Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Public Shaming of a Governor: Kansans Should Continue to Turn Their Backs on Sam Brownback

Photo by Gage Skidmore
With an approval rating that has been as abysmally low as 15% in recent months and having been adorned with the title of “most unpopular governor in America,” Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has suffered some extensive public humiliation during his second term. Many, including myself, would argue that the humiliation is justified, and in fact, necessary for the long term viability of our state.

As humans, we have a host of social control mechanisms available for deflating the egos of individual members and smaller groups who put their own interests, ideals or narrow view of the world ahead of the larger group. Many of these mechanisms, such as gossiping, ridiculing, shunning, ostracizing and public debating have origins that reach far back into our hunter-gather past, yet remain effective to this day.

For example, having four former governors unite in a bipartisan manner to publicly denounce and even organize against a sitting governor’s policies and actions is a pretty strong form of public shaming. And other groups and individuals have increasingly stood up in a bipartisan manner across the state over the last six years to publicly call out Governor Brownback and his ultraconservative legislative allies, making their actions and agendas more transparent to the rest of the state.

As I’ve pointed out previously, this can be effective “[b]ecause our behaviors and actions, if visible to others and if viewed as “negative” relative to our friends/family, to our community and/or to society as a whole, can result in the application of social pressure intended to both a) stop the behaviors of the offenders and b) serve as a warning to others. And if these more benign forms of social control aren’t effective [including being booed at in public], group members may resort to shunning or even exiling the offenders from the group.”

The repudiation of the policies of the governor and his legislative allies in the recent primary elections resulted in the “exile” of many of these ultraconservatives from the collective, at least in terms of governing. And it’s quite likely that additional ultraconservatives will lose their seats in the general election. The relevancy of the governor and his allies with respect to the governing of our state has been diminished.

Partially as a result of these social control mechanisms, the governor has, it appears, recently attempted to “enter the fold” again. During the week of August 28th, Brownback seemingly reached out to educators, parents, local communities and other key stakeholders from across the state and nation to help provide ideas for a new school funding formula. With the State Board of Education Chairman on one side and the state’s Education Commissioner on the other, the governor publicly made this request during a school finance news conference.

But after the last six years, the governor has a pretty tough sell convincing us he’s sincere about doing what’s best for the students of Kansas and our long term future. He’s spent six years ignoring and dismissing input from educators and public education advocates, six years relying on advisors who have a blatant anti-public education agenda; six years supporting anti-public education and anti-teacher legislation and rhetoric (including calling school districts’ use of money “immoral”). After all of that, one out of the blue news conference isn’t enough to welcome him back in from the cold with open arms.

Nor does the evidence suggest the public shaming and ostracizing should stop. As part of the governor’s request for input on public school funding, he is still asserting that a new formula should insure more money is spent in the classroom. As I and others have previously pointed out, “narrowly defining ‘instruction’ and ‘shifting dollars to the classroom’ are code for reducing the overall funding for day to day public school operations and have been common talking points of Brownback and the ultraconservative legislators.”

The governor’s request also called for a formula that produces “predictable” funding. Sure, that sounds good in theory, but this has also been ultraconservative code for limiting public school funding. The reality is a funding formula must be structured to respond to changing district needs that occur not just through the beginning of the school year, but throughout the entire school year. Such changes may consist of increases in the number of students (including those with special needs, of a lower socio-economic status, etc.) and changes in local property tax valuations to name a few. There will always be a percentage of public education spending that won’t be known until the end of the school year, and the state must have the dollars available to meet those unknown district needs.

Speaking of the state having the revenue available to meet school funding needs (and other public services), the state’s tax revenues once again fell short of expectations with August’s collections coming in more than $10 million short. While the governor recently stated that tax policy change is a matter open to discussion, he hasn’t demonstrated any willingness to back down from his reckless march to zero income taxes. And the fact of the matter is, it’s not just the business LLC loophole that must be repealed. At least some of the other income tax cuts made during the governor’s first term are going to have to be rolled back for the state to recover.

Linked to the general lack of state revenue is the governor’s and his allies’ continued targeting of supreme court justices for removal during the upcoming judicial retention elections. Over the last decade, the supreme court has consistently ruled that the legislature must add more money to adequately and equitably fund public education per the state’s constitution. With the latest ruling on a school finance case, which could cost the state an additional $500 million a year in school funding, likely to occur at some point after the November elections, the ultraconservatives are working hard to change the makeup of the supreme court.

Nor has the governor distanced himself from some of the most anti-public education voices out there. Included among the groups he just reached out to for public education funding input are the same anti-public education groups he’s been listening to since he’s been in office – the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Policy Institute.

And finally, the governor’s request for input didn’t include any mention of public forums, town hall meetings, or similar public venues.  Per my understanding, he’s only requested input via email, which lacks the visibility and transparency of statewide public venues. This makes it much easier to control the eventual recommendations and associated messaging that eventually will follow from the process.

So I would argue the public shaming should continue. The governor hasn’t truly had a change of heart. He’s still playing the role of the trickster, trying to minimize the potential damage to the ultraconservative makeup of the legislature during the upcoming general elections, as well as change the makeup of the state’s Supreme Court.

In addition to the continued public shaming, Kansans need to work hard over the next two months to ensure a) as many of the remaining ultraconservatives as possible are exiled from the legislature in November and b) the makeup of the state Supreme Court doesn’t change. Kansas needs a moderate Republican and Democratic majority in the legislature capable of overriding the Governor’s vetoes, and a Supreme Court that will uphold the state’s constitution.

Once that’s done, once we’ve limited his governmental relevancy and completed his metaphorical exile him from the group, then we’ll see if he’s at least ready to change his actions, if not his heart. Or he may choose to metaphorically wander the political landscape in isolation, fading from relevance as his second term draws to a close.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

So the Governor Wants to Hear from Kansans on Education Funding...

Governor Sam Brownback has indicated that he wants to hear from Kansans what they think about our state’s education funding, specifically with regards to a new funding formula. While I’m skeptical that he truly wants to hear what most Kansans seem to be saying with regards to education funding and his tax policies, I nevertheless encourage all Kansans to do so.

So Governor Brownback, here’s what I briefly think. First, eliminate the reckless tax cuts you’ve made (both the business and personal income tax cuts) so that we can begin to recover from the absolute fiscal mess you’ve created for our state. Second, reinstate the previous public education funding system. Third, fully fund it. That’s it in a nutshell. Now if you really want to see the details of what I’ve previously written in regards to public education funding, other public education issues in general, as well as aspects of our state’s governing processes/procedures, then I would refer you to the following:

Relative to the four Salon pieces, while I stand by their content I would have preferred titles that weren’t quite so sensational from a clickbait standpoint. But I didn’t have any say in the matter. Of course my regret hinges on the governor or any of his staff actually reading these, which I admit to being skeptical of. But don’t let my skepticism deter you from speaking your own mind. Whether that’s in the potential town hall meetings or public forums that may end up occurring as a result of this, or just contacting his office via phone, email or letter, I hope he's flooded with pro-public education responses.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

You’ve Got Skin in the Game, So Get Out and Vote

When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, using a time honored sports analogy, succinctly capture a key essence of voting in our democracy. If citizens feel their vote, or their actions in supporting a particular candidate or world view, have little to no effect on the process of governing and how that impacts their lives, they often won’t vote. This ends up working to the advantage of some politicians and organizations who seek to benefit themselves or smaller groups at the expense of the larger whole. And change won’t occur unless individual citizens take notice, get educated on the issues, talk to others and actually get out and vote – actually play in the game

In the end, it’s the sum of our individual votes, or a lack of votes, that determines who sits in our elected offices. It determines who makes the policies, laws and regulations that help or hurt us in our day to day lives. It determines how the results of something as seemingly mundane or boring as an audit can be wielded like a sword to cut away at critical services, such as public education, which benefit us all. How so, you might ask?

Audits typically assess, in some form or another, an individual’s or organization’s operations, including financial records, in order to determine the presence of anything from small inefficiencies to outright fraud. However, they have limitations with respect to improving operational efficiencies due to their varying and often limited ability to account for human capital. These are the soft costs and benefits associated with the people who are part of the organization in question and/or who happen to be impacted by its operations.

In the case of public education, the relevant elements of human capital consist of such things as teacher effectiveness (impacted by their levels of engagement, happiness, physical comfort, etc.), student success (particularly their long term success), and the larger, long term impacts this has on the vitality and prosperity of a community, region, state, etc. An audit rarely attempts to account for the complete chains of cause and effect that lead from, for example, free meals for teachers/staff to 
  • higher teacher/staff engagement levels, then to 
  • improved student performance (compounded over the school career of students), then to 
  • improved student success over the course of their life, then to
  • increased regional economic prosperity. 
Or from an increase in the number of building level custodians (who also happen to be implementing a green cleaning policy) to 
  • increased building cleanliness, then to 
  • both greater building pride and increased teacher/staff and student health and performance/productivity, then to 
  • increased student success (compounded over the school career of students), then to 
  • improved student success over the course of their life, then to
  • increased regional economic prosperity.
In Kansas this has been the case whether we’re talking about the school efficiency audits conducted by our state’s Legislative Post Audit, the statewide efficiency review conducted by Alvarez & Marsal (which included a review of public education), and especially relative to the legislature’s previous Special Committee on K-12 Student Success. While these efforts attempt to address human capital to varying degrees, it isn’t to the level of detail laid out above.

I’m not arguing against audits. They can be very useful in helping ensure transparency and accountability, uncovering and/or preventing fraud, and even finding legitimate measures of increasing operational efficiency. But the process simply needs to do a better job accounting for the short and long term aspects of human capital (and natural capital). Granted, it can be difficult to do this, but it is possible. See the Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s (KCEG) report, Kansas Public Education: The Foundation for Economic Growth, for a pretty good example of incorporating human capital. I’ve also discussed it recently here – If We Say That Nature Is Priceless, Do We End up in Effect Treating It as Valueless?

The real problems occur when politicians or non-elected officials completely ignore the limitations of such audits with respect to human and natural capital (including the long term nature of their associated costs/benefits), and interpret the results of these audits within a derelict theoretical framework or ideology (like supply side economics) to justify wide and deep cuts. The result in Kansas is that our public services, like fallen combatants, lie hacked and strewn across the battlefield after an onslaught of free market berserker warriors wielding their swords in the name of Arthur Laffer. 

In the end, the results of such audits are used to justify education policies and cuts that aren’t driven by the goal of improving the teaching/learning process and student success, but instead are driven by the need to reduce the short term, annual costs associated with public education. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, making such drastic cuts is the only way to achieve Governor Brownback’s march to zero income tax goal, supported by his ultraconservative legislative allies and organizations like Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. 

And that’s why elections matter. It’s why your vote in the primary on Tuesday, July 2nd, and later in the general election on November 8th, matters. It’s why any effort you can expend in supporting empirically minded, public education friendly candidates, including talking to your friends and family across the state, matters. The auditing process isn’t going to magically change overnight, but if we have officials in office who recognize the short and long term value of human capital, then the results of the audits performed are much more likely to be effectively interpreted.

It's as important for us to be involved in our democratic process now as it was when our nation was young, scrappy and hungry. So with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda, I urge you NOT to throw away your shot at making a difference. Rise up! Play in the game, and get out and vote.


And below are some resources for candidate listings, overviews and recommendations. Share widely (these and others you come across). Encourage your friends, family and coworkers from across the state to educate themselves. Ask them to support candidates who are empirically minded, friends of public education and understand what sound economic/tax policies actually consist of. It is critical that Kansans become educated on the issues, so they can inoculate themselves from the ultraconservative tricksters’ spin as they spread their memes of misinformation.

KASB has developed a tool listing candidates, as well as endorsements and recommendations by groups involved in public school issue debates. It is available here: https://public.tableau.com/profile/retrac.ted#!/vizhome/Candidate_Endorsements/Overview

KNEA’s recommendations for the primary are here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B74LCt7OE32NYm5Oc25ZeTVuRVU/view?pref=2&pli=1

A list of the 2016 voting records on certain key education items is here: http://www.kasb.org/assets/Advocacy/16/VR2016.pdf

Voting records with some analysis from Kansas PTA: http://www.kansas-pta-legislative.org/ 

Voting records on a larger set of issues for south central legislators is here: http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article90072997.html

And the following was shared by Greg Orman: MainStream Coalition, Stand Up Blue Valley, and Women For Kansas have all created voter guides that identify Republicans who won’t blindly follow Governor Brownback or support his failed agenda just because they share a party label. You can view them by clicking on the links below.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Melting Greenland, Aviation & a Reason for a Stronger UN & EU

I recently was afforded the opportunity to see firsthand a "snapshot" of the impacts of climate change on southern Greenland. The photos are from July 1st, and you can see ice breaking off as well as significant areas clear of ice and snow. Not that summer melts in Greenland aren’t supposed to occur, but the length of the summer melt season, the rate of melting and the extent of that melt has significantly increased over the last two decades. Nor is Greenland able to fully “recover” the ice and snow it loses now during each melting season, resulting in an annual net loss to Greenland’s ice sheets. Here are a few references for those interested.

With aviation contributing about 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, the irony and hypocrisy of my lamenting the loss of Greenland ice as I flew internationally wasn’t lost on me. Fortunately the U.N’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is taking some action to reduce flight emissions. Though how effective ICAO’s focus on offsets will be and how much buy-in they’ll get is certainly questionable at this point. If ICAO’s plan is rejected, the EU will supposedly subject all flights within, to or from the European Economic Area (EEA) to the EU’s cap-and-trade program from 2012, limiting flight emissions. But with the EU’s strength, unity and global influence continuing to weaken (punctuated by Brexit), it’s questionable whether enough consensus could be reached among EU leaders to actually carry this out. Effectively addressing climate change is one argument for a stronger EU, as well as UN.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sneaking the Last Doughnut: The Lack of Perceived Accountability among Kansas Ultraconservative Legislators

Everybody has a little bit of Watergate in him [or her] – the Reverend Billy Graham.

The social control of this tendency found in all of us has long been accomplished in part through transparency of behavior. Most of us would hesitate to violate certain unwritten workplace norms of politeness and take the last doughnut in full sight of our fellow coworkers, at least without first asking if any of them would like to split it. But without any coworkers around, the chances of that pastry surviving in our lone presence greatly diminishes. We may even experience a slight feeling of glee as we take our last bite.

There’s a social cost associated with taking actions that benefit yourself at the expense of those around you. Depending on the “offense,” costs may range from loss of friendships and trust to loss of resources (fines or other legal judgements) and freedom (prison). Maybe you won’t be included in the office email the next time doughnuts end up in the break room. But detecting these offenses and enforcing the associated costs (or rewarding positive behavior) requires some means of monitoring individual and collective actions.

Basically some level of behavioral transparency is required for groups to function in a manner that minimizes selfish actions that benefit the one or the few at the expense of the larger group. And this is why politicians, or really anyone in a leadership role, will at times limit the transparency of their actions. Not just to aid themselves in carrying out illegal actions (from making parking tickets disappear to Watergate), but sometimes just because it’s easier to conduct their day to day business.

Communicating nuances and obtaining buy-in from impacted parties relative to policies, procedures and legislation can be time consuming and draining, even when the issues aren’t controversial. The temptation to avoid that process and operate in some degree of darkness can be high. But the negative impacts such actions can have on both trust and the quality of decisions made, and the potential for it to lead to more nefarious actions on the part of our leaders, is why a basic level of transparency should always be present.

The Kansas legislature, while not unique in this regards, has had its own fair share of transparency issues the last few sessions. In particular, the legislature is developing a bad habit of passing budgets in the wee hours of the morning.

In the early AM hours of May 2, the legislature, for the second year in a row, passed a budget that wasn’t balanced, essentially passing the buck to the governor to make the final necessary cuts (or shift money around). The vote was very close in both chambers, actually requiring the use of a procedural move to hold the roll open long enough to turn some No votes into the exact number of Yes votes needed.

Representative Stephanie Clayton, Republican, 19th District, in an interview on Up To Date later that morning, discussed the strategies employed by the ultraconservative legislative leadership to pass the budget. These included keeping legislators in their chambers over the weekend and late at night, isolating them from family, friends and their constituents (also reducing transparency) and even working without a change of clothes – all designed to make legislators more compliant. I wonder if perhaps they may have also threatened to remove the filling out of all the jelly doughnuts.

Performing this critical work over the weekend and late at night also means far less Kansans were listening to the live feed in each of the chambers. The end result is that limited transparency combined with fatigue and a lack of outside support allowed enough arm twisting to occur for the ultraconservative leadership to achieve their goals relative to the budget. A budget that wasn’t balanced, that likely won’t have the revenue needed to meet it (even without it being balanced) and driven by Governor Brownback’s illogical and reckless pursuit of zero income taxes.

In a previous Salon piece, I discussed what research from the intersection of biology, behavior, economics, politics and the social sciences have to say about free market principles, Kansas’ march to zero income taxes and pro-social vs. selfish behavior. Research from this intersection also has something to say about the need for transparency in government (see Evolution: This View of Life, The Evolution Institute and the Social Evolution Forum).

Building somewhat on my previous piece’s discussion, I’m going to introduce another concept known as the tragedy of the commons. The basic idea is that individuals or small groups acting in their own self-interest will often behave in a manner contrary to the long term best interests of the larger group that they are a part of. Specifically, they will tend to behave in a manner that depletes resources common to the whole group, often by limiting equitable access to those resources.

However, there are features of group organization that have evolved over the history of our species that help curb these “selfish” behaviors and promote pro-social behavior beneficial to the larger group. Transparency of behavior is one of these features that help maintain long term, equitable access to those resources.

And “resources” may be broadly defined, including such things as energy, water, food (including French crullers), financial stability (via employment and adequate pay/benefits), a good quality education, healthcare, safety and security and freedom from discrimination.

In 1990, Elinor Ostrom formulated eight design principles that enable groups to successfully manage their common-pool resources for the longer term benefit of the group. More recently David Sloan Wilson, Elinor Ostrom and Michael E. Cox generalized Ostrom’s eight design principles for application to a wider range of groups and situations. For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to focus on principles 4 and 5. Though I recommend reviewing all of them.

  • Monitoring, in order to manage free-riding, exploitation, inequitable distribution or access to resources, promotion of hidden agendas, and other selfish behavior. Transparency is a key component of this, and is accomplished in modern society through everything from the creation of physical environments that limit hidden behavior, to formulating policies that limit the occurrence of meetings behind closed doors, to the monitoring performed by a free press.
  • Graduated sanctions for rule violators, which may include such things as gentle reminders, loss of access to break room goodies, public shaming, gossiping, ostracizing or being voted out of office, along with a multitude of more formalized legal means.

The Kansas legislature did take one positive step forward this session towards improving transparency. The budget bill also enables live-streaming of committee hearings during next year’s legislative session. This is something that was desperately needed, considering some of the outlandish things that were said and done in committee the past few sessions.

However, one could easily argue this was a calculated action taken by the ultraconservative leadership during an election year under the graduated sanction threat of losing ultraconservative seats in the legislature. And there is still a large number of relatively common practices that limit transparency, a few of which include:

  • Passing bills in the wee hours of the morning as previously mentioned.
  • Bundling “selfish” bills with “pro-social” or neutral bills. In addition to getting bad legislation passed (or preventing good legislation from being passed), it increases the difficulty of tying individual legislator votes to specific items/issues.The gut and go legislative procedure (trick would be a better description). This allows one chamber to take a bill approved by the other chamber, "gut" it of its previous content, insert new legislation that may have nothing to do with previous content, approve it, then send it back to the original chamber for a simple up or down vote, WITHOUT any debate.
  • This also can increase the difficulty of tying legislator votes to specific items/issues.
  • Legislative leadership huddling behind closed doors without the media present.
Add to that legislative attempts to “eat the doughnut in secret” by misdirecting or shifting focus away from critical issues that could put the ultraconservative agenda in a negative light. Take the last day of the legislature’s 2016 session (June 1), when leadership chose to ignore the twin elephants in the room – the state’s economic meltdown (revenues again fell short in May, to the tune of $74.5 million) and the Kansas Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the legislature’s funding equity fix for schools is still unconstitutional.

No, instead of addressing these highly critical issues, the ultraconservative leadership ended the regular session by thumbing their noses at the federal government. They passed a resolution opposing the new federal guidelines requiring transgender students be allowed to participate in activities and use the restroom or locker room that corresponds to their gender identity.

It is true that a lack of cohesion among the GOP caucus relative to education funding likely played a role in the decision to set aside school funding until the subsequent special session (which the governor finally scheduled for June 23, just a week before the Supreme Court’s deadline). However, focusing on the federal transgender student guidelines, in addition to providing some degree of misdirection, also allowed the ultraconservatives a win on the last day of the regular session. Something they could use to help fire up the base and further legitimize their credentials going into the fall election season.

One could argue, however, that the amount of coverage from the media actually did limit the effectiveness of the legislature’s attempt at misdirection. There are also signs that at least some of the ultraconservative leaders are becoming less concerned with the transparency of their actions, though I think a few have never been overly concerned with this.

During the Senate GOP caucus meeting on the last day of the regular session, with the media present, several ultraconservatives openly discussed outright defying the Supreme Court. Reporting on the meeting, Peter Hancock with the Lawrence Journal World compared the Kansas Legislature’s actions to former President Nixon’s abuse of power and obstruction of justice during Watergate. He cited University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis who doesn’t think it’s unreasonable to say Kansas is seeing the rise of an “Imperial Legislature.”

The ultraconservative legislators appear to see themselves as the ultimate authority for all things impacting the state – putting themselves above the courts, above the federal government, above the state’s board of education. And certainly above any of their own constituents who disagree with them.
If the monitoring design principle (via transparency) isn’t proving to be as effective as it should be in helping protect our state’s common pool resources (and the re-election of Governor Brownback in 2014 would support that), then this could indicate a breakdown in other design principles, such as graduated sanctions for rule violators.

In particular, many of the ultraconservative legislators haven’t seemed very concerned they’ll be held accountable in the voting booth. Recent history in Kansas would justify that, given voter turnout relative to the population has a whole and the ultraconservative’s ability to engage and fire up their smaller base. The re-election of the governor and takeover of both chambers by the ultraconservatives over the last six years, with the potential of gaining control of the courts, has given them the confidence to act with little fear of sanctions.

The design principles have to work together in concert for them to be effective. Transparency has little impact without effective sanctions in place. Why would I worry about eating the last remaining sprinkled doughnut in plain sight of my coworkers if I wouldn’t have to suffer any social consequences?

However, the ultraconservatives’ may be relying too much on recent history and misjudging the upcoming election cycle. As the state’s economic woes, the potential shut down of public education, the targeting of already marginalized kids, the stripping away of local control, etc., etc., become a reality for Kansans across the state, as they begin to feel or anticipate the impacts in their day to day lives, the potential in the fall for a larger voter turnout of Kansans who’ve done their homework rises.

And with the majority of retiring Republicans being reliable Brownback supporters, and a significant number of Democrats and moderate Republicans filing to run this fall, these voters will have the ability to doll out a few sanctions and send some of the remaining ultraconservative legislators packing. They won’t leave in the same level of disgrace as Nixon, but presumably at least without any of the remaining crullers from the State Capitol’s break rooms.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Unleashing the UltraCon Flying Monkeys on Kansas Public Education

For any Kansans who still find it hard to accept that our governor and ultraconservative legislators have declared war, and released their flying monkeys, on public education, I would urge you to read the following summary of last evening’s (3/1/16) MainStream Coalition forum on public education. Panelists included Reps Melissa Rooker (Republican), Nancy Lusk (Democrat) and Jarrod Ousley (Democrat). You can also view a recorded version here.

For our ultraconservative state leaders who subscribe to supply side economics and many of the discredited ideas of Arthur Laffer, the privatization of public education is a NECESSARY component of the march to zero income taxes. There is no way to get there without drastically reducing our spending on public education, as it comprises the majority of our state's budget. And greatly increasing the privatization of public education is the only way to do that and still have some form of large scale education in this state. This goal by the way aligns nicely with the goal of very limited government and the goal of greatly expanding the availability of private education based on religious and other ideological factors (or greatly narrowing what public education can teach). 

In addition, there is a large amount of money to be made from privatizing our public schools, and Kansas must look like a vast, untapped oil field of private school opportunity to those who operate and invest in such enterprises. I’d love to see some reporters look into the potential of such organizations quietly lobbying our legislators on this from behind the curtain.

We do know that ALEC, KPI (and the infamous Dave Trabert) and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce are not so quietly influencing and applying pressure on our state legislators, as well as acting the part of the Trickster, spinning and spreading their memes of misinformation. Major sources of funding for these groups include Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, Ivan Crossland of Crossland Construction and David Murfin of Murfin Drilling Corp. In addition to funding, they also provide their own form of legislative arm twisting.  

What do these waves of flying monkeys that have been set loose on our state’s public education system consist of, a few of you may ask who’ve only just clicked your heels and returned from Oz? Well, besides implementing the block grant which reduces the amount of funding schools and districts have available for day to day operations, they’ve essentially laundered money in order to take dollars away from public education and give it to private (including religious) schools. They have eliminated teacher due process. Some are trying to criminalize teachers for teaching certain material that’s been approved by their local school boards. They’ve moved local elections, as step one in their plan to make local elections, including school board elections, partisan. They continue overstepping their authority by trying to eliminate the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards (KCCRS), which are based on the Common Core and NGSS, without anything ready to take their place. And the list goes on and on. Break it, then replace it.

And yesterday we saw another revenue shortfall. This time we were $53 million below estimates, and the governor then announced $17 million in cuts to higher education. And today Senator Wagle called for across the board cuts to address the continuing revenue shortfalls, which would impact all education in the state. Yet the governor still refuses to entertain any change to the income tax cuts. But why would he? Its forcing us to shrink government with his presumable hoped for added “benefit” of increased privatization of public education. Ideology and ignorance, aided by greed and apathy, have been waging war on public education in Kansas since Governor Brownback took office.

The question is, what will it take for the apathy to turn to anger and action in mass? The 600+ email reaction to the school district consolidation bill provides a good clue – people have to feel the impacts on their own lives and tie it back to the ultraconservatives. So, will continued legislative and governor anti-public education actions, along with the efforts of public education advocates, create enough of a link to our personal lives in time to generate change this fall in the legislative landscape? Or even limit the damage done the remainder of this legislative session? I don’t know, but it keeps me up at night. That, and flying monkeys.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

From Hunter-Gatherers to the Kansas Legislature: The Power of Transparency

Hunter-gatherers will sometimes resort to public criticism, ridicule and other sorts of shaming to deflate the egos of individual members who put their own benefit ahead of the larger group. Often these individuals try to hide their selfish actions, and if these more benign forms of social control aren’t effective, group members may resort to shunning or even exiling the offenders from the group. I must confess I’ve fantasized about exiling some of our political leaders here in Kansas.

The tug of war between transparency vs. chicanery or shadowiness likely goes back to the dawn of homo sapiens, if not before. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors no doubt used varying degrees of transparency to discourage behaviors that would have been considered “selfish” relative to the families and larger groups they were a part of. While hording food or other resources may benefit you or even your immediate kin, it isn’t particularly helpful to your larger hunter-gatherer group.

Our behaviors and actions, if visible to others and if viewed as “negative” relative to our friends/family, to our community and/or to society as a whole can result in the application of social pressure intended to both a) stop the behaviors of the offenders and b) serve as a warning to others. Social pressures may be informal in nature, such as the loss of family support, the loss of friendships or “public” forms of shaming.

More formal examples of such pressure include laws and regulations with varying degrees of attached punitive consequences. Social pressures can also be positive, reinforcing those behaviors considered beneficial to the group. And the greater the visibility of our actions, whether they’re noble or nefarious, the more effective are the various forms of social pressure. Visibility, or transparency, is enabled through social phenomenon ranging from gossiping to a free press.

Transparency is certainly a necessary component of a successfully functioning democracy. It ensures the decisions and actions of government officials remain visible and available for public scrutiny. Without transparency we lose the ability to verify if public officials are being honest about their actions and if those actions are in the best interest of the general public.

However, in Kansas the ultraconservative legislative leadership’s degree of transparency hasn’t been consistent over the last several sessions as they’ve assisted Governor Brownback in his march to zero income taxes, slashing and burning public services along the way. This last week, the House Education Committee’s ultraconservatives didn’t feel the need for transparency, doing their part to undermine the democratic process.

On Wednesday, February 17, it was published in the weekly agenda that the committee was having an "informational" hearing on the "history of education". In actuality it was a presentation (some have reported it as a rant) by an anti-common core advocate with no opposing side presented. Then, without notice, a “gut-and-go” procedural move was performed, taking the contents of this year’s anti-Common Core House Bill 2676 and stuffing them into last year’s anti-Common Core House Bill 2292.

The “gut-and-go” procedure was developed a few sessions ago by the ultraconservative leadership. It allows a previously approved bill to be “gutted” of its original content and replaced with new legislation while still retaining the status of the “shell” bill. In this case, they inserted far more damning anti-Common Core content into the shell of the older House Bill 2292, which had previously undergone a hearing in committee. As such, they could pass it out of a committee on a voice vote without the need for an additional hearing, which House Bill 2676 would have required. Chicanery at its best.

I should also note that the legislative leadership has been busy replacing the moderate Republicans on key committees with ultraconservatives. The remaining Democrats and odd moderate here and there don’t have the numbers to prevent the passage of bills out of committee. And the lack of moderates on those committees speeds up the process, reducing outside attention and further reducing transparency.

Another exampled occurred on Tuesday, February 16. The agenda indicated the committee was having a hearing on House Bill 2596 - creating the classroom-based funding act. Yet Chairman Highland also brought up House Bill 2199 from last year (with no previous notice) requiring parental or legal guardian permission before a student could take a human sexuality class (changing from opt-out to opt-in). Rep. Barton moved to approve and Rep. Macheers called for the question, stopping further debate on the issue and sending it immediately to a vote. It then passed out of committee on a voice vote. More chicanery.

On Monday, February 15, the agenda indicated there would be a discussion and possible action on House Bill 2207 - development and implementation of ethnic studies in schools. The original bill was intended to promote the education of aspects of social justice, ethnic awareness and diversity. However, Rep. Lunn, inspired by concerns from Rep. Kelley and others put forward amendments to a) limit ethnic studies to a few specific categories, excluding others such as Islam and other religions, and b) prevent the teaching of social justice remedies in the classroom. The purpose of the bill was fundamentally changed from its original intent, without notice, and passed through the committee without a chance for anyone outside of the committee to weigh in. Chicanery.

However, these ultraconservative legislators aren’t always secretive; sometimes they’re particularly blatant. When the committee’s chairman, Rep. Highland, was asked afterwards why the anti-common core bill wasn’t on the agenda, he simply quipped “That happens every day around here” (Anti-CommonCore measure could do away with AP, IB programs in Kansas), implying that transparency isn’t needed. The ultraconservative leadership knows best and doesn’t have to answer to Kansas citizens. Now there’s an ego in need of deflating.

Such blatancy occurs because transparency is only part of what’s required for effective social pressure, whether we’re talking hunter-gatherers or large scale democracies. Transparency must also be coupled with accountability, or at least a perception of accountability. If government officials don’t feel accountable because they’ve successfully limited transparency and/or because most citizens aren’t paying close attention, then their actions sometimes aren’t in the best interest of the public as a whole. They may act to benefit themselves, their donors, and others they identify as part of their in-group, at the expense of the general public.

But when effectively wielded, transparency and accountability can make a difference. After receiving over 600 emails opposing the earlier school district consolidation bill, Chairman Highland decided to pull it from further consideration this legislative session. He folded, just as if he were a hording hunter-gatherer suffering public ridicule and shaming from his fellow group members.

This should inspire all Kansans to action. You can make a difference. Contact legislators about specific legislation. Demand that they be transparent and let them know you will hold them accountable. Particularly for the ultraconservatives, let them know the following:

We’re watching you. We’re aware of your actions. We’re aware of your votes. We’ll be aware if you try to hide your actions and votes. AND we’ll hold you accountable, both now, as we share your actions with others, and in the fall of 2016 when we vote…

When we exile them from the Kansas legislature


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Student Success Committee Bonding Recommendations Anything But Efficient

Real estate developments are often ironically named after what they replace or destroy in the process – think Meadow Brook or Rolling Hills for housing developments. I’ve come to think the naming of the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success followed the same process, serving as a memorial to the historical success of Kansas's public education students.

Bonding Recommendations

The committee approved their final report in a partisan vote on January 19th, with a minority report included as well. They are available through the committee’s website. Despite having “student success” in the name of the committee and final report, the actual goals were to minimize costs to the state. Everything else is either secondary or not a concern at all, and you can see the minority report for more details on many of the reports flaws. Here I will focus on the recommendations made to reduce state aid for local bonds and interest that is used to help fund new construction and major renovations. They are as follows:

  • The Legislature should repeal the current statute for state aid for the payment of principal and interest on bonds for capital improvements.
  • A new state aid statute for bond and interest payments should be created to specifically define and limit what projects may be funded with state aid for capital improvement.
  • The new state aid statute should be limited to a specific dollar amount each fiscal year to avoid unforeseen demands on the State General Fund.
  • A State building architect and project manager should be used in any new building project to reduce the costs associated with the project.
  • A special committee of the legislature should be created to oversee and approve any bond issue before the issuance is placed on a ballot before local voters, if the local school districts desires to obtain capital improvement state aid (bond and interest state aid).

As I post this, HB 2486 has been introduced. It uses some of these recommendations to create a school district bond project review board and reinstate the block grant’s new formula for bond elections held after Jan. 1, 2016. The formula provides 75% state aid for district with the lowest valuation per pupil and drops one percent for each $1,000 increase in AVPP (assessed valuation per pupil). KASB (Kansas Association of School Boards) provides a summary of the bill here. The actual bill is here. But in essence the goal is to reduce the amount of state aid allocated for bond and interest overall, as well as make it more difficult for individual districts to obtain what state aid will be available.

Returning back to the report’s five bond and interest recommendations, the requirement for a state building architect and project manager on any new building project to reduce costs is confusing. When submitting comments on the draft version of this report I asked for clarification but never received a reply, nor did they apparently feel the need to clarify this in the final report.

If the intent was to require a state architect and some type of state construction manager review construction drawings relative to state code requirements and/or make final inspections before occupancy, similar requirements relative to a state architect were previously eliminated to reduce costs. Adding such a requirement would actually increase costs to the state (and I’m not necessarily against doing this). Or maybe they intend to pull it out of public education’s already limited funding.

In the draft version of the report, the wording could potentially have been interpreted as recommending a state architect and project manager would be responsible for the design and construction management of all new construction and major renovations at every district. I’m assuming the goal would be to eliminate at least some of the services architectural firms/design teams are providing to districts on a project by project basis, reducing design and potentially construction administration costs. If that’s really the intention, it’s a poorly thought out recommendation made by individuals with little working knowledge of the building/construction industry.

The remaining recommendations are all intended to a) reduce the number of requests made by individual districts to obtain capital improvement state aid as a result of the ballot requirement, b) limit the types of projects that would be eligible for state aid and c) reduce the dollar amount provided by the state on an individual project basis. The primary goal of the Bonding by Local School Districts recommendations is to reduce state spending, regardless of the impacts on public education and student success.

Increases in Inequity

This is unfortunate, given the amount of work that needs to be done to our nation’s and Kansas’s schools. A report from the Center for Green Schools (2013) estimated that as of 2008 there was $271 billion in deferred maintenance costs nationally just to get schools back to working order and comply with current laws. Modernizing them would take $542 billion over 10 years (starting in 2013), and it should be noted that new construction for enrollment growth was not included in these numbers. 

The 21st Century School Fund estimated in 2008 that our nation had 6.6 billion square feet of PK-12 public school facility square footage (Center for Green Schools 2013). According to information made available by KASB, the 2004-2005 total PK-12 public school facility square footage in Kansas was just under 60.5 million. Using the ratio of Kansas/National square footage (0.009), we can estimate the cost to get Kansas schools back to working order at $2.48 billion and $4.96 billion to fully modernize. 

Histogram of the percentage of bond and interest furnished by state aid;
all districts are included (including those with 0%).
Referring to statewide data made available by KASB, 189 of the 286 districts had outstanding bond and interest on the books for the 2014-2015 school year. Total state aid for this year represented 29% of the total amount of bond and interest for the districts in this dataset. Of the 189 districts with bond and interest, 150 of them were making use of state aid. The percentage that state aid represented of their outstanding bond and interest ranged from 3% to 69%, with 100 of the districts over 30%.

Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic analysis, but it nevertheless shows that state aid furnishes a significant percentage of the funding for capital improvements at many districts. And a reduction in state aid will disproportionately impact less wealthy communities who have a more difficult time generating the local taxes needed to make these improvements. It will increase the inequity in school building environments across the state. It should also be noted that 96 districts had no outstanding bond and interest on the books at all for the 2014-2015 school year. An interesting question to ask is how many of these districts still have significant deferred maintenance needs, and why aren't they being addressed? Does the current drive to reduce state spending and resulting reduction in public school funding that districts can use to operate on have anything to do with that?

Impacts on Building Operations and Students, Teachers & Staff

What does a reduction in the ability of a district to modernize its fleet of buildings mean exactly? Let’s look at operational impacts first. During the 2008-2009 school year, approximately $50 billion was spent on the O&M (operations and maintenance) of U.S. school district facilities (Center for Green Schools 2013). The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that utilities accounted for approximately $8 billion of the $50 billion. Again applying the previous Kansas/National square footage ratio (0.009), the Kansas operations and maintenance costs are then estimated to have been $455 million for the 2008-2009 school year, with utility costs accounting for $72.8 million of the overall O&M costs.

Modernizing facilities and then eliminating the occurrences of subsequent deferred maintenance would reduce O&M costs over the long term. The constant band aid fixes and periodic major equipment failures/replacements would be greatly reduced and O&M staff would have a greater ability to operate in a proactive vs. reactive manner. This increase in operational efficiency also eases the stress on O&M personnel and custodians, who are often understaffed to begin with.

Modernization will also result in energy savings and reduced utility costs. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll assume an average of 30% utility savings across this state if every facility was fully modernized, though in actuality the design level savings would likely be greater. This would then calculate out to an estimated annual utility savings of $21.8 million for the state of Kansas. But this just scratches the surface in terms of increased efficiencies.

Decades of multi-disciplinary research have demonstrated the impacts the built environment have on building occupant productivity/performance and health. And a large body of that research has been conducted within education environments. Below is a brief summary of some of these impacts:
  • A study of Chicago and Washington, DC schools found that better school facilities can add 3 to 4 percentage points to a school’s standardized test scores, even after controlling for demographic factors (Schneider 2002).
  • Based on actual improvements in design in green schools and based on a very substantial data set on productivity and test performance of healthier, more comfortable study and learning environments, a 3-5% improvement in learning ability and test scores in green schools appears reasonable and conservative (Kats 2006).
  • Compared to little or no daylighting, classrooms with appropriate daylighting may increase the rate of student learning by a) 20% in math and b) 26% in reading (Heschong Mahone Group 1999).
  • Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view (Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. 2003).
  • Discomfort represented by non-optimal temperature ranges have been shown to decrease occupant performance / productivity on either side of the optimal temperature range (68OF – 72OF) by up to 9% (Seppänen et al. 2006, Wargocki and Seppänen 2006).
  • Schools with high IAQ total scores and a high Healthy Greenness School Index (GSI) were more likely to have high student attendance rates (36% and 22% respectively) (Lin et al.). 
  • Schools with well-maintained air filters were also 42% more likely to have good 4th grade academic performance (Lin et al.).
  • An analysis of two school districts in Illinois found that student attendance rose by 5% after incorporating cost effective indoor air quality improvements (Illinois Healthy Schools Campaign 2003).
  • When conversational noise was reduced and speech privacy increased, a) the ability of office workers to focus on tasks improved by 48%, b) the performance of tasks relating to accuracy and memory improved by 10% and c) the physical symptoms of stress such as high blood pressure and increased heart rate were reduced by 27% (Sykes 2004).
  • For acoustics and sound impacts, also see Julian Treasure: Why architects need to use their ears
  • Study of Taiwanese 8th graders found that the addition of visible, leafy plants at the back of the classroom (6% of floorplan area) resulted in a) significantly stronger self-reported feelings of preference, comfort, and friendliness and b) significantly fewer hours of sick leave and punishment records (+50% less) (Han 2008).
  • Increasing one’s degree of personal environmental control has been found to provide average measured workforce productivity gains of 7.1% for lighting control, 1.8% for ventilation control and 1.2% for temperature control (Kats et al. 2003).
Let’s assume an overall net productivity/performance benefit from full modernization of all existing Kansas PK-12 school facilities, averaged over the state’s student and teacher/staff populations, of 3%. The average is likely greater than this, but let’s be overly conservative. For students, that’s an overall average of 3% better performance on the various standardized tests that are taken (not that I’m promoting their use as a primary measure of student success). 

With the additional distractions and hardships found in a poor physical environment greatly reduced, students have more of their mental and physical energies available to devote to learning. And these positive learning benefits are compounded year to year over the course of students’ PK-12 careers, assuming that facilities are well maintained. 

Whatever the overall average impact is on productivity/performance, for those students (or teachers/staff) more susceptible physically to various negative aspects of indoor environmental quality, the percentage improvement will be substantially greater. In addition, students who are minorities, in poverty, have special needs, etc. are disproportionately impacted by facilities in poor condition, as their relative limited resources, limited outside support, physical challenges and/or psychological challenges already are a drain on their mental and physical energies to begin with.

Moving to the adults, let’s look at the monetary impacts of this average 3% improvement in productivity/performance. Focusing just on teachers, according to summary reports provided by KSDE (Kansas State Department of Education), the average Kansas teacher salary (including salary + supplemental & summer school salaries + fringe benefits) for 2014-2015 was $54,907 (Average Salaries for Classroom Teachers) and the number of Kansas teachers for 2014-2015 was approximately 34,340, using FTE numbers (Certified Personnel Report). Using the 3% average impact and 2014-2015 data, full modernization is estimated to result in an increase in approximately $56.6 million worth of teacher productivity, statewide. 

Kansas facility estimated costs and potential savings discussed in this article.
Obviously this doesn’t represent dollars that districts can recover and use for other purposes, but it does represent salary dollars spent more “efficiently”. Teachers are able to expend more of their mental and physical energies ($56.6 million dollar's worth) on their primary daily education tasks, as opposed to dealing with sub-par facilities and poor indoor environmental conditions. Adding the productivity savings to the estimated utility savings results in an estimated annual savings of $78.4 million, and this still excludes other classified staff, all non-classified staff, other facility O&M savings and health improvements. And the utility savings and average productivity/performance improvements used here are conservative estimates to begin with.

There are a lot of variables that impact student and teacher/staff productivity/performance and health. Relative to many of these other variables the impacts of the built environment are small on average, but there is a significant body of research confirming the impacts are real. We can also address the built environment relatively easy compared to many other variables. Making it harder for districts to address facility deficiencies just doesn’t make sense. 

Waste of Tax Payer Dollars

When all is said and done, these Bond by Local School Districts recommendations are poorly thought through in terms of their impact on a) student learning, teacher effectiveness and everyone’s health, b) energy and water consumption, c) associated annual utility costs, d) other operational costs and e) the increase in building quality inequity that will result across the state.

The recommendations hit school districts in multiple ways by increasing the difficulty in reducing both building O&M costs (including utilities) and negative environmental impacts on students and teachers. At the same time, as utilities and other O&M costs rise due to continued building deterioration, this becomes an additional hit on district budgets. The recommendations actually increase inefficiencies.

And that’s pretty much how you can sum up the majority of the recommendations made in the report – agenda driven, focused on reducing state spending regardless of the impacts on public education and student success, built on a very narrow, short sighted and flawed definition of efficiency, and lacking any real input from subject experts. The effort to produce this monument to Kansas student success has been a waste of tax payer dollars.


Han, K. T.  2008. Influence of Limitedly Visible Leafy Indoor Plants on the Psychology, Behavior, and Health of Students at a Junior High School in Taiwan. Environment and Behavior 41(5): 658-692.

Kats, G., L. Alevantis, A. Berman, E. Mills, and J. Perlman. 2003. The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Building: A Report to California’s Sustainable Building Task Force.

Lin, S., C. Kielb, A. Orsini & N. Muscatiello The Evaluation of Green School Building Attributes and Their Effect on the Health and Performance of Students and Teachers in New York State. Final Project Report - Proposal Number: #147 funded by the US Green Building Council. 

Seppänen, O., W. J. Fisk, and Q. H. Lei. 2006. Effect of Temperature on Task Performance in Office Environment. Publication No. LBNL-60946. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory , Berkeley, CA.

Wargocki, P. and O. Seppänen,  editors. 2006. Indoor Climate and Productivity in Offices, Guidebook No. 6. Rehva (Federation of European Heating and Air-Conditioning Associations), Brussels, Belgium.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Insanity Continues: Teacher Merit Pay Follow Up

After someone shared my previous post on teacher merit pay, the following comment was left. Given that others in the private sector likely have similar reactions I felt it was important to provide a response.

This article/editorial is the number one reason why it is so freaking frustrating to be on a school board while simultaneously operating a business division with many many employees all of whom are paid based upon their merit (read value) to the company. School system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture.

While I think this person’s first sentence is addressed in my original post, I shall reiterate some of the points previously made and slightly expand on them in an attempt to provide additional clarification. I should first state that I’m also a school board member, and I also work in the private sector. Part of my role involves managing other employees, as well as managing the firm’s internal 360-degree review and engagement assessment processes. Given this, I have some experience in trying to understand, “measure” and improve the value that employees bring to a firm.

This person’s basic assertion is that we should be paying people based on their merit, or the value they bring to the organization that employs them. Setting aside larger scale influences such as regional economic factors impacting costs of living + living wage issues, competition within and between industries for employees, etc., I don’t necessarily disagree with this assertion. But, as I pointed out in my previous post, the key is to figure out how to define and measure this value.

Most businesses in the private sector come at it from multiple angles, with specific measures varying by both the type of business and the type of employee. The underlying definition often involves how well the employee contributes to a company’s profit margins and growth (though this is increasingly being considered from larger societal and generational perspectives). A key thing to note, however, is that businesses generally don’t rely on one primary measure of this perceived “value.”

Measuring value may involve the number of calls made per hour for a call center, or the number of “widgets” assembled per hour for certain manufacturing jobs. Customer service reviews may play a role. In various types of consulting firms, profit margins on individual projects that one worked on and/or managed may play a role. Reviews from immediate supervisors, employees and even those one manages can also come into play. Increasingly, the contribution an employee makes to his/her community via volunteering is a consideration. And the list goes on.

Both education and experience are also commonly used to establish various minimum required levels for promotions and pay raises (as well as initial salaries). It’s just not as commonly spelled out or as formal as it is in education and other government jobs, but it’s there nevertheless.

In addition, more and more firms are also attempting to assess and improve their employees’ levels of engagement. This often involves seeking employee feedback on everything from the work environment and hours, to salaries, benefits and amenities. The employees end up having a say in how they’re compensated.

Even focusing on the relatively narrow definition of profit margins and growth, most businesses still seek to use multiple measures when determining an individual employee’s contributions. While it varies by industry, company and employee, the number of variables impacting profit and growth are too many to focus on one primary measure or even a few measures. It wouldn’t be fair to the employee, nor would it tell the whole story to the employer.

So if that’s the case for businesses, how hard must it be to measure a teacher’s contribution to student success when a) there are a large number of potential ways to measure student success, b) we don’t all agree on how the various indicators of student success should be measured or weighted and c) there are a significant number of varying factors impacting student success beyond a teacher’s control. We certainly can’t focus on a single measure, especially one as limited as test scores. Nor can we only use the review of a single principal. They can’t fully capture a teacher’s contribution to student success, and therefore can’t provide an indication of the teacher’s value, or merit.

Which is why, as I pointed out in my last post, I believe we have to start by providing teachers and staff with a competitive base pay and benefits package, with starting salaries and raises based on education and experience. This base pay also needs to be competitive with other professions and reflective of teaching's actual value to society (and reflective of local/regional costs of living), with raises, added pay and/or bonuses based on a combination of experience, continuing education/professional development, additional duties taken on and reviews. And those reviews should be more encompassing like the Danielson framework or national Board measures (as a teacher pointed out to me). In my opinion, this is what an acceptable form of “merit-pay” looks like.

Until there is broader recognition within the education community that quantitative measures like test scores or graduation rates are both reflective of actual student success AND can be tied to individual teachers, they shouldn’t be used to assess value. At the very least they should only account for a very small percentage of all that is evaluated. Teachers should also have a hand in designing how that system looks and works in their local districts, helping to tweak and modify it as we would move forward.

Moving on to this person’s second sentence, [s]chool system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture, I would suggest he misunderstands the primary mission of a public school district – to provide equitable, good quality education for ALL students served. While there are certain aspects relative to efficiencies on an annual basis and some management practices that school districts can incorporate from the business world, you can’t operate a school district exactly like a business. Education for ALL doesn’t equate to maximizing annual profit margins and growth. Anyone who doubts that should spend some time reviewing the generally miserable track record of private charter schools.

This post is already longer than intended, so I’d encourage this person and anyone else with questions to sit down with their district’s superintendent and finance director to get a better understanding of how a school district’s management and accounting differ from a business, and why. It’s fairly apparent that many of our legislators haven’t done that.

I appreciate this individual’s willingness to serve his community. However, as a board member and private sector consultant I find his response and apparent ignorance of what it takes to successfully educate all kids in an equitable manner equally “freaking” frustrating.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Unique Insanity of Teacher Merit Pay

Governor Brownback and some of his ultra-conservative allies in the legislature have been in the news lately for promoting a merit pay system for Kansas teachers as part of the new funding formula (local districts currently have the option of implementing such a system for their own teachers, though I don't know of any that do). The knee-jerk response that many educators and public education advocates likely have is "You first."

They make it sound like it's a no-brainer. We all get paid based on how well we perform, right? This will attract the highest quality teachers, right? It may sound logical on the surface but a century's worth of history and extensive research in multiple disciplines doesn't back it up. Yet teacher merit pay tied to ill-defined student success measures will not go away. There's an infectious insanity to it that seems to defy attempts at intellectual inoculation. Nevertheless, here's another attempt at inoculation.

Brief History of Teacher Merit Pay

While somewhat trite, the often repeated saying that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” certainly applies to the use of merit pay in American public education.

As pointed out by Goldstein (2014), Murnane and Cohen (1986) and Ravitch (2013), there have been repeated attempts and failures to implement merit pay since the early 20th century. A large number of studies on merit pay programs implemented through the 1970s found that most failed within six years of implementation. A few examples of these studies include Bacharach et al. (1984), Doremus (1982), U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1977) and Young (1900). They all generally faced the following limitations: “excessive administrative paperwork, low funding, disagreements about how to judge good teaching, and strong opposition from teachers themselves” (Goldstein 2014).

For those who would claim that teacher unions were responsible for these failures, up through at least the 50’s teacher unions were not widespread, and where they existed they generally weren’t well organized. Teacher opposition through unions was not responsible for the early failures of merit pay systems.

Murnane and Cohen (1986), as reported by Ravitch (2013), divide these programs into two general categories: test score merit pay systems and principal evaluation merit pay systems. Test score systems are essentially “piece-rate compensation systems” better suited to manufacturing or similar jobs where it’s easier to measure an individual’s contribution to a company’s output. Examples include the number of “widgets” assembled per hour or the number of calls made per hour.

Research and case studies have demonstrated that the consequences of such merit pay systems in education include:
  • With bonuses and test scores taking center stage, there is a focus more on the students who easily respond and less on those who are more difficult to work with. 
  • Collaboration among teachers/staff is damaged or destroyed because they’re in essence competing to be the best at achieving a limited measure of student success and competing for money.
  • All other education goals are downplayed, such as critical thinking skills, positive behavior, citizenship, etc. 
Some similar as well as unique problems arise with the principal evaluation system, and they tend to revolve around problems with actual fairness as well as perceptions of fairness. These include:
  • Teacher tasks and goals can’t easily be evaluated relative to pay. The rate of “wiidget” production is very different from improving student performance. The former is much more in the control of the worker than the latter, which has many other variables outside of a teacher’s control. Not to mention there still isn’t agreement on how to measure student success.
  • Poor ratings, often associated with perceptions of unfairness (real or not) resulted in resentment and teachers actually working less hard.
  • Many principals were used to giving higher ratings to inspire teachers to live up to expectations (a not uncommon management practice in general). However the merit pay bonuses commonly decreased this use of higher ratings due to budget constraints.
  • It greatly weakens the trust between teachers and principals (and even among teachers); as a result, teachers are less likely to ask for help.
By the mid-1980’s, 99 percent of U.S. teachers were in districts using a uniform salary schedule based on education and experience. Yet despite the history and evidence against merit pay, it again saw a resurgence in the 1990’s that continues to this day. According to Ravitch (2013), the assumed underlying cause and effect is that offering bonuses to teachers will motivate them to do what it takes to obtain the money. As a result, they will increase their effort and teach more effectively, raising student test scores in the process.

Great theory, if we’re talking 1925. As with the previous sets of implementations, contemporary merit pay programs haven’t been any more effective. Studies documenting this include:
  • The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University’s study of Nashville public schools (Springer et al. 2010).  A $15,000 bonus was offered to teachers for improving math test scores. Over three years teacher performance was compared between a control and experimental group, with no significant different in student test scores occurring.
  • A Rand Corporation study (Sparks 2011) documenting the failure of New York City’s implementation of merit pay (no impact on reading and math test scores; no improvement of teacher satisfaction). It was generally seen as a waste of public money.
  • A four-year study (Glazerman and Seifullah 2012) of Chicago’s Teacher Advancement Program found a somewhat higher teacher retention rate but no significant impact on student test scores in the schools where merit pay was implemented.
References to additional studies can be found in Goldstein (2014), Murnane and Cohen (1986) and Ravitch (2013). You can also review the referenced studies on the research page of the National Center on Performance Incentives.

Evidence from the Workplace

Looking at research from the business/management world, we find a lot of work demonstrating the difficulties associated with effectively constructing a monetary focused incentive based system. Kohn’s (1993) article in the Harvard Business Review provides a good overview of some of this research.  A lot of the research methods and interpretations are rooted in psychology as well as what we now term Organizational Development Theory. After reviewing a large amount of research documenting some of the what and why of incentive program ineffectiveness in the workplace (over 25 references are given), he then lays out the following six specific reasons underlying why reward-driven compensation systems end up failing:
  • Pay is not a motivator: The assumption that more money is a strong motivator for people to work better or more over the long term is somewhat controversial, with context playing a huge role in the degree and type of motivation it provides.
  • Rewards punish: “Rewards [can] have a punitive effect because they, like outright punishment, are manipulative.”
  • Rewards rupture relationships: An over emphasis on competition for rewards, recognition and ranking, exacerbated by being highly publicized within an organization, often results in employees seeing each other as “obstacles to their own success.” The end result is the destruction of cooperation and teamwork.
  • Rewards ignore reasons: Relying on incentives (particularly financial incentives) to gain desired results doesn’t address underlying problems. It also has been substituted for giving employees what they really need to be effective – “providing useful feedback, social support, and the room for self-determination.”
  • Rewards discourage risk-taking: “Whenever people are encouraged to think about what they will get for engaging in a task, they become less inclined to take risks or explore possibilities, to play hunches or to consider incidental stimuli. In a word, the number one casualty of rewards is creativity.” 
  • Rewards undermine interest: Employees also tend to place almost complete focus on the specific criteria being evaluated for the incentives, as opposed to the job overall and any intrinsic motivations. “[A]ny incentive or pay-for-performance system tends to make people less enthusiastic about their work and therefore less likely to approach it with a commitment to excellence.”
Some may question that I’m referencing a 1993 article. But contemporary studies and overviews, including Van Dyke (2011), while they have evolved and not all in agreement with Kohn (1993), continue to emphasize the difficulties associated with creating and implementing a fair and effective incentive based system. Many of those difficulties still hinge on a) being able to effectively articulate what the desired outcomes are, b) having agreement among the key stakeholders that the outcomes being focused on are in fact the correct ones, c) effectively measuring the outcomes and d) determining what it is that employees actually value and how that varies by context.

I should also be clear that none of this says money is without any motivational value. What the history of teacher merit pay and the workplace/management research cited above indicate is that a) it is only one piece of the puzzle and b) measured success must equal actual or desired success. If the incentive programs aren’t carefully constructed to effectively account for the multitude of contextual sources of motivation at play (monetary and non-monetary sources), the contextual goals and indicators of success at play, effective measures of this success, organizational operations, the adequacy of base pay levels, the level of trust and respect within the organization, social/cultural factors, etc., then they will have unintended consequences. And unintended consequences have been the norm throughout the history of teacher merit pay, up until the present.

Ravitch (2013) does point out some rare instances where merit pay programs have had some degree of success relative to a) the longevity of the programs, b) teacher satisfaction and c) no negative impact on student success. They were successful because they addressed many of the issues already discussed, some of which follow:
  • Merit pay was tied specifically to the extra work that teachers did. This is much more contextual, objective and easily agreed upon compared to either test scores, which are a very limited and controversial measure of student success, or the evaluation of a principal, which is more subjective and less consistent. Not using principal evaluations also eliminated any damage that such a merit based pay system could do to the trust between principals and teachers.
  • Almost everyone received some type of monetary award, it was often relatively small compared to base pay, and the awards were kept secret to avoid causing hard feelings. This minimized the perception of manipulation sometimes associated with merit based pay as well as the potential for disrupting relationships and collaboration.
  • Teachers and staff had a hand in designing the system. This increased their ownership of the system and desire to see it operate successfully (including working with administration to monitor and tweak it over the long term). Including teachers and staff also helped them feel respected.
  • They also generally occurred in districts that paid well to begin with and provided good working conditions. In other words, merit pay wasn’t used as a supplement for fair and equitable base pay, also helping teachers and staff feel respected. As Jim McNiece, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education, and education commissioner Randy Watson recently pointed out, raising the pay of some without addressing overall compensation levels in the profession, will likely have a negative impact on morale (Llopis-Jepsen 2016).

Falling back on another trite saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With such a long, unproductive and repeated history, it would seem that teacher merit pay is its own special brand of insanity. The evidence suggests that if you want to positively impact student success, across a wide range of measures, start by providing teachers and staff with a competitive base pay and benefits package, with starting salaries and raises based on education and experience.

If additional incentives are then added, they should contextually be applied per the success stories provided in Ravitch (2013). Tying merit pay to indicators of student success doesn’t work. There are too many contextual variables impacting the various measures of student success, that vary in importance by district. Nor do we all agree on what those success indicators should be or how they should be measured. If these hurdles could be addressed, perhaps some type of merit based system could be implemented based on such indicators. However, I’m skeptical because of the other negative impacts that will potentially remain, on everything from collaboration to the ability to meet all student needs.

The evidence is fairly clear on where to go from here. The question is whether or not Kansas's governor and ultra-conservative legislators will accept it, recognize the limitations of teacher merit pay tied to student success indicators, and drop it as part of the new funding formula. Or will they continue pushing forward with the idea because they're driven by an ideological view of small government and/or a view that privatization should play a much bigger role in preK-12 education? Whichever they choose, Kansans should demand they be honest about what their motivations are.


Bacharach, Samuel B., David B. Lipsky, and Joseph S. Shedd. Paying for Better Teaching (Ithaca, NY: Organizational Analysis and Practice, 1984), 28– 29, 37– 38.

Richard R. Doremus, Whatever Happened to Kalamazoo’s Merit Pay Plan? Phi Delta Kappan 63, no. 6 (February 1982).

Glazerman, Steven and Allison Seifullah. An Evaluation of the Chicago Teacher Advancement Program (Chicago TAP) After Four Years (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research, March 7, 2012)

Murnane, Richard J. and David K. Cohen, Merit Pay and the Evaluation Problem: Understanding Why Most Merit Pay Plans Fail and a Few Survive. Harvard Educational Review (Spring 1986).

Sparks, Sarah D. Study Leads to End of New York City Merit-Pay Program. Education Week, July 20, 2011.

Springer, M. G., D. Ballou, L. Hamilton, V. Le, J. R. Lockwood, D. McCaffrey, M. Pepper, and B. Stecher, Teacher Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching (Nashville, Tenn.: National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, 2010).

Young, Ella Flagg (1900) Isolation in the School. PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago.

United States Commission on Civil Rights. School Desegregation in Kalamazoo, Michigan (April 1977).