In order to capture just a small slice of the stories I really enjoyed, I’ve decided to start a new feature called “Worth It”. I hope this will be between 3 and 5 stories each week with some quick commentary that I think are worth anyone’s time to read. This week I’ve thrown together five stories kind of haphazardly, but in the future I hope these posts will lean toward highlighting longer features or reports as opposed to more blog or typical article-length pieces.
Feel free to use the comment section to recommend some stories that were “Worth It” from the last week that I may have missed.
The first “Worth It” piece is a great Gotham Schools piece about a student who was nearly lost between the cracks in the New York City school system, doomed to a tough life by coincidence, mishap, and possibly negligence. Unlike most students faced with such abject systematic failure, Moustafa Elhanafi’s story has a happy ending. Although he found himself illiterate and with no prospects at 18, he is now set on a course to graduate with his high school diploma ready for college by the time he is 21. Elhanafi was born in the United States but lived in Egypt with his mother from age 2 until age 8. At 8 years old, he moved back to New York City and lived with his father in Queens. When he was 11, the NYC had so totally failed him that they misdiagnosed him with mental retardation. The article hints at several reasons this calamity of errors may have occurred. Elhanafi was an English language learner, which can challenge the typical screening methods that trained social workers, psychologists, etc have at their disposable. He is described as shy and at times, withdrawn. It’s quite possible that Elhanafi suffers from one or more learning disabilities and/or other unique psychosocial abnormalities, but it is also abundantly clear that being quarantined in programs designed for students with severe and profound special needs was no help. I strongly recommend you read this story and find out more about just what it takes to educate a student like Elhanafi. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that this is an uplifting story that shows how much compassion and dedication, from teachers, parents, and students can accomplish.
Rice University is admirably seeking to tackle the textbook publishing industry the right way2. Producing free, open source, traditional, peer-reviewed textbooks for the post-secondary market is well worth the investment. The internet may have democratized content creation, search may have increased the relevance of the sea of materials, and social media may have helped to curate quality out of the still massive relevant web. None of these are a substitute for true expertise subjected to a robust revision and editorial process on the road to peer expert approval. Wikipedia is one of the few corners of the web to get quality right, but the mental model users have when in an encyclopedia is perusal; there is no way to clearly stake out a path through Wikipedia to thoroughly learn a set body of knowledge. Textbooks offer an organizational framework that brings clarity, context, and connectivity to the information.
This is a real wonky one. Essentially the IRS is tackling with how we define a government employee. The way some proposed rules are now written, it’s possible that charter school teachers will not be considered “government employees”. As a result, their inclusion in government pension systems can jeopardize several special protections because the systems will no longer be considered public. Virtually all states allow charter school teachers to participate in state plans, and a few, including Rhode Island, require that all charter school teachers take part in the state operated teacher pension system. There are several excellent reasons for this policy, even if it costs charter schools more money than they might like. First, because pension benefits are a major form of compensation for teachers and they accrue with experience, participation in a state pension system serves to immobilize the teacher labor force. In fact, most states centrally operate their pension systems specifically to allow teachers to move across schools and districts without sacrificing their pensions. This is desirable if we want more efficient labor market sorting since optimal sorting requires minimal (and preferably negligent) transaction costs. Charter schools want the option to draw from current public school teachers and their ability to do so is greatly limited if benefits that have accrued over the course of a career are lost or severely diminished due to transitioning into a charter school.
I am not at all sympathetic to the notion that charter schools are not public schools. Although we might debate the extent to which they are democratic3, they are clearly public entities. They supply a public good entirely through taxpayer dollars with almost all the financial accountability (and sometimes more) requirements of traditional public schools. All federal public education laws and regulations apply to these schools as do the majority of state law and regulation (in most instances). Charter schools are public schools. But because charter school employees are technically directly accountable to a board that is typically not democratically elected, it is apparently debatable whether or not they are government employees. This seems odd to me. I work for the Rhode Island Department of Education and I am clearly considered a state employee. Yet my employer is a Commissioner of Education who is hired by the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents is an appointed body, not democratically elected. So while they may, in so ways, be directly accountable to elected officials, it’s a long way off to find direct democratic accountability for my position. In many ways, charter school employees have far fewer layers between them and the public, yet my government employee status would never come into question.