Where Does Obama’s Jobs Plan Leave the Teacher Quality Debate?

The jobs plan President Obama unveiled to Congress last week calls for $30 billion to save public school teachers from layoffs. "While they’re adding teachers in places like South Korea, we’re laying them off in droves," Obama said in his speech to Congress. "It’s unfair to our kids.  It undermines their future and ours.  And it has to stop.  Pass this bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong."

This may seem like an uncontroversial, conventional Democratic spending priority. Indeed, the 2009 stimulus and the Education Jobs Fund* also helped school districts avoid teacher layoffs. 

But it's important to realize that on education, Obama has rarely sounded like a conventional Democrat. During his years in the Senate, his presidential campaign, and after he entered the White House, Obama framed his school reform agenda around the issue of teacher quality, not teacher job security. He has resisted seeing schools primarily as places of employment, and has focused instead on measuring student achievement and using the data to evaluate teachers. He is a longtime fan of test-score based merit pay and a critic of tenure protections, which is why, as a presidential primary candidate, Obama did not win the endorsements of either of the major teachers' unions.

This is the agenda Obama sucessfully pushed via his Race to the Top grant competition. Consistent with these views, in his January State of the Union address, President Obama implied that American teaching is in crisis, and that a significant number of bad teachers ought to be removed from the classroom. “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones,” he said. 

So last week's rhetorical emphasis on saving teachers' jobs –unaccompanied by talk of "teacher quality"– is actually something notable from Obama. It represents a messaging win for teachers' unions and for the more traditionally liberal wing of the Democratic coalition. Now the rhetoric is being echoed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a Midwest speaking tour.

Where does this leave the teacher quality debate? 

Over the past year, education reformers like Michelle Rhee, Mike Bloomberg, and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras have sought (though not always successfully) to use the threat of recession-era budget cuts as a lever to end teacher seniority protections, also known as "LIFO." These folks usually say they regret having to shrink the teacher corps, but as long as it must be done, it should be done smartly, saving the jobs of the most effective educators. As Rhee wrote in a recent email to Gary Rubinstein, a teacher and critic of standards-and-accountability reforms:

…to be clear, lay-offs are not a strategy we're advocating for at all. Though enrollment actually has been decreasing, lay-offs aren't happening for that reason, or to get teachers working to their full potential. They are happening because of the economy and declining revenues. I hate that lay-offs have to happen at all, but I also agree with legislators who remind us that we can't do what we can't pay for–we have to have money in the budget to pay for personnel.

Obama has allied himself with this view. 

What's less acknowledged is that there is a quieter conversation among reformers about reducing the size of the teaching force regardless of whether or not such a move is necesitated by budget crisesThe folks who will talk about this most explicitly are those who are not (or no longer) actively engaged in political negotiations around teacher quality–folks like Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor-cum-Murdoch-consigliere. But Rhee nods toward this argument when she notes to Rubinstein that "enrollment has actually been decreasing." Indeed, research by education sociologist Richard Ingersoll has found that since the 1980s, the number of teachers has grown far faster than the number of students. 

Eric Hanushek, a prominent Stanford University education researcher and fellow at the free-market Hoover Institution, has used these stats to advocate for laying off "ineffective teachers selectively while letting class sizes drift up a little." Arne Duncan has made similar arguments. But it is Joel Klein who has discussed this most explicitly. At the New Schools Venture Fund conference in San Francisco this June, he noted that school funding and personnel costs have risen over the past several decades while test scores remained essentially flat. "We made the wrong bet," he said:

We bet essentially on a personnel strategy that needs to be radically, in my view, reformed. … A very different system would be empowered by technology…a huge infusion of private capital aimed at creating an entirely new delivery system. Teachers would be much fewer, but paid much more…it would be data-driven, it would be customized, it would engage kids, it would differentiate the approaches we take, and it would value human capital in a much different way

Wireless Generation, the company News Corp. acquired and put under Klein's corporate purview, hopes to put these ideas into practice. Their "School of One" concept envisions using virtual lectures and educational software to allow larger groups of students to be supervised by fewer teachers. Theoretically, it looks like this, with some students working alone at a computer, some working in small peer groups with a computer, and some hearing traditional lectures from a live teacher or getting individualized help:

School of 1

rendering from School of One

The education policy decision-makers in the Obama administrative are clearly intrigued by and generally supportive of scaling up models like this one. But by choosing to focus right now on saving teaching jobs–instead of on the more controversial agenda of allowing class sizes to grow while investing in technology–this Democratic president is signaling exactly how "reformy" he is willing to be. Teachers unions will applaud, while some advocates will be disappointed. 

*post updated. Thanks to Benjamin Riley for pointing out that the Edu Jobs Fund was not tied to teacher quality reforms.

7 thoughts on “Where Does Obama’s Jobs Plan Leave the Teacher Quality Debate?

  1. Leonie Haimson

    Check your data. According to the NCES, enrollment is NOT decreasing. In fact, “total public school enrollment is projected to set new enrollment records each year from 2009 through 2018, reaching an estimated high of 53.9 million students in 2018.” this plus hundreds of thousands of layoffs means big increases in class size. And Hanushek has been a vehement opponent of reducing class size for years, even to the extent of pawning off distorted research to support his views. See Alan Krueger on this.

  2. Dana

    Thanks for your comment, Leonie. The data I cited from Ingersoll and Hanushek looks at the relationship between student population growth and teacher workforce growth over the last several decades. Both researchers acknowledge that the student population has grown, but not as fast as the teacher population has. Hanushek: “we see that student enrollment in 2007 is 22 percent greater than in 1990, but teacher employment is 41 percent greater.”

    Michelle Rhee, however, is certainly claiming thatt enrollment is down, and you are correct to note the NCES data shows the opposite nationally. I would only add that on the ground locally, many troubled districts, like Detroit, have lost students over the past decade.

    Source: link to nces.ed.gov

  3. John Thompson

    I can’t believe that I’ve forgotten the name of the respected housing economist I heard on CSpan, but I will look him up. He said that US population will grow faster than that of China, India, or Mexico.

    Sounds like the specifics here are based in Rhee’s narcissism. Districts that she knows are decreasing.

    Perhaps reformers aren’t saying that we will NEED fewer teachers. They WANT fewer teachers. They want more computer systems in lieu of teachers.

    What they really want is fewer Baby Boomers. They are too shortsighted to know that the question they should be asking is how many Baby Boomers do they need? The answer is, more than they will keep.

  4. KatieOsgood_

    How much of the increase in the number of teachers is due to an increase in special education services? Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act originally passed in 1975, schools are required by law to provide “a free and appropriate education” for ALL students. This has led to a dramatic increase in teachers due to the required small self-contained classes or inclusion classrooms (classes staffed by TWO teachers, a Gen Ed and Special Ed teacher.)

    Every time I hear people complain about the dramatic increase in costs in schools over the past four decades (i.e. Bill Gates), I cringe. Are people forgetting that before that law, we didn’t bother to educate children with disabilities at all? Aren’t most of the costs and the flat test scores a result of taking on giving kids who are more difficult to educate a fair chance?

  5. Leonie Haimson

    Much of the growth in teachers is indeed attributable to IDEA, and not due to class size reduction per se. Pupil/teacher ratio does not necessarily equal class size.

    Moreover, the decrease in pupil/teacher ratio since between 1990-2006 was only very slight in elementary schools, and none at all in HS. see indicator 31 at link to nces.ed.gov

    Finally, several experts have posited that the narrowing of the achievement gap that occurred between 1970 & 1990 may have been at least partly attributable to class size reduction, and that the relative lack of progress that has occurred since then relates to the lack of progress that we have made in reducing class size. See for example The Black White achievement gap: When progress stopped by Paul Barton of ETS at link to ets.org

  6. Leonie Haimson

    Moreover, I question your conclusion that “Teachers unions will applaud, while some advocates will be disappointed.” You entirely omit parents, who are some of the strongest supporters of class size reduction, as are voters generally.

    In fact, even in a conservative state like Texas, voters of both parties say they support higher taxes — if you can guarantee that the revenue will go to reduce class size. It is quite simplistic to imply that this is a debate solely between teacher unions and “some advocates”.

  7. KatieOsgood_

    Thanks Leonie for posting the stats related to special education and increases in the teaching force. It’s a point too often lost in the debate.

    One more thing in regards to class size. Many advocates of larger class sizes point to Asia as an example of how larger class sizes don’t matter.

    As someone who taught English for three years in a Japanese high school, I can speak to that false assumption directly. My freshman classes had on average about 42 kids in a class. BUT many of the students literally slept through the class. Why? Because most of the kids had to attend cram schools for hours and hours each night where they got that individualized, 1:1 or at most 1:4 adult attention. The cram schools are private institutions almost every family saved heavily to afford. Add to that, there were NO SPECIAL EDUCATION students at the school (any kids with disabilities are placed into completely separate schools, and those with minor disabilities just don’t test into the “academic” high schools.) Lastly, the community I worked in, like most of Japan, was nearly all middle class. Poverty and its effects were not an issue.

    Class size matters. All the research show it. I am proud that our country has valued educating children with disabilities. I hope these silly reforms don’t take that away.


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