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Chapter 5: Levers for change

Much has happened in the past two decades to make better educational achievement possible. Reforms generally fall into the categories of “school choice” and “accountability,” with these two often going hand-in-hand as new schools publicly hold themselves to higher standards. Not all schools of choice are great. A significant portion, however, are much better than the average district school.

In places where high-performing charter schools have been encouraged to thrive, effective schools have become common even in poor neighborhoods. People see what it actually takes to organize a great school, and reforms spread. The first generation of high-performing charter schools showed that with hard work and great teaching, children from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve at high levels. The replication of some of these schools has shown they are not flukes.

Ideally, these demonstrations that change is possible would inspire everyone in education to buckle down and do whatever it is that effective schools are doing. But there are structural barriers in public education today that obstruct movement toward better teaching and school leadership:

  • Under many union agreements, removing underperforming teachers is an expensive and time-consuming process. For years, districts ran the numbers and figured it wasn’t worth the fight, so ineffective teachers were just passed around among schools.
  • Under these same agreements, teachers can’t be paid different amounts for taking harder jobs or performing better. (For three views on how education reformers might handle teacher unions today, see the sidebar on page 77.)
  • Teachers are often laid off during “reduction in force” periods based on seniority alone, known as LIFO (last in, first out). This limits a principal’s ability to keep her best talent, regardless of when they were hired.
  • As states consider incorporating student achievement into teacher evaluations, resistance is enormous (this was at the heart of the Chicago teacher’s strike that delayed school opening in 2012). Where pay differentials based on performance get considered they are often small compared to the old systems built solely on years of experience and education degrees attained.
  • Today’s strict limits on class sizes, the last generation’s favorite school improvement trend, force schools to hire more teachers than they otherwise would. There isn’t an inexhaustible supply of good teachers, so smaller classes force schools to dip deeper into the barrel than they might wish.
  • Strict licensure systems require a lot of coursework—but not a lot of practical training—and turn talented people away from trying education as a second career.
  • Principals don’t have as much say in hiring as managers do in other industries. Great organizations first get staffing right. It’s hard to go anywhere if you’re stuck with staff you can’t select or change.
  • While education in general isn’t short on cash (the U.S. spends significantly more on K-12 education than any other nation), astonishing chunks of it go to bureaucracy, rather than teacher excellence.
  • Promotion to leadership positions isn’t as thoughtful as it could be. Some people go into administration not out of desire to improve schools, but because they’re burnt out from being in the classroom, or want to make more money.
  • Principal training often lacks focus on instructional leadership and hard-nosed operational discipline, the two most important skills of school management.
  • School schedules, paperwork, and administrative requirements often eat into teachers’ planning time, and discourage teacher collaboration and creativity.
  • Caps on charter school numbers or enrollment prevent more rapid expansion of some of America’s highest-performing and most innovative schools.
  • Hesitancy to use technology in new ways, like larger classes for great teachers, means that the best instructors reach far fewer students than they could.

With brave leadership some of these barriers to good teaching and principal work may be less daunting than they seem. People often don’t try things just because no one ever has. In 2008, Rick Hess and Coby Loup analyzed union agreements and personnel policies in the 50 largest school districts, and found that “the majority included room to maneuver. While one third of the contract provisions examined were clearly restrictive, half were ambiguous or silent when it came to key questions—and 15 percent offered explicit flexibility to school and system leaders.”

Inventive, courageous school leaders can sometimes find ways around problems even in sclerotic districts. A superintendent may inform principals who rate all their teachers as superior (when the results show no such thing) that they’re going to have more ineffective teachers transferred into their school because they seemingly have more than their share of stars. A principal may set up his office in an incompetent teacher’s classroom until she shapes up or resigns of her own accord.

Hess points out in his 2013 book Cage-Busting Leadership that school administrators often have options that they choose not to explore or make use of. The same could be said of donors who are eager to change bad policies yet don’t realize they have alternatives at their disposal—if they will think creatively and provide bold leaders with the backing they need to undertake contentious reforms.

The $60 million that philanthropists offered Washington, D.C., public schools if they would implement a system of assessing and paying teachers according to demonstrated results allowed reformers to get agreement from the Washington Teachers Union. It needn’t always require that much money for smart funders to reinforce good leaders. A good principal can do a lot with a modest pool of no-strings-attached funding. She might see that an excellent writing teacher is getting burned out from too much essay grading and hire two English grad students to help.

Beyond directly supporting good leaders in their target regions, here are 16 broader funding strategies that donors can follow to advance the causes of teacher and principal excellence:

Change public policies

Some of the most important school-improvement victories of the past decade have come in the form of policy changes that do away with barriers to improving teacher quality. Funders in a number of states, including Colorado, Tennessee, Illinois, and Indiana have changed destructive laws. For example, donors helped eliminate last in, first out laws, which required that the only criteria for dismissing teachers be date of hire, causing excellent teachers (even teachers of the year) to be discarded instead of persistently low-performing teachers. Donors also helped pass laws to create incentive pay, require meaningful teacher evaluations linked to student outcomes, and change tenure laws (either doing away with tenure altogether, or granting tenure only when teachers have proven themselves consistently successful at raising student achievement).

There are a number of ways that donors can spur policy changes. In cases where districts, teacher unions, and donors agree on reforms, developing and implementing improved policies may be the best role for philanthropy. In more contentious circumstances, donors can support advocacy efforts aimed at improving laws. For foundations, this means 501(c)3 advocacy. Individual donors can back reformers with 501(c)3, 501(c)4, 527 PAC and SuperPac giving, and direct campaign contributions. While some donors may recoil at the idea of political giving, many have found it to be a tool that cannot to be avoided.

Policy changes can bring more permanence than reforms simply instituted by brave administrators who may later pass from the scene.

Policy changes can bring more permanence than reforms simply instituted by brave administrators (who may later pass from the scene). “Many times in education, a foundation will push for years to get a program or an idea into a district,” says Houston philanthropist John Arnold. “And they get it in, and they think that’s the big success. A year or two later, the superintendent leaves. A new super comes in, and that program isn’t the new guy’s work, and it gets swept away. By this time, the foundation is on to its next project. So it spent several years and a lot of money trying to get this program incorporated into the district, but much of the effort can be wasted unless there is proper advocacy and political efforts to gain support within the organization.”

A number of top advocacy organizations are dedicated to improving teacher policies, including Democrats for Education Reform, 50CAN, Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst. These groups focus on various states and different issues of interest to donors. Policy change often doesn’t come quickly or easily, so patience is required. As StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee puts it, “a sustained effort over a five- to ten-year period” is sometimes needed. For deep and lasting change, donors must recognize that advocacy efforts are, “not just situational fights. It’s a comprehensive strategy...and you’ve got to be in for the long haul.”

Excellent advocacy organizations that exist in just one state are also worthy of consideration for investment, as these groups often have a clear view of the issues their states face, and a bounty of local relationships. Groups like Advance Illinois and Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) have made significant progress, often working with state chapters of national advocacy organizations. The Policy Innovators in Education Network, or PIE Net, counts many of these organizations as members, and is a great resource for donors considering state-level action.

Grassroots groups that organize parents and community voices for policy advocacy can be very effective. Groups like Great Oakland Public Schools, for example, help parents improve educational offerings for their children—like a teacher evaluation system in Oakland that “includes multiple measures of good teaching and student growth while emphasizing professional growth and support for teachers.” Groups like Families for Excellent Schools that help give parents a voice have proven effective in recent years, because it is much harder for teacher unions and politicians to dismiss parents pushing for better policies.

Teach For America helped develop Leadership for Educational Equity, a group that recruits and offers early support to TFA alumni willing to run for political office. Numerous other groups also work to find and support promising candidates. Individual donors can directly back reformers who run for public office, from gubernatorial races to school board and mayoral candidates. Laura and John Arnold spend a lot on educational charitable work, but they also “support candidates who are willing to stand up against powerful special-interest groups.”

Donors can play a major role in local races like those for school board. Progress can come quickly in such venues. The Indianapolis philanthropy Mind Trust and local individual donors helped a number of reform-oriented school board candidates in their city in the November 2012 election. After a very modest investment, voters chose a reformist majority that will make problem-solving much easier.

“I can tell you from personal experience that you get much, much more bang for your buck” when you complement educational philanthropy with political investments, reports Jim Blew, education adviser to the Walton Family Foundation. “It’s not twice the impact per dollar. It’s an order of magnitude difference per dollar.” Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of school reform, agrees. “It took me a while to understand that an advocacy and political effort has to go hand-in-glove with the charitable effort,” she says. “Ultimately, elected officials make decisions about legislation that can either permit or preclude meaningful educational reform.”

Another way donors can address public policies that harm teaching is by supporting litigation. Students Matter, a nonprofit founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, has helped to press a constitutional challenge in California aimed at improving the caliber of teaching in the state’s public classrooms. The lawsuit Vergara v. California argues that three teacher policies—permanent tenure after only 18 months on the job; dismissal statutes that require an onerous number of processes to dismiss a bad teacher; and requiring layoffs by seniority rather than competence—violate California’s constitutional guarantee of every child’s equal right to access a quality education.

This constitutional challenge addresses clear needs in California. In the last ten years, only 19 California public school teachers have been dismissed for ineffectiveness. There are about 300,000 teachers in the state.

Fund research on specific problems

Research is a sweet spot for philanthropy. It can be relatively cheap, and if the results are interesting, research can have wide influence.

A few years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation contributed about $200,000 to TNTP for a series of reports that included an influential paper on “Missed Opportunities.” People once thought that no one wanted to teach in inner-city schools, but TNTP studied four urban school districts and found that they had far more applicants than needed, and attracted strong candidates with credentials in hard-to-staff subjects such as special-ed and secondary math and science. Yet these districts didn’t wind up hiring their highest-quality candidates. TNTP traced these missed opportunities to solvable bureaucratic issues and offered solutions.

The Measures of Effective Teaching project funded by the Gates Foundation established in randomized-trial research that certain classroom practices do lead to good student outcomes. The Joyce Foundation funded a helpful evaluation of Chicago’s REACH system for evaluating teachers. There’s been a lot less research on the principal front. “There needs to be a MET-style big research project on leaders,” says Bryan Hassel of Public Impact. “Which leaders are moving students and which aren’t? Then mapping the results back so those qualities can become the basis for selecting future leaders.”

Funders can require research on results when they make new program grants. Don’t just fund an intriguing form of teachers training. Attach funds for an independent analysis afterward to see if the technique worked.

Since many districts are plunging into teacher coaching, this field is ripe for creating standards and some sort of measurable results that coaches could be judged on. “Coaching seems a great thing to do, but no one’s measuring how effective it is,” says Mora Segal of ANet.

The rise of instant assessment technologies could make teaching more science and less art. With better knowledge about what techniques get results, good teachers may be able to become great. Evidence-based teaching analysis holds real promise.

Fund charter schools

When it comes to improved teaching and school leadership, a large portion of today’s most productive innovation and discovery is taking place in high-quality charter schools. Opening new charter slots where teachers and principals can experiment and improve in flexible institutions will do wonders for the state of American schooling. But while they are expanding rapidly, charter schools still reach only 6 percent of American children. Funding educational entrepreneurs to start new schools, underwriting the expansion of proven charter networks, donating to a charter school incubator—there are many ways to widen the opportunities for fine teaching by supporting charter schools. See the 2014 Roundtable publication From Promising to Proven: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Expanding on the Success of Charter Schools for details on navigating this sector.

Fund big ideas

The Common Core, which received early support from philanthropy, is an effort to raise standards across American education. A total of 45 states plus the District of Columbia have pledged to hold themselves to higher standards of curriculum and annual assessment. This demonstrates that there is a role for big and ambitious reforms on donor agendas, in addition to the more bite-sized efforts that contribute to progress.

New ideas don’t have to be fully implemented to help advance reform. The Mind Trust in Indianapolis produced a report a few years ago on “Creating Opportunity Schools” that basically called for power and money to be taken away from the central district office and devolved to individual schools. While there was much push back, more than 80 articles were published in the media about the proposal, and it got the city talking about what it wanted its schools to look like. It also provided a starting point for the education platforms that numerous school board members ran for election and won on, yielding a reformist school board majority.

Convening interested parties in your community to formulate new visions can be a productive role for philanthropy. Julie Maier of the Charter School Growth Fund notes that “bringing together people in similar roles, having similar challenges, has proven to be extremely powerful for us.” Her organization gives many school leaders the chance to learn from each other, and “when we get these guys in a room together, magic happens.”

Work for better teacher licensure policies

Why shouldn’t every teacher have to demonstrate good effects on students in order to stay on the job, and certainly to get tenure? Today, says Tim Daly of TNTP, “The levers of certification are completely misaligned to what we know about teacher effectiveness.” A funder could encourage states to craft policies that tie teacher licensure (and renewal of licenses) to actual performance as measured by her students’ progress during a school year. Daly suggests that instead of teachers passing tests and coursework to get a permanent certificate, beginning instructors should get “some kind of provisional certificate, so you can enter the classroom on a temporary basis, and at the end of the first year, end of the second year, prove yourself.” It’s best to figure this out early, and remove ineffective teachers before removal becomes a difficult and expensive process.

Some reformers believe that the barriers to entry for teaching should be lower, with principals empowered to hire anyone they consider well-suited to succeed (as long as they can also weed out underperformers as quickly as possible). There are certainly upsides to this approach. If an engineer who’s taught college courses on the side for years retires and wants to teach high-school math as a second career, why shouldn’t a principal be able to seize that opportunity?

BASIS regularly hires former playwrights, software engineers, diplomats, NASA physicists, archeologists, and the like to teach in areas where they have subject expertise.

The BASIS school network does exactly this, hiring a large number of career-switchers to instruct classes. Starting charter schools only in locations that are free from the burdens of formal training and licensure requirements, BASIS regularly hires former playwrights, software engineers, diplomats, NASA physicists, archeologists, and the like to teach in areas where they have subject expertise. Few if any of these instructors would qualify for teaching jobs in traditional schools. The evidence bears out this approach. Across their network of public charter schools in Arizona, Texas, and D.C., children attending BASIS schools test among the top 1 percent of students in all developed countries.

As for tenure, many education reformers don’t like the idea of granting tenure at all. If it exists, it should certainly be a reward for proven great work. Around 20 states now have policies for looking at student achievement at least somewhat when making teacher tenure decisions. Funders could work with state regulators to strengthen these assessments and link tenure closely to proven ability to lead children to excellent performance.

Help pay teachers more, or at least differently

While under many union contracts there may be no way for a district to pay more for tough assignments or in-demand specialties, potentially a funder could. A creative funder might start fellowship programs that basically extend the ability of teachers to improve student performance, and enrich them for their effort. This is what Math for America has done, offering an additional stipend to talented math and science majors who choose to teach. As part of the fellowship, teachers could meet on some weekends and in the summer for additional training.

Funders might worry about issues of sustainability. If any significant number of teachers are involved, stipends quickly get expensive, and cannot be continued for years on end. They might help, however, as a short-term way of attracting new candidates into teaching who would otherwise be put off by the starting wage. And once needed educators have been paid to do certain things with good results, it may be possible to chip away at resistance to merit- and performance-based pay with public funds. That was the theory behind the deal in Washington, D.C..

Even in the absence of direct compensation, funders could come up with ways of using cash to help retain and motivate great teachers. Philanthropists might fund sabbatical programs and summer studies for high-performing teachers, stipends for science teachers to work in research labs, or performance opportunities for music instructors.

Philanthropists can also fund travel aimed at professional development. A big thing a strong leader does is help teachers understand what “good” looks like. People who’ve only seen a high school football game would be stunned to see the plays that work on a pro level. Likewise, teachers need to see great teaching, particularly in the context of a supportive wider system. Anna Carlstone, one of the BES fellows starting a school in Los Angeles, says that “I want my staff to observe at Edward Brooke school, the model that informs my vision…. How am I going to get them out to see the best schools?” This might be the sort of thing that targeted philanthropy can enable.

Invest in new teacher and principal training programs

Most prospective teachers study at education schools. You could, of course, work with a school of education to create a program focused on practical skills, rigorous reading instruction, and so forth. There is certainly space here for a brave funder, though many a previous reformer has exhausted himself trying to reorient traditional teacher colleges.

Alternative certification programs are much more promising, but most are small at present. “It’s like the early days of the charter movement,” says Julie Mikuta of the Schusterman Family Foundation. “They are only going to ever educate a certain portion of the whole student population. We love these alternative programs, and we’re going to help them expand, but at the end of the day it’s unlikely that schools of education are going to go out of business.”

The Relay Graduate School of Education and Match’s graduate school of education have shown that effective new programs can be created from scratch. Funders could work with high-performing charter schools in their region to start similar institutes to train and certify teachers for their schools, and also for other schools willing to hire teachers graduating from them. In particular, if these new programs produce significant numbers of good candidates in hard-to-fill specialties like English-language instruction, special-ed, math, and science, demand could be brisk.

Principals likewise need good training. The Rice/Lynch Academy approach of placing an educational leadership program under the wing of a business school could potentially be replicated. Donors may find that business schools are less beholden to traditional educational notions, and able to inspire fresh thinking. Since almost all principals have already spent time in the classroom, it is in the areas of leadership and management where they need help anyway.

Bring alternative teacher providers to your community

Programs like TNTP, Teach for America, and ACE differ in important ways, but they have all succeeded at drawing talented candidates into teaching who would otherwise be unlikely to consider the profession. Significant numbers of alumni from each of them end up staying in education, contributing in other ways if not as a lifelong teacher. Help these groups come to your city and you will not only enjoy an infusion of teaching energy, but also a following echo of principals and educational entrepreneurs.

Create a better teacher-hiring ecosystem

If your community already has TFA, or if you can’t afford the significant cost of helping them establish a permanent program in your region, there are other things you can do to change the teacher landscape. One is helping existing local institutions produce more of the kinds of teachers who get results. In many communities, the lion’s share of teachers get their degrees from just a few area colleges. A funder could focus on raising standards at these feeder colleges.

Funders might also offer financial incentives that local districts could pass on to their best classroom instructors to encourage them to take on student teachers, so the novices get off on the right foot. Donors might also pay for experts on what great teaching looks like to come to local schools and offer workshops for teachers and principals on what has been proven to work and what has not.

Promote smart uses of technology to enhance teaching

Schools are only beginning to understand how blended learning can make teachers more effective while lowering overall costs (or at least holding them constant). While buying machines is usually not the best role for philanthropy, helping districts understand the latest thinking on uses of education technology can be valuable. Aspects of blended learning can be brought into the classroom, even if the entire process is not fully adopted by a school. Donors such as the Joyce Foundation are looking for ways to help teachers use regular computerized assessment to get faster and more personalized understanding of student progress, for instance. This could encourage better teaching.

Professional development is certainly an area that could be improved by better use of technology. Online classes and video archives of excellent teaching in action now make it easier for working teachers to learn from the best. TNTP’s Great Teaching, Great Feedback project hasn’t gotten as much uptake as one might like; there may be ways to better disseminate it. The demand for good learning tools is out there, if funders can figure out ways to expand access and make continual improvement convenient.

Fund prizes for excellence

Many donors feel that the federal government’s Race to the Top grant created a considerable amount of change for the comparatively modest sums involved. It encouraged states to link teacher evaluations to student performance, for instance. Prize competitions might be a mechanism funders can use effectively as well. Could you give a big prize for a professional development program that teachers love and find effective? Could you reward a teacher-training program that succeeds at attracting more students who majored in science, technology, engineering, and math into teaching? Could you give a prize for new principals whose schools show the greatest improvements?

School board elections are often decided by very small numbers of votes, and even small contributions can provide much-needed fuel for a reform candidate’s campaign.

Done right, prizes can reward good results while stimulating innovation. Katie Everett of the Lynch Foundation describes the Sontag Prize in Urban Education, now housed within the Lawrence Public Schools of Massachusetts, as an example of a prize with spillover benefits. The district gives a stipend to great teachers from around the country, and then has these educators come teach for a week to small groups of Lawrence students who need extra help. Everett reports that some of these educators have helped students achieve dramatic gains in that single week. This is not only good for students, but instructive for teachers.

Work with teacher unions

If working with schools of education has been difficult for education reformers, influencing teacher unions might seem like an even more fraught strategy. But there are reasons for funders to try.

For starters, unions have far more clout over education policy today than any other interest. Any change that can win support, or at least tolerance, from teachers unions has a vastly better chance of enactment. There is sometimes room for common ground between reformers and unions on lower-profile issues that don’t make headlines. As one example, the NEA put out a 2009 report called “Children of Poverty Deserve Great Teachers” that embraced alternative certification and better teacher evaluation systems as tools for getting great teachers into high-poverty schools. It even went so far as to call dismissing incompetent teachers “necessary” (while arguing that it’s hard to fire your way to greatness).

The NEA has thrown its weight behind the Common Core, one of today’s most ambitious efforts to raise the standards of teaching and learning. An article on the NEA’s website asserts that “the majority of teachers see the new standards as something to get excited about.” Many of the comments on this article from NEA members are negative, but its very existence shows that union members don’t have uniform opinions.

It may also be possible for funders to cultivate helpful groups of teachers outside of the union structure. The Joyce Foundation and other funders have underwritten independent teacher associations that allow like-minded teachers to gather, formulate ideas, and speak for their profession in the press and policy discussions. For instance, Joyce gave a $175,000 grant in 2012 to start a Chicago chapter of Educators 4 Excellence. TNTP produced a report in early 2013 called “Perspectives of Irreplaceable Teachers,” which surveyed over 100 award-winning teachers on what they thought of the profession and various policies. Creating forums for alternative voices to speak for teachers could be useful.

Invest in grassroots advocacy

One of the Achilles heels of education reform is that it has often been driven by charismatic leaders. A strong leader can motivate people to move mountains, but leaders can also become lightning rods, and when they transition on a movement will sometimes lose momentum. How much of the reform legacy of Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein will endure now that successors with very different ideas have taken over in New York City?

Encouragingly, charter schooling is one element of education reform that is in the process of developing its own grassroots political constituency. In early October 2013, tens of thousands of parents and children benefiting from charter schools marched across Brooklyn Bridge in support of New York’s charter-friendly policies. Philanthropists interested in the cause of education reform can support these voices, aid the policy groups that help them develop constructive new ideas, and assist reform minded political candidates when possible. Foundations can’t directly support candidates or lobby, but individual donors can. School board elections are often decided by very small numbers of votes, and even small contributions can provide much-needed fuel for a reform candidate’s campaign.

Support termination fights

While consensus is nice, sometimes philanthropists should help advocates for excellent teaching fight in courts and by other available means to make sure there are consequences for failing children. The sheer volume of rigamarole necessary to fire a tenured teacher for incompetence has often led districts to leave even abysmal teachers in place. It costs the Los Angeles Unified School District an average of $238,000 and four years of processes and hearings to fire one ineffective teacher. To combat this, donors might back lawsuits like the Vergara v. California case described earlier.

Stephen Brill’s 2009 New Yorker story on the so-called “rubber rooms” where the New York City public schools parked teachers awaiting dismissal hearings horrified people. Deep in the heart of the worst recession since the Great Depression, New York was paying $22 million a year to teachers who would sit in centers and do nothing all day long. From a taxpayer perspective, this is awful, but at least it ensures that incompetent people aren’t standing in front of children. A bad teacher can damage thousands of youngsters over the course of a career.

It’s usually not impossible to get rid of bad teachers, just extremely time-consuming and expensive. That’s something funders might be able to help with. So buyouts—or court cases—might make sense. In Houston, teachers flagged as ineffective were offered buyouts. Most accepted, and the ones who didn’t were put into substitute teaching roles.

Philanthropists might pay for outside legal assistance to advise districts how best to fight policies that would otherwise keep bad teachers in the classroom. They also could pay for outside staffing to tackle administrative burdens of creating reports on teachers who need to be terminated, so the paperwork doesn’t take too much time and energy away from the running of a school.

Shape the conversation

Stories like Brill’s, or a movie like Waiting for Superman can help crystallize problems in the public mind. Shining spotlights on good teaching, and on bad teaching, can help set up necessary changes in policy and practice.

Among children suffering under poor teachers, talents will often remain like silver in a deep mine: untapped, unrefined, ultimately useless. There’s a sign on a wall at the offices of Building Excellent Schools with a single word: Urgency. Improving teacher and principal quality is the centerpiece of raising school quality, and children stuck in the classrooms of ineffective teachers don’t have time to wait. A childhood can’t be repeated. A child who isn’t reading well by midway through elementary school is at great risk of never reaching her potential, and a relay of ineffective teachers can cheat a child out of the chance to be a productive citizen.

A relay of effective teachers led by effective principals, on the other hand, can launch a child into a thriving life. It is hard work, but necessary work if you care about our nation’s next generation. Far-sighted private donors, investing wisely, have a better chance of catalyzing the necessary changes than anyone else in America.

Three views on teacher unions

More than 80 percent of teachers belong to one of the two major teacher unions, and detailed union agreements control procedures in most districts. Below, three experts offer contrasting ideas on how education reformers should cope with the enormous influence of teacher unions.

What to do with unions? Work with them

By Andrew Rotherham

Unions often resist serious reforms of the teaching profession. This is hardly surprising. Membership organizations have a built-in bias towards addressing the present-day concerns of their constituents rather than securing benefits for their industry overall. But teacher unions will continue to be a fixture on the education landscape, which is why some grantmakers are supporting reformers within union ranks and seeking ideas that unions can embrace.

This can be easier said than done. Dan Katzir of the Broad Foundation notes that reform-minded union leaders have frequently been “tossed out of office because they were trying to do things differently.” Phillip Gonring of the Rose Community Foundation recalls that Denver’s groundbreaking pay-for-performance initiative was “brutal on union leadership. It was essential to build political support for them.”

Potential areas where union reformers might be cultivated include changing teacher contracts to better reflect school-improvement goals, experimenting with alternative compensation schemes, and developing fresh roles for union involvement, like teacher preparation, mentoring, and evaluation. Grantmakers should harbor no illusions about the difficulties involved in dealing with teachers’ unions. To date, results have been scant and donors have often been frustrated. Unions, though, are not going away, so donors should build partnerships where possible.

—Andrew Rotherham is co-founder of Bellwether Education.

What to do with unions? Work around them

By Rick Hess

Promoting teacher and principal excellence by collaborating with unions is at best an uncertain strategy. When possible, donors would do well to work around the unions. Here are three strategies for doing so.

Support alternative professional organizations. In right-to-work states, where educators have the right to decide for themselves if they want to join a union, many teachers sign up for the safeguards like liability insurance and legal assistance that membership provides. Donors should consider supporting alternative, professional, non-union groups that provide such benefits. The Association of American Educators is one such organization, providing teachers with the key benefits of union membership, but not at the cost of the unions’ anti-reform agendas. Another such organization is the Christian Educators Association International.

Engage with charter schools that suffer far less from union strictures. Charter operators are free to recruit, compensate, deploy, and evaluate teachers in more flexible and intelligent ways. They have birthed new training programs and even graduate schools that attract fresh talent to teaching and bypass stultifying union influences in conventional teacher colleges.

Support school systems seeking to change their human resource operations. Some bold superintendents try to reshape their teaching forces by embracing alternative teacher recruitment, training, and licensure programs. They deserve help.

—Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

What to do with unions? Work against them

By Scott Walter

American K-12 education badly needs change—yet the status quo is powerfully defended by teacher unions. The hope for a “reform unionism” is, education expert Terry Moe says, “a fanciful notion, based on a fatal misconception: that the unions can be counted on not to pursue their own interests.” Teacher unions’ three sources of power—members, money, and credibility—must be confronted.

Donors can support charter schools, where unions have little sway. They can offer scholarships for low-income children to attend private or religious schools. They can work to secure tax credits and vouchers.

As union membership diminishes, so too will the tens of millions of dollars per year unions inject into anti-reform politics.

“Paycheck protection” laws can tighten union purse strings by making it easier for teachers—many of whom don’t support their unions’ politics—to withhold the portion of their dues going to politics. This has been tried in several states and sometimes leads to a dramatic reduction in union political funds.

With media encouragement, the public tends to equate “teacher unions” with “teachers.” Reformers must reframe school reform debates and support effective teachers with merit pay, layoff protections, and such, while noting that unions protect incompetents.

—Scott Walter is vice president at the Capital Research Center.

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