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 crises. The 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:
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.