Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Big, bold plan to spend $6 billion on education has some cutting-edge parts

I think Senator Meeks and Governor Blagojevich deserve a lot of credit for putting forward a big-picture, innovative plan for education in Illinois. Everyone agrees that we need to improve education and most people agree that we need to invest more money into education. Finally, there's a big, bold plan out there (right at the top of that would demonstrably improve education if implemented.

I think the most innovative part is a call for merit pay instead of seniority pay, with the full support of the teachers unions. (That is, the plan calls for the unions to work to craft a merit pay plan. I'm not suggesting the unions support the concept today.)

For some background on merit pay, check out Denver. They are probably running the most aggressive merit pay system in the nation. And the teachers unions crafted the plan.

Here's an interview in Education Sector (a neat independent think tank) with Brad Jupp, a labor organizer with the Denver Classroom Teacher Association and a lead negotiator and advocate for the merit pay system.

The whole interview is worth a read, but here are some of the best parts.

ES: What were some of the specific lessons you learned in the pay-for-performance pilot?

BJ: The most important lesson was that you can build pay systems around pragmatic judgments. By pragmatic judgments, I mean decisions that are not necessarily based on researched psychometric standards but reflect common sense and professional judgment to make effective decisions. In fact, almost all pay systems–including the single salary schedule in place in most schools today–are built around pragmatic judgments. We will never create a perfectly objective basis for compensation decisions, but if we rely on the common sense of professionals we can go a long way.

The second thing we learned, which is very important, was that differentiated pay did not destroy workplace morale; it created new challenges, but in our pilot schools, we never saw the plummet in morale predicted by opponents of alternative compensation schemes.

The third thing we learned was that, when teachers set goals and plan to meet them, students perform well whether teachers meet those goals or not. When teachers set high-quality objectives, objectives that have clear, measurable outcomes and well-articulated strategies to meet them, and those objectives are assessed routinely throughout the year–kids learn more. Learning became the cornerstone of the way we built the pay system.

A fourth thing that we learned was that we need to think hard about how to connect the stakes in a pay system to the behavior that we're trying to change. Policymakers often think of pay systems in very simple ways: "If I put a lot of money on the table, it's going to change people's behavior dramatically, so I'll put a lot of money on the table for the behavior I want." But you often don't need to do that, and you may, in fact, be making a big mistake.

We've found, for instance, that a $1,000 incentive to work in a high-poverty school with low-performing kids doesn't motivate teachers in schools with wealthier kids that perform well to move to that low performing school. On the other hand, it does motivate teachers to stay at that high-poverty school after they've been hired there. Maybe what you need to do is to put a small amount of money on the table, stabilize the workforce, and then build the workforce in these schools over time, rather then to assume that what you want the incentive to do is to steal teachers from the suburbs. Another example is that it doesn't take a whole lot of money–only about $330 in the compensation model that we have–to get people to commit to look at their objectives twice a year. But if there's no money, they don't do it. Sometimes smaller stakes make a big difference.

There's a lot more, including why teachers should embrace accountability measures, because then they'll get paid more (as they should).

I also love the call in the plan for longer school days and longer school years.

So, say what you want about the efficacy about licensing the lotto to come up with the money, but this is the best plan that's out there about how to improve education. I think it's a big step forward.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Full Amtrak funding: one-third of the 2005 oil company tax cuts

[Cross-posted at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association blog (one of my clients), join here to help build faster, frequent, reliable trains out of Chicago]

I found this letter to the editor to the Albany Times-Union that very succinctly demonstrated the upside-down federal energy policy. Here's the best part:


Hopefully, our political leaders will recognize the value of rail passenger transportation and fully fund Amtrak's modest budget request of $1.5 billion for the year plus its $275 million of long-range improvements. Since Amtrak full funding is less than a third of the amount given oil companies in tax cuts last year, Amtrak is certainly a bargain.


Capital District Coordinator

Empire State Passenger Association


Two thoughts on immigration policy

One: we ought to dramatically increase legal immigration. Years-long lines to become a citizen are dumb. Citizens not only pay taxes, they can also call on the government to enforce minimum wage laws and protect their right to unionize in order to raise wages (downward pressure on low-income wages is one of the negative effects of illegal immigration). All those people waiting in line on the other side of the border should get a quicker wait to become a citizen.

Two, reforming Mexico's political and economic structures are far more vital to the United States' self-interest than creating political and economic structures for Iraq. Did you know that every level of government in Mexico is under a term limit of one term? How screwed up is that? And the percent of people paying taxes is far lower than in other nations, because only the federal government collects taxes -- state and local governments do not. That distant Department of Revenue breeds resentment, corruption and tax evasion. It's time for some local tax authority as well.

Improving Mexico should be a top priority of ours.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Legislators make a very smart budget move with college financial aid

The General Assembly made a smart move this week by transforming Governor Blagojevich's proposal for a tuition tax credit for students' parents into a regular grant to students.

Governor Blagojevich plans to sell the state's portfolio of student loans to a private company, generating a ton of money. At least $90 million of those proceeds were to fund a tax credit for the parents of children who earned more than a B average in school. This laudable goal of making college more affordable suffered from a few distributive flaws (why parents and not children? why the wealthy and not the needy?) but had the powerful advantage of almost certainly polling very well. This was shaping up to be an example of politics-over-policy, as the Clintonian stategy of "targeted tax relief" as a message for a candidate works well in attracting wealthy suburban women (and other demographics with money).

To their credit, the General Assembly and the Governor dropped the idea of a tax credit and instead plan to put the money into regular grant programs.

Never let it be said that the General Assembly and Governor Blagojevich put politics over policy! Well, everyone does that sometimes, but this particular issue is a happy example of policy over politics. After all, funding the MAP program and even creating a new "MAP-Plus" program for kids from wealthier families will not play as well on the campaign trail as passing a college tax credit -- but they did it anyway. (How do I know that? If it's in a Blagojevich commercial, you know it plays very well, and the tax credit had been featured prominently in his commercials.)

I'll repeat: Governor Blagojevich and the Democratic General Assembly took a political hit in order to do the right thing on higher education affordability.

The bill creating the MAP-Plus program for kids ($500 for students, contingent on the sale of the loans -- not just a tax credit for parents) is HB 1945 (read House Amendment 2 here).

The Pre-School for All program, by the way, is HB 2013, and you can read that one here. I haven't been following that debate.

Marching for Liberty and Justice For All

May Day, 2006 enjoyed the largest display of Chicago-area lobbying for federal legislation in the last few decades.

An absolute wave of people -- mostly Latino -- took over Jackson Boulevard for more than a mile.

Why did these people gather? To lobby for federal legislation.

Yesterday would make Norman Rockwell proud. Yesterday was more civic and more patriotic than Independence Day.

My favorite symbol of the march was a Latino man with a weary face and a proud smile floating above the rolling wages of people. He was walking on his construction stilts for the three-mile march, clearly a drywaller or similar contractor, wearing his work clothes and a yellow hard hat painted with a red-white-and-blue bald eagle, holding a hand-written sign that read "We trust USA to give us justice for all" -- joining hundreds of thousands of other people who looked like they came straight from their jobs to join together and ask Congress to live up to our nation's highest ideals.

Yesterday was a proud day for Chicago and the country.

We have Representative Sensenbrenner to thank for much of it, because without HR 4437, the punitive bill passed by the House a few months ago that would criminalize the undocumented and those who support them, this movement for justice and a push for a smarter, more progressive immigration policy would never have been born.

The parade was absolutely full of Mexican people and American flags.

I hope that Congress will follow Illinois' lead by implementing pro-immigrant policies that will benefit all of us.