Are Children Learning

Commercial about state educational standards makes Super Bowl splash

A 30-second commercial created by a Nashville-based nonprofit educational advocacy group says it features "real Tennessee moms" calling for "results not rhetoric," including higher academic standards, more accountability and more choices for parents.

Amid much-hyped television commercials about cars, candy, beer and digital products, many Super Bowl viewers in Tennessee noticed that an educational advocacy group went on the offense during Sunday’s big game.

Tennesseans for Student Success, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization, aired a commercial during the football championship that pointedly referred to the fight brewing in the Tennessee General Assembly over whether to repeal the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee – along with most other states – use for math and reading.

The 30-second commercial told viewers that “some politicians want to drive us back to the days of lower standards, less accountability and fewer choices for parents,” and implored Tennesseans to “tell your legislators to focus on results — not rhetoric.”

Local ads that played on Nashville’s NBC affiliate during the game went for between $60,000 to $70,000. The ad also played in the Knoxville market during the Super Bowl, and will run in the Memphis market during the next two weeks. In addition, the group is running a radio ad with a similar message in markets across the state.

Tennesseans for Student Success is led by Jeremy Harrell, a former campaign officer for Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

During his first term in office, Haslam helped usher in the Common Core and more rigorous accountability measures such as test score-based teacher evaluations. However, Common Core has since come under fire from many state legislators who view the standards as federal overreach because of its ties to federal education grant programs under the Obama administration.

The media campaign by Tennesseans for Student Success is one of the most visible efforts to counter those arguments, although it does not specifically refer to Common Core. According to spokeswoman Ashley Elizabeth Graham, the 4-month-old organization is “committed to advancing and protecting the gains Tennessee’s students have made our last several years.”

She said the Super Bowl was the perfect time to introduce a wider audience to the organization and its message.

“What a better time to reach Tennessee citizens than during the Super Bowl, when people are actually watching commercials!” she wrote in an email responding to Chalkbeat’s inquiry. “We’ve said all along that we would use every tool in our toolbox to protect and advance Tennessee’s education gains.”

The commercial first began airing on Jan. 16, but Graham said the Super Bowl airing prompted an increase in traffic on the organization’s website. On YouTube, the commercial had logged more than 1,100 views as of midday Tuesday.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

“Education conversations are happening around kitchen tables across the state, and this effort was successful because we got to come into those homes and living rooms and be a part of that education conversation,” Graham said.

The commercial was financed with the help of the Tennessee Association of Business Foundation, a branch of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce tasked with creating a better workforce for Tennessee businesses. The foundation has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Common Core as a “roadmap of clear expectations for college readiness.”

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. Before they were adopted by most states, state standards varied widely across the nation. The initiative was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state education commissioners from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia. The goal was to create consistent, real-world learning goals to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career and life. However, three states — Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Carolina — have since repealed the standards, and Tennessee lawmakers are considering a proposal to repeal them as well.

Have you seen the Tennessee commercial? Did it sway your thinking about Common Core? Share your reader comments below.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.