November 19, 2014

Education: A Way Out

For some students, education is a “way out,” but in places with few educational options, the way out is often a public school that does not meet the needs of its students.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have taken steps to ensure students have more choice in education. New Orleans parents Gerald and Shermane Prosper were able to take advantage of the Louisiana Scholarship program, which allows their son to attend a private school. The voucher program, enacted in 2008, serves low-income students in low-performing schools and provides educational access to more than one-third of students in the state. Show-Me Institute Fellow James Shuls has shown how this type of scholarship program could potentially save Missourians millions of taxpayer dollars.

Watch the video to learn how the Prosper family views education as a pathway to success.

November 17, 2014

Ideas for Kansas City Schools: Pay Teachers More Sooner

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. Previously, we shared some ideas for strengthening administration and staff. Today, we’d like to suggest at least one change to Kansas City’s teacher pay schedule: pay teachers more sooner.

As it stands, the pay schedule for Kansas City teachers starts low and provides only modest increases in the initial years. Largest pay increases come at the end of a career, in a manner to maximize pension value. As my colleague James Shuls has argued in previous posts, this is a disincentive for new and effective teachers to stay on. Dane Stangler and Aaron North of the Kauffman Foundation wrote in a March 2014 op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Because most of the pension value accrues in the final years of an educator’s career, the typical new teacher in Kansas City or St. Louis does not benefit from the current system. Based on our research, we estimate the likelihood that a traditional public school teacher in St. Louis stays in the profession long enough to earn the maximum pension benefit to be about 4 percent. In other words, 96 percent of teachers in St. Louis will leave prior to reaching the full benefit and the percentage is comparable in Kansas City (approximately 3 percent).

As a result, new teachers are less likely to stay on. According to the Show-Me Institute’s Michael Podgursky, “After eight years, roughly 70 percent of teachers remain on the job. The eight-year survival rates in STL and KC are far lower, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent.”

Podgursky’s paper urges more transparency and,

Given the relatively small share of new teachers in Kansas City or Saint Louis who can expect to complete an entire career in either district, as a strategic recruiting tool it makes more sense to raise front-end salaries, 

rather than “generous end-of-career retirement benefits.”

Certainly, there are many reasons why teachers in Kansas City and Saint Louis are much more likely to leave, and creating a more fair pension system will not solve all of them. But one thing we can do in Kansas City is to let new teachers know they are valued early on in their careers and that we want them to stay on.

November 15, 2014

Why a Teaching Degree Is Easy as 1-2-3

Having experienced firsthand the ease of a teaching program, I wasn’t surprised by the results of a recent National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) study, which examined the demands of teacher training programs. Like many pre-service teachers, I knew that if I was to become an effective teacher, it wouldn’t be due to the rigors of my program. Here is an example of an assignment I completed during graduate school.

The assignment was to explain some differentiated instruction techniques I planned to use in the classroom—by drawing a cartoon. This is what I turned in:

mat blog picture

Clearly, I’m not an artist, but still, this is absolute nonsense—I received minimal points off. This is the kind of assignment the NCTQ would refer to as criterion-deficient. Criterion-deficient assignments are broad in scope and may be difficult for instructors to give high-level feedback. Unlike assignments that allow instructors to measure mastery of knowledge or skills, criterion-deficient assignments are subjective. How could an instructor give high-level feedback to the above garbage?

The NCTQ found that on average 71 percent of grades in teacher preparation courses rely heavily on criterion-deficient assignments. The study also found there is a correlation between the percentage of criterion-deficient assignments and high grades—teacher candidates are 50 percent more likely to receive honors at graduation than candidates with other majors.

I hope these embarrassing findings are a sign to universities that they should stop focusing on reflective assignments that are subjective in nature and, instead, build an environment of rigor that will ultimately draw more quality students to the teaching profession.

November 14, 2014

Vail Lifted from Teacher Collective Bargaining Negotiations in Colorado

Colorado voters said YES to Proposition 104 last week at a ratio of 7 to 3. The ballot initiative will open collective bargaining negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards to the public. Supporters say the new law will bring transparency to local government, allowing parents and taxpayers a look into what teachers’ unions ask for during negotiations.

Should Missouri pursue similar reform?

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Many existing agreements can be viewed on Show-Me Sunshine. Here are just a few of the hundreds of items teachers and school boards have bargained for:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Sick days
  • Student behavior
  • Parent communication
  • Amount of time a parent may spend in the classroom
  • Paid release days for union activity
  • Hiring policies

Parents may not be aware of the restrictiveness of some of these contracts. A study by USC Associate Professor Katharine Strunk found that in school districts with more union power school boards had less flexibility in decision making. This is unnerving, as school board members are elected by citizens; teachers’ unions are not.

Perhaps if Missouri’s Sunshine Law was expanded to include collective negotiations, school boards would be less likely to give in to cumbersome demands in the presence of taxpayers and parents. In the absence of a collaborative policy, this would bring parents and taxpayers a step closer to having a place at the bargaining table.

October 30, 2014

Our Take on Amendment 3

There’s been a lot of talk about Amendment 3, which limits teacher contracts to three years and ties evaluations to personnel decisions. Some arguments against Amendment 3 are rational, evidence-based, and well thought out; others are not. In this post, we present our analysis of several arguments that have been made regarding Amendment 3. We conclude with some final thoughts on the matter.

(1) Amendment 3 will mandate more standardized tests.

Analysis: False.

Here’s what the ballot language says:

The majority of such evaluation system shall be based upon quantifiable student performance data as measured by objective criteria.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claims:

. . . the worst thing about Amendment 3 is that it imposes an untested experiment on all local school districts in the state, requiring them to devise a new standardized test for students that becomes the primary evaluation tool for teachers. Don’t our children take enough standardized tests these days?

This is a tremendous overstatement. With the state tests that students already take and the multitude of internal assessments that districts already administer, there is no need for additional tests under this amendment. Moreover, there are other types of performance data, such as districtwide common assessments, which could fit within the Amendment 3 language.

(2) Amendment 3 takes away local control.

Analysis: Both true and false.

If we were moving from a neutral system to an Amendment 3 system, it would be a loss of local control. Of course, we are not moving from a neutral system. Current Missouri tenure laws grant teachers a permanent contract after five years within the same school district and prescribe the exact steps that districts must undertake to remove a tenured teacher. This is a clear loss of local control. Amendment 3 would remove these centrally imposed mandates and would also remove the disastrous “Last in, first out” provision.

Under an Amendment 3 system, contracts would be capped at three years. Amendment 3 would also mandate that districts make staffing decisions based on teacher evaluations. A majority of such evaluations must be based on student performance data. Aside from this provision, districts would largely get to shape their evaluations.

(3) If there is a problem with the new system, Amendment 3 would make it difficult to change policies in the future.

Analysis: True.

How much of a teacher’s evaluation is tied to quantitative data should not be in the state constitution. Ideally, policies such as this would be determined as close to home as possible. That is, authority to determine contract length and evaluation practices should be devolved to the local school district or set in state regulations that could be changed when necessary. Even statutory changes would be preferable to a constitutional change.

Final thoughts:

Proponents argue that Amendment 3 will lead to better teacher evaluations and more recognition for great teachers. Ultimately, they hope this will create an improved teacher workforce. There is just one fundamental problem with that argument—when it comes to teacher quality, we have what is known as a principal-agent problem. That is, we as citizens (the principal) want great teachers in our schools and we hire school administrators (the agent) to make sure this happens. If the agent does not do his or her job, there is little we can do about it. Ultimately, we are dependent upon the school administrator for hiring the right people, evaluating them effectively, and retaining the most effective teachers. If a school administrator lacks the will to remove low-performing teachers, there is little that parents can do about it. Amendment 3 does not change our fundamental principal-agent problem. It may remove tenure restrictions, but if school administrators lack the will, then nothing will change.

The only way to change this dynamic is through greater school choice. With school choice, a parent does not have to depend on an administrator to remove an ineffective teacher. The parent can simply choose to go somewhere else. This places pressure on school administrators to take a more active role in managing the teacher workforce. School choice is the answer to our principal-agent problem. School choice is the answer for improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce.

James Shuls contributed to this post.

October 27, 2014

What Uber and School Choice Have in Common: In Missouri


Late last month, founding president and chief operating officer of the Children’s Scholarship Fund James Courtovich wrote an op-ed in the Wall-Street Journal titled “What Uber and School Choice Have in Common.” He said:

When we began the project [Children’s Scholarship Fund] in 1998, teachers, union leaders and their political benefactors said choice was a threat, much as cabdrivers say now. But as [Ted] Forstmann used to say, “Monopolies invariably produce bad products at high prices.” The 1.3 million parents who applied for the scholarships illustrated the tremendous demand for alternatives.

I reread this article after my trip to Washington, D.C., where I took my first Uber and Lyft rides. Reflecting on my positive experience with the taxicab alternatives, i.e., five-dollar fare, I realized—I’m not used to having choice.

In the Show-Me State, it is the status quo to be educated within your zip code. It is also the status quo to pay $40 for a 10-mile cab ride. Saint Louis and Kansas City are two of the largest metropolitan areas to prevent Uber and Lyft from operating their ridesharing services; and there are no private school choice programs in the state. Is Missouri choice-resistant?

As Courtovich suggested, there’s a parallel between the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) and Missouri’s school choice critics. The MTC claims to protect rider safety, maintaining the balance between cab supply and demand. School choice opponents claim voucher programs will “destabilize” public education, that choice and competition have no place in education.

The MTC and school choice critics are utterly afraid of change, but keeping the status quo has consequences. Children are trapped in low-performing schools, and cab fare is high. Missouri should follow the lead of states that have embraced choice in any context, because as Uber’s tagline suggests, “Choice is a beautiful thing.”



October 23, 2014

An Idea for Kansas City Schools: Give Principals Power

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. We have a few ideas we’d like to share about strengthening administration and staff, rewarding teachers, and empowering parents.

First, it is noteworthy that the stated purpose of the advisory committee is seemingly small ball. Their email soliciting participation asks only,

What’s it going to take for Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) to regain full accreditation? What’s it going to take for your school to regain/sustain full accreditation? How can we retain and attract students?

In other words, “What do we have to do to provide the minimal state-required level of service?” We’re also suspect that they are looking toward parents and the community for ideas when there is an entire industry of specialists who have researched, written, and talked about what to do to improve schools. We at the Show-Me Institute have our own suggestions, and they aim at rebuilding world-class education in Kansas City. All our ideas have a common theme: Move power away from centralized school districts and toward students and parents.

For his 2003 book Making Schools Work, UCLA Professor and Author William G. Ouchi studied more than 200 schools in six cities and found that a school’s educational success may be most directly affected by how it is managed. The way to increase successful management, he argues, is to give schools more control over their own budget.

While schools may boast large budgets, Ouchi’s research uncovered that very little of it is controlled by the principal or the school itself. In one anecdote, he relates that a Los Angeles principal said her school had a budget of $21 million but added, “It doesn’t really matter because I only control $32,000.” Ouchi’s further research indicated that in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago the local schools only controlled 6.1 percent, 6.7 percent, and 19.1 percent of the budget, respectively.

In school districts that have seen tremendous improvements in their urban school performances, such as Seattle, Houston, and Edmonton, Canada, the percentage of the budget controlled by the local schools was 91.7, 79.3, and 58.6, respectively. This should be no surprise. Administrators, teachers, and parents at the school are best able to identify and address the specific needs of their students.

Here in Kansas City, better school management means moving the power of the purse away from the top-down centralized control at 12th and McGee streets and out to the principals at Paseo, Lincoln Prep, and elsewhere. Ouchi offers this warning to parents:

Control goes with the money. If your superintendent smiles, invites your group into his office, and tells you that he agrees with you and that he’s going to roll out a new school-based decision-making program that includes parent involvement—smile sweetly and ask him who will control the school’s budget. Don’t let him off the hook. Don’t let him think that you can be so easily fooled.

Remember, the author was chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He has academic credentials, but he has weathered political fights as well. And the Kansas City district appears to be doing exactly what he describes: They smile, invite people to discuss the district, but surrender none of the control that is necessary for success.

October 22, 2014

ESAs Empower Families in Arizona

All students have unique educational needs, which is why Salima’s parents chose to participate in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program. The ESA is an education savings account that allows parents to use a portion of their public school’s funding and deposit it into an account. The account can be used to pay for private school tuition, online education, private tutoring, or future expenses like college. This makes a world of difference to kids like Salima, who is one of 400,000 people living with Down syndrome in the United States.

This inspiring story is just one example of how school choice can transform lives. Because Salima’s parents were empowered through Arizona’s school choice program, their daughter’s needs finally are being met.

October 21, 2014

The Teachers’ Union Cycle

Last week, Time Magazine released an article titled “Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot,” which reported that the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) will spend a combined $60 million to $80 million this election cycle. What does that mean for education stakeholders in Missouri?

The graphic below represents how teachers’ unions influence local school districts.

teachers union cycle

The first path of influence is through national and state political activity. At both levels, teachers’ unions make contributions to candidates that are likely to represent their platforms. The NEA, for example, takes strong positions on national education issues such as Common Core and school choice.

Unions also back issues at the state level—the Missouri NEA is reported to have donated $20,000 to campaign against Amendment 3, an initiative to end teacher tenure in Missouri, while it’s PAC, the Committee in Support of Public Educators, raised almost $90,000. Although there is money spent on the opposite side, monetary contributions are not the only way teachers’ unions influence policy.

Involvement in school board elections is the second route of influence. In Missouri, teachers’ unions have the right to collectively bargain with school administrations. These agreements include a range of items such as workplace rules, teachers’ compensation, and personnel decisions. According to union guru Myron Lieberman, collective bargaining was initially seen as a check on the power of school boards, who are democratically elected by residents within a school district.

However, a study by Stanford Political Scientist Terry Moe showed that within the 253 school districts examined unions supported school board candidates in 92 percent of the districts,”made phone calls in 97 percent, campaigned door-to-door in 68 percent, and provided mailings and publicity in 94 percent.”

If Moe’s study holds true in Missouri, then teachers’ unions have influenced school board elections, helping to elect candidates with similar views—nine Missouri school boards have passed resolutions against Amendment 3.

Through these two paths, the teachers’ union cycle perpetually strengthens itself. By limiting the power of parents, influencing the hand of local school district officials, and mobilizing state and national efforts to keep the status quo, the teachers’ union is able to protect the people the system was designed to serve—teachers.

Protecting the interests of teachers is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that within the teachers’ union cycle the interests of teachers often outweigh the needs of students.


October 17, 2014

Support Local Control? Oppose Teacher Tenure Mandates

In November, Missourians will vote on a constitutional amendment that would change the way school districts manage the teacher workforce. The amendment would strip away current teacher tenure protections for new teachers and limit contracts of these new teachers to a maximum of three years. Additionally, it would require school districts to use student performance data in teacher evaluations.

Now, there are good and compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. Ironically, however, one of the main arguments against Amendment 3 is that it constitutes a loss of local control.

There is some truth to that claim, but it is important to ask the question, “As compared to what?”

Under current state statutes, Missouri public school districts are forced to enter into an “indefinite contract” when teachers receive tenure and that it shall last for an “indefinite period.” Talk about top down!

What’s more, state statutes mandate a specific process for removing a tenured teacher. This is illustrated in the graphic below (from my paper, “The Power to Lead”).

It is perfectly fine for opponents of Amendment 3 to call it a “top-down mandate” that will strip away local control. I just hope that after November 4, these groups will continue to support local control and oppose top-down mandates for teacher tenure.

Mo Tenure process

October 13, 2014

That’s Why We Need More School Choice

Lorrine and Naomi Goodloe. Photo by Robert Cohen,

Lorrine and Naomi Goodloe. Photo by Robert Cohen,

As someone who studies the issue of education policy quite closely, I can tell you there are many compelling academic reasons for supporting school choice. Studies consistently show that school choice programs save taxpayers money. Moreover, students who utilize school choice programs tend to benefit academically. Although I have read tomes on the value and benefit of school choice, none have made the argument for school choice as clearly and succinctly as the recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece by Jessica Bock, “After Troubles at Normandy Middle, a Return to Francis Howell.”

Bock tells the story of Naomi Goodloe a seventh-grade student in the midst of the drama surrounding the interdistrict school choice program in the Normandy School District. Goodloe attended sixth grade in the Francis Howell School District. However, enabled by the State Board of Education, Francis Howell elected to not allow transfer students to return this year. Thus, Goodloe was relegated back to school in Normandy. As Bock writes:

Lorrine Goodloe believed it might be better in Normandy schools this year, and told her daughter so.

But barely two months into the school year, Naomi Goodloe has left Normandy again, bruised and now behind in her seventh-grade studies.

The path back to Francis Howell wasn’t easy. In fact, it only came as the result of a court order.

After weeks of asking to go back to Saeger [Middle School in Francis Howell], Lorrine Goodloe made phone calls and determined Naomi might still be able to get back to Francis Howell. Attorneys hired by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, a school-choice organization financed by investment banker Rex Sinquefield, would go to court for Naomi’s right to return, as they have for others. The judge granted the orders based on his ruling in August that the state board had violated rules when they changed Normandy’s accreditation.

When Naomi returned to her Francis Howell school, she was greeted warmly by her friends. “Everybody gave me hugs, and they dragged me around the school, letting everyone know ‘Naomi’s back!’” she said. She is now receiving the education that she desires and the education that she deserves.

Families should not have to be passive consumers of whatever their local school is offering. Parents should be equipped to choose the school that is going to meet their needs. That is the beauty of school choice, and that is why we need to expand options for all of Missouri’s school children. If you haven’t already, read Bock’s entire piece.


October 8, 2014

Charter School Dropouts: Accountability Reform

beauty school

“To be successful with kids that come to you at 19 reading at a fifth-grade reading level, there are things you have to do differently,” said Ernie Silva to an audience at the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA) Conference on October 2.

Silva’s words reflect his experience with what he refers to as “reengaged students.” According to Silva, these students, who are between the ages of 16 and 22, require a school model that is structured differently from the system that currently exists. One component of that model is a change in accountability measures.

Students in public charter schools are currently held accountable for learning the same information as students in public schools. This includes charter schools that exclusively serve high school dropouts or at-risk students. Since schools are all judged by the same criteria, schools that actually benefit impoverished communities are forced to close because of academic underperformance.

DeLaSalle Charter School is the only remaining alternative high school in Missouri. In reality, there are a number of alternative high schools across the state, but students who attend these schools, in separate buildings, are often counted in the overall school district’s scores instead of judged separately. This is unfair, as alternative charter schools like DeLaSalle cannot so easily mask the performance of at-risk students because they only serve at-risk students.

In August, proponents of DeLaSalle were worried about the charter’s unsatisfactory state standardized test scores. But do End of Course (EOC) exams that measure one grade level’s worth of learning measure what a student at an alternative high school knows?

Not really. As Silva pointed out, a student at 19 who tests at a fifth-grade reading level requires something different. Such a student may go from a fifth-grade reading level to a ninth-grade reading level in one year, but a test that measures the student at an 11th-grade reading level would not capture this growth.

This is, yet again, another one-size-doesn’t-fit-all lesson for education. One accountability system does not fit all schools. For schools that serve dropouts and at-risk students, an accountability model that puts more of an emphasis on academic growth is a much better fit.


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