Evaluating Mitch Daniels’ Education Agenda

Potential GOP presidential candidate Mitch Daniels gave a graceful–though, in my view, somewhat misguided–speech on education policy this afternoon at the American Enterprise Institute, the free-market think tank based in Washington. 

You don't often hear Republicans use the words "social justice" or praise the Obama administration's domestic policy agenda, but Daniels did both those things today. He supported Race to the Top's focus on national curriculum standards and accountability for teachers, saying, "I salute the President and Secretary Duncan. … They've had the courage…to irritate their allies." (A veiled reference to teachers' unions.)

Daniels does not appear to be campaigning for the Tea Party's support when it comes to education. Indeed, the Indiana governor was at AEI to promote his accomplishment of signing four sweeping, top-down education reform bills into law over the past several months. "Many of us in Indiana are very uplifted this week," Daniels said, because the reforms "will make a significant difference in the economic prospects of our state if we can implement them well."

One goal, Daniels said, is to increase the percentage of Indianans who hold a bachelor's degree–currently 19 percent, compared to 24 percent nationally.

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 disempower unions and force schools to publicly shun teachers who receive "ineffective" evaluation scores.

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. 

Secondly, 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. 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. Since this guy has a job, at the end of the day he's going to be assigned some class of children; what's important is that he be given, to the extent possible, those students whom he is best equipped to teach at this particular point in his career. Most likely, these are exactly the same kids whose parents will loudly complain about their child being assigned to a so-called "ineffective" teacher.

It isn't hard to see the possible unintended consequences of this policy. Even if this hypothetical third-year teacher is fired because no parent will allow their child to attend his class, then where will the district find a new teacher? What's to guarantee that the new teacher will be any better than the old guy, whose weaknesses were at least known and understood?

Lastly, I want to fact-check Daniels' assertion that "teacher quality is not merely the leading variable in educational outcomes, but the dominant variable…20 times as important as what's in second place. Things like class size are trivial in comparison."

There is a broad research consensus that there are two dominant in-school variables that affect student achievement: teacher quality is one, and the other is student demographics–the percentage of a school community made up of children who are poor, for example. 

But every serious education researcher also acknowledges that family background–an out-of-school variable–is the single biggest predictor of student academic success, responsible for between 60 percent and two-thirds of achievement outcomes.

Related: Mitch Daniel's Surprising Defense of the Public School System

9 thoughts on “Evaluating Mitch Daniels’ Education Agenda

  1. StevenWalsh

    Is it safe to assume that Daniels wants education to be privatized in Indiana?

    I say this because as a resident of Indiana and former student of the Franklin Township Community School Corp, it seems that the demise of that school system is well underway. Last year they (Daniels & Co.) instituted a property tax cap (state wide) which has caused significant funding problems for my old school (and I imagine many other public schools). With a $3-million operating budget deficit the school had to put up a referendum to raise property taxes or otherwise have a significant hit to the quality of the education.

    Turns out the un-educated masses came out in droves yesterday to vote down the referendum. Now the public school system in my township will no longer have any arts/music/pe programs for children below high school, no transportation and 85 teachers are losing their jobs.

    I guess my question is this: Do you think this is deliberate? This just lines up all so perfectly for an opportunist to jump into the private school business. With the voucher and charter school reforms, it seems like Indiana wants to do away with public schools in general. Sorry that this comment is a bit long, but this has been bugging me lately and I just stumbled upon this article on twitter.

    ^And I guess Mike did too.

  2. arbitrista

    Actually it’s not even uncontested that teacher quality is the #1 in-school factor, since we have yet to come up with a satisfactory operationalization of “teacher quality.” Daniels is likely referring to fixed-effect VAM models, and those have some problems even when used as aggregate measures.

  3. Madjoy

    Thanks for this evaluation – I largely agree with you, especially about the new law requiring parental permission to place students in classrooms with “ineffective” teachers. Great discussion.

    Still, it’s encouraging to see Daniels tackle some of these issues thoughtfully, even if he ends up on a different side than I do in the end. That puts him above most any of the other Republican presidential candidates, I think.

  4. B

    “Anecdotal evidence” is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. And that book hardly qualifies as a “ton of research.”

    Teachers are free to discuss with their administrators what professional standards they want. Or they can get a job elsewhere. You’ve made absolutely zero effot to demonstrate how union representatives enhance discussions.

    Your critique is lazy and vague.

  5. Rachel Alexandra

    The college major requirement strikes me as misguided. In an engineering, architecture, business, or military focused education you get a different experience. Do we really want all teachers coming from colleges of arts and sciences?

  6. Chris S.

    @Rachel: Well, yes, but an engineering major could teach physics (if they’re a mechanical engineer), chemistry (if they’re chemical engineers), or whatever; architects could teach, say, art or something; and business majors could teach, well, business, as a lot of high schools do have classes in that area.

    And quite frankly, if I had kids: yes, I would prefer it if they were taught by teachers with backgrounds in liberal education.


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