The pension squeeze

Pension reform is essential — and possible– argues a new Fordham report, The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets.

Philadelphia schools could spend as much as $2,361 per pupil by 2020 on retiree costs alone, more than 10 times the current level — and 13 percent of the school district budget —  if the governor’s pension reform plan doesn’t become law, the report warns.

Milwaukee will spend $1,924 per pupil on pensions and health care for retirees, but that’s $1,588 less per pupil because Wisconsin passed Act 10, a reform measure.

Ohio’s pension reform means Cleveland schools will spend less on retirement costs in 2020 than it did in 2011; the new laws are projected to save it about $1,200 per pupil that year.

But pension reform is always costly for someone. Both Wisconsin and Ohio in effect raised employee pension contributions and reduced retiree health benefits. While the changes in Milwaukee will be shared by all teachers, the impact in Cleveland will be felt disproportionately by new teachers, who will be essentially “taxed” to pay for the benefits of current and past employees.

That could discourage young people from entering teaching, the report warns. Young teachers will earn less — and less in the future — to maintain “relatively generous benefits for veteran teachers and current retirees —some of whom will spend more years in retirement than they did in the classroom.”

Pensions for public-sector employees will change dramatically in the future, Fordham predicts. Public employees may be offered 401(k)-style plans or “cash-balance plans. The current system isn’t sustainable.

Lawmakers have promised teachers retirement benefits that the system cannot afford, because the promises were based on short-term political considerations and willfully bad (or thoroughly incompetent) math. (For instance: assumptions about market returns that were wildly optimistic, and assumptions about longevity that were overly pessimistic.) The bill is coming due and someone’s going to get soaked.

Retirement benefits take 10 percent of the school budget in St. Louis, writes Stephen Sawchuk. Student enrollment is declining as pension costs are rising. ” The situation has hastened some of the district’s cost-cutting measures, and fights over whether and how to restructure pensions are looming.”

D.C. spends $29,409 per pupil

In 2009-10, Washington D.C. public schools spent $29,409 per student, according to the Census Bureau, points out Andrew Coulson at Cato @ Liberty. “This spending figure is about triple what the DC voucher program spends per pupil — and the voucher students have a much higher graduation rate and perform as well or better academically,” he writes.

D.C. spends much more per student than Cleveland and Atlanta, which enroll demographically similar students and earn similar NAEP scores, notes Michael McShane of AEI. (He divides revenues by students for an average of  $27,263 per student in D.C. In a comment, Coulson says D.C. spent more than its revenues, so his figure is correct.)

Per student, DC has the most teachers, the most instructional aides, the most instructional coordinators, the second most administrators, and the second most administrative support staff.

DC also pays their teachers more, with a starting salary for a first year teacher with a bachelor’s degree set at $51,539 a year and a teacher with a Master’s degree and 21 years of experience earning $100,839 per year. In Atlanta (according to the district’s website), it’s $44,312 and $69,856; in Cleveland (according to its union contract) it’s $36,322 and $70,916. Note: all of these figures are simply salary, these do not include benefits.

. . . Atlanta gets slightly better test scores with slightly poorer students at 60% of the cost of DCPS and Cleveland does about the same with slightly less poor students at 68% of the cost.

Despite DCPS’ reputation for bureaucratic bloat, Atlanta has many more administrators. Cleveland has relatively few.

Success for black students

Forty years after her sophomore year at Cleveland’s virtually all-black John F. Kennedy High, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks got together with her former 10th-grade English teacher, Stuart Telecky, and her former math teacher, Lelia McBath,  to talk about success for black students.

• A school’s success starts with its principal. Ours never bothered with mission statements loaded with “life-long learner” babble. His motto was simple: Every child deserves the chance to fail a class. Emphasis on every, not on fail.

• School integration was a noble aim but undid the social fabric of our all-black campus. That had less to do with race than with history, politics and geography.

• Sugar-coating lessons shortchanges students. You can scrub “Huck Finn” of the N-word, but that’s an insult to students’ intellect more demeaning than the racial slur.

Mr. Telecky taught Huck Finn, n-word and all, discussing its meaning.

“We read passages aloud, we used the word. And there was no derision, no snickering. And I was completely bowled over, in every instance, by how mature the students were.”

That’s because he treated us with respect.

When Banks was graduated in 1972, John F. Kennedy High was “modern, well-kept and middle class, a jewel of Cleveland’s school system.” Integration, ordered by a federal judge in 1976, “led to years of mandatory busing and involuntary teacher transfers, which integrated Kennedy’s campus but unraveled its neighborhood bonds,” Banks writes.

Academic standards began to slip. Veteran teachers, uncommonly strict, met resistance from unfamiliar parents. New white teachers let too much slide. Many had never taught mixed classes and hesitated to push black students.

New teachers gave A’s and B’s to low-performing students, thinking they “couldn’t do better,” recalls Banks’ Mrs. McBath.

Before integration, an 11th-grade trigonometry teacher failed her entire class. Banks and her classmates tried again in summer school — with lots of help from Mrs. McBath.

And I celebrated my “C” when the semester ended. Because I knew I had earned it.

Kennedy High is no longer a “jewel.” Banks’ analysis of her old school’s decline fits Stuart Buck’s thesis in Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of  Desegregation.

Saving Cleveland

In a Reason series on saving Cleveland, Drew Carey focuses on fixing the schools.

Sorry for yesterday’s site crash, faithful readers. I think the problem is fixed.

Testing: Threat or menace?

Student achievement, as measured by test scores, is meaningless, writes Karl Wheatley, a Cleveland State education professor in a Plain Dealer op-ed.

. . . most of what matters in life is simply not on the tests. Many key subjects and skills that form the backbone of people’s careers are not being tested. Also, many of the top goals that parents and employers have for American students are not on the tests, including teamwork, independence, creativity, love of learning, risk-taking, problem-solving, critical thinking, confidence, initiative, persistence, and to be caring, happy and healthy. Even in the subjects tested, researchers repeatedly find that standardized tests overemphasize low-level outcomes and underemphasize higher-level skills.

. . . focusing education on test scores creates collateral damage in every corner of education: dumbed-down curriculum, motivation problems for students and teachers, higher teacher attrition, mind-numbing scripted instruction, increased mental health problems, more kids put on drugs to pay attention and increased alienation, behavioral problems and dropouts.

Testing isn’t the problem, responds Jamie Davies O’Leary on Flypaper. The problem is low achievement in, for example, Cleveland.

The most glaring of Wheatley’s arguments is his contradiction that testing is bad because it doesn’t focus on soft skills like teamwork, personal management, creativity, etc. Even if we shifted toward teaching those “skills” in lieu of core content (reading, math, science and history), how would we know that students are progressing appropriately unless we assess their learning? Regardless of what schools teach, that content has to be tested somehow in order for us to know a) that students are learning it and b) that teachers are doing a decent job of teaching it. Furthermore, no one is arguing that self-sufficiency, creativity, etc. are not important, just that they aren’t going to be that useful if students reach high school reading at a sixth-grade level and still can’t tell time on an analog clock.

Testing enables us to diagnose learning problems — and teaching problems, O’Leary argues. For example, “only 10 percent of Cleveland’s fourth-graders were proficient in mathematics according to the 2007 NAEP, and only 8 percent were proficient readers.”

Bad tests and bad test prep lead to bad results. But no testing lets us pretend that those Cleveland students are doing OK.  Poor readers may have a “love of learning” that will kick in some day.  Kids who can’t add or multiply may be strong in problem-solving, critical thinking, initiative or persistence. Pigs may have wings.

In Why she quit teaching, an ex-teacher talks about trying to teach 10th graders who’ve been passed along without learning to read. These are not happy kids.