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Henry Smith Reviews Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences

Daniel DiSalvo opens his new book with the declaration that he is a third generation
union member. However, the author quickly distances himself from this heritage; he
spends the 229 pages of Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its
Consequences (2015), arguing that America’s public unions, the strongest unions in
modern America, are destructive of our democratic culture. I am from a union family.
My mother was a teacher and union member in Massachusetts, and I spent three years
working for the AFL-CIO. My disagreement with DiSalvo’s position is, therefore, not
only philosophical but also personal.

The chapter titles betray DiSalvo’s view: Electing your own boss; The Distortion of
Direct Democracy; Shelter from the Storm; and A Day of Reckoning? Inside these
chapters DiSalvo outlines the rise of public sector labor unions, including the fact
that the local, state, and federal governments now owe the public unions $3.2 trillion
in unfunded pension plans. Furthermore, DiSalvo tells the readers that these
unfunded pension plans arise because the three levels of governments must pay
these workers retirement benefits that reach, in some cases, the outrageous sum of
$100,000 per year. In other words, the author attacks one of the few organizations in
this country that has successfully helped workers to receive the retirement comfort for
which we all strive. Continue Reading →


Steiner wants legislators to toughen curriculum

David Steiner, executive director and founder of the Institute for Education Policy at the School of Education, briefed members of the House Ways and Means Committee on the institute’s mission and offered his views on improving K-12 education.

Steiner told the committee that in recent years the goalposts have moved for educators. “Today the emphasis is on preparing students to be college- and career-ready, whereas a decade ago we wanted students to be able to graduate from high school,” he said. “The two are not the same. In New York for example, 75 percent of the students graduate from high school while only half that number are ready for college. Unfortunately, the number of disadvantaged students who are ready for college is even lower.”

His message was clear: If we are to improved educational opportunities for all students, we need to focus more attention on what we teach and how effectively students are learning.

“Today the emphasis is on preparing students to be college- and career-ready, whereas a decade ago we wanted students to be able to graduate from high school.”

According to Steiner, research shows that with the exception of the contrast between a superbly effective and ineffective teacher, no single factor makes more of a difference in student learning than the curriculum. A strong curriculum can accelerate student learning as much as seven months over a weak one. Since there is no national consensus, curriculums now can vary by teachers within a school, among schools and among districts.

He said we “massively” under-educate our children and expect too little of them. “However, when we teach them really interesting and demanding material and challenge them to think about it, they do much better.”

As proof, he cites the example of the International Baccalaureate program, a top-rated curriculum, introduced to Chicago public schools. The program is serving 22,000 regular high school students, 70 percent of whom are minorities. Students completing the program are showing 40 percent greater rates of entry into higher education than their peers.

Steiner said student learning is directly related to the quality of the teaching they receive. He was critical of the lack of accountability of the nation’s 1,200 schools of education. He told the committee we have no idea what kind of training that teacher candidates are getting, nor do we know how effective they are in the classroom. “The problem of teacher quality is as deep a problem as the curricula problem,” he said.

He encouraged the legislative committee to take a leadership role in both areas. “You should know what curriculum is being taught in schools and whether it is research-based,” he told legislators. “You should also know if a school of education is producing effective teachers for the classrooms of Maryland.” The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act allows states more flexibility in using federal dollars to address these concerns.

Steiner offered legislators the services of the institute by providing access to an unbiased education research and also to answer questions important to them and their constituents. To see his complete presentation, click here. His presentation starts at 1:05.


Institute for Education Policy Barnstorming the State

Jim Campbell
Senior Writer and Government and Community Relations

For the past two months, David Steiner, executive director of the Institute for Education Policy, his deputy Ashley Berner and I have been meeting with legislators from across the state to introduce them to the work of the institute. Steiner sees the institute as offering state policy-makers the best available information on proven programs to help students achieve academic success. He plans to accomplish this by providing access to high-quality research, commissioning research that responds to real-world needs, advising on interventions to narrow the achievement gap and providing a forum for interested parties to dialogue on students’ educational outcomes.

On December 1, we traveled to Annapolis for a series of meetings with legislative leaders and members of the policy committees that included an afternoon briefing on reforming teacher-preparation programs. Steiner was first on the agenda, followed by Jack Smith, state superintendent of education, and representatives of the University System of Maryland who presented the results of a year-long effort to develop an action plan for the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers.

Steiner didn’t hold back when he told committee members “The nation’s teacher-preparation programs are falling short of preparing teachers to be the effective instructors that every child needs regardless of the child’s background or readiness to learn.

“Survey after survey shows fewer than half of new teachers believe they are ready for the realities of the classroom, such as teaching students of diverse backgrounds, analyzing performance data and setting goals or planning instruction. The 1,400 schools of education have a lot of work to do,” he added.

His presentation included a review of what’s working in other states and his recommendations on ways to strengthen programs. When a legislator asked what would be on his wish list for reform, Steiner said he would like to see schools of education:
• involve high-performing teachers in the redesign of teacher-preparation programs,
• adopt a residency-based model similar to what is done in medical schools, and
• work with school districts to extend training programs through the first year of actual classroom teaching.

“Teacher-preparation programs stop when students begin actual teaching, but we know that the first year is the most critical for all new teachers. It’s the worst of their entire career.”

We ended the day by meeting with Sheila Hixson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Steiner discussed how the Institute for Education Policy is intended to serve the interests of policy-makers. Delegate Hixson invited us back to brief the full committee when the General Assembly begins next January.

Click here to see Steiner’s presentation followed by the full briefing.


Letter on common core from Laurence Peters – Associate Faculty, School of Education

A recent Wall Street Journal article provides some the most comprehensive reporting yet of the various ways Common Core (CCSS) is being reshaped as the initiative begins to rolled out in the states. The article reconfirms the inescapable fact that most reform efforts in education are “works in progress.” Sixty years after the Brown decision for example many school districts are still struggling to accommodate themselves to that decision.

As McLendon and others have pointed out, “scholarly understanding of the forces shaping educational policy change in the American states remains woefully underdeveloped.” We find it difficult to answer such simple questions as,

“What factors propel states to undertake the policy reforms they do, when they do? Is it variation in the sociodemographic or economic development patterns of the states that accounts for across-state differences in state education policies? Or does “politics,” in the sense of institutional political actors, such as interest groups, legislative leadership and design, partisanship, and election cycles, more fully explain patterns in state policy change for education? ” ( McClendon, “Education Policy Making and Policy Change,” 2015, p. 87).

A review of the WSJ article would allow for a whole variety of explanations as to why we have such patchwork adoption of CCSS.

Why does John Engler the former Michigan Governor and Head of the Business Roundtable) who agreed that 50 different state standards did not make much sense now want to distance himself from Common Core and call it by the anodyne label “higher standards”? Why did so many states in the south in particular buckle to right wing pressure groups opposition to the Common Core. Why did a state like Tennessee for example spent $18 million of the grant training teachers. “Then, besieged by complaints from parents and other CCSS opponents, the governor and state lawmakers..(agree to) replace the standards with a more state-specific version in 2017?

Why did so few states set aside so little funds for professional development and better tests when most informed people could have told them these were crucial investments if you wanted CCSS to raise student achievement ? Surely these fractional amounts cannot all be explained by the states fiscal crisis? Why did the voice of the business community become so muffled during the debates that went on across state capitals last year? Why did their best argument that the states standards and tests are lower than our global competitors, somehow also get lost in the ether?

Is there a single unifying theory to explain the rapid adoption by 45 states and and then the climb down by seven who have either repealed or amended them ? Clearly no but there are themes –one is that elites cannot expect that large scale reform plans made in the hallways of Washington DC away from TV’s klieg lights will have any kind of smooth sailing in a turbulent electoral season in which one of the key issues is the role and size of the federal government in people’s lives. Without a more robust defense from the groups most responsible for putting CCSS in place it is no wonder that some will perpetuate the counter narrative that Common Core represents some sinister federal takeover of schools. A more hopeful sign is that so far the collapse of support has not been total, but the initiative is still without doubt, still a work in progress.