Monday Reading List: Improving Schools, Teacher Pensions, and Michelle Obama's Pop-Ins

Last week, Mitchell Chester and John White - the state education commissioners of Massachusetts and Louisiana respectively - wrote in The Washington Post about improving chronically underperforming schools:

Bringing dramatic change to such schools has rightly become a national priority, in part because of the federal government’s multi-billion-dollar investment in School Improvement Grants, or SIG, Now, however, the U.S. Education Department’s own research arm reports that the massive federal effort has not demonstrated meaningful gains. Despite local bright spots, some analysts issued a tough verdict: No one knows what to do about chronically struggling schools. Not only is that false, it perpetuates an unproductive dichotomy: Throw more money into broken systems, or write off the schools we have today and focus exclusively on small-scale alternatives. The first is indefensible; the second fails to help kids stuck in awful schools where alternatives are unlikely to emerge in the near future. With more than $1 billion available annually under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, now dedicated to improving bad schools, states cannot afford philosophical debates.

Chester and White describe the successful strategies they have seen, which - in the interest of full disclosure - I advised them about when I was president of a nonprofit that supported this sort of work. I have seen schools make massive improvements, but not without major changes to both the school itself, and to how the school relates to, and draws on the support of, the broader community.

In other news, Mary Williams Walsh, writing in The New York Times, looks at the precarious structure of teacher pensions in Puerto Rico:

Pension funds are supposed to be giant, largely self-sustaining pools of money, contributed by taxpayers and often workers, that earn investment income. Over time, the money is supposed to grow enough to pay retirees. Knowing this, teachers might reasonably expect to get a pension worth more than what they invested. But that is not always the case.  In Puerto Rico, for instance, the pension funds are so short of cash that money contributed by working teachers basically flows straight out to retirees. None of Puerto Rico’s current teachers can expect to get their money back, because the fund is due to run out of money in 2018, long before they retire. That is, essentially, a Ponzi scheme. But this structure is legal in Puerto Rico because of a complicated series of changes in the law brought about in recent years by the island’s financial crisis.

The financial position of public pension systems is fragile just about everywhere in the United States, but the Puerto Rico situation is on the extreme end of danger. Teacher retirement financing is an issue that wonks love to stress about, but it never seem to capture attention beyond a small group of fiscally conservative doomsayers. That said, this storyline is another indicator that the Baby Boomers will be the last generation that can count on any sort of collective retirement security, unless something substantial changes in the next couple of decades.

Matt Krupnick, writing at The Hechinger Report, looks at how college scholarship programs sell student data for a profit:

Known by the sales term “lead generators,” these companies pass along email addresses, phone numbers and home addresses to marketing partners, such as colleges and textbook companies, and students soon find themselves getting calls and emails they didn’t know to expect. Colleges and publishers pay anywhere from a couple of dollars per click to hundreds of dollars for students’ personal information ... Edvisors declined to say how many students win awards through ScholarshipPoints. The odds of winning one of the random drawings vary depending on the number of entrants. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shine a light on lead generators in all sorts of industries and has sued companies that offered homeowners low mortgage rates only to collect and sell their personal and financial information to other lenders.

I guess the old internet age adage applies to this situation: if you're not paying, you're the product.

Finally, on a more encouraging note, Panama Jackson at VSB explains why Michelle Obama's pop-ins at Washington DC schools are so meaningful:

The fact that Auntie Michelle has done this twice means that on any given day, she might show up anywhere, change your life for a few minutes, wipe the dirt off her shoulders, then ride off into the sunset back to Kalorama and do whatever it is the Obama’s do in the evenings in preparation for the next day ... I think that Auntie Michelle’s willingness and desire to go talk with students who might not realize how important they are speaks volumes about why we love her (and them) so. She gets it. She has a platform and she knows that her presence can change a day, and possibly a life. And she’s not squandering that responsibility. She’s out here giving life affirming hugs.

I can think of no better advice to start your week than, "Give life affirming hugs."