Pardon the Interruption: What Really Prevents Us from Treating Teachers Like Professional Athletes?

August 1, 2015

(Guest post by James V. Shuls)

If you’ve been in the education business or around a teacher for any significant amount of time, you have undoubtedly heard someone say something like, “Imagine if teachers were treated like professional athletes.” Well thanks to comedians Key and Peele, we no longer have to imagine. In a new segment, “Teaching Center,” the two spoof the popular ESPN show Sports Center to bring us the “top stories from the exiting world of teaching.”

The video has been a hit with teachers and is receiving a significant amount of attention on social media. Within 24 hours of being posted, it had more than a million views.  The response of most is, “Oh yeah, what if instead of paying LeBron James hundreds of millions of dollars, we did that with Mrs. Smith, the rock-star high school chemistry teacher?!?” Putting aside the economics of the supply and demand disparities for the LeBron’s and Mrs. Smith’s of the world (LeBron plays in front of millions of fans each year, while Mrs. Smith fights for class sizes with fewer than 20 students), there is one serious problem – most of the things being celebrated in Teaching Center are often opposed by teachers themselves.

For starters, Teaching Center continually focuses on test scores from standardized assessments. The ticker at the bottom of the screen shows ACT, SAT, and other test scores for schools. The number one teacher taken in the high school draft is chosen by the school with the “worst test scores last semester.” This hyper-focus on test scores (and competition in general) is anathema to most teachers. Indeed, teachers routinely oppose standardized testing.

This past year, for example, teachers’ unions led efforts to curtail the use of test scores in Florida and encouraged parents to opt-out in New York. The official position statement of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, says “Testing takes time from learning. NEA supports less federally-mandated testing to free up time and resources, diminish “teaching to the test,” and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

Now, opposing a hyper-focus on testing is not all-together bad. Indeed, we do want teachers to instill a love of learning in students. The problem is that teachers’ unions resist almost any effort to differentiate between good and bad teachers. The fact is some teachers are better than others, whether we measure that by a test score or by some other metric. If we cannot differentiate between these teachers, then the Ruby Ruhf’s of the world will never get their $40 million in bonus pay.

This is the real crux of the problem; teachers espouse differentiation in the classroom, but resist it wholeheartedly when it comes to pay. Rather than pay a teacher for their teaching ability or their unique set of skills, schools use a single salary schedule to pay teachers. In this system, all teachers with the same amount of experience and the same level of degree (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) receive the same amount of money, regardless of quality or teaching expertise. The best teacher gets paid the same as the worst and the mathematics teacher gets paid the same as the P.E. teacher. Imagine if Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rogers was paid the same amount as Cincinnati Bengal’s star kicker Mike Nugent. After all, they were drafted in the same year.

Million dollar contracts are impossible in education because there is no market for great teachers and there is no market for great teachers because schools fail to recognize differences in teacher quality.

I understand that Teaching Center is just a spoof and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, especially the part where the French teacher is traded for a head librarian and two lunch ladies to be named later. Still, even this segment highlights why teachers cannot be treated like professional athletes –they oppose giving administrators authority over staffing decisions.  Once a teacher reaches tenure, they have what most states recognize as an “indefinite contract,” making it incredibly difficult to get rid of bad teachers. Moreover, most collective bargaining agreements give preferential treatment for jobs based on seniority. This severely limits a school leaders ability to staff his school with what he believes would be the best team.

Let’s be honest, we will never treat teachers like professional athletes and teachers themselves are partly to blame for this. Teachers’ unions have fought to prevent differentiation between teachers and they have resisted efforts to focus on teacher performance. So, we most likely won’t see teachers on Wheaties boxes anytime soon.  It would be nice, however, if we could put policies in place that would allow us to treat them like professionals. They may not get million dollar contracts, but the best ones – the ones that significantly improve student achievement and make a lasting impact on students – could easily garner six figure salaries. Now, we just need to get teachers on board with this.


James V. Shuls, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and a distinguished fellow of education policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter at @Shulsie

Happy Birthday Milton!

July 31, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Milton Friedman would have been 103 today.  As a treat, here is a 1979 interview on the Donahue program:

So am I the only wierdo who misses both Milton and Moynihan?

Next up for disruption: ESPN

July 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

For the last view decades ESPN has bestrode sports and cable television like a colossus. With the advent of DVR technology, live sporting events stood out as something that people still watch live (along with those lucrative commercials) whereas most other things people tape and skip over the ads. ESPN throwing giant bales of money at college sports in order to secure such live programming has been the background music of the college football missle crisis as conferences jockeyed for position and market share and network dollars.

Now the entire business model has come under question. The problem is that while the people who aren’t cutting the cable cord may be doing it because of sports (guilty as charged here) lots of other people have decided to cut the cord. Those people used to pay for ESPN even if they didn’t watch it. ESPN charges cable companies hefty fees to include their channels on basic cable. With the advent of streaming services, an increasing number of people have decided not to pay for any channels at all. Meanwhile, ESPN is on the hook for some very large long-term contracts and the Disney mother-ship has begun to force cost cutting on the former jewel of their broadcasting crown.


Anyway all of this is just a prelude to an interesting quote from an AEI blog post on this subject:

“Destruction will come slowly. Academics have noted that disruptive cycles take place over periods of 15-30 years. Even if those cycles are faster than ever with the ever-falling costs of distributing information, educating the public about new ideas, and producing innovative products, it will still be a number of years before we see meaningful change. In the short term, it might appear that everything is stable in Hollywood. The key is to remember that no industry is invulnerable to disruption. Barriers to entry be damned. Innovation always finds a way to drive cost down and bring people into the market. Some industries are harder to penetrate than others, but change is inevitable. Even in television, ‘winter is coming.’”

This is my apprentice, Darth de Blasio. He will deal with your transportation freedom problem

July 24, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Sound familiar? Go Uber go!

The Truth is Out There Hidden Behind Multiple Delusions

July 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mix in a few out of context quotes, make a few things up, and sprinkle in a healthy dose of confirmation bias and you get this strong with the lefty conspiracy theory side of the Force.

Milton Friedman never made his preference for universal choice a secret, quite the opposite. I don’t know what “talking points” the writer is referencing (a link would be nice unless they are in his coat pocket next to Joe McCarthy’s list of State Department spies) but ALEC has multiple school choice bills with either means-tests or sliding scales to give greater resources to children from low-income families.

A central flaw in the piece is a false assumption that school choice can’t serve kids in the inner city and suburbs at the same time, or that trying to do so cedes equity arguments. It can and it need not- lawmakers can and have structured choice programs to provide (in stark contrast to the public school systems of many states) greater total resources to low-income and otherwise disadvantaged children. I know it would be far more useful to school choice opponents if school choice supporters went around passing laws that offered greater resources to rich kids, but search the dozens of private choice programs from top to bottom and you won’t find such a thing. Dig around in public school finances for a few minutes and you’ll easily find examples of leafy suburbs spending far above statewide averages.

In a state spending an average of $15k per child, I’d be happy to offer free and reduced lunch kids an ESA of $20k. I’d offer the non-FRL kids an ESA of $10k so they could generate the savings for the economically disadvantaged. Feel free to persuade me otherwise, but if you think that offering that $10k ESA to non-poor kids shows that I don’t care about poor kids you’ll have to forgive my initial pained expression as I wonder what color the sky is in your world.





Lamar Alexander’s Senate Floor Speech Against Federally Mandated Testing Opt-Out

July 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Senator Lamar Alexander, formerly both the Governor of Tennessee and the United States Secretary of Education, gave a compelling floor speech yesterday against a federally mandated opt-out. Let’s listen in from the Congressional Record:

The proposal from the Senator from Utah is a Washington mandate that says to States that Washington will decide that. So our proposal is local control. His, the way I hear it, is Washington knows best. That is like Common Core. The proposal that is on the floor for a vote tomorrow says Washington may not mandate to any of our States what its academic standards should be. That ends the Washington Common Core mandate. In the same bill, why should we put a Washington mandate about whether you can opt out of your test?

Why don’t we allow States to make that decision?

So I say to my Republican friends, especially, do we believe in local control only when we agree with the local policy? I don’t think so. The great economist Art Laffer likes to say: States have a right to be right, and States have a right to be wrong.

I have a different view. I am going to vote no on the amendment of the Senator from Utah because it takes away from States the right to decide whether and how to use the Federal tests and whether parents may opt out.

Why is that a problem? Well, in the following States, States use these tests as part of their State accountability system. They don’t have to do it, but they do use it. I am told by the State of Tennessee that if we were to adopt the Utah proposal Federal mandate, that the State would have to come up with a different accountability system.

So which States on their own have decided to use these tests as part of their State accountability system? Florida has, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas.

So I urge my colleagues to vote for the Alexander-Murray proposal because it reverses the trend toward a national school board and specifically allows States to decide whether States may opt out of tests while the amendment goes the other way. It is a Washington mandate that takes away from States the ability to make that decision.

Result- amendment voted down 32-64. #BOOOOOOOOOOOOM!


I don’t want to say I told you so, but…

July 13, 2015

With all of the discussion over the anti-testing backlash to Common Core over-reach on JPGB lately, I thought I would just take a moment to note how perfectly predictable this all was.

I can’t even keep track of how long I’ve been warning about this, but this post from nearly a year ago nicely captures the point I’ve been making:

Even if you are a standards and test-based accountability person, you are better off not seeking total victory as the Common Core people have.  Yes, some states had lousy standards.  And yes, some tests were poorly designed or had low thresholds for passing.  But trying to fix all standards and tests, everywhere, all at once is the wrong approach.  Seeking this total victory has more fully mobilized the opponents of all standards and testing.  In response to a more heavy-handed and top-down national effort, more previously un-involved people have flocked to the anti-testing side.  Not only will these folks undermine effective implementation of Common Core, but in their counter-effort to roll back national standards, they will destroy much of what was good about state standards and tests.  The whole idea of standards and test-based accountability is being undermined by the imprudent over-reach of Common Core.

And this:

But in the rush to a clear and total victory, supporters of Common Core failed to consider how the more than 10,000 school districts, more than 3 million teachers, and the parents of almost 50 million students would react.  For standards to actually change practice, you need a lot of these folks on board.  Otherwise Common Core, like most past standards, will just be a bunch of empty words in a document.

These millions of local officials, educators, and parents often have reasons for holding educational preferences that are different than those dictated by Common Core.  Common Core may call for things like more focus on “informational texts”  and delaying Algebra until 9th grade, but there are reasons why that is not already universal practice.  It’s not as if local officials, educators, and parents are unaware of the existence of informational texts or just waiting to be told by national elites about when they should start teaching Algebra.  They have interests and values that drove them to the arrangements that were in place prior to Common Core.

Having the Secretary of Education, state boards, and a bunch of DC advocacy groups declare a particular approach to be best and cram it into place in the middle of a financial crisis with virtually no public debate or input from educators or parents did not convince local officials, educators, and parents to change their minds.  These are the folks who need to be on board to make the implementation of Common Core real.  And these are the folks who are organizing a political backlash that will undo or neuter Common Core.  A direct path to victory by Common Core supporters sowed the seeds of  its own defeat.

The unraveling of Common Core makes this flop the most obviously ill-conceived and doomed-to-fail reform effort since the Annenberg Foundation threw $500 million away in the 1990s.  I assure you that while the money was flowing from Annenberg that effort had plenty of defenders, just as Common Core does today.  After Common Core fails, everyone will say how they knew it was flawed, just as they currently do with Annenberg.  Victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.

The unraveling of the bipartisan coalition supporting the informational benefits of standardized testing became inevitable as soon as a a new crop of reformers arose afflicted with PLDD who were determined to use those tests to identify the right ways of teaching, the right ways to hire/fire/compensate teachers, and the right ways to authorize and close schools of choice.  This over-reach wasn’t a bridge too far; it was a thousand bridges too far.  And in a perfectly predictable fashion it has failed and begun to take down the reasonable use of tests along with it.

Complaining about the destruction of reasonable uses of testing is like complaining about the heat in Phoenix in July.  The problem isn’t that it’s a hot day.  The problem is having decided to move to Phoenix in the first place.  At this point there is nothing really to do about it except learn from this error to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.


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