In light of my recent exchange with Joe Williams on merit pay, I cannot omit this latest from Ed Week.

Strategies for luring more students and working adults into math and science teaching have proved as popular among elected officials as financial incentives, which try to make one of the least appealing aspects of the job—low pay—a little less daunting.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering a number of bills that would expand existing incentives, such as scholarships and loan forgiveness for aspiring educators, and create new monetary inducements. Dozens of states, meanwhile, already offer their own incentives for teachers in subjects with shortages, including mathematics and science.

But those who have studied financial incentives say evidence is scant that they are attracting substantial numbers of college students and career-changers to math and science teaching, despite years of investments in those programs.

Opinions vary on why incentives have not shown greater results. Some believe the money available is relatively insignificant when weighed against potential job candidates’ worries about poor salaries and working conditions. Others say the hodgepodge of federal, state, and local incentives is so fragmented that few potential teachers are aware of what’s available.

“There’s been virtually no research on how effective [these] options are,” said Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We ought to be making decisions about these programs based on something more than what might be effective, and instead base it on empirical evidence.”

I hate it when common-sense doesn’t pan out. Next thing you know we’ll find out that paying kids for better test scores doesn’t work either.

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While education researches sometimes seem consumed with tearing each other apart over what works, certain interventions have been proven time and time again to make a difference. Here is the latest study from Arthur Reynolds and co. documenting the lasting benefits of high-quality early childhood programs. Ed Week’s summary is here.

My editorial accompanying the study is here (Why Prison Not Pre-School). My bottom line:

The Chicago Longitudinal Study examined a cohort of low-income students who attended preschool beginning at ages 3 and 4 years at Child-Parent Centers in Chicago. Many of the children and families received additional remedial services during the early elementary school grades. Reynolds et al tracked the students, now 24 years old, to measure the impact of the intervention on educational attainment, crime, economic status, and physical and mental health status.

The results are striking: students who received the services were more likely than a comparison group to graduate high school and attend 4-year college, more likely to be employed full-time, less likely to be involved with serious criminal behavior or to be incarcerated, and less likely to suffer depression. These results matter, they are consistent with other research on the long-term impact of quality early-childhood education, and they deserve wide attention.

Fixing D.C. Schools

August 7, 2007

Johnetta Rose Barras nails this.

The facts:

Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee tells a tale about a tour of the central administration of D.C. Public Schools that is revealing evidence of a major problem that confronts her, Mayor Adrian Fenty and other reformers.

“What do you do?” she asked several administrators, who in response offered their job titles.

“I know your title,” she continued. “I mean what do you do?”

Staffers seemed baffled. Absent a prepared script, they were unsure of the answer she sought. Eventually they replied “Whatever [my supervisor] tells me to do.”

Barras’ analysis:

These are windows into the DCPS culture, where people without relevant portfolios are retained simply because they do what they’re told – although what they’re told often has no direct connection to the education of children. And folks, like Millet, are protected by political connections. Relevance, accountability and merit are foreign terms.

Rhee has instituted a hiring freeze. Hopefully that action is an early offensive against a malignant culture that celebrates complacency, mediocrity and incompetence.

The new chancellor admits that she has fired only one individual; a couple of central administration staff have retired. She and the mayor need not wait for others to realize the jig is up. Firing clueless or poor-performing employees is a liberating experience – especially for parents and their children.

For most of this nation’s history, black people have had too few allies in the struggle for better schools. Brown v. Bd. of Education tried to change that by tying the fate of black students with their white classmates. Although that effort has not turned out like Thurgood Marshall had hoped, the underlying point remains true: as a minority group, African-Americans need allies.

In light of this, I welcome the various folks now demanding better schools for low-income and minority students. At the same time, it is imperative that education reformers of all colors and sizes recognize that for African-Americans, the school struggle is part of a larger demand for equality and justice.

This point, which Sara Mead made well, might seem obvious. But then education reformers start talking and I realize it is not. A jarring example is The Education Gadlfy’s recent statement about the D.C. voucher program and voting rights for District citizens. Here it is in full:

Gadfly has heretofore expressed no opinion about the District of Columbia’s lack of representation in Congress. But the latest crusade of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, makes one think that perhaps D.C. shouldn’t have a vote. Norton is trying to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which turns federal dollars into private school scholarships for 2,000 of the District’s neediest students. Her stance is, at minimum, odd, because parents whose children have received scholarships like the program (see here and here). So who is Norton representing? Evidently not her D.C. constituents. She recently said that the program “was experimental, it was never meant to be permanent.” But Deborah Green, whose daughter Tanisha is thriving in her new private school, disagrees. Green said, “We’re going to have a battle. I’m ready to do that because they need to keep the program going. Without it, the students don’t have a choice, and I don’t think that’s fair.” It’s not fair. Whether or not you think Norton should win a vote in Congress, here’s hoping she loses this particular fight and that the parents prevail.

The bottom line here: Gadly thinks that the District of Columbia citizens might not deserve the vote because our elected representative disagrees with the Gadfly (and the parents receiving vouchers) about the merits of the program.

This is illogical, bizarre and offensive. The illogic begins with the premise that because the parents of the children receiving vouchers like the program (studies show they do), Norton is acting against her constituency by opposing the plan. Of course, Norton’s constituency is broader than the parents who benefit. Other constituents don’t like vouchers. This is how democracy works; it is why a representative might choose to oppose needle-exchange programs for IV drug users even though addicts like the program, or might oppose tax breaks for businesses even if the owners appreciate the rebate, etc.

The Gadfly’s post is bizarre because suggesting that Norton is not being true to her constituency ignores the particular history of the D.C. voucher program. The voucher program was passed by Congress, not by the elected representatives of the District of Columbia. Everyone knows it would not have passed if D.C.’s elected officials got to vote on it–indeed, that is why voucher advocates went to Congress in the first place.

Would the Gadfly endorse Congress denying the citizens of Dayton, Ohio the right to vote and then passing a law that applied only to Dayton and that most of Dayton’s elected officials opposed? Of course not.

The difference is that the Constitution prohibits Congress from doing this to the citizens of Dayton, or any other part of the U.S. But it allows it with D.C. But even if it is constitutional to treat D.C. this way, there is simply no moral justification for legislating on local concerns. This point was eloquently made by Republican lawyers Lee Casey and David Rifkin Jr. at the time the voucher law was passed (available behind NY Times subscription wall). In discussing pending voucher and gun control legislation, they said:

Congress has the constitutional right to impose a school voucher program on the District of Columbia. It also has the legal power to relax the district’s strict gun control laws. But that doesn’t mean it should. In fact, doing so — as some senators are now proposing — violates the basic social compact the Constitution’s framers envisioned between Congress and the district.

The issues at hand are Republican-led efforts in the Senate to establish a school voucher program in the district and to repeal its 27-year-old ban on handguns. But while the Constitution grants Congress ”exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the national capital, it lacks the moral authority to impose policy choices over purely local matters like these, matters that otherwise do not affect the federal government’s operations.

In light of this history, many District residents oppose the voucher plan on process (i.e., democracy) grounds. For many, the merits of vouchers are beside the point, because the principle (again, democracy) has been violated.

The Gadfly’s argument is offensive too, and especially so to the precise constituency that the Gadfly and other education reformers purport to defend. D.C. is a majority black city in a country that denied blacks the right to vote for centuries. Even if Norton were dead wrong on vouchers, that is irrelevant to the question of whether the franchise should be extended to this majority-black constituency. We do not have to prove our worthiness to vote. D.C. residents deserve the right to vote in Congress unconditionally, because morality, political philosophy, and basic human rights say so, not because the Gadfly likes what our rep has to say about vouchers.

In fact, the Gadfly has it exactly backwards. Voting rights and democracy matter more than a single issue. The fact that the Gadfly reverses the order and privileges vouchers over equal citizenship buttresses the oft-made claim that, despite the racial justice rhetoric, the education reform community has concerns other than the health of the black community.

And at the end of the day, that’s why this is so important. I care about the education reform movement. A lot of African-Americans distrust education reformers like those at the Gadfly. Many believe they want to privatize the schools, they want free-markets to rule, and they use black families and children as pawns. I don’t know the folks behind the Gadfly, but I know many of their fellow travelers, and I don’t believe this is the case in general.

I think most ed reformers are well-meaning people who have, for a variety of reasons, been drawn to an issue that is unquestionably urgent–the quality of schools in low-income communities. It is hard enough to convince people of this as is. Posts like the Gadfly’s make it much harder.

Want to get a sense of what new Chancellor Rhee is up against in D.C.? Turns out at my neighborhood elementary school, Shepherd in NW DC, books are stacked in the basement. More books and supplies are in a warehouse. This is beyond offensive. Some things are hard (e.g., finding high quality teachers willing to teach in schools serving low-income kids, providing training and mentoring for those teachers, etc). Getting books out of the warehouse and into the classrooms is not.

Rhee is pissed, and correctly points out that a lot of teachers “spend their own money” on supplies that the District has wasting away in boxes.

Joe Williams and EducationGuru have thoughtful responses to the questions I raised about merit pay plans (here and here). Joe’s bottom line is that merit pay right now would be “a total disaster” in most places because of implementation problems. But he supports, as I do, economic incentives to lure the best teachers into the schools that most need them.

EducationGuru’s detailed plan ends up lending support to Joe’s conclusion–when you read what she has to offer, you come away convinced that it is worthy, expensive, and hard to implement well.

In light of all of this, I am left wondering why so many education reformers get excited if a politician mentions merit pay? If Joe is correct, it is not going to be done well anytime soon at scale. Maybe we should move on to more feasible, higher-impact items.