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School & District Management Opinion

Stories Begging for Some Love

By Rick Hess — May 19, 2010 4 min read
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I was out last week at the Education Writers Association conference in San Francisco. Impressive production, first-rate assemblage of veteran education writers (including Greg Toppo, Richard Colvin, Nick Anderson, Ben Wildavsky, Linda Perlstein, Scott Stephens, Dale Mezzacappa, and on and on), and an auspicious backdrop for the news that the uber-respected Lisa Walker is stepping down as executive director and passing the torch to the razor sharp Caroline Hendrie.

I spent some time talking to reporters about important stories that have thus far received limited attention. In that spirit, I here offer eight story ideas that reporters or bloggers might do well to check out more fully.

  1. There’s been a rash of stories about budget cuts and layoffs but little effort to put this in context. For one thing, school spending soared during the 2000s, as districts eagerly spent the windfall generated by the real estate bubble. This included a hiring wave that outpaced growth in student enrollment and outsized promises on pensions and health care. Now, as many private sector firms cut pay and as public agencies reduce staff and furlough workers, we see educators railing against proposals to trim teachers. Some context would be helpful. How much has district spending and hiring grown in recent years? How do state or district budget cuts compare to those in higher education or libraries? Do voters or parents support the irate teachers, or do they think teachers are demanding special treatment?
  2. There is terrific and path breaking work being done by an array of new and not-so-new specialized providers like Citizen Schools, Tutor.com, ConnectEDU, Teach Plus, and so on. While most media attention has floated to the “whole school” providers (like KIPP and Green Dot) or to prestigious talent operations like Teach For America or New Leaders for New Schools, this burgeoning population of smart problem-solvers is creating new possibilities that have received little mainstream attention. (If interested, check out Education Unbound for possible ideas, as I flag dozens of these in the course of the volume).
  3. As I reported a few weeks back, just 40% of votes cast in the New York City UFT election were from practicing classroom teachers. The biggest bloc of votes was cast by retired educators, and the balance by school employees who generally aren’t in classrooms. This math gives lie to the notion that the unions are focused on today’s classrooms, and helps explain why the UFT might care more about funding pensions than instruction. How common is it for unions to do business this way? How large a role in your local union do retirees or non-educators play? These are intriguing but generally unexamined questions.
  4. There are vast opportunities for more cost-effective delivery that have not been exploited by states or districts. What are districts doing to stretch their dollars? How do districts measure up in terms of cost efficiency on the more than 100 operational functions according to the metrics devised by the Council of Great City Schools? How defensible are their outlays when subjected to scrutiny by analysts such as Marguerite Roza or Karen Hawley Miles? What are states and districts doing to make themselves more cost-effective and efficient?
  5. What are the implications of the i3 collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education and a number of major foundations? The way foundations work, there’s a natural pressure on grant officers to promote grantees that pass muster with their board. Given the opportunity to push for grantees who have been vetted and endorsed by a federally backed i3 process or to explain why they want to fund ventures that didn’t win, there’s going to be a real temptation for grant officers to play it safe. The results could only too easily stack the deck against ventures which don’t happen to map onto the four Congressionally-mandated assurances from ARRA, and those that don’t focus on boosting grades three to eight reading and math scores or high school completion rates. That strikes me as a huge problem, especially as it will inevitably focus dollars on the kinds of popular providers--like KIPP or TFA--that are hugely dependent on talent and sheer muscle and are therefore most difficult to scale.
  6. The role of sophisticated and impressive advocacy efforts mounted by outfits like Democrats for Education Reform, ConnCAN, and EdVoice that are countering the teacher unions and playing a critical role in marshaling support for merit pay, charter schooling, and the reform of teacher tenure.
  7. Will the new wave of education propaganda--such as emotionally-powerful movies like Waiting for Superman, The Cartel, or The Lottery--have a real impact, or will they simply spark water cooler chatter among the school reform set? If they do have a broader impact, will it spur action or just talk? Will they energize the debate or might they dumb it down amidst hyperbolic assertions and manipulative imagery?
  8. Are efforts to engage younger teachers in advocacy and policy starting to change the terms of the teacher debate? Teach Plus, in particular, has managed in Boston and Indianapolis to organize young teachers and get them writing and talking about teacher-fueled proposals for merit pay, teacher dismissal, and so forth. That means the relevant debates no longer look like a case of “reformers” attacking “teachers,” but feature teachers speaking out on both sides of the issue. In Indianapolis, a few weeks back, this yielded new rules on “last hired, first fired” that were crafted and championed by Teach Plus teachers. How much of this is going on and what does it portend?
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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.