Teachers deserve their pensions

A defined-benefit pension has long been a staple of the teaching profession.  But lately it is coming under fire as responsible for huge deficits in state budgets (“Pensions Under Pressure,” Education Next, Spring 2018).

Rather than rehash the failure of state legislatures to uphold their end of the bargain or argue for slashing pensions, I’d like to suggest another solution.  Teacher pensions at present are heavily back-loaded.  Salaries in the early years are kept low.  It’s only when teachers stay for 25 or 30 years do they get a payoff.  In other words, pensions plans are designed to favor the minority who teach in a single system for a working lifetime, while penalizing those who leave before then.  For example, the Pennsylvania Public School Retirement System estimates that about 80 percent of teachers will leave before their pension benefit is worth a single dollar.

There are talented college graduates who would like to teach if beginning salaries were higher.  Why not offer all new teachers the choice of bigger increases in the early years in exchange for a reduced pension at the end?  Personally, I prefer the traditional plan, even though I recognize its shortcomings.  But there are other teachers who for one reason or another would like to have a choice.  They might also favor a defined-contribution pension.

Finally, it’s time to consider making pensions portable.  Teachers are reluctant to leave their state’s plan if it means forfeiting what they’ve accrued. No one wants to leave money on the table. It’s here that charter schools are worth studying. Some 68 percent of charter schools opt out of state plans, offering a portable, defined-contribution plan.  That might appeal to young teachers fresh out of college who wish to teach for a few years before moving on to another career. With looming teacher shortages in science, math and special education already a concern, anything that can help alleviate the problem is worthwhile studying.

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Elite schools need no defense

Only in this country are schools dedicated to educating gifted students subject to unrelenting criticism (“Elite Schools Make Few Offers to Black and Latino Students,” The New York Times, Mar. 8).  That’s because differentiation in educating the young is anathema to America’s system of democratization. To put it differently, elitism is a pejorative term.

Critics of these so-called exam schools want them to be representative of the overall population of a community’s school system.  Therefore, if a city or town’s schools are, say, 67 percent black and Hispanic, then the elite schools should also mirror the same.  Or that these schools should enroll the same percentage of girls who live in the areas served. I don’t agree.  I don’t believe that excellence is distributed evenly or fairly in life.  Yes, we should try to provide equal opportunities for all students. But even if we succeed in achieving that goal, it does not necessarily follow that we will have equal representation.

Our competitors abroad have no compunction about separating out students early in their education.  For example, Singapore, which is known for the quality of its schools, begins the process with its primary school leaving exam and continues the process throughout the entire education years. Germany, which has the lowest rate of youth unemployment, evaluates children in the fifth grade to set them on a track that will largely determine their future careers.

No country can afford to neglect its most promising young people and be expected to prosper in the global economy.  There are some three million gifted students in the U.S. – about six percent of the student population.  The only initiative to specifically address their unique needs is the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act that was passed in 1988.  It has languished in the shadows ever since, receiving a congressional appropriation of a paltry $12 million in fiscal 2017.

Ironically, our aversion to elitism does not apply to sports.  The U.S. spends more tax dollars per high school athlete than per high school math student.  Further, critics do not demand that teams reflect diversity.  Yet they do in exam schools.  Apparently, athleticism has immunity.

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Stress takes a toll on teachers

With school shootings commanding the headlines, it’s easy to overlook another factor that affects the ability of teachers to do their jobs (“The hidden threat of teacher stress,” The Conversation, Mar. 2).  Nearly half of all teachers say they experience high-level stress on a daily basis.  That puts them in a tie with nurses.

Every job has stress, and not all stress is bad.  But when it remains intense for a protracted time, it extracts a price not only on teachers but on students as well.  When I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964, I was advised by my colleagues to take a “mental health” day off from time to time.  At first, I didn’t understand why that would be necessary.  But I soon began to appreciate their recommendation as demands increased.

Teachers today no longer have the freedom I had so many decades ago.  Pressure to post stipulated test scores and hit other targets has reduced them to virtual robots.  Whatever creativity they would like to employ has taken a back seat to quantifiable outcomes.  Even if teachers don’t quit, their morale suffers.  It’s little wonder that of those who stay, nearly two-thirds were “not engaged,” according to a 2015 poll.

This often takes the form of burnout.  I don’t see matters improving.  If anything, it’s going to get worse as scapegoating intensifies.  It’s time to consider buyouts for veteran teachers who are hanging on merely to maximize their pensions, which are based on salaries earned during the three highest years.  Another way is to institute front-loaded compensation.  Under this plan, teachers could choose to receive bigger increases in the earlier years of their career in exchange for reduced pensions.  I intend to address this alternative in greater detail in a column next week.

SAT and ACT fail the test

The SAT and ACT, the two psychometric icons that continue to drive fear into the hearts of students and their parents, are still defended by those who should know better (“The Truth About the SAT and ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 10).  To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at how they are constructed.

In the final analysis, their purpose is to help admissions officers rank applicants. I understand the need because high schools differ widely in their grading standards.  But if test designers loaded up their respective tests with items measuring only the most important material taught effectively in class, which is what they should be doing, scores would run the risk of being clumped together.  In that case, their usefulness to admissions officers would be severely diminished.

To avoid that possibility, test makers need to engineer score spread.  They’ve found through experience that the best way of doing so is to include many items that largely reflect the socioeconomic backgrounds of students. I’m not accusing them of trickery.  It’s simply a proven way of keeping their college and university clients happy.  (To its credit, the ACT is more closely aligned with what is actually taught in classrooms.)

The assertion that the SAT and ACT have predictive value has been found to be false.  Bates College engaged in a pioneering experiment in this regard by making test scores optional starting in 1984.  In 2004, the college announced that its 20-year study had found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and non-submitters of SAT results.  Today, some 1,000 colleges and universities make standardized test scores optional.

The other major claim that these tests are not coachable has also been found to be without merit.  Stanley H. Kaplan, who went on to establish the test-preparation company bearing his name, proved otherwise by helping students in his Brooklyn neighborhood dramatically boost their scores through constant practice.  When I was in high school, the College Board did not release old copies of the SAT.  I remember being given only a thin gray pamphlet with two examples for both the verbal and math sections.

I hope students and parents who are reading this column will keep these factors in mind.  In short, the SAT and ACT largely measure what students bring to class rather than what they learn in class.  That’s an important distinction given short shrift in the ongoing debate.

 

The other Super Bowl

It’s little wonder that school superintendent posts are so hard to fill.  The recent fiasco in New York City serves as a case in point (“Trying Again, de Blasio Names a New Schools Chancellor,” The New York Times, Mar. 6).  Just when the nation’s largest school district seemed to have Alberto Carvalho, head of the Miami-Dade district in the fold, he backed out at the 11th hour.  Embarrassed by the televised rejection, Mayor Bill deBlasio subsequently tapped Richard Carranza, the Houston schools’ superintendent.

The real question is whether Carranza will last.  I say that because urban superintendents are known for their short tenure. With the exception of Boston’s Thomas Payzant (11 years), Long Beach, Calif.’s Carl Cohn (10 years) and a handful of others, it’s a turnstile position.  I’m not at all surprised.  No matter how enthusiastic new superintendents are, reality soon wears them down.

It’s not necessarily a question of ability.  Even those with impressive credentials learn about the difficulty of building confidence among a host of stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and business leaders.  John Deasy learned that lesson the hard way when he was superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.  He failed to build alliances and was forced out in Oct. 2014.

Nevertheless, the Harvard Graduate School of Education thinks it has the answer.  In the fall of 2010, it enrolled 25 candidates for a new program in educational leadership.  The Ed.L.D. is the first new degree in 74 years offered by the school.

But I seriously doubt if the degree will achieve its goal.  Yes, heroic leaders can sometimes perform miracles.  However, they cannot be produced on a large enough scale to meet the nation’s needs. According to Public Agenda, 96 percent of practicing principals said their colleagues were more helpful than graduate studies in preparing them for the demands of the job.  I submit that applies even more to superintendents.

Just as exemplary teaching is more art than science, I think the same can be said of leadership.  I wish Carranza well in his new post, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch that he will beat the odds.

 

 

Is college a good investment?

It won’t be long before high school seniors will have to send a check to the college that accepted them for the fall.  Before they do so, I think it’s important to ask if committing to four years of education today is worthwhile (“Why an Honors Student Wants to Skip College and Go to Trade School,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 6).

I know the argument about the wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree.  But I question if data supporting that view are still relevant.  There was a time when a small percentage of the population had a college degree.  In those days, therefore, it mattered little what students majored in.  The mere fact that they had a degree made them exceptional in the eyes of most employers.  But today college degrees lack the same value.  That’s why one’s major means more than ever in terms of getting a job in line with one’s education. I’m not even talking about paying off student loans.  That’s another huge consideration.

But there’s a further factor given too little consideration.  If going to college is seen as more than just a credentialing post, then what about its value in teaching students to engage in critical thinking?  With the exception of a handful of colleges and universities, free inquiry and free speech are anachronisms.  For example, the treatment of Charles Murray by students at Middlebury College shows that there is an atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.  In Academically Adrift (The University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that some 45 percent of college students showed no significant improvement after two years of college, and 36 percent did not improve after four years in their critical thinking skills.

Students are being shortchanged when they are not held accountable for behavior that stifles ideas they don’t agree with.  I wonder what is going to happen to them when they enter the workplace, where not everyone shares their views?  That’s something to ponder before deciding to go to college.  The so-called signaling power of a degree will also diminish as employers realize that its possession does not mean what it used to.  In fact, I see a reversal of Gresham’s Law at play.  Marquee-name schools will drive out whatever value is associated with third-tier schools.

 

 

 

 

 

Union fees are a fair price

Teachers will find out if what they’ve fought for over the decades can be sustained.  I’m referring now to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which the U.S. Supreme Court is now hearing (“Public-Sector Union Fees Don’t Violate the First Amendment,” The Nation, Feb. 23).  At issue is whether requiring teachers – as well as other public-sector employees – to pay union fees violates their First Amendment rights.

I’ll restrict my comments in this column to teachers. The agency fees charged cover the cost of negotiating and implementing collective-bargaining agreements.  By law, this service must be provided to all employees.  In 1977, the high court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public employees can be charged such a fee.  But it drew a line between forced payments for a union’s strictly political activities and those for more conventional union work.

If the plaintiffs genuinely believe that they are being coerced into paying into an organization that represents views they do not support, then they should refuse to accept the raises they receive and the protections they enjoy.  In short, they can’t have it both ways.  The First Amendment says nothing about the right to get something for nothing.  I participated in three strikes during the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I vividly remember that some teachers crossed the picket line for what they said was “principle.”  Yet they had no qualms about accepting the benefits the strikes provided.

I believe the real motive of the Janus suit (as well as its predecessor Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Association) is to abolish public-service unions. Teachers unions in particular are being scapegoated for all the ills afflicting public schools.  The media love to headline their shortcomings.  I acknowledge them, but I hasten to point out that without strong unions, teachers would be at the mercy of abusive principals.  The New York Times exposed such matters in 2004 at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City’s elite high schools.  Without union protection, even exemplary teachers can be harassed to the point that they request a transfer or quit. That’s a lesson the nation will learn as the best and the brightest avoid making teaching a career. Given the present makeup of the Supreme Court, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.

 

Parental choice is inevitable

Today marks the debut of the EdHed. The strange spelling you no doubt noticed is journalism-speak for headline.  For the past eight years, I weighed in on controversial issues in education for Education Week under the banner of Walt Gardner’s Reality Check.  I intend to continue to do so every Monday, Wednesday and Friday based on my experience teaching for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  As past readers know, I’m not an ideologue.

I’m devoting this first column to the highly emotional issue of parental choice because I believe public education in this country is at a crossroads that will make schools unrecognizable in the years ahead. There are already clear signs pointing in that direction but none more imminent than parental choice. No matter what has already been said by both sides about vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, for example, I expect parental choice to continue to dominate the news and commentary.

I received a first-rate education from K-12 in traditional public schools on Long Island, N.Y. decades ago, and strongly support them. But times have changed. I don’t know any parents today who are willing to sacrifice their own children for the sake of a principle. Parents of all backgrounds make huge sacrifices to provide their own with a quality education.  In fact, the reputation of a neighborhood school is one of the most important factors in buying a home or renting an apartment. Parents have been driven to commit residential fraud and risk arrest in order to enroll their children in schools they alone believe best meet the unique needs and interests of their children.

For low-income parents in particular, the demand shows no indication of abating, as the long wait lists for admission to charter schools attest.  That does not mean parental choice is a panacea.  I made this point in a letter to the editor of The New York Times (“On Closing Public Schools,” Feb. 20).  On the contrary, to achieve the goal of providing all students with a solid education, parents need to be informed.  There’s no question that this constitutes a burden on many parents who lack the education and/or time to investigate the options open to them. In an ideal world, of course, all neighborhood public schools would be so exemplary that no parent would want to look elsewhere.  But this has never been the reality.

I’ve heard all arguments about the issue.  There is much conflicting evidence, which is why parental choice tends to polarize Americans.  I can cite studies that support all sides.  But in the final analysis, I believe that most students would benefit when their parents are afforded the opportunity to decide by themselves what is best.  It’s appalling to hear stories of the steps that parents take to help their children receive a sound education.

 

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @waltxyz, or contact me directly at walt.gard376@gmail.com.