Home » Resources » Policy Briefs and Memos

Policy Briefs and Memos

Why Ed Reformers Must Make Sure President Obama is Re-Elected

In Why Ed Reformers Must Make Sure President Obama is Re-Elected, DFER Executive Director Joe Williams and DFER Director of Federal Policy Charlie Barone communicate the need for reformers to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to re-elect "education reformer in chief" President Barack Obama.

During his past four years in office, President Obama has been a stalwart leader for the education reform movement. We must all do our part to ensure he remains in office for another four years to continue the historic momentum of reform he has worked so courageously to advance.

Read the full report here.

Also, don't forget to review our recent policy brief on Mitt Romney: What Kind of President Would Mitt Romney Be on Education? (Check it out.)

What Kind of President Would Mitt Romney Be on Education?

In What Kind of President Would Mitt Romney Be on Education?, DFER Policy Analyst Omar Lopez and DFER Massachusetts State Director Liam Kerr join DFER Director of Federal Policy Charlie Barone in forecasting the effects of a possible Romney administration on our education system.

And, based on the Olympic class waffling Romney has exhibited throughout his campaign on issues such as student loan interest rates, the DREAM Act, the education budget, and a federal role in education (or lack there of), their prediction is quite grim.

Read the full policy brief and view DFER's Education Report Card grading both Romney and Obama here.

Built to Succeed? Ranking New Statewide Teacher Evaluation Practices

In Built to Succeed? Ranking New Statewide Teacher Evaluation Practices, Martinez joins Jocelyn Huber, DFER's teacher advocacy director, and Ron Tupa, DFER's director of state legislatures, in providing a pre-season "likelihood of success" ranking of 19 states that changed their teacher evaluation policies in the last few years. There are a lot of caveats attached to this type of project, since states tackled the problem in so many different ways, but we will obviously continue to monitor the practices in these states going forward. 

Read the full report here.

Here is a rundown of our state rankings:


IMPACT in Washington: Lessons From the First years

In IMPACT in Washington: Lessons From the First years, former Wall Street Journal reporter Barbara Martinez takes a look at the IMPACT teacher evaluation system in our nation's capital. Early results show that the system is doing pretty much what it was intended to do: recognizing and rewarding the most successful teachers, providing feedback and targeted professional development to help teachers improve, and dismissing the relative few who don't belong in classrooms. 

Read the full report here.

Teacher Voice/Teacher Choice: Teacher Satisfaction in NYC Public Schools

The politics of charter school co-location (when a public charter school shares space with a traditional district school) have always been fraught with emotion. In an effort to cut through the spin and get to the reality, Democrats for Education Reform has released a new brief entitled Teacher Voice/Teacher Choice: Teacher Satisfaction in NYC Public Schools. This document unpacks what teachers themselves have to say through the most recent NYC Department of Education surveys and points to a surprising revelation: teachers in co-located charter schools reported being more satisfied than the traditional public school colleagues with whom they share a building. These charter school teachers reported receiving more feedback from their school leaders, and claimed, in significantly higher percentages, to be working in schools that set higher standards in the classroom and make student learning a priority. 

The brief looks at the causes and implications of these responses, the results of which will change the conversation on charter school co-location. By focusing on the most pertinent aspects of teacher satisfaction, one of the key stakeholders in the effort to reform our schools has made it clear what needs to change and what needs to stay the same. The question now is whether we have the guts to listen to what teachers say and use those points as areas of focus when reforming our most struggling schools. 

Read DFER's Policy Brief Teacher Voice/Teacher Choice: Teacher Satisfaction in NYC Public Schools here.

Democrats for Education Reform: Concerns and Recommendations on USDOE Waiver Process

Proceed, With Caution: Secretary Duncan's Waiver Plan Has Potential Risks and Opportunities for Education Reform

September 15, 2011


Last month, President Obama and Secretary Duncan announced that the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) will soon begin a formal process for considering state and local waiver requests of federal education laws. Today, Democrats for Education Reform issued a briefing memo that lists our concerns and recommendations on the process. 

Key points:

    • We are skeptical on the grounds of both process and substance. Some of the states that have made the least effort to improve the quality of education and close achievement gaps are now asking for waivers that in essence allow them to gloss over or abdicate responsibility for low-performing districts and schools;

    • We do not question the Department's authority to solicit or issue waivers. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) clearly gives the Secretary this power;

    • Many waiver requests have merit. There is an opportunity for some good to come from these waivers as part of an overall state plan consistent with the basic purposes of ESEA, such as states having "challenging standards" and working to "equalize the distribution of effective teachers;"

    • Many other requests, however, are preposterous or at the very least misguided and should not even be considered for approval as happened last year in VA, when the state was allowed to set their annual goals after tests were already administered, as also was done last month for the 2010-11 school year for the state of Montana;

    • States should be held accountable for some fundamentals around standards, assessments, and teacher effectiveness before a waiver request is considered, or as a condition for final waiver approval;

    • Some states should be ineligible for goal-lowering waivers prima facie, such as California, where the state Superintendent opposed attempts to improve teacher equity by modifying "Last In, First Out" policies, or Mississippi, which has the lowest standards of any state, yet only identified 25% of its schools as in need of improvement, a policy that sweeps under the rug schools in which, for all intents and purposes, students are being consigned to ultimate academic and economic failure.

You can access a full copy of our list of recommendations on our website here.

Creating A Winning Legislative Campaign: The Colorado Story

Dear DFER friend:

We get a lot of requests for advice and strategy from reform partners across the country. All of us in this space are trying to figure out what kinds of advocacy approaches work best considering the rapidly-shifting and sometimes turbulent political landscape, so we're always happy to share our mistakes and triumphs.

We recently created a case study/how-to guide for our internal team at Democrats for Education Reform which describes in great detail the approach our organization took in Colorado last year in working to pass the landmark "Senate Bill 191," which reformed principal/teacher tenure in ways we think could/should have profound impact nationally.

Because we get asked for this kind of information so often, we decided to share the case study with anyone who wants to learn more about one kind of approach that proved to be extremely successful. (Even if Colorado got totally hosed by the Race To The Top judges, the legislative work that was done as part of SB 191 was the most impressive reform work we saw in any state in 2010. Long live Colorado!)

Read the case study here.

Read The Advocate's Checklist here.

Our hope is that sharing this case study with others will give a better sense of the great work that our group and others, like Stand For Children, got done in Colorado last year.

As always, we look forward to partnering with you in the future.

Joe Williams


Loan Forgiveness, "TEACH" Scholarships Could Be Better Utilized To Help Teachers 

Call to Action Part of DFER's 'Ticket to Teach' Policy Proposals

A more serious conception of the place of the teacher in the life of the nation is both necessary and timely. [I urge] changing the systems that support poorly trained, paid and esteemed teachers."
Henry Wyman Holmes, Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1920

Over the last century, there have been dozens of reports and calls to action to improve teacher preparation, pay, performance, and prestige. Unfortunately, despite such declarations, Dean Holmes' words are no less apt today than they were 90 years ago. 

Some help is on the way. New investments by the federal government and private philanthropists have launched literally hundreds of state and local policy initiatives to improve teacher effectiveness. Most of these efforts aim to develop better teacher evaluation systems and to target professional development and support to those teachers who need it most. Some go a step further and use evaluations to determine certification, promotion, and tenure.

These initiatives are groundbreaking. But they will fall far short of their potential unless they are accompanied by, and integrated with, equally ambitious reforms in teacher recruitment, preparation, and pay. 

As McKinsey and Co. (2010) found, the countries with the highest achieving students make a concerted effort to recruit, develop, and retain the "top third+" candidates to the teaching profession. In contrast, in the U.S., more than 90% of the highest-achieving college students say they are not even considering becoming teachers. "Of [reasons given] the most important job attributes include prestige and peer group appeal, but compensation is the biggest gap between teaching and their chosen professions." 

We need to change that equation.

Certain things can be done toward fulfilling these goals now, by everyone in a position of authority in public education, without enacting a single new policy or allocating one additional dime of taxpayer money. Every Governor, state education chief, school administrator, and college President needs to recognize what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls "The New Normal" and make a serious and determined effort to better deploy dozens of programs already on the books, which are incredibly--frankly, embarrassingly--unknown, underutilized, or ineffective: 

• hundreds of millions of dollars in available federal loan forgiveness for teachers who serve in high-need schools, specialties (e.g., bilingual and special education) and subject areas (math and science). This is voluntary differential pay that does not require changes in contracts; Targeted pay bonuses like these can and should be part and parcel of a broader set of incentives to recruit and retain talented teachers, and to equalize the distribution of effective educators to schools with high proportions of poor and minority children; 

• federal post-secondary tuition scholarships of up to $4,000 per year (i.e., "TEACH")--3 years old and still not fully implemented--to get the best and brightest to commit to teach in hard-to-staff schools and disciplines and, in exchange, pay for their pre-service education and training; 

• income-contingent loan repayment for teachers, with smaller monthly payments and a complete write-off of any existing balances after 10 years of service for all teachers; 

• unenforced and underdeveloped accountability provisions under the Higher Education Act that require states to identify low-performing schools of education and take appropriate corrective action, including ultimately shutting down the poorest performers. 

But we shouldn't stop there. 

We propose a "Ticket to Teach" (T3) for the next generation of educators, an "all hands on deck" effort between government, higher education, and the private sector. T3 would launch pilot efforts that vertically integrate pre-service recruitment, rigorous coursework and practicums, tuition assistance, internships/residencies, professional development, mentoring, scrupulous evaluation systems, higher pay, and financial incentives for placement and performance.

We think the model that the Obama Administration has adopted through Race to the Top, under which the federal government acts as venture philanthropist to fund groundbreaking reform efforts assembled by key state and local stakeholders, is a promising one. Think of the pilot efforts under Ticket to Teach as charter schools of education that will promote innovation and create competition that drives change in our current, outdated system of teacher preparation. 

To read our "Ticket to Teach" white paper, the first in a series on "The New Normal" in public education, click here.

How the Funky Fifteen Fared

Whether or not the modern era of education reform is ultimately successful will, in large part, come down to whether or not reformers can continue to influence the political power structure. In an election that was tough for Democrats anywhere in the country, DFER's Hot List did pretty well.


Bursting the Dam

CLICK HERE for the updated PDF version.

Why the Next 24 Months Are Critical for Education Reform Politics

BTD-Banner-3.jpgIt is no secret that most of the efforts to reform K-12 public education systems in the last quarter century have been stymied by political gridlock. Although education pioneers like Teach For America and KIPP have demonstrated the tremendous potential impact of innovation, special interests (primarily but not limited to teachers unions) have built up symbiotic relationships with elected officials to the point that they are able to assert de facto veto power over the kinds of changes which could fundamentally alter the way education is delivered in our communities.

Teachers unions and other interests were wise to build this powerbase. Their leaders understood long ago that the $500 billion public education industry is inherently political and that the ability to impact political decisions at all levels of government is the most efficient way to control their destiny.

Education reformers were slow to realize that politics mattered so much, but have aggressively moved to change the political calculation. In the last three years, Democrats for Education Reform alone has pumped more than $17 million into political advocacy at the federal, state and local levels. Alumni of programs like Teach For America are beginning to run for office. Reformers have assumed positions of influence at the federal and state levels of government.

Blurb1.pngWe're closer than we've ever been to bursting the dam that has prevented progress in K-12 education. To be sure, since the 1983 release of the federal report A Nation At Risk, there have been small but valuable political fissures in the dam. Some school boards have tipped briefly in favor of reformers, some governors have made progress with raising standards, etc. but the dam itself has remained strong enough to stop widespread reform.

The 2008 election of President Barack Obama created unprecedented political conditions, which now make fundamental reform of public education a possibility. The first-ever Democratic president elected without significant support of teachers unions (the American Federation of Teachers, which backed Hillary Clinton early on, spent millions trying to knock Obama off the ballot), Obama has governed with unusual credibility and freedom.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's federal "Race To The Top" (RTTT) competition produced more simultaneous fissures in the dam than we've ever seen. Cash-strapped state legislatures, hoping to win a chunk of nearly $5 billion in federal prizes, passed more education reform legislation in eight months than they had in the previous eight years. Reform in exchange for dollars became the new mantra, and the status quo - desperate to avoid widespread teacher layoffs - found itself uncharacteristically nullified in the political process. (Union leaders were forced to choose whether they wanted layoffs or not - with these changes being the price of additional federal funding.)
Blurb2.pngEach of these fissures in the dam is having an impact locally. Collectively, they are starting to swing the balance of power in education. For the first time, dam is weak and ready to burst.

In the aftermath of some of these 2010 reform battles, elections will determine whether this wave of reform is politically sustainable. Leaders who supported reform must be protected, or the old (and highly effective) storyline will emerge once again: Promote education reform at your own political peril. Recent Democratic primaries have proven that defenders of the status quo still have considerable firepower. In Washington DC, these interests unseated Mayor Adrian Fenty, one of the country's most outspoken reformers. And, of the countless individual legislators targeted because they helped to negotiate their states' RTTT applications, way too many were felled.

These losses don't spell the end for education reform; the movement has way too much momentum. But if we can't continue to build momentum and push through this era when political martyrdom is all too commonplace, there's a real risk that all our public policy gains will simply roll back.

Whether or not the modern era of education reform is ultimately successful will, in large part, come down to whether or not we can continue to influence the political power structure. Continued success in the political arena in 2010 and 2011 - at a time when difficult local and state budgets will continue to force some tough discussions on education policy - have the potential to burst the dam once and for all.

This is it. By working together to clear the political obstruction that has slowed education reform so predictably over the last 25 years, we can make way for the pragmatic educators who are doing the hard work toward closing the achievement gap.

Continue below to learn how you can help.


Next Page