The call to transform education is getting louder, but for many it still falls on deaf ears. One of every hundred Americans is a teacher. Almost a third of the US population is a student. Everyone knows someone in school. Parents invest a great deal of time and effort making educational decisions for their children.

Support follows investment. 

Once people have invested time, career, money and passion into an organization or system, they stand by their investment. You might be critical of your company, your city or your school, but you likely do not want them to disappear and take you with them. Everyone has had some form of education, and we overwhelmingly tend to support schools that look like what we experienced.

“Transforming education” sounds frightening to many. It often sounds like out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new, and rejecting the old often makes parents, teachers and other education insiders feel like they are rejecting themselves and their histories. Today’s students, parents and teachers neither want to eliminate the schools they knew nor be crash test dummies for new schooling that might not work. Most insiders, despite being in the best position to transform schools, are instead the first line of resistance against developing the kind of transformation our children need.

What needs to be fixed

Resistance aside, non-partisan and progressively-minded experts continue to come from the outside and evaluate school systems with fresh eyes. Dispassionately calculating the state of education today reveals that all is not well. Most metrics signal bad news: decreasing international ratings, decreasing job prospects for graduates, an increasing skills gap, sparse use of improved pedagogies, disproportionately increasing costs, weak accountability and other weaknesses. An easy example: schools still meet on the agrarian calendar even though it will come as no surprise that there is no proven causation between the agrarian school year and improved learning.

The first impediment to transforming education is this: the public needs to understand what needs to be fixed, why it needs to be fixed and how close these issues strike to home. In a nutshell, more people need to look closely at how students learn and insist school are designed around what students need. The belief that what-was-good-enough-for-me-is-good-enough-for-my-children is the first great impediment to transforming education.

Ending the pension crisis

The economics of education is the second great impediment to transforming schools. When most people talk about education today, they talk about costs and pensions. The public pension system has become a political football for highlighting some of the greatest perceived excesses of public education.

There is broad public agreement that a functioning economy rewards risk-taking. As Thomas Piketty notes in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in Jane Austen’s time people accepted that mere land ownership justified lifetime financial security. Most people in Victorian England accepted an upstairs-downstairs society that approved of people not working and living off their investments or the investments of their ancestors.

Today, people talk about a society where rewards are based on merit. Criticism of the income gap today is shorthand for labor being made less valuable than capital. Piketty explains that a strong economy needs to balance the two: it needs to be lucrative to work and save. Despite polarized political messages, fixing the income gap is relatively simple. We agree that hard work and merit ought to be rewarded. The greater the challenge, we believe, the greater ought to be the reward.

Public pensions, for significant swaths of the population, feel like an unbalanced and unmerited windfall for public sector employees. The obvious reason for this is that few people have pensions at all. I wish the frustration felt by most Americans about education was uncertainty about what schools need to be successful.

Having a community fret over how high to set the bar for schools is a fantastic problem to have, but the public does not focus on student outcomes. Members of the public may support or reject The Common Core, but I will bet you know few people who can name even one Common Core standard. When education makes the news, it is about pensions. The frustration felt by most Americans about education comes from comparison and envy of education professionals.

An electrical engineer earning $60,000 who lives next door to a teacher also earning $60,000 feels like life is unfair. The engineer knows that she will likely be laid off in the next seven years since most companies fail. The teacher living across the street earning the same $60,000 will continue to receive raises and know that the public school will never go out of business. On top of the extra job security, the teacher also has a pension.

The engineer knows that even if she is lucky and her company continues to exist and grow for the next thirty years, her retirement will still be worse than that of a public sector retiree. If the company is one of the remaining few that offers a pension, it will be modest, likely under $10,000 a year. If the company goes under after the engineer has retired, the pension payments will stop entirely. The teacher will get nearly 100% of his salary for the rest of his life, with annual raises likely in excess of the cost of living, and the state providing the pension can never go out of business.

It feels really unfair to the engineer, and getting past the politics of pension economics means addressing the comparisons and envy underlying the economic anxieties of average Americans. We will not get any cool-headed discussion of what schools need to be successful when the engineer wakes up every day feeling like she was a fool for taking a riskier and less financially rewarding career path.

Fixing pensions will open the public discourse logjam and allow the public to have rational conversations about what levels of funding are needed for great schools. Illinois has the largest unfunded pension liability in the country, so the solving the problem in Illinois will solve the problem everywhere.

Michael Lewis in his insightful and occasionally glib economics-focused book Boomerang is easily talking about Illinois when he compares Europe to what is coming to the US. Illinois is essentially the Greece of America, and Lewis suggest that at some point economically strong states will reject Illinois when Illinois comes around asking for a bailout. There are clear and compelling economic reasons to solve pension crises around the US, even if Lewis makes an oversimplified comparison. The pension crisis has become a metaphor for unfairness to most Americans, so solving the crisis is essential to improving public discourse about education. There are many possible solutions.

One simple solution is making sure all financially exposed parties are at the table during any negotiations that affect pensions. In Illinois, teacher contracts are negotiated by teachers’ unions and school boards. Pensions are paid by the state, but the state has no negotiating authority during teacher-school board negotiations. One forward-looking solution is having an empowered representative of the state at the table during every contract negotiation. Under this plan, all contracts under the public pension system would need to be signed by three parties: employees, school board and the state. This legislative change would solve the problem, but it is not the only solution. What is important is that the crisis is ended.

The pension crisis needs to be solved, but even in its worst form, it is a problem is for the relative short term.  New teachers and other employees have already been redirected statutorily to a new, much less lucrative pension system. The only remaining issue is what to do with public employees in the system before the early 2000s who will collect what most people would call big pensions for the next few decades. The solution to that problem has to be increased taxes or reduced benefits, assuming the economy continues to grow relatively anemically. Once the pensions are fixed, the conversation can turn from pension-envy to how to create the right level of funding for great schools. The pension crisis has shined a bright light on income inequality. Solving income inequality generally is a good idea, but inequality can be solved in education relatively painlessly. Society will progress when public discourse rises above education compensation envy and focuses on imagining what is possible in life for us and our children.

Transforming education for our children

Educational transformation is coming. As I have explained elsewhere in these articles, traditional public schools can be part of the solution or part of the problem. If there is one thing the digital age has shown us, it is that technological improvements affect each of us every day and in every aspect of life. We all know intuitively that teaching and learning can improve. The first step to creating more adaptive and responsive schools is accepting that school will not look the way it did fifty years ago. The second great challenge for transforming schools is ending political posturing about education economics. The pension crisis needs to be solved with a simple, common sense solution. Once the crisis is ended, we can focus on more meaningful conversations about transforming education: designing fantastic schools that build a better future for our children. 


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