Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gas pain: Here we go again!

The opening 40 seconds of the NBC Nightly News tonight told the story...

Notice that this time around nobody is even trying to get away with the "supply and demand" story? Straight out of the box, they admit it's all about the speculators.

This one's easy for me. I've already explained how speculation works in 4 posts last year. Here they are, and they're just as true 6 months later:

Unless we get smart enough to do something about it, I'll see you in another few months with the same links.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Finland: A bit more...

A few weeks ago, we took a look at schools in Finland in a post titled "What does Finland know that we don't?" Some additional information has come to light that may be of interest.

The National Association of Independent Schools ( has published an article by Patrick Bassett titled "The Finnish Model." Here are some things which are NOT involved in the excellence of Finnish schools:

1)"In Finland, there are virtually no private schools."

2) "It’s not more years of schooling, since compulsory school education starts at grade 1 (age 7) and ends in grade 9 (age 16), after which virtually all (95 percent) of Finland’s students voluntarily attend either upper secondary academic school (headed for university) or upper secondary vocational school (headed for the workplace or to further higher education in polytechnic institutes)."

3) "It’s not small class sizes, since Finnish classes are often 30 students with only one teacher (and few specialists, and the teachers are expected to teach all skills and subjects)."

4) "It’s not a longer school day or longer school year, since school runs from 8:00 am to noon or 2:00 pm, depending on the age of students, and the school year is no longer than in the U.S."

5) "It’s not nationally centralized control (like that of the French) but rather national curriculum standards with local implementation. (A Finnish third-grade teacher told us that, of the 25 periods per week of classes, about five are dictated subjects/skills from the national standards; in the rest, she improvises.)"

6) "It’s not accreditation. There is none in Finland. The federal ministry, with some periodic sampling testing to assure quality control, trusts the local authorities to meet the national standards."

7) "It’s definitely not high-stakes testing, since most of the testing that occurs is formative, not summative. As noted, the government does do periodic sample testing of students to make certain the students, their schools, and the system continue to perform highly (and intervenes aggressively if a school falls behind), but the government refuses to publish the test results for the press or public, eschewing the mania of League Tables in Great Britain and school rankings in the U.S. based on test scores."

What, then, makes the Finnish schools so successful? Bassett quotes an international report on the best-performing schools in the world: " “Get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind.”

Get the best teachers.

"As we’ve known in the U.S. education industry for a long time, the single most important factor for student and school success is high-quality faculty. While the U.S. public system identifies “high-quality” as “highly-qualified,” meaning “certified” (i.e., having an education degree or having taken a battery of education courses), independent schools in the U.S. have long rejected that definition in favor of hiring “high-quality” teachers, meaning those who have a degree in the subject they love and teach (i.e., math and physics majors, not education majors, teaching math and physics)."

" 'Getting the best teachers' means that all teachers must have master’s degrees and that only 10 percent, the cream of the crop of undergraduates, are accepted into the teacher training program. The ministry deliberately restricts access to the program, believing that restrictions increase attraction (a strategy also employed by Teach for America, which routinely attracts five or more candidates for every position). In Finland, it’s not the money but the status and prestige of teaching that attracts the best and brightest into the profession. Ditto for Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where teachers are also revered."

"Takeaway #1: To improve educational outcomes in U.S. schools, we need to develop a winning strategy for attracting talent. In cultures like ours that don’t give high status to teaching, more money may have to do (until we successfully elevate the profession’s status)."

Get the Best Out of Teachers

"A second arena in which American education falls short, in both public and private segments of the industry, is in “professionalizing the profession.” While there is much talk and some progress in creating “professional learning communities” (PLCs) for teachers, and there is some promise in creating digital communities, we fall far short as a country of what our competitors in the world marketplace are committed to. In Finland, groups of teachers visit each other’s classrooms and plan lessons together, in a system called “lesson studies” that include “rounds” just like the medical profession. Teachers also get an afternoon off per week for professional development (including for school substitutes)."

"Takeaway #2: American schools are way too underinvested in annual professional training and could benefit immensely from creating true PLCs focused on peer learning, peer observations, and collaborative lesson-planning."

Step in when pupils start to lag behind.

"A factor contributing to the success of the Finnish system is the use of early and powerful intervention when a student begins to fall behind. Frequent diagnostic testing (“formative testing”) at early stages reveals students who need extra help, and the Finns provide it intensively (with one special-needs teacher for every seven special-needs students in some schools). Finland, about a third of students receive remediation."

"Takeaway #3: It turns out that all kids can learn, given good teachers, early and intensive intervention, and a supportive school and peer culture. U.S. schools need to move from a medical model (learning disabilities) to a diversity model (learningdifferences), and re-orient themselves to identify, value, and use a student’s strengths as “workarounds” and palliatives to weaknesses."

Anything else?

"Finland is a small, homogenous country of five million, with a common value of high regard for education. Literacy and fluency are a national priority, contributing to good results in literacy examinations. Children see adults reading all the time, since Finns on average check out 18 books from the library per year. (It’s minus 40 degrees for long spells in the winter, so indoor activities like reading are popular.) The Finns, by policy, are committed to fluency in foreign language, as there are two national languages, Finnish and Swedish, taught throughout school. Just about everyone I met also spoke English, in part because Finnish TV uses no dubbing — only subtitles, so children hear English all the time."

"Few textbooks are used, the Finns preferring project- and problem-based approaches integrated with learning in the larger community, and tempered with lots of practical education elements and daily chores at the school. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is integrated at all levels, including media literacy."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In what other profession?

David Reber, a HS biology teacher in Lawrence, Kansas, wrote a wonderful piece titled "In what other profession..." It was published in August, 2010 at the website.

He was upset about the responses that had been received regarding a letter he had written to his local paper. He wrote the letter because he"... received a letter last week from the Kansas State Board of Education, informing me that my children’s school district had been placed on “improvement” status for failing to meet “adequate yearly progress” under the No Child Left Behind law." Reber "...thought it ironic that our schools were judged inadequate by people who haven’t set foot in them..."

He noted that many of the responses to his letter began with the phrase "In what other profession..." We've all seen statements such as "In what other profession do you receive 14 weeks of vacation every year?" So, Reber put together some "In what other profession..." questions of his own. You may find some of these useful:

1) "In what other profession are the licensed professionals considered the LEAST knowledgeable about the job? You seldom if ever hear “that guy couldn’t possibly know a thing about law enforcement – he’s a police officer”, or “she can’t be trusted talking about fire safety – she’s a firefighter.”

2) "In what other profession is experience viewed as a liability rather than an asset? You won’t find a contractor advertising “choose me – I’ve never done this before”, and your doctor won’t recommend a surgeon on the basis of her “having very little experience with the procedure”.

3) "In what other profession is the desire for competitive salary viewed as proof of callous indifference towards the job? You won’t hear many say “that lawyer charges a lot of money, she obviously doesn’t care about her clients”, or “that coach earns millions – clearly he doesn’t care about the team.”

"But look around. You’ll find droves of armchair educators who summarily dismiss any statement about education when it comes from a teacher. Likewise, it’s easy to find politicians, pundits, and profiteers who refer to our veteran teachers as ineffective, overpriced “dead wood”. Only the rookies could possibly be any good, or worth the food-stamp-eligible starting salaries we pay them."

"And if teachers dare ask for a raise, this is taken by many as clear evidence that teachers don’t give a porcupine’s posterior about kids. In fact, some say if teachers really cared about their students they would insist on earning LESS money."

"If that entire attitude weren’t bad enough, what other profession is legally held to PERFECTION by 2014? Are police required to eliminate all crime? Are firefighters required to eliminate all fires? Are doctors required to cure all patients? Are lawyers required to win all cases? Are coaches required to win all games? Of course they aren’t."

"If a poverty-stricken, drug-addled meth-cooker burns down his house, suffers third degree burns, and then goes to jail; we don’t blame the police, fire department, doctors, and defense attorneys for his predicament. But if that kid doesn’t graduate high school, it’s clearly the teacher’s fault."

"And if someone – anyone - tries to tell you otherwise; don’t listen. He must be a teacher."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Let's defend our pensions.

In a recent post, I gave details of Gov. Cuomo's proposed "Tier 6" pension "reform." If you are unfamiliar with this proposal, click here for the details.

In the coming days, columnists, editorial and letter writers will wax poetic about what a wonderful, cost-saving "fix" this will be for the current "unsustainable" public employee pension system. Whether you're talking with that "know-it-all" neighbor or relative, picking up your pen to respond to a letter in the paper or calling a radio talk show, it helps to have the facts close at hand. Here are the facts:

Our pensions are not outsized.
  • The average pension for members of the state and local employees' retirement system is about $19,000/year. For the NYS Teachers' Retirement System, the average pension is around $39,000/year.
  • 76% of pensions are less than $30,000/year.
  • Those receiving the large pensions so often in the news are overwhelmingly high-level management and political appointees.
Public employees contribute to their pensions.
  • 86% of pension plan income comes from earnings on pension investments. 14% comes from employer and employee contributions. 
  • Unlike members of most private sector retirement plans, most of New York's public workers pay taxes on the contributions they make to their pensions.
  • By the way, even though public employee pensions are exempt from NYS taxes, private sector pensions are also exempt up to $20,000/year as are Social Security benefits.
Public employees do NOT earn more than their private sector counterparts.
  • While it is true that the "average" public sector worker earns more than the "average" private sector worker, it is also true that the average diner is a multi-millionaire in any restaurant Bill Gates walks into. We need to compare apples to apples, and the "basket" of public sector workers is very different than the basket of private sector workers.
  • We expect people who have invested their time and money in advanced education and training to earn more than those with lower educational levels. Many more public sector jobs require college or professional degrees. When comparing public and private sector workers with the same educational levels, public sector workers earn 7-10% less than their private sector equivalents, even when both wages and benefits are factored in. (Want proof? See the 6-part blog post beginning with Let's lay this myth to rest once and for all!.)

Public employees have sacrificed.
  • In 2010, public employee retirement benefits were reduced under "Tier 5." These reductions--already in effect--will save NY taxpayers $35 billion over the next 30 years.
  • State employees have negotiated new contracts that include wage freezes, pay lags, dramatic increases in healthcare premiums, unpaid furloughs and other wage and benefit reductions, saving millions in tax dollars.
  • Local government and school district employees have taken the same freezes and reductions as their state employee counterparts to reduce local taxes; many even voluntarily reopened their contracts to agree to these cutbacks in an effort to avoid layoffs.
  • Despite these sacrifices, thousands of teachers, nurses, police officers and fire fighters across the state are standing in the same unemployment lines as private sector workers.
401(k) plans were never meant to replace traditional pensions.
  • Time Magazine ran a 2009 cover story titled "Why it's time to retire the 401(k)." In the story, they said "...the 401(k) was never meant to replace the employer-guaranteed pension fund, supplemented by Social Security, as the cornerstone of our nation's retirement system."
  • The National Institute for Retirement Security recently stated that "the embedded economic efficiencies of defined benefit (i.e. traditional pension) plans make them nearly half the cost of defined contribution (i.e. 401k-type) plans."
  • NIRS continues: "To prove the point, an example was cited of a 62-year-old with a target retirement benefit of $26,684. Under the DB [traditional pension] plan, annual contributions of 12.5% of payroll would be required and $355,000 would need to be set aside by age 62. In contrast, the DC [401(k)] plan would require annual contributions of 22.9% of payroll and $550,000 would need to be set aside by age 62. As stated in the report, "The DB plan can do more with less, providing the same benefit for nearly $200,000 less per participant."
  • Again from NIRS: "Here's how: DC [401(k)] plans are individual focused and, in order to ensure she/he does not outlive retirement savings, the individual must save enough to live to a very old age — typically 95 to 100. By contrast, a DB [traditional pension] plan pools the contributions of many people, with a goal of saving enough for an average life expectancy for each member of the plan. An average life expectancy, which actuaries calculate with a high degree of accuracy, is much lower than 95 to 100— meaning it is necessary to set aside significantly less per DB plan member."
  • For more, see the post titled "What's so bad about 401(k)-type plans?"
New York's pension system is strong.
  • Unlike other states which skipped a few required payments to their pension funds, New York has a fully-funded pension plan. Every required payment has been made. There are no unfunded liabilities hiding in a closet.
  • The Pew Center issued a report two year ago calling New York one of the best-managed pension funds in the country.
  • Wall Street greed and fraud caused the collapse of the stock market in 2008-2009. This has caused a temporary "uptick" in required employer contributions. (The employer contribution is calculated using a five-year rolling average of investment performance.) Stocks have done well since 2009 and it is reasonable to expect that the employer contribution rate will begin to decline, not continue to shoot up to unsustainable levels.
Tier 6 hurts all workers.
  • Although the plan would apply to new public employees, current public employees and retirees will be harmed as the current traditional pension system would be undermined by fewer new members. The larger the pool, the greater the ability to diversify and share risk.
  • Private sector employers who have maintained traditional pension plans will use the state's example as an excuse to terminate their own plans.
(Thanks to the NYS AFL-CIO for some of the above.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cuomo and teacher evaluation.

Two of our last three posts have concerned the fight over how much of a New York teacher's evaluation will be based on standardized tests. (See The Devil's in the details and Some editorial writers get it and some don't for complete background.)

The short version is that NYSUT cooperated with the state last year in coming up with a law that allocated 20% of a teacher's evaluation to standardized test results. After the law was passed, the Board of Regents unilaterally changed that 20% to 40%. When they were taken to court, the judge agreed with NYSUT that 20% did not mean 40%, and the state is appealing that ruling.

Enter Gov. Cuomo who is threatening to impose his own evaluation system by Feb. 16. How can that be? Well, it seems that in recent years governors have discovered that they can legally include such measures--which the legislature cannot strip out-- in the budget bill.

There was an interesting column published the other day in the Albany Times-Union that sheds additional light on this matter. Here's some of what Fred LeBrun had to say: "It could just as persuasively be argued that he, Andrew Cuomo, is the one primarily responsible for "blocking progress" toward a statewide teacher evaluation format that would pass muster with the feds for $700 million in Race to the Top funds, the State Education Department and the unions. All those stakeholders were on the verge of signing just such an agreement last year, an agreement that did include a rigorous new teacher evaluation standard. But the governor intruded with a letter May 13, 2011, specifying he wanted a higher reliance on state standardized tests as a measure of teacher effectiveness than even the law allowed."

"Bear in mind, the Education Department, Board of Regents and education commissioner are all supposed to be independent of the executive branch, and what the governor wishes or doesn't. Historically, there have been colossal battles between the education establishment and prior governors over attempted intrusion. Not this time. Negotiations buckled after a crude, last minute attempt by the Regents to placate the governor. That failed, winding up in a lawsuit. Since then, I'm told the governor has destabilized negotiations a couple of times when an agreement was only a few words away." [Emphasis mine.]

"Clearly, Cuomo has an agenda here. What that is, who knows, but it is not the betterment of public education in New York. His continual bashing of those who are the front-line troops of education is having an enormously corrosive effect....Well, I'm going to ask you again to do a reality check on the Cuomo rhetoric. Because he single-handedly is the one responsible, through his reductions in school aid, for the loss of music and art teachers, remedial programs, enrichment programs, advanced placement courses, even kindergarten and prekindergarten in many schools across the state. While he was distracting the public by pinning the tail on the teacher, the administrator, and the so-called "bureaucracy," he was eviscerating public schools from Montauk to Williamsville. It was not the Legislature, it wasn't the teachers, and it surely wasn't the local school boards. It was the governor, one heck of a lobbyist, who made those choices." [Emphasis mine.]

"The most absurd aspect of this year's plan to "reform" New York public education is to introduce competition among school districts for much of the state aid available. "Competition works," he said more than once. Sure, when the playing field is level and the contestants evenly matched. Pitting high-needs districts against the affluent is ridiculous; pitting them against each other is right out of Spartacus. One irate school superintendent for the Genesee Valley called poor districts going at each other for school aid a "Dickensian competition. That conjures an image of a two shabby public orphanages brawling out on the street to see which one will be fed dinner." [Emphasis mine.]

"Properly funding high-needs districts, rural and urban, shouldn't be an afterthought or some game of "blame the victim," as Cuomo is making it. It should be a budget imperative for a state as wealthy as ours, even if it means irritating high-resource school districts which won't do as well..."

"Last May 15, Cuomo met a surprising defeat. He publicly called for a voting down of local school budgets. They were approved instead at a near-record level. Don't mess with our schools, the majority were saying. It's a message still in the air as the governor heads for the teacher evaluation showdown. If he appears to broker a deal between education professionals that would have happened anyway, he can escape. If he tries to become the new education czar, watch out." [Emphasis mine.]

Oh, there's one last thing. That $700 million that everyone's so worked up about? All of that money is in targeted funds. None of it would be available to districts to put additional teachers in classrooms.

Friday, February 3, 2012

NY Comptroller disagrees with Governor about public pensions.

The details of Gov. Cuomo's proposed Tier 6 pension plan are becoming clearer. According to a recent article in NYSUT United: "Lifetime employee contributions would vary from 4 to 6 percent; state workers, including educators, would have to work 12 years to be fully vested; retirement age would be increased to 65; and pensions would be based on a five-year final average salary." In addition: "The Tier 6 proposal would reduce public employees' retirement income by calculating every year of credit at 1.67 percent — regardless of years of service."

In other words, a teacher's pension after a 35-year career would be 58% of final average salary compared with the current figure of 70%. And, since the FAS is based on 5 years, instead of the current 3 years, the pension would be a reduced percentage of a reduced FAS.

In addition, within 30 days of entering the profession a new-hire must make a irrevocable choice between the above traditional pension (defined benefit) or a new 401(k)-type defined contribution plan. Under this new plan, the employer would contribute at least 4% per year, and vesting would take place after one year.

Why should current inservice or retired teachers care about this? There's a very good reason, and we'll get to it in a bit.

First, let's talk about the NYS Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli. The comptroller is the financial watchdog for the state. Surely he must be in favor of this proposed change. Not even a bit.

The comptroller is also the sole trustee of the retirement system which covers most state and local employees, other than teachers who have a separate--but similar--system. The systems share the same tier structure. As the sole trustee, DiNapoli is very familiar with the numbers involved in the retirement systems.

According to the Update (the publication of the New York State and Local Employees Retirement System): "Comptroller DiNapoli has supported--and will continue to support--our current system of providing a defined benefit plan for retirees."

DiNapoli is also quoted in the NYSUT United article referenced above: "401(k)s were never intended to replace pensions," DiNapoli said. "They were designed as a saving mechanism to supplement Social Security and pension income, and I think they have certainly proven inadequate to provide retirement security." A National Institute on Retirement Security study found traditional defined benefit pension plans operate at nearly half the cost of 401(k)-type plans." [Emphasis mine.]

(For details on why defined benefit pension plans are less costly to the employer, see What's so bad about 401(k) plans.)

So, why should inservice and retired teachers care about the retirement plans for new hires? The health of the fund which pays current pension benefits depends on investment income, contributions from employers and contributions from current inservice teachers. Any teacher participating in a 401(k)-style system will no longer be contributing to the common retirement fund. Their contributions will be held separately in an individual account for their sole benefit. This will weaken the ability of the common fund to provide payments to current retirees.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Some editorial writers get it, and some don't.

Let's examine two recent editorials which address the topic of avoiding the loss of federal Race-to-the-Top funds because NY has no teacher-principal evaluation system in place. The Buffalo News sees it this way:

"Finally, the well-being of students is going to take precedence over the well-being of the teachers unions....The only ones rubbing salt into the wound are intransigent unions putting the interest of their members above those of students. Why wouldn't anyone wanting the best for students welcome an evaluation system that, in some small part, factors in student performance? Good teachers should want to eliminate the bad apples for the sake of students and their own reputations." Click here to read the full editorial.

The Utica Observer-Dispatch took the time to identify the root of the problem: "Here’s the problem: The law on a teacher evaluation system was originally developed in a cooperative effort between the state and NYSUT. It called for 20 percent of an evaluation to be based on test scores, 20 percent on local assessments and 60 percent on principal evaluations. But at the last minute, the plan was changed, calling for up to 40 percent of a teacher’s grade to be determined by statewide test scores. NYSUT filed suit, and last August, a court agreed, saying the second 20 points in the evaluation could not come from the same measure. That’s been appealed."

It seems to be a simple concept. NYSUT cooperates with the state in developing--and passing--a law making 20% of a teacher's evaluation based on test scores. The state unilaterally changes that to 40% (although, as we pointed out in the last blog post no standardized test exists which would apply to almost 80% of the state's teachers). NYSUT sues to block this change and, last August, a court agreed with NYSUT. Then, the state appeals the ruling. So how is it that the union is accused of dragging its heels over the issue?

The Utica paper continues: " was disingenuous of the state to essentially renege on the deal by changing the rules afterward to allow up to 40 percent of a teacher’s — or a principal’s — evaluation to be based on state standardized test results. That’s ridiculous. An education plan that encourages teaching to the test is a bit dubious to begin with, and giving 40 percent weight to standardized tests results reinforces that and takes local initiative out of the equation. That’s not acceptable. Apparently the court felt so, too." Click here to read the entire Utica editorial.