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Education Opinion

ICYMI: Teacher Union Strength, D.C. Teacher Retention, and Forbes Faddism

By Rick Hess — November 13, 2012 4 min read
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Well, the election is finally over. President Obama and House Speaker Boehner are hard at work whispering sweet nothings and figuring out how to do token tax increases and spending cuts that’ll avoid the pain of sequestration or ending the Bush tax cuts. Of course, in combination, those two developments would inflict substantial short-term pain, while also dramatically brightening our fiscal picture. Instead, their deal will let us continue borrowing about a trillion dollars a year to pay for entitlements, military spending, and programs we want but don’t want to pay for--and to keep passing the bills on to our kids. The best part: the inevitable deal will be celebrated as a positive sign of bipartisanship. O-kay.

Anyway, while that plays out, time to turn back to other goings-on in the world of schooling. During the hurly-burly of the last few weeks, I skipped a couple of things that deserve a quick note.

First, the intrepid researchers at the Fordham Institute published a state-by-state report on teacher unions’ strength (full disclosure: I offered a few thoughts as they tackled this project.) After an election in which the teacher unions had a pretty good night, the report is especially timely. The Fordham team looked at union strength in terms of resources and membership; involvement in politics; scope of bargaining; state policies; and perceived influence. They struggled to measure something as amorphous as “power,” and opted for the imperfect but sensible strategy of combining inputs and outcomes into a broader index. It’s an intriguing effort that deserves a careful read. Three takeaways I’ll note here:

Gear up for Chicago redux. Teacher strikes are legal in 14 states. That means, while they’ve been relatively rare in recent years, don’t be surprised if the CTU’s triumph in Chicago leads some imitators to follow suit. This is especially likely if the implementation of teacher evaluation systems and tight budgets keep making for tendentious negotiations.

Unions have the juice. A survey of insiders in 20 states found the teacher unions to be generally regarded as more influential than the state school board, state superintendent, governor, legislators, business interests, and advocacy groups. Moreover, voters like their teachers, and that routinely translates into popular support for unions on teacher quality issues, as we just saw in Idaho, South Dakota, and Indiana.

But unions have suffered some reversals. Between 2008 and 2011, most education statutes that states adopted were supported by or else reflected union priorities. However, in 2011, a number of legislatures enacted policies that were less in line with union wishes. We’ll see if this is a trend or an outlier. It’s not clear whether developments in 2011 were due to Race to the Top, the emergence of advocacy groups challenging union influence, the wave of GOP legislators and governors swept to office by the Tea Party, or something else.

Secondly, the HR authorities at TNTP penned a follow-up to their summer blockbuster, The Irreplaceables, in which they look specifically at the DC Public Schools. Contrary to what some critics predicted given DCPS’s “aggressive” IMPACT accountability system, DC is not losing high-performing teachers. In fact, it’s doing as well as other districts when it comes to retaining high-performing teachers (as determined by value-added reading and math scores), while purging far more of its low-performers. TNTP researchers attribute these results to district policies related to evaluation and compensation. They note that DCPS still has challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining talent (and the report should be a useful caution to those who imply that DC has “solved” any of this), but they also paint a picture of how a smart, agile district has been able to craft and adjust policies that suit its needs. (By the way, if you want to be part of this effort, working with stars like Jason Kamras, Scott Thompson, and my own former colleague Olivia Meeks, DCPS is hiring a new Chief of Data and Accountability. You can find the application here.)

Finally, in what I initially thought had to be a parody of education faddism, Forbes‘s November issue featured a cover story on Sal Khan, with the title: “One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students: How Khan Academy Is Reinventing Education.” As I observed in June 2011 (noting that the Khan Academy is the most overhyped venture in K-12 today), while “Khan Academy is a smart, thoughtfully executed idea and what I’ve seen of it is impressive...The whole endeavor is necessary and inevitable. Why? Because it merely does for schooling what books did five centuries ago... Khan Academy makes it possible for teachers to start focusing more on, you know, teaching and mentoring and engaging with students, rather than on having to tell them stuff.”

In fact, I noted, “The problem isn’t with the venture. The problem is that it has been quickly blown--by fad-seeking enthusiasts, Colbert bookers, overcaffeinated philanthropists, and groupthink reformers--into ‘the future of schooling.’ Sigh... Look, Sal Khan is clearly smart as hell, a Renaissance guy, and a terrific teacher. But what he’s done, more or less, is make a bunch of excellent lectures available on YouTube. That’s an excellent development, and a promising platform...Where I get lost is why the hype portrays this as so radical and newsworthy. We don’t see medical device makers on TV or in Forbes every time they devise a terrific new stent.” Yet, here he is, on the cover of Forbes, no less. Thank you, guys, for making me feel prescient.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.