Neil Ruddock on Education Reform

The following was originally posted on March 1st.

Editor’s note: Education reform has received a great deal of attention from politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. To learn more about the topic, we spoke with Neil Ruddock, a State Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Full disclosure: Ruddock is blog creator Brian’s brother.) Neil’s resume includes stints as a congressional staffer, consultant for Educational Testing Service, and Policy Advisor for the Indiana Department of Education. He holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Government from the University of Notre Dame.

Brian Ruddock:  We’re seeing the topic of education come up a lot. Fortune 500 executives are talking about it. The president dedicated several lines of his State of the Union Address to it. Why now?

Neil Ruddock: First of all, you have a realization that the notion of a good-paying, low-skill job that you can support a family on is largely a thing of the past. Increased education is crucial. That doesn’t mean everyone coming out of our system has to get a degree from a Yale or a Harvard, or even have a four year degree necessarily. But for most of the jobs providing a livable wage, a 12-year education won’t do it. There needs to be some sort of formal, post-high school education.

A lot of folks will start post-secondary and not be prepared for it. So not only will they not finish, but they’ll wind up with a lot of debt on top of it. That’s not sustainable for the economy in the long term.

BR: So for those of our readers who don’t actively follow education policy, can you provide a quick definition of charter schools and vouchers?

Ruddock: A charter school is public school that walks, talks, acts like, and is recognized as, a public school. The key difference between a charter and traditional public school is that charters, by and large, aren’t subject to collective bargaining. For the most part, charter schools are run by folks who don’t want to be tied down by the regulations that come with collective bargaining.

Vouchers provide public funding that allows a student to attend a public or private school they may otherwise not be able to afford. In practice, they’re generally used at private schools, but state laws usually allow them to be used at public schools. The number of regulations that a private school has to implement to accept vouchers varies state by state.

BR: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that there has to be reform, and they seem to have some common ground. Yet nothing of significance has been passed. What are the main sources of disagreement?

Ruddock: No Child Left Behind has not been renewed, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that nothing of significance has passed. Race to the Top pushed states to start taking meaningful steps towards reform, but implementing those reforms is hard work.

Efforts to pay the best teachers more; to make layoff decisions based on merit, or lack thereof, rather than seniority, are going to be controversial because they get at the current power structure, where unions have built in protection for members as a justification for membership. This isn’t to say they’re the source of all issues. We still have school boards and superintendents that allow a lot of these harmful provisions in there. It takes two to tango. So there are some serious structural issues that get in the way of progress.

BR: You mentioned some unwise policies like seniority-based firing. What are some of the most ill-advised rules or laws you’ve come across?

Ruddock: Before we worked on reform, the collective bargaining agreement for one of the largest districts in Indiana had a rule that when two teachers being considered for a layoff had the same seniority, they’d add up the last four digits of each teacher’s Social Security number. The one with the lowest sum was let go. You’d have other places where maybe one teacher’s last name started with an “R”, and the other started with a “B”, and the teacher with the “R” name was let go. So you had all kinds of things that were really harmful to students. Several Teacher of the Year candidates were laid off, because there was no evaluation system, no baseline, in place.

BR: It seems that there’s a lot of opposition around metrics for teachers. Do you think the main problem critics have is with quantification overall, or with specific methodologies and how the numbers are calculated?

Ruddock: What you’ve highlighted is the difference between teachers and teachers unions. I think you have a lot of teachers one hundred percent comfortable being evaluated with some objective measures. When the rubber meets the road of implementation, the unions are not as comfortable including test-score data as many of their members are.

Evaluation is still in its early stages. I don’t think anyone thinks one metric, one test score should determine things. Any class can have a bad test on a particular day. But in guarding against that, you can’t say “Does the teacher try hard?,”  “Do they have good relationship with the students?,”  etc…some of those soft variables that take focus away from whether or not the students are actually learning. But there’s a lot of work still to be done.

BR: President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address the need for increased federal education funding, specifically for lowering student loan interest rates and providing more tuition subsidies. Critics point out that such policies have contributed to increasing tuition costs. Do you agree with this critique?

Ruddock: There’s a fair argument to be made there, that you’re feeding the beast. The reality is that both student financial aid spending and tuition rates have gone up by a significant amount.

BR: Some of the calls for reform, particularly from pundits on the right, have revolved around using education to reduce the deficit. Do you think it’s more important to cut the waste from education, or to just “get it right” with existing funds?

Ruddock: State budgets are written by legislators, and they have many priorities to balance when they write those budgets. Dollars have just been poured at the same system rather than using the extra money for structural reform. My position, and the position of my organization, is if a state wants to spend more money on education, where is it being put? To help truly good teachers be paid well? To help kids improve their reading skills? Or is it simply going into the existing system that pays based on tenure and how many degrees a teacher has? If it’s the latter, we’re missing a huge opportunity.

As far as how it plays into deficit reduction, entitlements are the main drivers of the deficit. It’s confusing as to why the same folks who want more money in the same system, ala teachers unions, why aren’t they more in favor of entitlement reform? The tragedy is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. will swallow programs like education.

I struggle to understand why those who advocate for more education funding are so hesitant to challenge the seniors lobby and join the effort to reform entitlements. They have nothing to lose, because the dirty secret is that senior citizens vote even in low-turnout elections., i.e. elections where many school levies fail.

At day’s end, education spending is something that is threatened by the deficit–not something that drives it.

BR: You deal with politicians on a daily basis. Who are some Republicans and Democrats that are getting education reform “right”?

Ruddock: On the GOP side, [Louisiana governor] Bobby Jindal has been very emphatic about doing what’s right for students. [Former Indiana governor] Mitch Daniels took a very aggressive stance and didn’t apologize for it. He really provided cover to people that were doing the tough but necessary work. As far as Democrats go, a lot of interesting things are coming out of Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper is willing to have the hard conversations. [Chicago mayor] Rahm Emmanuel, who has a steeper hill to climb because of how powerful unions are there, has worked very hard to push for reform.

BR: We tend to think of reform as just happening through public or government channels, but we’ve seen the private sector come up with the concept of MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. Do you think MOOC’s are a real game-changer, or more just something that can help out on the margins?

Ruddock: It remains to be seen, but I think it will fundamentally alter the higher-ed market. It won’t eviscerate the brick-and-mortar model necessarily, but you have a system where the cost increases have been outpacing ability of customer base to pay for some time now. Whether it will happen in two, five, or ten years is open for debate. What is clear is that the current higher-ed model is unsustainable. So I think MOOC’s will have a significant impact.

BR: Any closing thoughts?

Ruddock: What I would point out is that at a broad level, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of turf, and the folks that want to protect that turf have been better informed and active than the regular citizens. Somehow, someway, those numbers have got to start shifting in order to make reform sustainable.

Say what you will about legislators, but they know how to count votes. It’s one thing to make a difficult vote. It’s another thing to make a suicidal vote. The more your average citizen follows these things, the better. Policy change doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

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