Kerry on Education

by Harry on October 11, 2004

I realize that hardly anyone votes on education issues in Presidential campaigns, so this may be only of academic interest, but I’ve been looking at the Kerry campaign’s plan for education (k-12, I don’t know much about higher education policy issues), and thought I’d give my tentative take on them for what its worth. There’s some good and some bad and some obscure. Just to demonstrate my non-partisanship I’d say much the same of Bush’s promises and, believe it or not, of Bush’s record – in fact, my suspicion is that if you really cut through the detail of the two programs the most significant thing in both is the same thing – promises of a great deal more Federal funds – promises that I happen to believe in both cases, but which don’t really bring me deep joy.

Anyway, the first thing to note is the one thing that is not an issue here, despite Kerry’s promise in the NEA TODAY that ‘you will never see a voucher proposal coming from my office as President’, is vouchers and choice. (Sorry, the interview doesn’t seem to be online, but I assume that the quote doesn’t need verification!) Both campaigns mention choice, and Kerry is on board with the right kind of charter programs, but Bush downplays choice, understanding that his important constituencies don’t care much about it. Vouchers, in particular, are not going to win votes for the Republicans, because floating voters, and most existing Republican voters, have no interest in them, and because the people who are interested – urban Black voters – are not about to defect to the Republicans over the issue.

Kerry’s website was revamped after the convention, and the most peculiar, not to say ludicrous, promise – that the Feds would make sure every teacher has voicemail – was removed. This is to Kerry’s credit, but I admit that it still worries me a bit that anyone could have even thought it up, let alone thought that it was something to make public as a priority.

On to the main points.

He highlights a plan to increase graduation levels by 1 million students a year. The plan targets the children least likely to graduate, and provides funds for making high schools smaller and less impersonal (a typical urban high school has 2-4000 kids in 4 year groups), as well as encouraging urban schools to adopt more academically rigorous curricula by giving States incentives to adopt demanding standards. I’m planning a separate post on school size, so will leave that issue aside.

The plan emphasizes enhanced after-school activities and increased early years provision. Both of these might make a difference to graduation rates, but neither will make a huge difference. One of the problems here is that both candidates, like politicians generally, assume that schools can do much more than they really can to improve achievement; so many of the determinants of achievement are outside the control of individual schools or even school districts. The other problem is that whether increased early years or enhanced after-school activities will make any real impact on achievement depends on their quality. That, in turn, depends on the un-legislatable beliefs and intentions of those who administrate and work in them. They will enhance achievement if they succeed in providing high-need children with experiences which are more like the out-of-school experiences of more advantaged and higher achieving children; this is the not-really-hidden agenda of academics and policymakers who advocate these sort of interventions. But if parents, administrators, and providers really see these programs as enhanced day care to subsidize labor market participation, and use them to get children watching TV, playing games, eating snacks, and generally doing the kinds of things they would be doing at home, there’s no reason to believe they will help much with achievement or graduation.

His other main plank is a ‘new deal with America’s teachers’. The new deal sensibly targets salary bonuses to teachers filling positions in high-need schools and hard-to-fill subject areas, and promises efforts to address the serious retention problem (almost 50% of new teachers leave within 5 years of starting the profession, and the figures are much worse in high need schools). Less sensibly, in a time of severe teacher shortages, it requires more rigorous certification tests for new teachers. The problem here is not that teachers shouldn’t meet high standards: they should. But, given the shortage, more rigorous tests which I would otherwise welcome, will simply result in more teachers entering the profession having failed the tests.

The most controversial part of the plan is giving bonuses to teachers for ‘raising children’s achievement’. Because the labor market in education is so highly regulated by union contracts school principals have little experience or expertise in evaluating the job performance of teachers. So teachers rightly distrust any measure which gives principals power over their pay or promotion; in the foreseeable future such a plan is doomed to failure. But any scheme which bases merit pay on objective standards, like measured improvement in students’ scores, would be absurd. Children improve at uneven rates; their improvement is always due to the interaction of many factors of which any given teacher is only one; and no teacher should teach enough students to generate a sample size big enough to give statistically significant differences between teacher performances. No-one would be happier than me if Kerry were proposing to revolutionize the management of schools so that there would be incentives to hire competent managers, but I suspect the proposal is either ill-formed, or a ruse to raise salaries under the pretence of providing performance-related pay. There’s a lesson here from Britain. When the Labour government introduced performance-related pay (into a system which already made much more allowance than the US system for rewarding perceived talent through promotions and pay raises) they were widely criticized by teachers on the correct grounds that they didn’t have good mechanisms for determining quality-of-performance. But, as it has turned out, the measure has effectively acted as an almost-across-the-board increase in salaries at the very points in the career when teachers are experienced enough that it is important to retain them. This may be what Kerry has in mind; but if so it is at best un-forthright to present it as merit-pay.

As I say, almost no-one votes on these issues, and if Kerry loses it is all moot. No-one should think, though, that he will repeal NCLB, or even make substantial modifications to it; the most to expect there is more money for it. And if he does win, I hope that, as with all his other policies, no-one is tempted to give him a free ride. Embrace the good, reject the bad, and clarify the obscure!



Rob 10.11.04 at 5:36 pm

You are wrong about the politics of vocuhers since it is one of teh largest inroads the Republican party has made with teh Catholic Church is trhough the use of vouchers.


Jeremy Osner 10.11.04 at 5:44 pm

That, in turn, depends on the un-legislatable beliefs and intentions of those who administrate and work in them.

Nicely stated — I have always thought of this as a major problem facing school reform legislation but have never been able to put it in words. A related thing is, all our school problems would be solved if there were just a lot more really good teachers — but “really good teachers” is impossible to specify; and my hunch is that just about all potential really good teachers are already working as teachers. But they do not suffice, so you need to hire a lot of pretty good, mediocre and crappy teachers as well.


Sam 10.11.04 at 11:06 pm

The above link has a discussion on education and how it could be fixed, with various ideas.

I have a few comments, based on my experiences as a substitute.

First, the application of “Due Process” and “Free Speech” law to schools makes it much harder to keep sufficient order for students to learn. The difficulty of maintaining orderly classes is one reason that teachers quit teaching.

Second, the idea that teachers should all be paid about the same is a real hindrance. Math teachers are more valuable, in alternative occupations, than Social Studies teachers. Teachers who will teach in challenging schools are in short supply relative to teachers in suburban schools. The obvious solution is to pay some teachers substantially more than others; Kerry’s proposals are a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step.

Third, well-qualified (high standards) has a different meaning in the education world than it does for most people. It means “has taken lots of education classes.” It doesn’t mean “knows a lot about the subject being taught.” The teacher exams are very heavily weighted toward various theories of child development; the grasp of math and English required is not very high. (You can pass the Praxis without being able to use or apply the Pythagorean theorem–I substituted for a math teacher who couldn’t.)


Sam 10.11.04 at 11:09 pm

Sorry–the link didn’t post above; here it is.


Eric Tyler 10.12.04 at 4:40 am

We don’t have the Praxis in CA anymore. Now you have to pass the CSET in your subject area, and the content of the test is entirely about your specific subject area. You definitely could not even come close to passing the math CSET without knowing the Pythagorean Theorem.


Tracy 10.12.04 at 8:29 am

If schools can’t do much to improve educational outcomes because of other factors driving educational outcomes surely the solution is to save a lot of money by shutting schools down (or turn them into considerably cheaper child-sitting services). We could then spend the money saved on something useful, like eradicating glue ear in small children.

Personally I suspect that schools may not be able to do much about relative educational outcomes, but there’s probably a lot they can do about absolute educational outcomes. In NZ there’s been a fair bit of research into schools in low socio-economic areas (every school is put into 1 of 10 deciles based on the socio-economic status of the area their students come from, schools drawing on poorer areas get more funding), and there are some schools who do exceptionally better than the average. It seems to come down to the quality of the principal. Certainly Taita College has drastically turned around with a new principal.


Laura 10.12.04 at 5:40 pm

re: merit pay for teachers. I think it is very interesting that Kerry proposed this at all. I think this the first time that a Democrat in a national election put forward a policy that goes so counter to the interests of the teachers unions. It really does show the slow decay of the power and credibility of the teachers unions.

I agree with you that judging teachers based on student test scores is a bad idea, but I don’t think it is impossible to evaluate teachers in other ways. Having worked in the public school system, everybody knows who is the good teacher and who isn’t. Other teachers know the score. Also in private sector, employees are constantly evaluated in on subjective variables. Not just by how many widgets they make.

At my husband’s firm, employees are evaluated by the superiors, by their peers, by the office secretaries, by others in different departments. Many of the variables are subjective like how well does the employee communicate with others. I’m not really sure why evaluating teachers is considered impossible.


harry 10.12.04 at 8:58 pm

No, I agree that it’s not impossible (though doing it by test scores is). Or even particularly difficult!

My point was just that, since most union contracts deprive managers of the pwoer to do it, most managers are not capable of doing it (did the principals in your school know anything about how to evaluate teachers? If so you were lucky — not in the schools I know). So there’s a kind of stand-off, in which the unions are not being unreasonable. We’d need very different kinds of manager if we wanted them actually to manage (if you see what I mean). And Kerry doesn’t have a proposal which addresses that.

tracy: I just meant (but didn’t exactly say) that school reforms won’t make as much difference as people like to anticipate, because out-of-school factors are so important. But I am VERY sceptical of the arguments pointing to schools doing well in bad circumstances. These situations are, very often, due to charismatic and successful principals (or higher-up administrators) attracting high quality teachers into a particular school or district, and rarely last beyond the departure of the principal. It is a matter of pushing the pieces around, not something on which systematic reform can depend. Of course, individual schools and districts should compete for those principals if they can identify them, but I don’t think we can use the phenomenon as a basis of policy (at least, that’s my reading of the literature on this).


Maddie 10.13.04 at 3:36 am

I’ve spoken to principals about bad teachers and their response has often been “there is no one else to do the job.” If you want good teachers you first and foremost need to attract good people to the job. This requires taking a market approach – making it an attractive enough job that there is competition to weed out the least qualified. It’s no surprise that the school districts that pay well and have good facilites attract the best teachers. It is also interesting that in the US we act as though the entire responsibiity for how well a classroom learns lies on the teacher’s shoulders. This is not the case in many other countries where if a child is falling behind in his/her studies it is seen as the family’s job to get that child caught up.
This also means that teachers who work with students who have dire circumstances at home are not expected to perform miracles. I don’t mean to write off these students. I’ve volunteered in classrooms where Monday mornings were chaos because many students had barely eaten all weekend, then gorged at the school breakfast and were ill as a result. These were students who needed a decent education to help them improve their circumstances. But how can you hold a teacher responsible for these students’ poor perfomance? Some teachers told me “I’ll lose my job if I stay here because the scores will be so low.” Why would anyone want to work in these circumstances?


Tracy 10.13.04 at 6:27 am

Harry – I personally think we can use the success of individual principals as a basis for policy. At a first stab – free up the ability of a principal to manage a school, provide rewards for high-performing principals to move to low-decile schools, provide professional training courses for principals, provide incentives for skilled managers to become principals (the last two I’d definitely run pilot schemes to see if they’d work).

And, on the other hand, we can also ignore proposed reforms that don’t increase principals’ ability to manage their schools.

Maddie – if those students need a decent education to help them improve their circumstances – and I agree with you on this – how do you think that can happen without holding someone responsible for the students’ performance?


harry 10.14.04 at 1:44 pm

tracy — that’s interesting. I agree that principals should be allowed to manage, and with providing incetnives for them to go to low-decile schools. Have you got examples of authorities that try to get skilled managers into principal positions? Or, if not, of people who have fleshed out the proposal more?
Hope you’re still reading. Thanks.

Comments on this entry are closed.