September 18, 2021

Site News…Eduwonk @ Substack

Readers –

A lot of you get Eduwonk daily via emails from the feedburner on the right. Unfortunately, I cannot maintain that going forward because Google is not supporting the product any longer.

So if you like to read that way, via a daily email, I suggest you subscribe to the new Substack I am creating. It’s free, just like here, and will update irregularly with content just like here. And you’ll get it in your email box.

Not an email subscriber? Then this is a great way to start and to get Eduwonk in your email box.

If you are currently subscribed to the Feedburner, a few things.

First, you should now be signed up for the Substack, I migrated the emails. If you didn’t get a welcome email, then you should go there and subscribe yourself. 

And second, once your Substack is working you can unsubscribe from Feedburner so you don’t get dupe emails. The content will be the same.

As always thanks for reading!


PS – The Eduwonk Twitter account, which gently and automatically bleats out content that’s posted here is another way to keep up.

September 17, 2021

Bellwether Is Hiring, A Few Book Recs, Fish Story…More….

At Bellwether we’re hiring for a few roles – including a brand new graphics role.

We talked recently about the coalition of the pissed off, and this ouster of a district sup’t might illustrate the issue. He was attacked for being too DEI-focused, not enough DEI-focused, and for a mask mandate.

Reading more than writing lately – a few quick recommendations. Randall Kennedy’s new book of essays, Say It Loud! is nuanced and accessible across a range of issues.

Bonnie Synder’s Undoctrinate previews the next front in the curriculum and pedagogy wars, which may not go like a lot of folks in the non-profit world think it will.*

Did not read Ashley Berner’s No One Way To School when it came out in 2017, topical right now.

No fish porn but here’s a great fish story about a young person following their dream.

*When more than 50 percent of Black parents and more than 60 percent of Hispanic parents support removing lessons on white privilege from classrooms it suggests these issues are more complicated than they’re being treated in much of the discourse. Related, this Texas Monthly article is important.

September 14, 2021

Odd And Ends

Important Urban Institute on school boundaries – which are a historical mess and a really good example of how the past isn’t past in some cases, and how those legacies can constrain opportunity and social mobility today. It’s interesting that with real issues like this you have one “side” arguing that it’s crazy to examine structures with an eye toward race and another “side” cooking up issues (for instance the idea that punctuality, precision, or math are racist constructs). Again, when there are actual – and solvable – issues like what UI highlights in front of us and affecting people’s lives.

Ashley Berner on education pluralism. Oldie but certainly relevant now. Especially to conversations like this one.

Folks in RI say keep an eye on this.

September 10, 2021

School Transportation – A Legit Crisis? Designer Genes, NCLB Tropes, More…

Some odds and ends:

We do know how to teach kids to read, so it’s worth asking why we often don’t?  Everyone loves to hate on Success Academy but it’s hard to argue with this kind of agility – and they have more than 20k kids so it’s not about size. Mark Twain remarked that nothing is more annoying to put up with than a good example…

When my wife lived for a few years in a remote part of Kyrgyzstan she’d have everyone she knew mail extra eyeglasses, it was an easy thing that changed lives. We can take similar steps for kids here in the states, too. It has benefits.

There is a lot of subsurface discussion of genetics, here are two articles you might check out: Laurence Holt in Education Next on one path. Freddie deBoer on another.

Even when you don’t agree with him deBoer is usually a penetrating writer but this piece extending the argument to No Child misses the mark. What’s with everyone on Substack suddenly deciding that Common Core and No Child are of a piece? A Bari Weiss post did the same thing this week. Common Core was intended in no small part as a corrective to parts of NCLB. Also this,

NCLB essentially mandated perpetual improvement in student scores and in effect demanded 100% compliance with state standards. Schools that failed to meet these requirements faced harsh sanctions. This resulted in both states and the feds devising workarounds for what was the law of the land – states set standards that were so low it strained the very definition of a standard, and the Obama Department of Education issued exemptions by the bushel.

One of the laziest tropes about NCLB is that it required 100 percent proficiency from students. Yes, sure, that was the political rhetoric from some quarters and would have been the effect if the law ran for like 25 years, but it’s not remotely how the policy actually worked. And repeating political rhetoric isn’t really what writers are supposed to do. Also state standards often sucked before NCLB, just called the question on that. Finally, states setting standards really low was the problem with the precursor law to NCLB, IASA. But everyone knows what they know.

You’ve probably heard about the school bus driver shortage crisis. If not Google. Except unlike a lot of education crises du jour, it’s a real problem.

There are a few reasons for the current shortage, some that get attention and some that don’t and some that predate Covid and some that don’t. There are more attractive opportunities for CDL holders, drivers can be older and more Covid-concerned as a result, the hours are weird and don’t work for some schedules or people seeking full time work. And a lot of folks fail drug tests these days because we’ve created a mess with opiates.

One solution, though not a comprehensive one but for higher density areas, would be to get school districts out of the business of transportation. They’re not great at it and it’s inefficient (there is a reason there are consulting firms that specialize in cost savings from transportation efficiency, it’s low-hanging fruit). The legacy of rules governing municipal transportation and school transportation include some noxious elements and racism dating to the busing and integration era – namely that municipal routes can’t really be modified to accommodate students.

This is all fixable. And it’s not hard to envision a regional solution that integrated transportation to better serve young people  (and old people), reduced some inefficiencies, and generally met community needs better. There are some unique aspects of school transportation, especially for little kids and special needs students, but a more comprehensive system could address these, too.

Yes, the idea of the bus driver is going to be antiquated at some point with self-driving vehicles but that’s not here yet, and the core transportation issue of getting people from point A to point B will remain.

Bellwether has done some work on transportation, it’s a fascinating and under-leveraged issue. If you are concerned about the environment, school choice, or efficiency there is something for you in it.

Watch an Elk. 

September 3, 2021

Short Term Teachers And Retirement, Often Not So Short…

I don’t have an “on this date” feature pegged today’s item, but on this date in 1976 Viking 2 landed on Mars. That was, and still is, cool.

Earlier this week Bellwether released a ranking of state teacher retirement plans. As with any good ranking we’re transparent about our assumptions and methods, you can read those in the appendix. Reasonable people can disagree with some of the dimensions we chose, that’s the point of having a ranking. But because retirement is such a long process, saving and then ultimately, hopefully, retiring, we ranked the plans along four profiles – short, medium, and long term teachers and then also taxpayers.

Of these the sort term teachers have attracted the most criticism and confusion, so a few things to keep in mind there.

First, some critics claim we are arguing that short term teachers and long term teachers should be treated the same by state teacher retirement systems. That’s false, obviously, on its face because we have three profiles for teachers that weight different things. Plan dimensions like cost of living adjudgment or Social Security matter differently to short and long term teachers and the ranking reflects that. We do, however, think that good teacher retirement policy treats all teachers equitably. So retirement security for long term teachers – an important policy goal in our view – should not come overwhelmingly at the expense of newer or younger teachers and their ability to save for their retirement.

Second, the whole idea of the short term teacher has been polluted by other education policy debates and is somewhat misleading. Given the large footprint of Teach For America people now casually toss off two years as the definition of the short term teacher. Leave aside that more TFA teachers than not continue teaching after two years, the two and out idea is more generally misleading in the context of teacher retirement policy. In order to vest in a state pension plan it can take 7 or even 10 years of teaching – in one state. Whatever you think about vesting policies, or how long is the ideal tenure for teachers, it’s hard to argue 7, 8, or 9 years really makes one a short termer.

And that points up the third issue. You can actually teach for quite a while and not vest anywhere. If life happens to take you to a few different states you can teach for 20 years and not vest – again because it can take 7 or 10 years in many places. Chad Aldeman and I looked at that whole issue more in Friends Without Benefits a few years ago. This problem is compounded by the about 40 percent of teachers who do not participate in Social Security – not by their choice but because of state policy. That’s an issue that doesn’t get the attention it should given how much it matters to people’s lives.

I don’t think it makes sense to engineer a retirement system around people who teach for just a few years. But it also doesn’t make sense to engineer it exclusively around the one in five who teach for a full career – a figure that seems unlikely to rise given the future labor market. It seems like trying to have policies that do not unduly burden either group in their retirement saving efforts is a good starting point for reform or policy (and as a reminder today’s pensions for long term teachers are not “gold plated.”

Along those lines, one of the things about our rankings that is worth pausing on is that the top performing states are a mix of approaches to this problem – and also have different political contexts. It seems to indicate, perhaps, that pragmatism about the question of how best to provide retirement support for teachers is a better approach than strict ideology about any approach – traditional pensions or 401(k)s axiomatically being the ideal approach. As the rankings show, the details matter and while there will always be tradeoffs in any policy, the details are where we can dull some of today’s sharp edges.

September 1, 2021

Caprice Young, Michael Horn, Pensions, A Political Moment, A Simpsons Moment

Caprice Young talks with Bellwether’s Katie Rouse.

The new 2021 Ed Next poll is out. Always worth reading. My general sense based on all the data from various sources is that there is a coalition of the pissed, a lot of otherwise down the line progressive parents sound like Pinkteron agents, and there is a lot of interest and support for more parent agency.

What there is not? A big push to capitalize on the moment. A lot of philanthropic leaders seem more interested in policing whether we call this crisis “learning loss” or “unfinished learning” or burnishing various brands rather than seizing a fleeting political opportunity to empower parents and make a judo-like move to convert this energy into some change that empowers parents more – especially Black, Hispanic, and low-income parents. In other words, to turn that energy into action and activate more parents. Absent concerted activity things will regress to the mean because people have a lot on their plate and more importantly just want to live their lives. That stability versus change issue is an important dynamic and while you’ll see some change just as a byproduct of disruption, how broad it is hinges on how much organized advocacy and political activity supports it.

ICYMI yesterday, we ranked state teacher retirement plans. Go SD! IL do better. But there is a lot more than that in terms of how various aspects of these plans do and don’t work for teachers and taxpayers.

Tom Edsall asks which way we’re going on building a multiracial society.

Accountability for alternative schools is a bit of a Goldilocks problem. If you adhere to standardized accountability it’s a bad fit for some schools that have a unique mission. The nation’s first charter school, for instance, was established to serve students who had already dropped out of high school. Normal metrics for gradation rates wouldn’t really work in that case.

On the other hand, if you just say, ‘well these schools are unique, anything goes’ that creates two problems. One, you get a lot of arguments that all schools are unique etc…and education politics being what it is the result can be loopholes. Or, you get loopholes that allow a lot of alternative schools to skirt any real accountability. Texas had to address exactly this problem a few years back.

It’s actually an interesting problem. And just as most great historical thinkers took a stab at what the ideal education system would look like, most people who think about education take a stab at ideal alternative accountability systems. Anyway, that’s all by way of saying here’s Michael Horn’s idea, which is timely given the rapid growth of alternative options right now.

Video of the day. If you are a certain kind of person this might make you feel better about today’s generation of kids. If not, then ay, caramba!

August 31, 2021

How Does Your State’s Teacher Retirement Plan Rank?

At Bellwether today we have a new ranking of teacher retirement plans for all 50 states and D.C.  In a nutshell we look across 15 dimensions – how long it takes to get a pension, do you have alternative and portable options, are state policymakers meeting their obligations to fund the plan, how much do teachers have to pay in, and so forth. And then we look at 4 profiles, short term teachers*, medium term ones, and long term teachers as well as taxpayers. The result is a composite ranking of how the states fare.

The laggard states probably won’t surprise, they have well known issues like excessive debt, they don’t put teachers in Social Security, and long vesting periods to even earn a pension. But the leader states might surprise. They’re a mix of states with traditional pensions and alternative systems. And that’s key, the debate about pensions versus 401(k)s misses that plan design matters more than plan structures. You can have good pensions and good 401(k)-style plans, and vice versa.

Money Magazine has an article about the rankings out this morning. And, they have a sidebar feature on teacher retirement savings that gets at the too often ignored issue of Social Security participation as well as too often scam-like 403(b) options.

Why does this matter? A few reasons. First, there are a lot of teachers, and millions more former teachers. That means their retirement security is a broader retirement security issue. Second, if we want the labor force students deserve we have to give that labor force a retirement system that doesn’t disadvantage them in their retirement savings. And third, of course, doing better here, and there is a lot of room to do better, no state got an “A”, is just the right thing to do.

*The trite take on short term teachers is, ‘who cares about people who only teach for say two years?’ And that’s certainly not a group you’re going to engineer your retirement system around. But as you can see in the ranking, many states have vesting periods of seven or 10 years. And if you move, say you’re a trailing spouse or life happens and you move somewhere else as a result, you could teach for 20 or 25 years but fail to vest in multiple places. Only about one in five teachers vests overall, that’s a problem!

August 27, 2021

We Wear The Mask…

Last week I asked whether it was really great to have the White House wading into a pretty classic state education issue. I got some nastygrams, things are pretty tribal right now. But my basic point is that we have institutions and processes, we ignore them at our peril. So as with the Make America Sue Again idea related to CARES funding, I’m pleased a Florida court said  today school districts there can do what they think best on masks. It seems like Florida’s issue to settle and lo and behold they are.