TeachersPayTeachers Creates Learning Entrepreneurs

The debate over the sharing economy often revolves around the well-known players such as the room rental company Airbnb and the ridesharing company Uber. These firms have harnessed the liberating power of technology to unleash billions of dollars of so-called dead capital, while turning millions of people around the world into entrepreneurs, serving their fellow man and making a profit at the same time.

As the sharing revolution evolves and matures, it promises not only to improve the lives of countless individuals, but it may also help to revolutionize a critical part of our lives that for too long has been dominated by status quo lobbies such as teachers unions and the governments they influence—education.

Education is critical to human progress, but for too long it has largely been provided outside the market framework that makes everything better in our world.

Now, thanks to a small company called Teacher Synergy, Inc., and its online marketplace TeachersPayTeachers.com, educators are beginning to directly benefit from a free market in their intellectual property (IP). On the site they can buy and sell their own original lesson plans and related educational resources that up until now have benefitted their own students, but nobody else’s.

In the words of Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom:

“Words like ‘market’ and ‘competition’ or—worst of all—‘profit are considered dirty words in some circles, particularly in education. Perhaps that’s why some people prefer the more anodyne (if less accurate) term ‘sharing economy to describe how online platforms and apps are enabling people to monetize resources they own by connecting them directly with potential buyers.”

TeachersPayTeachers recognizes that not all teachers are the same. Some teachers are better than others at creating lesson plans that engage students and help them learn. So, for example, a teacher who is great at teaching math may not be so great at teaching geography. Why not let the good math teacher profit by selling his or her lesson plans to other teachers while she, perhaps, buys geography lesson plans from teachers who excel in that discipline?

Since its founding in 2006 by a New York City public school teacher, TeachersPayTeachers has allowed more than 10,000 teachers to earn $175 million from its 3.4 million active teacher members. Some teachers have earned over $100,000 selling lesson plans for just a few dollars apiece to thousands of their colleagues all over the nation, and even in other countries.

So, if teachers buying and selling lesson plans can benefit both teachers and students, who could be opposed? Well, just like existing taxicab monopolies opposed ride sharing firms like Uber for obvious reasons, those who currently control public school districts might feel threatened by teachers acting more like entrepreneurs and realizing the benefits of markets and capitalism.

Some districts claim that any intellectual property created by their teachers belongs to the district, even if created on the teachers’ own time. TeachersPayTeachers addresses this issue and concludes that teachers often do own their own IP in lesson plans. Even the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has stated that “staff should own the copyright to the materials they create for use in the classroom.”

Jason Bedrick concludes that “[t]eachers tend to be less enthusiastic about market-based reforms to education, but perhaps some experience with the ‘sharing economy’ will show them how the best teachers stand to benefit greatly from Uber-ized education.”

While the best teachers will benefit greatly from Uber-ized education, other teachers can benefit also, and many students will benefit as their teachers have access to better teaching tools. Big picture, Uber-ized education can help create a diverse marketplace of educational options that will turn not only teachers, but students, into capitalist entrepreneurs. It can’t happen too soon.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

What Gets Kids “Ready for College and Life?”

Students across Oregon are back in school. Have you ever thought about how important it is where a child goes to school? After their family, the greatest influence on children as they grow up is usually their school.

Private scholarship programs like the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland help elementary children from lower-income families choose the school that is right for them. CSF-Portland has helped nearly 700 Oregon kids get a “hand up” in private, parochial, and home school educational settings.

Studies of similar scholarship programs around the country show the difference educational opportunity makes in children’s lives, including raising their chances of high school graduation. By choosing the right school for their child and paying part of the tuition themselves, parents are empowered to hold schools accountable. When parents actively invest in their children’s education, students are highly motivated to succeed.

A young man who attended private schools in Portland thanks to the Children’s Scholarship Fund wrote at graduation, “I have learned that nothing’s going to be handed to you and that you’ll succeed through hard work….[Private school] was challenging, but it has gotten me ready for college and life.”

A quality elementary education is a simple step that puts kids with limited choices on a path to success that can change the rest of their lives. To see how you can help a child reach his or her potential through this program, visit cascadepolicy.org.

Mandating Common Core, High-Stakes Testing Drives Oregon Further into the “Bureaucratic Trap of Good Intentions”

The Oregon Department of Education currently requires Oregon school districts to align instruction and assessments with the Common Core State Standards. A bill now before the state legislature, HB 2835, would end this requirement, possibly helping to end the latest chapter in nearly forty years of national education reform failures and what I call Oregon’s decline into our own “bigger is better” top-down education reform trap.

I saw this decline begin here in 1991 when the legislature overwhelmingly enacted the Education Act for the Twenty-First Century. It was full of new committees, new high school CIM and CAM tests (which were eventually abandoned), and a promise from the legislature that it would produce “the best educated citizens in the nation by the year 2000.” So, how did that work out?

In 1999 the legislature created the Quality Education Commission, which led to adoption of the Quality Education Model. The Model proposed entirely theoretical prototype elementary, middle, and high schools that, again theoretically and with enough funding, would get 90% of our kids to state standards.

When these last two big reforms didn’t work, Governor John Kitzhaber proposed and the legislature created the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) in 2011 with the goal of unifying everything from early childhood through graduate school education. Of course, that goal can’t be accomplished without pushing power and control even farther away from the people who should matter most in education—parents, students, and teachers. This accelerated our decline into the “bigger is better” trap.

Why haven’t such revolutionary reform efforts in our K-12 education system achieved their goals? Because, according to the late John T. Wenders, Ph.D., they…

“…suck power upward and away from parents and students into top down, centralized and inflexible political arrangements, where unions and other special interests have more political clout. This causes accountability to decline and results in higher per pupil costs and lower educational results.”

I’m sure that now-former Governor Kitzhaber and the people he appointed to the OEIB are very smart. But no such group can hope to design a system that meets the needs of all Oregon children and their parents. Mandating Common Core State Standards and their accompanying high-stakes Smarter Balanced tests simply moves us even further down into the “bigger is better” education reform trap.

Yong Zhao, Ph.D. is the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the University of Oregon’s College of Education. He gave an entertaining and provocative presentation to the Senate Education Committee on February 10, 2015 in which he set out some compelling reasons for us to reject both Common Core and high-stakes testing.

One of Dr. Zhao’s examples is very relevant when considering the benefits of passing HB 2835. He told the Committee that imposing any “common” educational requirements promotes conformity in our children, when we should be helping them foster their own creativity, diversity, and entrepreneurial inclinations.

He noted that when he was a child in his Chinese village, the Common Core was knowing how to ride a water buffalo. The most important and valued jobs in that time and place revolved around agriculture. He couldn’t drive a water buffalo very well, so as he put it, they encouraged him to leave and go to Oregon.

In a 1991 Wall Street Journal column, “Education by Committee in Oregon,” Cascade Policy Institute Academic Advisor, former public elementary school teacher, and assistant professor of education Richard Meinhard, Ph.D. explained why the “revolutionary” Oregon Education Act for the Twenty-First Century was no such thing:

“…[T]o be ‘revolutionary,’ educational change must be systemic. It must reform the system, not just add to it. Oregon’s educational reformers are unwittingly legitimizing the very system that needs reform. Well-meaning politicians have once again increased state control over education in order to mandate desirable goals. The Oregon plan provides the nation with an important lesson in reform: how easy it is to fall into the bureaucratic trap of good intentions.”

This 1991 critique could just as easily be said about the current “revolutionary” reforms of Common Core and Smarter Balanced high-stakes testing. It’s time to stop increasing state control over education and start moving accountability and control down toward parents, students, and teachers.

We can start crawling out of Oregon’s “bigger is better” trap by prohibiting the Department of Education from imposing any standardized curriculum and testing regime on school districts. This can start by approving HB 2835.

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Scaling Down: The Power of One

By Darla M. Romfo

Last fall I had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. In the ensuing days, many bloggers and journalists weighed in with criticism, including one who pointed out that “although recent winners of the Broad Prize show positive results compared to many large urban districts, their scores are largely flat—or worse—over the past several years.”

I am sure this must be both disappointing and frustrating to Mr. and Mrs. Broad who made the fortune they are giving away by innovating, adapting, and always getting better. They wanted this prize to inspire the same kind of actions in public education.

Teddy Forstmann, who, along with John Walton, founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) in 1998, was a man cut from the same cloth as Mr. Broad. Ted hoped the demand demonstrated when parents of 1.25 million children applied for 40,000 partial scholarships to escape their assigned public school would get the ball rolling and bring about substantial educational improvement for all children within the four-year window for those first scholarships. In Ted’s experience, demand for a better product and a bit of competition led to an improved product. Ted was certainly frustrated with the snail’s pace of it all.

And by now everyone who has ever uttered the words “education reform” is a little frustrated. More than a decade later, billions more in taxpayer dollars, in addition to the billions heaped on by private philanthropy, has been spent to achieve largely mediocre to poor overall results. There are pockets of hope, and we do have much better data. Now we know there is not only an achievement gap between minorities and whites, but also between all U.S. students and children in other countries.

It’s not clear that if we had full blown school choice, the end of teacher tenure, higher standards, or whatever flavor of education reform you favor, that every child would have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Certainly, one or some combination of those things would help many children; but we would still have kids who live in poverty and very unsettled home situations coming to school every day with needs that are beyond what can be addressed by education reform alone.

One thing I have both experienced through relationships with students I’ve met through CSF and observed in the lives of others is that a caring adult who really invests in an authentic relationship with a child will bring enormous benefits to the child, to say nothing of the rewards to the adult. I know Ted and John both experienced this with children they helped directly apart from their education reform efforts. John once told me on a school visit in Omaha that giving the scholarships and meeting the kids and their parents grounded the whole effort of trying to reform the larger system. He knew no matter what happened with those efforts, he was having a direct impact on the lives of kids today.

We can’t stop trying to get education right in America, but maybe we will get further faster if every adult who can gets involved in the life of a child who has a couple of strikes against them. Whether it is through a mentoring program, a scholarship program, a school-based program, or some other means, it could make the ultimate difference in a child’s life, and you don’t have to be up to speed on the latest education reform idea to do it and make it work. Anyone who is willing to give of themselves to another human being will bring about change in that person and themselves. Isn’t that the real reason we are all here anyway?

(January 25-31, 2015 is National School Choice Week, an annual public awareness effort in support of effective education options for all children. A version of this Commentary was published in 2014.)

School Choice Promotes Opportunities “Centered on the Future”

“I wish that the education system could understand that not every child fits into the same sized box, and everyone needs to do what is right for their family,” says Lisa, a Portland-area mother whose children receive tuition assistance from the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland.

When Cascade Policy Institute started this privately funded scholarship program in 1999, we learned “hands-on” that middle- and lower-income parents share the same interest in their children’s education as do parents of greater means, and they are motivated to seek the same kinds of opportunities on their behalf.

Parents know a solid education prepares students for life, and that path begins in grade school. But many children are trapped in neighborhood public schools assigned to them by their street addresses that, for many reasons, may not meet their needs or standards that are important to their families.

“Education reform” debates usually focus on how to get the maximum number of children minimally educated. But real-life parents want to get at least a minimum number of children (their own) maximally educated. These two goals shouldn’t be at odds. In fact, the second can drive the first―if more parents had the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their children’s education.

Fifteen years ago, the national Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) offered dollar-for-dollar matching grants to independent local partner programs that would provide partial tuition assistance to low-income grade school children to attend the schools of their choice. Cascade Policy Institute was among the nonprofit organizations which took up this unprecedented challenge, raising $1 million in local funds to start a $2 million local program, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland. Since then, CSF and its partners have invested $568 million in private funding to help more than 139,000 children nationwide.

While they don’t have much discretionary income (the average CSF-Portland family income is $41,000), CSF families always must pay part of their tuition themselves (Portland parents pay $1,777 on average). This ensures that the scholarship remains a “hand up,” rather than a handout. Because they have “skin in the game,” CSF parents are motivated to choose schools carefully and to encourage their children to make the most of their opportunities.

The private schools CSF students attend typically spend one-third to one-half what neighboring public schools spend per student (the average tuition for CSF-Portland students is $3,578 this year), with better results in terms of graduation rates and college attendance. However, the point of the CSF program is not to prove that private schools are better than public schools. Rather, CSF believes that parents are the primary educators of their children and have their interests at heart. When empowered with a modest amount of financial help (the average Portland scholarship award is $1,458), parents will invest their own money, time, effort, and discipline to obtain the kind of education they want for their students.

CSF partner programs respect the decision-making processes of families and support parents in directing their children’s education. This family-centered element is what sets parent-focused school choice efforts apart from other ways of addressing the failures of today’s public education system. No one can design a school system that meets every child’s needs. No statistical data analysis or bureaucratic goal setting can ensure that any particular child makes it to high school graduation, succeeds in college, or excels in a career. No school can be all things to all children―nor should it. But most parents, including low-income ones, are keenly aware of their own students’ needs, aptitudes, strengths, and interests―and what it takes for them to learn.

“The children have grown in spades since attending [their] school,” says Lisa. “They have a school family that is very comforting to them. They feel safe every single day. They know that everything that is being done is centered on their lives and future….In their prior school they were pushed aside, never pushed into academically challenging areas. Here at this school every opportunity is given to them to succeed and become better students and better learners.”

Top-down education reform focuses on what is not working for large numbers of people―but keeps those students in the system while the problems are being “fixed.” School choice focuses on what is working across all kinds of schools―and empowers parents to choose the options that best help their children learn.

Top-down approaches pour more money into a broken system. School choice programs achieve more satisfactory results with more modest amounts of money because the dynamic is shifted in favor of parents. Government-focused education reform analyzes the forest; school choice promotes the best interest of the trees. School choice programs like CSF-Portland prove that good things happen when parents have opportunities to choose excellence for their own children.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

Help Oregon’s Most Vulnerable Students Get School Choice in 2014

This is National School Choice Week. Families across the country are advocating for more educational freedom. It would be wonderful if all Kindergarten through 12th grade students had broad public and private school choices now, but political reality won’t let that happen any time soon. So, what is possible now, especially in Oregon?

In the upcoming February legislative session, Oregonians can give some of our most vulnerable kids real choices with passage of Senate Bill 1576, the Education Equity Emergency Act (E3). Modeled after a successful Arizona program, it will create Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to help kids with special needs, in foster care, or in low-income families.

Scholarship recipients can use ninety percent of their state education funding for approved expenses like private schools, tutoring, education therapy, textbooks, online education programs, and community colleges. Unused funds can be rolled over and eventually help students with college costs. And no district must let more than one half of one percent of its students participate.

Whether or not you have children who may qualify for this program, please urge your state legislators to support it. There’s no additional cost to taxpayers. So, even if we can’t get full school choice for all children now, we can get it for some of the most vulnerable ones, including special needs, foster, and low-income kids. It’s the right thing to do.

Steve Buckstein is founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Coming This January: The Largest-Ever Rally for School Choice Nationwide

Millions of Americans nationwide will voice their support for educational opportunity during the fourth-annual National School Choice Week, which begins January 26, 2014. The Week will include an unprecedented 5,500 events across all 50 states, with a goal of increasing public awareness of the importance of empowering parents with the freedom to choose the best educational environments for their children.

National School Choice Week events will be independently planned and independently funded by schools, organizations, individuals, and coalitions. Events—which include rallies, roundtable discussions, school fairs, parent information sessions, movie screenings, and more—will focus on a variety of school choice issues important to families in local communities, including open enrollment policies in traditional public schools, public charter and magnet schools, private school choice programs, online learning, and homeschooling.

“During National School Choice Week, millions of Americans will hear the uplifting and transformational stories of students, parents, teachers, and school leaders who are benefiting from a variety of different school choice programs and policies across America,” said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week. “Our hope is that by letting more people know about the successes of school choice where it exists, more parents will become aware of the educational opportunities available to their families.”

“During the Week, Americans from all backgrounds and ideologies will celebrate school choice where it exists and demand it where it does not,” Campanella said. “National School Choice Week will be the nation’s largest-ever series of education-related events, which is testament to the incredible levels of support that exist for educational opportunity in America.”

Cascade Policy Institute will host a National School Choice Week “Policy Picnic” on Wednesday, January 29, at noon. Cascade founder Steve Buckstein will discuss the Education Savings Account (ESA) bill being considered during Oregon’s 2014 legislative session and what Oregonians can do to promote greater educational opportunity in our state. Oregon’s 2014 Education Equity Emergency Act (“E3”) is modeled on Arizona’s highly successful ESA program. For details and to RSVP for this free event, visit cascadepolicy.org.

Students today have diverse talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The landscape of educational options to meet those needs is far more expansive today than it was even a few years ago. Freedom in education is good for all children, not just for children who are “at risk” or “in failing schools.” Parents, not bureaucracies, should decide which learning environment is best for their children and be empowered to choose those schools. National School Choice Week provides a platform for all of us to demand greater educational opportunities for children, especially in areas which do not yet provide meaningful options to families.

For more information about National School Choice Week and to participate in events near you, visit schoolchoiceweek.com.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

Charters Can Expand Children’s Options in the Evergreen State

By Paul Guppy

The school bell rings, and rows of eager young faces turn expectantly to the front of the class as the teacher begins the day’s lesson. These students look forward to graduation day, when they hope to embark on a future made brighter by a good public education. Sadly, for nearly half the students at some public schools, that day will never come. They will drop out instead.

Why would loving parents tolerate a school that fails to educate their children? Often it is because they have no choice. District officials assign students to schools, primarily based on their ZIP codes, and many families can’t afford private school tuition.

Charter schools, which have existed for over 20 years, are an alternative within public education which can give parents and children another option besides traditional neighborhood public schools. Today, 41 states and the District of Columbia have charters, serving about two million children attending nearly 5,600 schools. A further 600,000 students are on waiting lists.

Charter schools are community-based, tuition-free, and open to all students. They must meet academic standards and provide the same equal treatment and public safety protections as other public schools.

Thirteen years after Oregon’s charter school law was passed, 115 charters operate in Oregon. Washington State has no charters, but voters there have a chance to change that in November. Washington’s Initiative 1240 would create a modest charter school program. The initiative would allow up to 40 public charter schools over five years within the state system of 2,345-schools, with up to eight new schools allowed each year. Priority would be given to charter schools serving at-risk children or students attending low-performing schools.

Charter schools allow principals flexibility in areas like scheduling, teacher hiring, budgeting, curriculum, and community relations. A charter school can offer longer instructional hours and be open to students on evenings and weekends, regardless of central district rules.

Charter school enrollment is voluntary. If more families apply than there are spaces available, students are chosen by lottery. Charter schools cannot discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, disability, or other protected categories .

Several large-scale studies show charter schools perform better in educating hard-to-teach students than do conventional public schools. For example, a Massachusetts study found that “Charter Schools in Boston are making real progress in breaking the persistent connection between poverty and poor [academic] results.” Researchers found that New York City charter school students scored 31 points higher in math and 23 points higher in English than similar students in nearby schools.

Charter schools have become a well-established educational option in Oregon and across the country. Enrollment is growing in schools which are in high demand by parents. Oregon’s Corbett Charter School was ranked second in the nation by the Washington Post in 2012.

Charter schools can play an important role in helping parents successfully educate their children. Unfortunately, defenders of the educational status quo in Washington (like defenders of the status quo elsewhere) vigorously oppose allowing charters to open there. Parents deserve better. The vast majority of Washington’s public schools would be unaffected; but for many low-income and minority children, access to a charter school could prove to be their best chance for a better life. It’s time that Washington parents had more control over the educational options available to their children―options currently available in most other states. Washington voters have the opportunity this November to make that happen.

Paul Guppy is the vice president for research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington State. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

Won’t Back Down

It’s not often that a Hollywood movie both entertains and helps parents learn about another option to improve their children’s education. The film Won’t Back Down which opened everywhere last Friday, does both.

Inspired by actual events, it’s the story of a third-grade student trapped in a failing public school. Unable to afford a private education, her mother, played by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, learns about parent trigger laws, now the reality in seven states, which allow parents to take control of such schools and institute improvements.

Gyllenhaal enlists the help of a dedicated teacher in her daughter’s school, played by actress Viola Davis, to jump through the myriad of hoops put in their way. Together, they learn how to fight not only the bureaucracy, but the powerful teachers union, personified by actress Holly Hunter.

The film explores the complex relationships among good teachers, bad teachers, and a union whose leader once famously said he’d represent the interests of school children when they started paying union dues. Poor parents who want the best for their children are given a glimpse of the educational choices that those with political power are able to make.

Surprisingly, the good guys aren’t all good, and the bad guys aren’t all bad, in this multi-layered drama. Parents, taxpayers, and movie fans alike will find Won’t Back Down worth the ticket price. See it soon.

Steve Buckstein is founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Agassi Foundation for Education Is Tennis Great’s “Life’s Work”

Last Sunday tennis great Andre Agassi was inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Agassi is famous for regaining his #1 world tennis ranking after falling to #141. But today, he helps children in need of a quality education pull off their own extraordinary achievements. Since his retirement, the eight-time Grand Slam winner has dedicated his time, effort, and financial resources to developing charter schools for at-risk children as an alternative to failing conventional public schools.

“Education is a tool a child can use to create their own life and hopefully change the world,” Agassi explained. “…But once you start, you can’t stop….What are you going to do then? Send them back into a failing system?…[S]uccess is going to be these children coming back to their community and making a difference in the next generation.”

“The [Andre Agassi Foundation for Education] is my heart and soul,” Agassi has said. “It’s my life’s work. It’s my future.”

Innovative schools like Agassi’s succeed because the people behind them are results-oriented, entrepreneurial, and committed to making decisions that are professionally, fiscally, and educationally sound, maximizing the impact of the private philanthropic investments they work hard to raise. If Andre Agassi puts half the passion into education reform that he put into advancing his tennis career, America’s at-risk children can only come out winners.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

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