be helpful to her and educators and educational leaders across the state to address some of her concerns here.

  • Supt. Jones said HB 520 would “allow the formation of charter schools” in fall 2017, and goes on to suggest that public charter schools could begin admitting students in fall 2017; but she is mistaken. HB 520 states, “Beginning in academic year 2017-2018, any authorizer may authorize an unlimited number of public charter schools within the boundary of the local  school district“. That does not mean charter schools could open in fall 2017. It means charter school authorizers could begin receiving charter applications and authorizing (approving) charter schools during the 2017-2018 academic year. But even that application and approval process cannot begin until the Kentucky Board of Education promulgates regulations to guide the charter application process. The absolute earliest a Kentucky public charter school could begin serving students is fall 2018.
  • Supt. Jones said that HB 520 would “require that public school districts either transport students to charter schools or lose a portion of their transportation funds to the charter school.” That language, however, is a  mischaracterization of the requirements of the bill. HB 520 gives authorizing local school districts the option of retaining the transportation funds they receive for transporting students if they provide transportation for public charter school students who reside within the local school district’s boundaries. If a local school district chooses not to provide transportation for charter school students, it would be required to send to the charter school the transportation funds they receive for transporting those students. If local school districts will not transport students, public charter schools would be required to provided transportation to students who live within the school district.  It only makes sense that transportation funds would follow students to whatever school district or school is actually providing transportation for the student.
  • ,Finally, Supt. Jones expressed concern about public funds following students to public charter schools, and said that those funds have been “allocated for public schools”, but she is mistaken. First, if the funds in question were actually allocated for public schools all would be fine since charter schools are in fact public schools.  But those funds are not allocated for public schools; they are allocated for students. State funding for public education is disbursed to districts for public school students. That’s why Franklin County Public Schools receives funding from the state based on the number and characteristics of the students the district serves. Public charter schools would be funded in the same manner.

No Kentucky public school or school district has a right to public education funding. Public dollars are allocated for the purpose of educating students at whatever public school their parents enroll them. Franklin County Public Schools has no more right to state education funds than Starbucks has a right to my coffee money. Starbucks gets my coffee money because I choose to purchase coffee there. If I choose to go to McDonald’s, Starbucks doesn’t get a cent from me. Imagine the absurdity of Starbucks arguing that regardless of whether I purchased their coffee, they have grown dependent on my daily $2 payment and thus should have a right to receive it. Starbucks wouldn’t make that claim because they know my $2 payment is tied to my continued patronage of their shops, which is dependent on the quality of my experience there and my satisfaction with their product.  The same shall soon be the case in public education. Like private schools and public charter schools, traditional public schools must begin to come to terms with a new reality of having to compete to earn and maintain the patronage of families.

Public education dollars are for students, not school districts.

10 Truths About Charter School Legislation Charter School Opponents in Kentucky Don’t Want You to Know

The Kentucky General Assembly is carefully considering passage of the state’s first charter school law, and some parts of the traditional public school establishment are in a state of panic. In that panic, lots of half-truths and misinformation are being spread. Here are 10 thing you need to know about public charter schools and House Bill 520, the bill that would bring charters to Kentucky.

  1. Kentuckians want additional public school options.  Polling data from national and local groups including the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and Americans for Prosperity (AFP) show that the vast majority of Kentuckians are (a) supportive of public charter schools, and (b) want additional public school options for students in Kentucky.
  2. All charter schools are public schools. Public schools are public because they are open to the public, cannot charge tuition, are funded by tax dollars, and are accountable to the public. Just like traditional public schools, all charter schools meet these criteria. Charter school opponents like to argue that charter schools are not public because they are permitted to contact with private education management organizations (EMOs). What they fail to acknowledge, however, is that traditional public schools can and do contract with EMOs as well. In fact, the state education agency in MD and local public school districts across the U.S. have enjoyed successful contractual partnership with Edison Learning, Inc., a for-profit EMO. The MD State Department of Education contracted with Edison Learning to manage five persistently low performing schools in Baltimore. Similarly, the Peioria (IL) District 150 contracted with Edison Learning to provide school turnaround services over a five year period. Just as with public charters that contract for services, these schools in MD and IL remained public schools.
  3. Because public charter schools are schools of choice, no students would be assigned to them.  If a parent likes the school her child attends, she would keep her child at that  school. The only students who would attend public charter schools would be those students whose parents believe they would be better served at a public charter. If no students choose to attend the public charter school, the school would not receive public funding and would have to close.
  4. Parents don’t take their children out of schools that are serving their children well. School districts that are meeting the needs of their students have no reason to be fearful of public charter schools. It’s the rare parent who dis-enrolls her child from a school she and her child are happy with just to try something new. On the other hand, school districts that know they are failing to meet the needs of some or all of their students should be in a panic about the healthy competition public charter schools may bring to their communities.
  5. Public education funds are allocated for students; not for local school districts. The argument that charter schools will take funding away from traditional public schools makes no sense. Public education funds would continue to follow students to whatever public schools they attend, regardless of whether that school is a traditional public school or a public charter school. What is absurd is the argument that a local school district is entitled to public funds allocated for a child who no longer attends a school in that district.
  6. Public charter schools inject competition into public schooling, forcing local school districts to work harder to meet the needs of low income students. Local school districts have always had to compete to keep middle income students in their districts. Superintendents and school board members know that middle class parents dissatisfied with public schools will move to another school district or pay tuition for their children to attend a private or parochial school. But regardless of how dissatisfied low income parents are, school districts could typically count on the public dollars that follow low income students to their districts. Why? Because low income parents don’t often have the means to relocate to a school district that better meets the needs of their kids. Public charter schools give low income families additional public school options, forcing school districts to work harder to retain those students and their accompanying state and federal dollars in their districts.
  7. House Bill 520 would make local school boards the only charter school authorizers across most of the state. Only in Lexington and Louisville would mayors also be permitted to authorize and oversee public charter schools.
  8. Kentucky’s traditional public schools need lots of help meeting the learning needs of low income students and students of color. While Kentucky’s public schools have made tremendous progress since the early 1990s, the academic performance of these low income students across the state remains incredibly low. The approaches we have tried in the past and what we are currently doing is not meeting the learning needs of these students. It’s time to try some different approaches.
  9. House Bill 520 would hold public charter schools to higher standards of academic performance accountability than traditional public schools in Kentucky. In addition to public charter schools’ required participation in the state assessment and accountability system, Kentucky charters would be held accountable to performance standards articulated in their charter contracts. Charters that fail to meet or make significant progress toward meeting those goals could be shut down by their authorizer (local school boards or mayor’s offices in Louisville and Lexington only).
  10. Teachers unions’ opposition to public charter schools is about job security for adults, not what’s best for kids. No teachers would be assigned to or required to teach at public charter schools. The only teachers who would teach at a Kentucky charter are those who apply to teacher there. Still, groups like the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) oppose HB 520 because (a) Kentucky charter teachers would be less likely to be dues-paying members of KEA; (b) charter school teachers would be held to higher standards of performance accountability and could be terminated if they fail to meet performance standards; and (c) existing collective bargaining agreements between teachers unions and local school districts would not apply to public charter school teachers.

 

 

All Parents Like School Choice, For Their Own Children

I haven’t had the opportunity as of yet to meet a parent who would would prefer to not have school options available for their children. To be clear, I run into parents in Kentucky and across the nation regularly who argue, fight against, and curse charter schools and the expansion of other school choice policy measures, but these parents are fighting to stop the expansion of school choice for other people’s children, not their own. Even the most die-hard charter school opponent will usually tell me, without recognizing the irony, how he or she carefully selected a neighborhood, used social and political connections, negotiated as part of an employment contract, or pay tuition at a private school in order to choose the best schools for their children. And what is implied in our conversation is that they believe their middle class and/or professional status qualifies them to be able to exercise school choice.

I don’t know of an American parent who doesn’t want at least a few school options available to their kids, and you likely don’t know one either. So why are charter schools and school choice so controversial if everyone wants it for their own kids? Simple. Some of us continue to put adults and adult organizations above the needs and best interests of children.

Opposition to charter schools and school choice is usually about adults: adults’ jobs and job security; enrollment and financial stability of traditional public school districts; teachers unions and their membership rolls, dues, and collective bargaining agreements; etc. That’s the stuff that makes charter schools and school choice controversial: stability, security, and power for adults and adult organizations.

So what if traditional public school districts can’t keep up with parent and student demand for increased specialization in academic, arts, and career pathways as evidenced by ridiculously long waiting lists at the limited number of programs offered… So what if traditional public school districts have proven to be ill-equipped to meet the diverse needs of learners… So what if the instructional approach used at a particular school is simply not appropriate for engaging and/or meeting the academic needs of a whole population of students… So what if less than a quarter of the kids in a school district who qualify for free or reduced price meals meet the mark of being proficient or distinguished on state standardized examinations in reading and mathematics… That’s just how the cookie crumbles, right? Teachers unions have to fill membership rolls and collect dues. School districts can’t take the chance of parents opting to send their kids to a non-district run public school because the district is counting on the dollars the state sends for their kid (whether the district serves the kid well or not). So no, we can’t afford to deal with this school choice nonsense because the adult business of school is not set up for parents to be able to choose.

It turns out it’s not ‘all about kids’ after all, is it?

Accountability and Choice are Central to Improving Education Outcomes in Kentucky

Since the early 1990s Kentucky has continued to make strides in education reform. The state of education in the Commonwealth in 2017 is completely different from what it was 25 years ago. No longer is Kentucky at the very bottom of academic performance rankings of the states. By most accounts, Kentucky now sits ahead of 15 or more states in academic performance. That is progress to be proud of.

But even with that progress , significant educational challenges remain for Kentucky. Even with the strides we have made, very large percentages of students across the Commonwealth continue to make little or no academic gains . Children who qualify for free or reduced price meals, students of color, and students of disabilities continue to be shortchanged in many of our state’s public school districts. In fact in many instances, the gaps between the performance of low-income students and their middle income peers is increasing. While the performance of middle income students is accelerating in some Kentucky school districts, the performance of low-income students moves very little. While Kentucky’s school districts seem to have figured out what works for improving learning for some students, other students continue to fall through the cracks. What makes that very sad reality even sadder is knowing that it doesn’t have to be that way.

First and foremost, Kentucky’s public schools and school districts must be held accountable for the learning of each and every student they serve. There may be no more important task facing the Kentucky Board of Education in the next ten years than the current work of redesigning our school accountability system. Schools and professionals will do what we hold them accountable for; and it’s time for Kentucky to have an accountability system that holds schools accountable in very clear ways for improving the performance of low-income children and children of color. If a public school takes the public dollars allocated for the education a child, be they rich, poor, disabled, blue, red, or purple, that school must be held accountable for providing that child with the opportunity to realize his or her God given academic potential. If a school is unwilling or unable to meet a child’s academic needs, that school has no right to the public dollars appropriated for the education of that child.

Second, as many of our traditional public schools have shown themselves to be unwilling or unable to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students, we must create public school options alongside district-run schools that are willing and able to meet those students’ needs. Over the last 25 years, public charter schools, with convincing results, have shown themselves to be an effective tool for meeting the academic needs of some of the very children Kentucky’s traditional public schools have struggled with most. With that understanding, it is only logical that state lawmakers would provide a pathway for giving the parents of those children additional public school options. Hopefully that pathway will be in statute by the end of the 2017 legislative session.

Kentucky’s traditional public schools need real help with meeting  the learning needs of specific populations of students. The reality of our current system is arguably only a hair short of being criminally negligent. Traditional public schools take the public dollars allocated for the education of low income children, often lacking the intent or ability to truly meet those children’s needs. Too many of our traditional public schools have refused to create school options or use alternative approaches within their districts that would meet the learning needs of low income kids. And along with that refusal, many leaders of those districts fight as hard as they can to prevent the creation of public school options alongside district-run schools because such options, namely public charter schools, jeopardize the tax dollars they now enjoy flowing into their school districts for low income children.

Time is up for traditional public school districts taking low income children and the tax dollars that come with them for granted. Kentucky’s school accountability system must hold all public schools accountable for the learning of each and every student they take tax dollars for; and we must provide additional public school options for parents, especially low income parents. Not only is doing so a moral and ethical imperative, but it’s in economic interest of the Commonwealth.

Charter Schools Are Public Schools, Period.

The Kentucky Education Association (KEA) has launched a wide ranging media campaign voicing the organization’s support of public schools. What is not explicitly stated but is implied through their messaging is a limited conceptualization of what public schools are. What I believe the organization would like to say is that it supports schools operated by traditional public school districts. If the organization’s stance was truly what the words of its campaign says, it would be supportive of efforts to expand the public school options available to parents in Kentucky through the passage of public charter school legislation. Unfortunately, however, KEA has been a barrier to the expansion of public school options for parents in Kentucky.

To be clear, charter schools are public schools in every way. There are a few criterion that make schools public: (1) They are open to public; (2) they do not charge students tuition; (3) they are publicly funded; (4) there is public accountability. That’s it. Schools don’t have to be operated by traditional public school districts to be public. Schools can contract with and purchase goods and services from both nonprofit and for-profit organizations and still be public (many traditional public schools and school districts do so now). These additional conditions that charter school opponents want to impose on charter schools to support their false claims that charter schools are not public schools are wholly inappropriate. In fact, if any conditions other than the ones I have provided here are required for schools to be considered public, many schools operated by traditional public school districts in Kentucky and across the U.S. could not be considered public schools.

In sum, charter schools are in fact public schools in every sense of the word, period. As such, those who say they love and support public schools should be supportive of efforts to expand the high quality public school options available to parents in Kentucky.

 

Public Charter Schools Consideration in Kentucky: 2017 Legislative Session

As the Kentucky General Assembly enters serious consideration of a charter school bill in the 2017 legislative session, I have taken some time to reflect a bit on the charter school movement across the United States and in Kentucky. With the first charter school law passed in Minnesota now more than 25 years ago, charter schools are now  a permanent fixture in the public education firmament. And while there has been pretty significant variation across the states in the details of charter school laws and some variation in the academic performance of charter schools, very few individuals or groups now regard the additional public school options created by charter school legislation as being anything but positive.

Public charter schools, as schools of choice, provide parents with additional public school options to choose from. It’s really that simple. While teachers unions and some traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP continue to paint charter schools as something they are not, the demand for public charter schools has never been greater, as evidenced by their continually expanding waiting lists all over the country. When you get down to the truth of this debate, regardless of whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a student, or a concerned community member, there is absolutely no reason to reasonably object to charter schools coming to Kentucky.

First and foremost, charter schools are schools to which parents choose to send their children. Children are neither assigned nor required to attend charter schools. As charter schools provide parents with additional school options, these new or converted schools provide parents with an additional public school choice. Parents who are uninterested in charter schools overall or in any particular charter school simply enroll their kids elsewhere.

Second, our ever-changing economy and demands of the workforce mean education and training must become more specialized than ever before. Charter school legislation allows for the creation of additional public schools capable of providing that needed degree of specialization. And because these are schools of choice, parents are able to choose among the various schools and programs provided both in traditional public school districts and in public charter schools.

Third, if charter schools don’t perform, there is a mechanism built into charter school laws that allows states to close them down. Much different than some traditional public schools and school districts that have been permitted to under-serve children, families, and communities for generations, charters are granted for specific periods of time; and if charter schools fail to meet the performance standards articulated in the charter contract, charter authorizers are called upon to not renew or revoke charter contracts. Those of us who are advocates for high quality public charter schools have no interest in creating additional public schools that will not serve children well. Frankly, Kentucky has too many of those schools already.

Finally, it’s no secret that Kentucky’s traditional public school districts and schools have struggled mightily to improve the academic performance of traditionally underperforming students, including children from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities. In fact in some Kentucky school districts, rather than closing achievement gaps, gaps are actually widening. School struggles raising students’ performance is in large part the result to the dominant one-size-fits-all/mass production model of public education. With such a model, students that don’t have typical academic needs and professional aspirations usually end up under-served by a system that caters to the typical student. The problem is very few of our students are typical in terms of their academic needs or career aspirations, so providing more specialized approaches for reaching and serving students should be at the top of our list of education priorities. Research and experience have shown us that public charter schools have been incredibly effective with the very populations of students traditional public schools have struggled to engage most, and that charter boards and operators have used the flexibility provided through charter laws to create schools that deliver the very specialized instruction our increasingly diverse population of students need to be prepared for success in the workplace and in postsecondary education and training programs.

Kentucky parents should be pleased that after years of charter school legislation being stalled in the legislature for political reasons, the passage of a law that will all charter schools to be established in the Commonwealth seems imminent. If the Kentucky General Assembly does in fact pass a charter school law during the 2017 legislative session, it will be first and foremost a victory for Kentucky’s students and parents. A new tool will have been added to the tool belts of state and local education leaders for addressing the Commonwealth’s continuing challenges in education and workforce development.

Teachers Unions’ Opposition to Teacher Tenure and Layoff Reform Hurts Children

The California General Assembly’s stalemate on whether to change state laws regarding teacher tenure and layoffs highlights a major barrier to improving education for America’s most vulernable children. Once again, a legislative effort failed which would have made commonsense reforms to state laws regarding teacher tenure and layoffs. This year’s effort, Assembly Bill 934, would have (a) extended the the number of years school administrators have to evaluate teachers before teachers are granted the protections of teacher tenure, (b) created an expedited process for terminating teachers deemed to be ineffective after receiving additional professional support, and (c) allowed teachers’ job performance evaluations to be considered when making layoff decisions (instead of only considering teachers’ seniority). Once again, strong opposition from California’s teachers unions resulted in the reform effort going nowhere.

The California teachers unions’ resistance to common sense reforms is beyond disappointing. If you care about improving the quality of education for our nation’s most vulneralbe children, their resistance to these reforms ought to make you angry. These are commonsense reforms that would help to ensure that only the highest quality teachers are in California’s classrooms. There is no legitimate rationale for resisting efforts to ensure that administrators have ample time to evaluate the performance of teachers before granting them tenure. There is no legitimate rationale for opposing efforts to make it easier for administrators to remove teachers who are ineffective in the classroom. Neither is there a legitimate rationale for resisting changes that would allow teachers’ performance to factor into layoff decisions. Teachers unions’ resistance to these reforms ought to make it very clear that their intentions are to protect all teachers’ jobs regardless of whether those teachers are effective, because even ineffective teachers pay union dues. Nevermind the negative impact ineffective teachers have on the learning of their students. The tragedy is compounded when you consider that ineffective teachers are most likely to be in classrooms with children who need high quality teachers the most.

This legislative stalemate in California directly affects children in California’s schools. But the opposition of teachers unions across the country to similar reforms results in ineffective teachers remaining in high needs classrooms everywhere. California’s Supreme Court will eventually make a ruling on whether such language in unions’ collective bargaining agreements is legal in California, but whether the provisions of collective bargaining agreements are legal or not, protecting teachers we know to be ineffective is unethical and antithetical to what teachers unions say they are about. It’s time for all Americans, but effective teachers particularly, to take a stand against teachers unions’ insistance on protecting ineffective teachers.

All Teachers Are Not Underpaid

A recent Brookings analysis makes the assertion that American teachers are underpaid. That blanket assertion, however, is untrue.

The Brookings analysis compares teacher pay in the United States to teacher pay in other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations. The truth uncovered by the analysis is that compared to other OECD nations, American teachers, on average, are paid less than teachers in other nations. The author makes pointed comparisons to Finland, whose teacher pay is still less than the OECD average, but significantly higher than the U.S.

But before you join in singing the sad song of the poor, underpaid teachers, consider the following:

  • To put the international pay comparisons into context, comparing teachers from nation to nation is not comparing apples to apples. For example, as noted by the Brookings author, the teaching profession in Finland is much more prestigious than in the United States. That additional prestige factor in Finland contributes to a dynamic where college education majors are among the most highly academically capable students in higher education. In fact, the teaching profession is so prestigious in Finland that competetion for teacher education slots leaves even highly capable applicants on the outside looking in. Compare that now to the reality in the United States, where those accepted into teacher preparation programs across the country (including in my home state of Kentucky) post some of the weaker academic credentials of undergraduate students. There is no scenario in the United States where highly academically capable students can’t break into the teaching profession. While, of course, some of our teachers and students training to be teachers are among the academically brightest of their classes, that unfortunately is not the norm. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear from college education major or those considering an education degree, that they are considering or have selected teaching as a career path because their first and/or second choices proved to be too academically rigorous.
  • Second, consider that in the U.S., there is tremendous variation in what teachers are paid; variation that a mean or median national salary wouldn’t account for. Within the same state (Kentucky), a beginning certied teacher with a bachelors degree and no experience earns a 9-month base salary of $35,493 in Carlisle County Schools, and $41,756 in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville); that’s a difference of $6,293 a year. The difference is even more stark for later career teachers. A certified teacher with 20 years of experience and a doctorate would earn $55,290 a year in Carlisle County, but would earn a 9-month base salary of $83,199 in Jefferson County; that’s a difference of $27,909 a year. That difference in salaries highlights just how problematic it is to say that all teachers in the U.S., or even all teachers in Kentucky, are underpaid.
  • Further, consider that teacher pay in most U.S. schools is still based completely on teachers’ education and years of experience; not their effectiveness. Teachers unions in the U.S. have been incredibly resistant to reforms that would differentiate teachers’ pay based on effectiveness and/or their students’ performance. Teachers unions have consistently argued that teachers should earn the same amount in a school district regardless of what they teach and how effective they are. They contend that only teachers’ level of education and years of experience should be considered in setting teachers’ pay.

The Brookings analysis author makes the observation that increasing teacher pay could result in the profession becoming more attractive to persons who would not have otherwise considered teaching as a profession. I agree. But I completely reject the idea that there should be any across the board increases to teacher pay without reform in the areas I have highlighted here.