Rahm Emanuel: ‘I Am Not an Education Reformer’

Chicago public schools are going through some rough times right now. The city is projecting a $1.1 billion budget deficit for the next school year, largely due to teacher-pension payments. On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced $200 million in budget cuts and 1,400 staff layoffs. Many of the cuts will come from the central office, although high schools  will also open and close 45 minutes later to save on transportation costs, and funding for elementary-school sports teams will be eliminated. The city is asking for state support and planning to raise taxes to help get rid of the deficit.

At an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Thursday, Emanuel was defiant. “Everybody’s going to hate what they’ve got to do,” he said. But the budget arrangement is “what we call a grand bargain, or a fair deal.”

Ideas 2015

Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival/Spotlight Health
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During his four years as mayor, Emanuel has focused much of his efforts of Chicago’s schools, but not always with the support of teachers and school leaders. A multi-day teachers’ strike shut down the city’s public schools in 2012, and the Chicago Teachers Union led a push against him in the 2015 mayoral race, helping to force a run-off against a relatively unknown opponent, Jesus G. Garcia. On Thursday, Emanuel made it clear that he harbors no love for the education-reform movement. For example, he said, the common debate that pits public schools versus charters is “nuts.”

“I am not an education reformer,” he said. “My job as mayor is to make sure you have quality.”

In some respects, the quality of education in Chicago has been going up. “Chicago is on track to improve high-school graduation rates by 30 points in under a decade. That’s extraordinary and unparalleled,” said the session’s moderator, the University of Chicago professor Timothy Knowles. “Attendance is going up for all kids, test scores are going up … Literally 25,000 more kids in Chicago are in high school than they were prior to [a decade ago].”

Emanuel said that the next focus for change—not reform, mind you—has to be high schools. There are “good quality neighborhood elementary schools, [but] … high schools are the trick for us,” he said. Comparatively speaking, the city is highly educated and has attracts a lot of college graduates. “150,000 every June, like clockwork. You come, you’re single, you get a dog, you find a mate, you get married, you have kids,” he said. But by the time those long-ago grads are ready to put their kids in high school, they’re also thinking about escaping to the suburbs.

To try and reverse that trend, Emanuel is allowing high-performing public schools to become independent, no longer under the control of the school system’s central office. “It gives principals, teachers, and parents an incentive to get free of the bureaucracy,” he said. Computer coding will also become a graduation requirement by 2018.

But despite his proffered slate of plans, Emanuel seemed slightly weary. He thanked the audience twice for allowing a “therapeutic moment” of complaint about the education-reform movement—including some of the people in attendance.

“Looking over the room, I think I can run faster, and I’ll get out that door pretty quick,” he said, presumably referring to the audience’s relatively advanced age, or perhaps the high proportion of people wearing boat shoes. “If you’re going to have a conference and talk about ideas and making changes, be relevant to what’s happening at kitchen tables across the country.”

In Chicago, at least this month, many parents may be sitting at their kitchen tables, wondering what’s going to happen to a city school system that’s in serious debt and may face more funding cuts in the coming months.

The Myth of a Teacher’s ‘Summer Vacation’

In a freshly painted fifth-grade classroom, Natalie Klem sits with a group of teachers planning an orientation for next year’s incoming class at Lead Prep Southeast in Nashville. It’s the beginning of July, and she’d had her “last day” of school just over a month earlier.

“I can’t remember the last summer I didn’t work,” says Klem, who’s been teaching math for six years in public schools, both traditional and charter. Klem typically tries to spend most of June completely disconnected; she avoids answering emails, developing plans for the upcoming year, and spending any time on campus.

“But that’s not what actually happens most of the time,” she says.

Teaching entails a schedule unlike that of most other careers. Ostensibly, the typical teacher in the United States works 180 or so days annually, which comes with an average starting salary of a little over $36,000. But that excludes the work that he or she probably does throughout the summer, after school hours, and on the weekends. That 180-day policy is also a measure of the amount of time students—not necessarily teachers—must be in school. It doesn’t take into account professional-development time, parent-teacher conferences, and “in-service” skills-training days, for example.

Because of the low starting salary, teaching is considered a poorly paid profession compared to other careers involving similar background and education requirements, such as registered nurses or accountants. Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, has said that public-school teachers are “desperately underpaid,” and has advocated for doubling their starting pay.

“Most teachers do need the extra money and they do work in the summer,” says Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate education school whose research focuses on the teaching force; he cites data suggesting the majority of them even get actual summer jobs. According to Ingersoll, the average teacher’s earnings (including any money earned through summer work) are still lower than that of other professionals even when accounting for time off. And several studies have shown that low salaries are a top reason teachers leave the profession.

Still, research on the adequacy of teacher pay is adequate has gotten mixed results. Jason Richwine, of the Heritage Foundation, and Andrew Biggs, of the American Enterprise Institute, have argued that teachers are overpaid—or, at least, aren’t justified in complaining about their salaries—citing that a teacher’s salary amounts to about $1.50 for every $1 that they could earn in a private-sector job and that their skill sets are more limited than that of the average worker.

Another one of the main reasons cited by Richwine and Biggs, among other critics, is that teachers enjoy a big break each summer.

It’s true that, relative to employees private-sector careers, teachers in America tend to work fewer days. According to a U.S. News and World Report op-ed arguing against higher teacher salaries, the average private-sector employee works 260 days a year, while the average appears to be slightly less than that for public-sector employees. But educators like Klem tend to agree that having an extended break from classroom instruction (as opposed to paid time off here and there) makes the challenges of the job more manageable. And that break from instruction doesn’t always mean a summer vacation of idle R and R.

For the most part, the charter school at which Klem currently works follows Tennesse’s traditional public-school calendar, only adding a few extra days at the beginning of the fall to include the time teachers spend in professional development before students arrive. But again, that calendar doesn’t factor in the summer hours. Klem says she’s spending the rest of her summer this year attending meetings, developing school curriculum, helping train new teachers, and contacting families of her students, among other tasks. Past summers, she says, have been equally busy: graduate-school coursework to complete her master’s degree (which isn’t required but can mean higher pay), classroom organization or relocation, and so on. While some of these responsibilities come with a stipend, teachers say they’re relatively negligible given how much time they take—no more than $1,000.

The relationship between summer vacation and compensation is complicated. According to Ingersoll, the original school calendar was based off of that used for agriculture so that kids could help on the farm. The logic was that teachers only worked the amount of time that kids were in school, so it theoretically made sense to pay them less than if they were a full-time worker. But, with the modern economy, proof that teachers work much more than their work year accounts for, and the push in many school districts toward extended days and years, the teacher-compensation question has become increasingly complex.

Regardless, it’s a well-known reality among teachers that even though they’re expected to put in extra time and energy throughout the school year, their salary is what it is. Alex Turvy, for example, sees summer time off and his salary at the New Orleans KIPP school at which he teaches as disconnected elements that are hardly within his control. “It’s sort of fixed,” he said when asked about his pay, doubting that many teachers would be pushed to perform any better than they are now if their wages were higher. According to Turvy, his colleagues are “motivated by wanting to do right by their students.” In fact, he said he doesn’t even think about his pay when it comes to his summer vacation—a period he considers as his time to recharge, reflect, and step back. Indeed, burnout is a widespread concern in the teaching industry, and a common reason why teachers leave the classroom.

Meanwhile, teaching salaries are often tied to contract pay schedules with little to no room for negotiation. The majority of districts will use a “salary grid” or a “uniform salary schedule” that establishes salaries based on number of service years and level of education as the sole factors determining pay. Rarely do a teacher’s specialization or qualitative performance in the classroom factor into salary. “It’s a no brainer,” said Dr. Ingersoll, commenting on how teacher salaries work. “Quality and performance aren’t taken into account … [But] we all know some teachers are far better than others, we all know some teachers work harder than others, and of course it’s unfortunate that these differences aren’t recognized in the salaries.” Yet even despite new efforts at reforming teacher-pay systems, it’s unclear how the typical teacher summer will, if at all, evolve.

Ultimately, few teachers are optimistic that anything will change. “At the end of the day,” Klem said, “you definitely don’t do teaching for the money and I realize that.”

Too Many Kids

Erica Oliver has worked for the Atlantic City School District for a decade, teaching first grade and a few reading programs. Early in her career, Oliver typically taught no more than four students at a time. The small classes meant that students who struggled could be easily targeted, lessons could be tailored to individual needs, and progress could be expedited, she said. Over the years, however, Oliver has seen her class sizes grow: first to 16 students, and then to 24 or 25 kids per class. She found it harder to manage her classroom, properly supervise reading groups, and encourage her students to complete projects efficiently. All of this slowed down the group’s collective achievement.

Unfortunately, things aren’t going to get any easier for Atlantic City’s teachers and students. The city has struggled to offset an increase in tax rates because of a decline in property-tax revenues and is forced to make budget cuts as a result. While the school board initially rejected a proposal to cut more than 220 jobs, the the state monitor ultimately overrode the vote in an effort to rein in spending: In late May, 147 Atlantic City educators were notified that their contracts were not going to be renewed.

Although Oliver, who’s African American, hasn’t been let go, the alternative isn’t much rosier. The massive layoffs mean that classrooms will likely become even more crowded, and Oliver and others fear that could take a toll on student learning, in part because children will receive less individualized attention and have to work fewer school supplies. Also on the chopping block are extracurricular activities, including summer programs designed to keep students on track to graduation.

The cuts could prove especially detrimental for the district considering the population it serves. Nearly half of children ages 5 to 17 in the school district live with families living in poverty, according to census data. A majority of students are black or Latino, while just 2 percent identify as white. Atlantic City is also home to one of the worst graduation rates in New Jersey, with only about two-thirds of high-schoolers getting their diplomas.

The situation parallels budget crises facing other school districts across the country. Philadelphia, for example, has eliminated thousands of staff positions in the past two or so years, and officials have warned that some campuses will have to pack as many as 40 students into a classroom. Arizona’s Sunnyside Unified School District and several districts in Ohio are among the dozens of other places that have struggled with similar cuts and contingencies.

Yet for many of the districts, there aren’t regulations in place to prevent the overcrowding caused by the downsizing. As of 2010, when Education Week published report on the topic, 14 states, including Arizona, California, and Illinois, had zero class-size restrictions. And a number of the states that did gave requirements, such as Texas and New Jersey—where a court superintendent is allowed to increase class size—had gradually relaxed the teacher-to-student ratio rules.

In Atlantic City, the average ratio is slated to increase to approximately 18 students per teacher, although some high-school class sizes will grow to as many as 32 students;  gym classes could contain 40 students each. For schools in equally disadvantaged areas this range appears to be the norm: In 2010, South Main Street Elementary in Pleasantville, for example, had an average class size of about 29 students. But go to a wealthier district, and the difference is clear: Thomas Paine Elementary School in Cherry Hill had an average class size of 13. Although New Jersey placed second on a USA Today list ranking states based on the quality of their school systems, the dilemma in Atlantic City offers yet another illustration of how budget cuts affect student learning—and how inequality often plays out in American education.

Research shows how much of an impact small class sizes can have on kids’ achievement. In the mid-1980s, the Tennessee government commissioned Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) to gauge the effect of class size on individual student progress statewide. It found that for grades kindergarten through three, class sizes of 18 students per teacher or fewer produced the greatest benefits, especially for minority and low-income students. Because teachers could spend less time on classroom management and more time on instruction, the project concluded, they were able to engage more with the students, which in turn boosted their engagement in the learning material.

Furthermore, a study last year out of the National Education Policy Center found that small class-size ratios are linked with positive life outcomes, such as less “juvenile criminal behavior,” lower teenage pregnancy rates, and higher high-school graduation and college-enrollment rates. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that reduced class sizes, particularly in earlier grades, correlate with health-care savings and an additional two years of life.

Reduced class sizes can also play a key role in shrinking the academic differences between students of color and their white peers. According to the Princeton University researchers Alan B. Krueger and Diane M. Whitmore, average test scores for black students in small classes increased by as many as 10 percentile points, versus about 4 percentile points for white students. In 1996, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report on schools in a handful of large districts in the state, which stated that an additional 15 percent of students exceeded the national median in math, while another 18 percent exceeded the median for reading, when class sizes were reduced by a third. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has found similar evidence of the pronounced impact small classes can have on disadvantaged children, particularly those with less-educated parents.

What exacerbates the class-size crisis is that schools are struggling to retain instructors. Ubaldo Escalante Bustillos, a 24-year-old Mexican American who chose to work in a disadvantaged school in his hometown of Phoenix, is among the many rookie teachers who quickly left the profession. Though he grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood were achievement levels were low, teachers pushed Escalante Bustillos because they believed in his capabilities, and he wanted to provide the same guidance for other kids. Escalante Bustillos, who got his bachelor’s degree from Princeton and is pursuing a master’s from Columbia this fall, figured he could help children achieve academic excellence, too.

But in part because of the size of his classes, Escalante Bustillos ultimately burned out. He often taught over 30 students for combined seventh- and eighth-grade math classes, oftentimes including students who couldn’t pass English-proficiency exams or who suffered from learning and behavioral disabilities, he explained. In fact, Escalante Bustillos said that thanks to growing enrollment, he even had 48 students in his combined-grade math classes. Because it was difficult for him to manage both levels, he estimated that students received half the amount of instruction they should have gotten. Students often had to share desks with one another because there weren’t enough to go around.

Many of Escalante Bustillo’s students were precisely the kids who needed the most tailored support from a teacher. Students from low-income communities are more prone than their more-advantaged peers to have problems at home and tend to carry these issues with them to class. In the book Teaching Poverty In Mind, the author Eric Jensen argues that low-income children are less likely than others to have their needs met, which correlates with delayed maturation and can inhibit brain-cell production. Despite these needs, according to researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the turnover rate among teachers in poverty-stricken schools, especially those with high-minority populations, is 50 percent higher than it is among those in more well-off schools. On average, public schools in low-income neighborhoods lose 20 percent of their faculty annually.

And that’s a key reason growing class sizes are so insidious. “We can all agree that the quality of teaching is vital, but smaller classes can help teachers provide a more effective education,” the researcher Peter Blatchford wrote in a Guardian op-ed earlier this year. “Instead of focusing on the relationship between class size and pupil attainment, we should be looking at the relationship between class size and effective teaching.”