Topic: Education and Child Policy

Can Incentives Improve Performance of Public School Teachers?

A fundamental problem for most public schools is that teacher compensation is minimally related to performance, relying instead on years of service and credentials. So poor teachers face minimal incentive to improve or leave.

In a new study, Thomas Dee (Stanford) and James Wyckoff (Virginia) suggest this failure to employ incentives has substantial costs. Their analysis examines IMPACT, a

teacher-evaluation system introduced in the District of Columbia Public Schools by then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. IMPACT implemented uniquely high-powered incentives linked to multiple measures of teacher performance.

Dee and Wyckoff

compare the retention and performance outcomes among low-performing teachers whose ratings placed them near the threshold that implied a strong dismissal threat [as well as] … outcomes among high-performing teachers whose rating placed them near a threshold that implied an unusually large financial incentive. …

[Their] … results indicate that dismissal threats increased the voluntary attrition of low-performing teachers by 11 percentage points (i.e., more than 50 percent) and improved the performance of [low-performing] teachers who remained.

The financial incentives also improved performance by high-performing teachers.  

These results are not surprising; as economists are fond of saying, incentives matter!  

But failure to use incentives is one reason why public schools are a bad way to subsidize education, setting aside whether any subsidy is desirable. 

Dumping the Core? Washington Still Owns the Hoosiers

From an immediate political perspective, it’s great news: Yesterday, Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed legislation making Indiana the first state to officially drop the Common Core. (Four states never adopted it.) Now other states don’t have to be the first to say “sayonara, Core,” and anti-Core forces appear to have real political potency. But the change may well be superficial: While the new law officially dumps the standards called “Common Core,” Hoosiers are still taking curricular orders – and quite possibly the Core by another name – from the federal government.

Here is the operative part of the legislation:

Before July 1, 2014, the state board shall adopt Indiana college and career readiness educational standards, voiding the previously adopted set of educational standards. The educational standards must do the following:(1)Meet national and international benchmarks for college and career readiness standards and be aligned with postsecondary educational expectations.(2) Use the highest standards in the United States.(3) Comply with federal standards to receive a flexibility waiver under 20 U.S.C. 7861, as in effect on January 1, 2014

Unless I’m totally bleary eyed, there are two giant red flags billowing in the wind here.

The first is that points 1 and 2 call for meeting or beating some kind of national benchmark, and point 1 calls for hitting international benchmarks. To my knowledge, the only standards-producing group claiming to hit international benchmarks is the Common Core, and the Core is the only existing national benchmark. (The National Assessment of Educational Progress, to my knowledge, does not claim to offer “standards.”) At the very least, if the goal isn’t to de facto stick with the Core – as some standards writers claim is happening – these points raise two mammoth questions: Who will determine if new Hoosier standards meet international and national benchmarks, and who will decide if they are “the highest standards in the United States”?

Unfortunately, point 3 likely gives the answer to these questions: the federal government – more specifically, the U.S. Secretary of Education – will decide whether Indiana’s new standards cut the mustard. As NCLB waiver regulations currently stand, Indiana really only has two ways to meet the “college- and career-ready standards” provision: Either adopt the Common Core – or some set of standards the Secretary is willing to say are so close to the Core they are “common to a significant number of States” – or have a state college system declare the state’s standards college- and career-ready. And I don’t see the latter anywhere in the new law.

It is possible I am missing something – legislation, regulation, and unilateral waiver decisions can often be very opaque – but from what the statute seems to say, Indiana may be giving up the Core in name only. And even if it really can distance itself from the Core, Indiana doesn’t at all appear to be telling Washington, “we’ll run our own education system, thank you very much!”

There is one upside to this: It illustrates once again the great power of federal NCLB waivers, a power Core supporters continue to disingenuously pretend does not exist.

Cutting the Tie Between Education and Housing

We already have a market in education: the real estate market. Controlling for other factors, houses in districts with higher-performing government schools are more expensive than those in areas with lower-performing schools. In 2012, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” The report also found that “the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.”

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

With quality education tied to housing, middle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. Unfortunately, as a new Brookings report reveals, this too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live “hand-to-mouth” with very low levels of liquid savings though they have considerable non-liquid assets. The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien explains:

This shouldn’t be too much of a mystery. Imagine a couple that’s getting ready to have kids, and wants to buy a house near good schools. Well, that’s expensive. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out in The Two Income Trap, buying a house in a school district you can’t really afford is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies. Couples can only afford the mortgage with both their salaries, so they’ll get in trouble if either of them loses their job. 

But even if everything goes right, they’ll still be cash-poor for a long time. They’ll probably have to use most of their savings on the down payment, and use a big part of their income on the mortgage payments. In other words, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are parents overextending themselves to get their kids into the best schools possible in our de facto private system.

As O’Brien notes, a system of school choice would sever the ties between housing and education, which is a policy that could keep “many people from becoming cash-poor and wealthy—a precarious thing—in the first place.” School choice also provides a passport out of poverty for those students whose parents could not afford an expensive house at all.

Politico: Private Schooling a Threat to Science Education and Freedom of Conscience

In a lengthy piece released this morning, Politico asserts that publicly-funded private school choice programs are teaching creationism around the country and implies that public schools do not do likewise. It then quotes several sources as worrying about the impact that private school choice programs will have on science instruction, and as fretting that their money is being used to promote ideas they strongly disagree with. There are two serious problems with this story.

First, citing the work of activist Zach Kopplin, Politico states that “over three hundred” private schools participating in school choice programs are teaching creationism. Kopplin’s figures have been tabulated by the Friedman Foundation which reports that he identifies 305 creationist schools operating in 10 school choice programs. Those programs are served by a total of 3,084 private schools, so just under 10 percent appear to be creationist.

That may seem like a lot, particularly when you consider that, according to Politico, “Decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design.” But that characterization is inaccurate. Public schools cannot constitutionally teach these things, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. In a nationwide poll of public school biology teachers, 21 percent “agree[d] with at least one statement concerning creationism or ID as a valid scientific approach.” What’s more, 14 percent of public school biology teachers both agreed with creationism and/or ID and actually taught about them in class. Though some of these teachers may stop short of endorsing these ideas to their students, it is naive to imagine that all are so self-disciplined.

Why Don’t Public Schools Give Parents What They Want?

The Washington Post reports today that it’s “harder to describe” the mission of one of the magnet schools in Arlington County, Virginia: Arlington Traditional School. Not that hard, if you just read the quotes from the principal and parents:

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said….

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. 

And it seems to work:

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

And parents like it:

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

So why doesn’t the Arlington County School Board expand it, or build more such schools around the county to accommodate all the parents who want their children to get this exotic thing called “traditional” or “back to basics” education? Maybe they just didn’t realize until today – or last spring – how popular it is? Well, as it happens, I live in Arlington, and I recall that the Washington Post has been reporting on the popularity of Arlington Traditional School since the late 1970s. Parents used to camp out overnight to get their children into the school until they created a lottery system. Through the Nexis service, I found some of the stories I recalled. Most of these articles are not online. 

Here’s what the Post reported in September 1982 when the school, then called Page Traditional School, was three years old: 

For Arlington school board member Margaret A. Bocek and her husband, the first day of school this year began late Monday night when they and 40 other parents camped out on the lawn of the county’s Page Traditional School to ensure that their 3-year-old children could attend there on opening day, 1984…. 

In the last three years, such parent stakeouts have become commonplace at Page, a public alternative school that stresses a traditional format of self-contained classrooms, regular homework and strict standards for behavior and appearance. Page parents have been lobbying recently for expanding the program to the eighth grade and for expansion of the school’s program to other schools.

And here’s a report from September 1985:

This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.

By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn – more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school’s one kindergarten class.

Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.

Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.

December 1991:

In an effort to stop overnight campouts by parents eager to register their children at Arlington’s three popular alternative schools, county school officials have proposed dropping the first-come, first-served admissions policy in favor of a random drawing.

An October 1999 headline:

School’s Excellence Is in Demand

Now you’ll notice that the 1991 story mentions three “popular alternative schools,” and indeed the other two, Drew Elementary and H-B Woodlawn Secondary, offer a very different alternative, a more informal, individualized style of education reflecting the “alternative” ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. The Post referred in 2004 to Woodlawn’s “quirky, counterculture ways.” In November 1991 the Post reported that “Last weekend, dozens of parents camped in front of H-B Woodlawn to register their children for the 70 sixth-grade slots.”

In 2012 the Arlington school board did vote to expand Arlington Traditional School by 12 classrooms. But why did it take so long? And why not open more “back to basics” schools, and also more “counterculture” schools, if that’s what parents want?

I wrote about that years ago in a book I edited, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.   

In the marketplace, competition keeps businesses on their toes.  They get constant feedback from satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Firms that serve customers well prosper and expand. Firms that don’t respond to the message they get from customers go out of business. Like all government institutions, the public schools lack that feedback and those incentives.

No principal or teacher will get a raise for attracting more students to his or her school. A successful manager in a private business gets a raise, or gets hired away for a bigger salary. A successful entrepreneur expands his or her store or opens a branch. Can one imagine a public school choice system allowing a successful principal to open another school across town and run both of them? 

If Virginia were even a little bit tolerant of charter schools, or if Virginia allowed real private school choice, parent groups or entrepreneurs could organize to deliver the kinds of schools – from traditional to counterculture – that families want. But in a bureaucratic monopoly, the local paper can run thirty years of stories about parents desperate to get their children into particular types of schools, and the central planners can ignore them. 

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

Conspiring to Be Civil

A few days ago, a reporter asked me to comment on a conference video in which I appeared. The event was four or five years ago, but the Florida teachers’ union must have just discovered the video and apparently was circulating it to the media. Couched as a smoking gun, it was purported to reveal school choice advocates’ “true intentions.” But the media, apart from some left-leaning Florida bloggers, seem to have concluded it was wasn’t newsworthy (not enough hand-wringing or maniacal laughter, I suppose).

That’s really too bad, because upon rewatching the clips that the union selected, I’m really pleased to have attention drawn to them. Several deal with the strongest argument that can be leveled at government-funded school choice: that, like state-run schools, it can force taxpayers to pay for the promotion of ideas that violate their convictions, leading to social conflict.

Here’s my take on how to address that problem: