Mitch Daniels' Ambitious Education Reforms

By Conor Friedersdorf

The Indiana governor's voucher plan is controversial, but at worst will give us valuable data on the conservative approach to fixing schools

student.jpg

Is the school voucher plan just signed into law by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels going to improve education in his state? It's an ambitious experiment:

The plan is based on a sliding income scale, with families of four making more than $60,000 qualifying for some level of scholarship if they switch from public to private schools... Other voucher systems across the country are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools. Indiana's program would be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools... within three years, there will be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.

I have no idea whether or not this is going to work. But I am thrilled that Indiana is trying it. Nationwide, 40 percent of registered voters and almost half of parents with school-aged children favor this policy, and it is one of the few education reform ideas consistently advanced by one of our two political parties. More importantly, two-thirds of Hoosiers supported the idea in a January poll.

This is as good as it gets if you believe that states should sometimes function as laboratories of democracy. Indiana voters get what they want, and the rest of us benefit from seeing how it works out on a larger scale than has ever been tried before. It's also heartening that Gov. Daniels is hedging his bets by trying to improve the public school system. His broader education agenda is outlined in this presentation, given at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Education wonk Dana Goldstein attended:

Some of the Indiana changes make sense; namely, allowing principals to conduct impromptu classroom visits, requiring districts to regularly evaluate teachers, and requiring teachers of grades 5-12 to have a college major in the subject they hope to teach. A number of the other Indiana reforms, however, are unlikely to improve educational outcomes, particularly those that seek to dis-empower unions and force schools to publicly shun teachers who receive "ineffective" evaluation scores.

I am not sure it is so easy to disentangle those threads of his proposals. Aren't empowered unions one reason that principals couldn't conduct impromptu classroom visits of the teachers they're meant to supervise?
 
Says Goldstein:

Though Daniels claimed in his speech to believe that "collective bargaining has its rightful place-always will," his new legislation prevents teachers' unions from negotiating on curriculum, instructional practices, evaluation formulas, and all the other aspects of teacher employment that are not "wages and benefits." This is seriously counterproductive. There is a ton of research and anecdotal evidence that the healthiest school communities are those suffused with trust among adults, in which teachers feel respected by administrators and administrators feel respected by teachers. For this reason, it is a big step backward to cut teachers' representatives out of discussions on how to define professional standards and organize schools and classrooms.

I am not sure this follows either. Isn't it possible to have a system where teachers' unions possess no right to negotiate on matters unrelated to compensation at contract time, and to still solicit input from teachers on other matters? I've only covered a few school districts in my career, but I've never seen any reason to think that feelings of trust and mutual respect among teachers and administrators are most effectively brought about by teachers unions' empowered to negotiate work rules. I'd be interested in hearing why Goldstein thinks otherwise as she is an expert on this stuff.

It seems to me that she's on more solid ground with these objections:

I'm concerned about the new law requiring schools to obtain parental permission for children to be placed in the classroom of a teacher rated "ineffective" two years in a row. Under this system, administrators will have an incentive to assign the most disadvantaged students to the worst teachers, knowing that poor students' parents are less likely to have the time and social capital to take advantage of opting-out.

And even if every eligible parent successfully pulled their child out of the "bad" teachers' classrooms, would this be an optimal outcome? I'd argue no. In many urban districts, about half of all teachers leave the classroom within the first five years. We also know that a teacher's performance continues to improve until about year five according to some studies, or up until years eight and nine, according to others. Given these realities, it doesn't make sense to shame and shun a second or third year teacher who is still struggling to improve his practice.

The next sentence in that excerpt is, "If his school continues to employ him, one has to assume this teacher's labor is needed and his supervisors see in him some potential to grow."

Must one assume that? In a world where principals are empowered to fire bad teachers without much fuss, Goldstein's logic would make sense. I am hesitant to presume as much, having read horror stories about principals who desperately wanted to fire incompetent teachers but couldn't do so. (Consider LAUSD and NYC examples of strong unions detracting from mutual trust and respect.) That said, it's always possible that time and data will prove me wrong and Goldstein right. The appropriate way to greet all recent Indiana reforms is to study them, in order to ensure that the most effective ideas spread and the least effective are abandoned.  

Image credit: Reuters 


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/mitch-daniels-ambitious-education-reforms/238452/