Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Disabling the Education-Bashing Bandwagon ...

NSPRA Counselor  June 2011

Setting the Stage for Why You Need to Act Now
by Richarad Bagin

Education bashing seems to be more “in” than ever. According to our critics, not only are our schools failing, but our teachers are also over-paid, have luxurious benefits, enjoy an envious pension program, and don’t really work that hard in the first place. (Makes you wonder why all these bashers never entered the teaching profession, doesn’t it? Gee, do you think they would have jumped at my starting teacher salary of $7,200 a year in the 1970’s?)

Education is at a vulnerable time. Hit hard by local and state economies, cuts are going deeper than ever before. We now have a direct connection with the 20% of our taxpayers who have children in our schools. And the “test and punish approach” of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) generates a negative feeling about our schools.

Education blogger Stan Karp, a Rethinking Schools editor, describes our current education times much better than I: (I urge you to read his entire article at www.rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml.

But the longer answer is that the bashing is coming from different places for different reasons. And to respond effectively to the very real attacks that our schools, our profession, and our communities face, it’s important to pay attention to these differences.

The parent who’s angry at the public school system because it’s not successfully educating his/her children is not the same as the billionaire with no education experience who couldn’t survive in a classroom for two days, but who has made privatizing education policy a hobby, and who has the resources to do so because the country’s financial and tax systems are broken.

The educators who start a community-based charter school so they can create a collaborative school culture are not the same as the hedge fund managers who invest in charter schools because they see an opportunity to turn a profit or because they want to privatize one of the last public institutions we have left.

The well-meaning college grad who joins a Teach for America program out of an altruistic impulse is not the same as the corporate managers who want to use market reforms to create a less expensive, less secure, and less experienced teaching force.

And the hard-pressed taxpayer who directs frustration at teachers struggling to hang on to their health insurance or pensions—which far too few people have at all—is not coming from the same place as those responsible for the obscene economic inequality that is squeezing both.

And the final introductory remark is that our current apathetic form of democracy seems to be failing as too few are driving the agenda without much opposition or discussion from the communities where action and discussion are needed. Again, Stan Karp points out that the corporate reformers’ larger goal is to “burst the dam” that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.

He notes that this is not some secret conspiracy. It’s a multi-sided political campaign funded by wealthy financial interests. And it’s important to keep this big picture in mind – even as we talk about specifics like merit pay and charters – because these issues, in Karp’s words, are the dynamite charges being put in place to burst the dam.

Whether you believe that there is an organized, seemingly national assault on public education, or an aggressive measure for business opportunities, the results have been tarnishing the image of public education and educators.

So what can school leaders do about this surge of bashing public education?
It will take a proactive and sustained communication effort to move forward. The days of sitting back and taking it are over. Now is the time to provide communication leadership in your school communities to make them aware of your district’s accomplishments and needs and to engage them in deciding what the future of your schools and your children should be.
What follows are some observations and advice on combating just a few elements of the education bashing program:

Remember: When You Create a Communication Void, Your Critics Will Surely Fill It!
There’s a new gap in education. And the good news is that it should be easier to fill than the achievement gap we all have been working on. Our critics and others have taken the lead in telling their stories on school reform, teacher and school accountability, school funding, and even the very foundation of the role of public education in our democracy.

For years, many have sat back and assumed that the rhetoric of these critics would not stick as our everyday great work would ring true with decisionmakers at every level. But it’s time to ask the old Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working for you?”

Most will agree that our passive approach is not working. Critics, political leaders, major business leaders, recently formed foundations or “shell” organizations, business entrepreneurs, corporations, and our federal government are now communicating their particular solutions for public education. Most educators are not strategically fighting back against these accusations.

All of these solutions are coming at a time when public education is more vulnerable as traditional funding sources have been greatly diminished. Our political climate is also fractured and wedges are being driven into our education programs through privatization and other attempts that seem to forget that our country is built on an equitable and accessible education system for all.

We may soon be at a crossroads where we need to decide what public education really stands for. Is it for serving all children with the best we can offer and afford? Or is it for serving a more selected group with the best we can offer and leaving the others far behind with little hope of reaching their potential?

Dealing with Attacks on Tenure and Personnel Accountability
The popular buzz is that once you become a teacher and earn tenure, you have a job for life. We do little to communicate differently and, unfortunately, all of us have had a teacher who may not have measured up to our expectations for a great teacher – whether it be in our own student days or those who have taught our children.

Diane Ravitch in Ed Speak, a glossary of education terms, even adds fuel to this notion by defining the term, dance of lemons, in this way:

The administrative practice of repeatedly reassigning unsatisfactory teachers from one class or school to another, instead of going through a time-consuming effort to remove them through regular channels. Also known as the turkey trot.

Start communicating that in your district in the past 5 years, xx teachers and other employees were not renewed, and they no longer work in your district. Prove that your standards are set and those who are not reaching them after a natural period of coaching are told not to return. Think about making it a part of your annual report to the community.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is attacking tenure. The New Jersey Education Association recently released that 4 out of 10 teachers in New Jersey never receive tenure. That’s 40% and most people are not aware that these actions have been taken. And that’s because no one has been sending this message.
And, while you are at it, also talk about how tenured teachers are being held accountable. Work with your current staff to develop an evaluation system that is much more than test scores, but a collaborative approach led by principals, lead teachers, and students. All this can be done without releasing the collective test scores of individual teachers. Tell your public about the standards you have in place and demonstrate that your system is working. Perhaps they will start noticing that in your school community, things are better than they have heard.

Take a Hard Look at Ourselves:
Are We Driving Our Publics Away?

This approach may be hard to swallow, but sometimes we can be our own worst enemies.
Jamie Vollmer, a former business person and education critic has transformed himself into one of our nation’s best education advocates by making the time to learn about education from the inside out. His new book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, (available through NSPRA at http://www.nspra.org/schools-cannot-do-it-alone), offers scenario after scenario on how we may be losing the “public” in our public schools. He is urging us to have a “Great Conversation” about our schools, reaching both our key internal and external audiences, and getting to the core of what we all believe about public education and how to build more support for it.

While running one of his numerous workshops, this time with staff in an Ohio district, he asked them to brainstorm about how the people who work inside our schools may be doing things to push the public away. The room erupted with responses that fall into a global category of “How Some Educators Shoot Themselves in the Foot.” A sampling of responses included:

“We’re defensive.” 
“We’re arrogant.” 
“We blame everyone else for our problems.” 
“We don’t listen very well.” 
“We are not transparent.” 
“We give lip service to parental involvement.” 
“We don’t care what the community thinks.” 
“We resist change.” 
“We distrust each other.” 
“The professional staff talks down to the support staff.” 
“We are reactive not proactive.” 
“We wrap ourselves in tenure.” 
“We are too bureaucratic.” 
“We all don’t vote.” 
“We act like martyrs.” 
“We have a siege mentality.” 
“We are isolated, inbred, and out of touch.” 
“We think in terms of us versus them.”

Had enough? Jamie’s list actually goes on with more quotes from staff members. (Jamie’s website for additional resources is http://www.jamievollmer.com.)

Now, many of us probably don’t see ourselves this way. But the work that my colleague Karen Kleinz, APR, and I do when conducting communication audits throughout the U.S. and Canada confirms these descriptions. We hear these exact phrases from parents, other community leaders, and some levels of staff when we talk about improving communication in their local schools.

To get us through this barrier to effective communication at a time when we need it most, we must take stock of our own culture of communication in our districts.

Do we authentically engage and listen to our various publics? Or do we give the impression that we are just patting the public on the head, and saying, something that comes across as, “Now, now, that idea is nice, but we know better”? The take-away is that these concerned parents and citizens have just wasted their time, become disgruntled, and started working against your system in ways that lead to the bandwagon approach of bashing public education.

We all need to listen, react to suggestions, and close the communication loop when possible. Most importantly, we need to respond to and respect those who have shown enough interest to begin the communication process with us. Public education is in a fragile spot these days. Make friends, not enemies.

Earning Communication Trust Is the Deal Maker or Breaker
The days of counting on professional gate-keepers is over. Media outlets are understaffed and too often want to be “first” rather than correct. Any member of your community with a computer and online access can become a publisher and start spreading misinformation that is often accepted as the truth.
Times have indeed changed. In the past, one of NSPRA’s most powerful sessions at our Seminar was a session, Bypassing the Gate Keepers, led by the late Pat Jackson, APR, a nationally respected PR guru. He promoted, as we still do, that you should not depend on others outside of your system to communicate for you. You need to take charge of your own communication effort.

The trust issue still rests with principles taught by our profession for years. Face-to-face communication is still the foundation of building trust in our community. Nothing does it better. Of course, superintendents and Board presidents must behave in a trustworthy fashion. Stephen M.R. Covey, in the Speed of Trust reminds us that behavior is the key ingredient in developing trust with employees and, in our case, taxpayers as well.

Even seemingly small items make a difference. One community leader at a meeting last week was talking about her superintendent who always reads his Blackberry when she is trying to make a point at an advisory meeting. I can assume he was multi-tasking, but that type of behavior symbolically communicates that his e-messages are far more important than the person in front of him. Every day, leaders have these trust-maker or breaker moments with staff, board members, parents, and others. Authentic listening at all levels will make the difference.

NSPRA has well documented that key communicator/opinion leader networks can make a big difference as they start out in face-to-face mode and then develop into frequent e-communication opportunities to keep the trust pipeline alive. To learn more about starting an effective opinion- leader program, NSPRA offers a quick handbook entitled A Guidebook for Opinion Leader/Key Communicator Programs that can be purchased at www.nspra.org/store.

Once you have established trust and credibility in your leadership and your communication efforts, people will begin believing “your side” of the story even after the e-misinformation factories begin spewing their “facts” throughout your community. We all need to make more time to have more opportunities for face-to-face communication.

Authentic Engagement Adds Sustainability to Your Trust-Building Efforts
Authentic engagement means that you work with parents, staff, community leaders, and other residents to focus on key issues or tasks. You must be open to diverse views, transparent in all decisionmaking, and refrain from “selling” pre-conceived solutions for the issues being studied. Too often school leaders give lip service to engagement. Our best advice is not to proceed in the engagement process unless you are committed to practicing authentic engagement as described above.

We have seen authentic engagement efforts build trust and enhance relationships among key groups with school officials for many years. We have also seen them blow up, harm relationships, and take years and a new leader to regain trust in these communities. Through our work with the Kettering Foundation, NSPRA offers some guiding questions for school leaders before embarking on the engagement process.

It’s Time to Make Democracy Work, One School District at a Time
By now the U.S. has spent billions on “spreading democracy” throughout the world, and we have seen billions of dollars and lives lost to our cause of democracy and a free world. Although we have seen some positive results worldwide, we must also pay more attention to our local communities and our local schools.
As noted earlier, some powerful and well-funded forces have come together to possibly drive a wedge into the foundation of public education. They can only succeed if we remain apathetic and ignore their rhetoric and the legislative actions they are pursuing.

Taking the lead from Jamie Vollmer and his call for a Great Conversation, we must begin to establish a series of locally led summits or forums about looking at the future of education in every school community we serve. These forums require courage and lots of planning to be successful, and they must be representative of every local government body and agency, the business community, the elected political leaders, staff, parents, private school and charter advocates, and every other community advocate group organized in your community. In other words, make these gatherings as representative of your local democracy as they can be.

One of the goals of this type of project is to help define your community’s priority for education and just how important education is to the viability and well-being of all your community’s residents. This project also serves as a key face-to-face component of communication, as many residents will learn for the first time the facts about your schools, and how different they are from the rhetoric of misinformation and half-truths that others spread.

These forums take a great deal of work to organize and even more work to sustain for a period of time. But where they work, they have begun making differences for education programs and their communities. Trust is built as the school community works together, rather than working on separate projects that benefit just a few.
I have said for years, that communities should be known by the schools they keep. A strong sense of community in our democracy will lead to more support for school and better education for all.

Nine Additional Tips to Combat Education Bashing
1. Stop Playing Catch-up; Become Proactive.
Most educators are always reacting to what others say about us. You need to get out front on your key issues so we can keep our “collective volume” high on these critical issues. You must develop a comprehensive communication plan for these issues and the plan must be ongoing and strategic to reach key influential targets with your main messages on each issue. If we do not become more proactive, we lose the influential positioning of being first and naming and owning the issue. Once again, we will fall behind in the court of public opinion.

2. RealizeThat Defending the Status QuoIs Not Very Sexy to the Media.
Many school people say that if we have more “good press” we would not have the image problems we have today. They continue to note that the press just covers the bad and not the great job educators are doing every day. First, we must realize that public schools are supposed to perform well. That is our job. Good performance is the status quo and the media rarely reports on the status quo in education. So, when we don’t perform as expected, or hopefully when we perform extremely well above the expected, the media is at our door.

If you depend on the media to tell your story, you will fail. You must be proactive.
As I ask school leaders in workshops, “If we don’t communicate, who will tell our story to our community? Remember, when you create a communication void, your critics will happily fill it with their story.”

3. See for Yourself Campaigns Bring Substance to Your Messages.
To add credibility to your messages and to poke holes in what your critics may be saying, consider initiating a See for Yourself campaign in your local district. When people see first-hand the good work that staff and students are accomplishing, they begin to realize that the negative rhetoric is wrong.

Over the years, many systems have used this technique to bring in groups from all corners of their communities to see stellar programs in action. They also used this technique when explaining facility needs, crowded classrooms, and other items related to an upcoming finance referendum. Using video technology can also capture some of the elements of a See for Yourself Campaign and you can “push” it out to your community through your website, YouTube, and Twitter.

It’s one thing to listen to numbers that critics give and it’s another to see for yourself what is really happening.

4. Become a Steady Stream of Positive News About Your School.
Once again, a steady stream of positive news cannot happen unless you do it. Some consultants in our profession call this the “fire hose” approach to drowning critics with positive news and stories about your schools. It can work as long as you also balance what you say with some of the needs you are experiencing and what your plan is to meet those needs.

Every district is full of success stories. Some lend themselves to features, others can be blasted in brief format like Twitter. Most parents always look for something to brag about concerning their children and their schools. Once you establish a positive opinion of your schools, people will most likely give you the benefit of the doubt when they hear something negative in your district.

Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) notes that we should start a 95-5 campaign, where 95% of our schools are performing well and that we need to continue focusing on the 5% who need the extra work for improvement. It seems to many of us that the 5% get the majority of the press, when 95% are doing well. The 95% may fall into the “status quo” category for some, but school districts really do need to tell the positive stories they see blossoming every day.

5. Reframe the Big-Picture Issues.
Earlier this year we saw the entire Wisconsin confrontational battle between union groups and the governor’s office. All of a sudden, the issue of the state’s financial need was repositioned to say that it was the union’s fault in the first place. The governor’s leaders and the people working with him refocused the financial blame on education and other government workers rather than looking at the cause of the financial failure — the banking industry and the related housing foreclosures and more. Some people are always looking for someone to blame rather than looking at the source of the problem and fixing it.

6. To Compete with the Best in the World, We Must Become More World-like.
The lesson is to combat this outlandish framing of issues by exposing them for what they are.
Many critics are quick to point out that our international standings are not that impressive. In some instances, we do have to get much better, but in some findings when doing more of an apple-versus- apple comparison, we do better. However, we still must improve.

Recently, through the leadership of the Learning First Alliance, we learned from a review of the international comparisons that most of the leading countries do not use a “test and punish” approach to their evaluation system, but use it to pinpoint weaknesses in instructional programs and then offer professional development solutions to correct deficiencies. We also learned that the teaching profession is held in very high regard. The best professionals possible are sought to enter teaching, a great amount of peer and teacher-leader coaching is provided, and they pay these professionals as other professionals are paid in their country. Right now, it seems that the U.S. blames teachers for our budget woes, and teachers are catching the wrath of some for their salaries, benefits, and working hours. We have a lot of catching up to do if we want to compete with the best worldwide.

7. Are You Still Waiting for Superman?
Charter schools have done some wonderful things for thousands of children. And just like regular public schools, many are terrific, while many others are not. Some do not perform as well as their public schools. Recent research by Stanford and others can bring you the facts on their performance.
A wise superintendent I worked with a few years ago told me, “Rich, you have to remember that they are all our children.” His advice rings true for me when I look at the rhetoric of opposing views on the issue of charter schools. Diane Ravitch in The Myth of Charter Schools calls the film, Waiting for Superman, the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. She notes that the message of the movie is clear: public schools are bad; privately managed charter schools are good.

One note is the wonderful passion and commitment demonstrated by the parents in the number of movies about charter schools this past year. We must find ways to fire up all parents to demonstrate that passion for their child’s education. Hundreds of parents, maybe more, in many school districts never show the commitment that these parents make to their child’s school. Ignite and continue that parental passion and you will begin seeing improvement in all your schools.

We must stop bashing one another. Right now, because of the financial problems in public schools, with teacher layoffs and increasing class size as realities, it is difficult to take even more taxpayer money to pay for private schools. Saying bad things about one another reminds me of the quote from the late Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who noted that in negotiations when the school board says bad things about the teachers, and the teachers say bad things about the school board, “the public believes both of us.” We must find some common ground and learn from one another. After all, “They are all our children.”

8. Create a Rumor Checkpoint.
Some school districts create a section on their websites to check the latest rumor floating around their school community. Some have named this section Grapevine, where residents post their questions or rumors and then receive a posted response with 48 hours. Others have had their communication professional address items of misinformation from various sources and then post the “facts” directly next to the misinformation. It gives you the opportunity to set the record straight, and also clearly points out that some critics may continue their rhetoric after “the truth” has been told.

It takes more than just one effort to respond to bashing. Your response must be continuous to begin building a culture of communication in your school district. You also need a professional who can craft a communication plan and a pro who, through research, recognizes your perceived “enemies” as one of your key target audiences. Communication at this level is a management function that needs the ear and authority of the Superintendent of Schools.

Critics have spent millions of dollars on communication and influential tactics to begin selling their messages. But they do not have what you have. That’s the critical component of local credibility so your community can better understand just what is needed to keep your schools on track.

9. Credible, OngoingCommunication Is Essential to Quell the Bashing.
If you are truly committed to building a foundation of continued support for your schools, you must become proactive and you need to do it with the professional guidance of a seasoned school communicator.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director
NSPRA Counselor © 2011 by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), 15948 Derwood Road, Rockville, MD 20855. (301) 519-0496. http://nspra.org/ All rights reserved.
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NSPRA Counselor | 10

Friday, June 24, 2011

Our Ailing Economy and the Education Cure

Denise Gelberg
by Denise Gelberg — May 03, 2011
Policy makers and business leaders often point to our K-16 education system as the cause of our economic ills. The oft-heard refrain is that a reformed system of education will lead America into economic health during this age of global economic competition. The author questions this great faith in the transformative power of education given the realities facing youngsters today. Growing income inequality, unaffordable higher education, and paltry growth in jobs that pay a living wage conspire to rob education of its promise for too many of today’s children.

Americans have long held a nearly messianic belief in the power of schooling. When Horace Mann proposed free public education for the masses more than 150 years ago, he promised that education would simultaneously promote prosperity and safeguard our republic against revolutionary forces. Since that time those who wanted to improve their lot in life saw education as a way to overcome barriers based on class, ethnicity, and race. Today, our nation’s leaders – from Ben Bernanke to Barack Obama – express the belief that education will provide the cure for our serious economic woes.

Faith in the transformative nature of formal education was rooted in reality for Americans coming of age in the mid-twentieth century. Governmental policies and legislation fostered the growth of a stable middle class and put higher education within the reach of the masses. The G.I. bill and free or low tuition state universities enabled young people from modest means to attend and graduate from college.  

Rising education levels and a growing economy led to increased prosperity for many people during the twentieth century. However, the underpinnings of that success – stable, supportive family life, improved economic conditions for the working class, and clear pathways to higher education – have been seriously eroded over the last three decades. Still, we hear today’s pundits and policymakers assert that education is the linchpin to our economy’s health. The question is, given contemporary social and economic realities, does K-16 education have the power to heal what ails our nation?

Children: The Canaries in the Mine

Formal education is most effective when children’s first educators, i.e., their families, are able to provide for and nurture them. It has long been known that youngsters raised in families with sufficient resources have the best “life chances.” The converse of that is also true: children from families with few resources often lag behind their middle class peers on a host of indicators. This is apparent when American children enter kindergarten at age five. There is a multi-year gap in the vocabulary, skills, and knowledge of five year olds coming from poor and better off families. Conditions children experience outside of school - in their first years of life, as well as outside the school day and year - exert a powerful influence on their capacity to thrive both in and out of school.

Since the 1970s, middle and working class families have steadily lost ground on many fronts. Federal policies on the minimum wage, tax law, financial deregulation, labor unions, corporate governance, and safety net issues have all worked to favor those at the very top of the income distribution, to the detriment of everyone else. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have written in their book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, “Over the last generation, more and more of the rewards of growth have gone to the rich and superrich. The rest of America, from the poor through the upper middle class, has fallen further and further behind.” Thus, in the first year of the Great Recession – 2008-2009 – while unemployment neared 10% and many families saw their wealth evaporate, the incomes of the very highest earners in our country – those earning more than $50 million a year – increased fivefold. The following year, as the recession dragged on, the nation’s 38 largest companies paid out a record-breaking $140 billion to their executives and investors. Corporate profits in 2010 reached record levels, resulting in two trillion dollars held in cash reserves – an all-time high; this while nearly a tenth of the workforce sat idle for lack of a job.

Children are suffering disproportionately from the long-term effects of income inequality and the current economic downturn. Although they comprise a quarter of our total population, they account for 36% of all people in poverty. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 42% of our youngsters now live in low-income homes and a fifth live in poverty. By Spring 2009 foreclosures and evictions had resulted in the homelessness of more than a million American youngsters.

Children are, in a very real sense, the “canaries in the mine” of our nation. Wholly dependent on the ability of caring adults to provide for them, their well-being is an indication of the overall health of our society. It is perplexing that UNICEF’s most recent report on international child well-being, “The Children Left Behind,” has not been taken as a wake-up call regarding the precarious nature of childhood in America. Our nation’s rankings were among the worst of the 24 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): 22nd in health well-being and 23rd in material well-being. Finland, so often cited as a model of a successful educational system, ranked 6th in the material well-being of its children, with only 3% of its youngsters living in poverty and income inequality but a shadow of what it is in the United States. While we continually hear how our children stack up next to our economic competitors on standardized tests, there is nary a word mentioned about our dismal showing on international metrics of child well-being.

College: A False Promise?

Our young people today are told at every turn that a college degree is now a requirement for success. That mantra has driven growing numbers of students to enroll in two and four year institutions of higher education. But, unlike the situation that faced high school graduates in the mid-twentieth century, college is now often far beyond the graduates’ financial reach. For more than two decades, the cost of college has climbed at double the rate of inflation; this during a period when most American families’ income stagnated or shrank. For a large proportion of college students, the only way to complete college is to go into debt. In 2009, new college graduates began their adult lives with their diploma in hand and an average student loan debt of $24,000. 2011 marks a first: student loan debt will outstrip credit card debt, topping a trillion dollars.

Paying back student loans is especially difficult for recent college graduates because their unemployment rate has averaged just a notch below that of the general population during the Great Recession. Richard Arum, an NYU sociologist who has studied this cohort, has concluded that those graduating during these hard times are “getting hammered,” in other words, unable to find full-time employment and/or employment that will allow them to start paying back their college loans. Many new graduates are taking work that does not require a college degree so they can make ends meet. This was not unforeseen. Throughout the first decade of this century, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast the largest job growth to be in occupations that pay low wages and require little education, for example, retail clerks, janitors, fast-food workers, home health aides. It would be hard to argue with newly minted college graduates who felt they had been duped by following the conventional wisdom. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has written, “It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”

Improving Children’s Life Chances

So the question remains: Does it make sense for our leaders to point to education as the way to fix what ails our economy? The answer is “no” for two critical reasons. First, too many children are living precarious lives. Putting the burden of improving their life chances solely on the schools they attend allows us to avert our eyes from the bigger and very troubling picture, that is, a large minority of our children are growing up in or near poverty, putting them at risk for failure in and out of school. Second, higher education has become unaffordable for most young people. Equally disturbing, debt-laden new college graduates now enter an economy that has failed to create jobs that will pay for the skills they have acquired at such great cost.  

Education is but one of many powerful influences that shape our young people. Income inequality, which has resulted in stagnation and hard-times for too many American families, is having a potent, negative affect on children’s lives. As of this writing, there is little evidence that our elected leaders intend to address this corrosive phenomenon. Rather, they seem willing to perpetuate “winner takes all” politics, working hardest for those who have lobbyists on their payroll and access to the halls of power.  

The extension of the Bush tax cuts for families earning over $250,000 a year is, perhaps, the most glaring example of this. As New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt has pointed out, the $60 billion needed to fund tax cuts for the wealthy could have provided a free college education – including room and board - for about half of all full-time students at both four and two-year colleges. Alternatively, that revenue could have funded universal pre-school for 3 and 4 year old youngsters throughout the country. Protection of the wealthiest among us – at the expense of the less privileged – is being maintained at the state level in places such as New York, where massive cuts to Medicaid and the state’s neediest school districts have been enacted while a tax surcharge on families earning more than $300,000 is allowed to expire.

Formal education is but an arrow in the quiver of any effort to improve the lives of children living in families that struggle every day. The time has come for our elected leaders to make the dream of shared prosperity and broad opportunity come to life once again for our nation’s young people. The alternative – indulging in the pipedream that K-16 education alone will miraculously fix what ails our economy – is something we can ill afford to do.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 03, 2011
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16400, Date Accessed: 6/24/2011 6:20:03 PM

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Another Look at the Mooresville Story – Connecting the Millennials

by Frank Florence
Frank FlorenceWhat is the story? It’s simple, really. Two points – 1. Test score changes over the four-year period have been profound – proving the technology initiative was wildly successful, and 2. It’s a district-wide success  story – all 8 schools have seen a significant rise in test scores.

What happened? The press will write about the technology initiative – tabbed “Digital Conversion” – but we’ve seen these before. They come and go – and some miss the mark. Mooresville hits with a resounding thwack. So how did this happen? There’s more to the story, and here it is:
  1. An unwavering focus on students.  Dr. Mark Edwards, Mooresville’s superintendent (and President - elect of the Horace Mann League of the USA), is smart enough to know technology is but a tool. So he built the possibility of this conversion – but he based it on an incredible focus on the students. Visit Mooresville, as I have – and you will see “students leaning in” to their work.  Positive, can-do millennial attitudes dominate the hallways, along with their ease of total dependence on technology. To this day Edwards will say the technology is critical – but it exists to serve the students.
  2. Change management.  Dr Edwards led a process that engaged first the community, then the teachers, then the parents, and then the students. He produced many “town hall” type meetings to let the community in on the plan, why they needed to embrace technology in learning, and listened to the intense feedback.  He also explained expected outcomes – all of which have become real. He and his staff communicated heavily on the “why” and “how” – and soon the stakeholder groups came on board.
  3. Funding.  Mooresville shared the plan with the community, and received contributions from many local companies. But they “saved to invest” – they transitioned from textbooks to laptops, eliminated printers and lockers, negotiated very strong asset leases, and were able to equip each of their 5,700 students with laptops for the equivalent of $1/day. They pushed infrastructure investment to CapEx, and funded classroom and student-level facing technology via OpEx.
  4. Professional development.   Mooresville’s teacher training was unlike anything district teachers had seen before. For the first time they were empowered to customize their learning (and that of their students) according to need. They were also encouraged to take a leadership role in creating an innovative, engaging curriculum using the new technology tools. “The professional development was differentiated by content level, grade level, and each teacher’s response level,” says Edwards. “Then we did a lot with building ‘distributed leadership’ capacity, in every part of the district. Now Mooresville doesn’t have just two or three leaders in each school; we have 15 or 20 in each who are helping their colleagues, and helping refine their work.”
  5. Technology ecosystem.   Dr. Edwards and the Mooresville CIO, Dr. Scott Smith, knew they were in for a multi-year transition heavily dependent on key resources.  So they made the call early on to establish strong technology partnerships with 5-6 key companies – among them Apple, Intel, Pearson, Discovery, and Cisco. All companies with significant resources and a shared passion for the vision. “To me, making appropriate investments in computing infrastructure is as important as investing in wiring or lighting,” Edwards said.
  6. Leadership.   At the end of the day the District had a vision, the community voted to support it, they understood the risks and issues. But four years later – the results are stunning, and it gets down to leadership. Being able to make the tough decisions on funding, recruiting, helping teachers through a change process that had been painful for them to witness at other districts. And throughout, being able to see what’s possible, early on hire the key 4-5 people to help with the change, working and investing to help the other stakeholders believe – it’s quite a thing to see unfold.
The results?  We’ll see what the 2011-12 school year brings – but the Mooresville team is committed to keep continually improving student learning.  And if history is any indicator – it’s a good bet they will soon top that North Carolina state composite scores chart.  And as for their upcoming Summer Connections program next month – don’t be surprised if you recognize other district superintendents or DOE members there.
Only can do this in Mooresville? Only possible in a rural community with a manageable enrollment of 5700?  Only possible at this size level? 
Do you believe that?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Taking Stock of Private School Vouchers

Reviewing Two Decades of Private School Vouchers
Dan Laitsch

In his 2011 State of the State address, Governor Chris Christie stated that, across New Jersey, "over 100,000 students are trapped in nearly 200 failing schools." Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval recently characterized his state's education system as "broken." And Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels noted that in the worst districts in his state, half of the children who entered 1st grade in 1999 would not be graduating in 2011. To address these issues, each governor proposed a host of education reforms, in all three cases including the establishment of voucher programs in their states.
In education, voucher programs are government-designed efforts to provide parents with publicly funded tuition vouchers to help subsidize the tuition fees and expenses required to send their children to school (generally, private K–12 schools). These programs take one of two forms: direct government payments to parents to subsidize tuition costs, or programs that give individuals and businesses tax credits for education expenses or for donations to organizations that provide tuition assistance for students entering private schools. Most current programs are limited in scope and targeted to specific audiences, which may include children with special needs, from low-income families, or from schools perceived as performing poorly on state or federal accountability measures.
Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs or voucher-like tax credit programs in place (see p. 4). These programs are controversial because they involve the transfer of public funds to private, frequently religious, schools and because they bypass public oversight and accountability mechanisms embedded in other government programs. In particular, voucher systems operate outside the sophisticated accountability systems state and federal policymakers and educators have worked hard to implement over the past two decades.
Voucher-like programs have existed in the United States since the mid-1800s. First established in Maine and Vermont, these programs were set up to allow students in towns without public schools to enroll in nearby public or private schools. In this respect, these programs, unlike modern voucher systems, were not intended to supplant public schools; rather, they were initiated to increase access to schools for children in isolated areas. The Maine and Vermont programs require that receiving schools be secular, and legal challenges by modern voucher advocacy organizations to expand the programs to religious schools have been rejected by the supreme courts in both states.
Economist Milton Friedman is credited with generating the modern conception of voucher programs as a mechanism to bring market forces to bear in education. In 1962, he proposed a system that would give parents vouchers to use in their children's education at public, private, for-profit, not-for-profit, parochial, and nonparochial schools (Friedman, 1962).
Ten years later, the federal government established the first modern voucher program, a short-term pilot project in Alum Rock, Calif. That program ended in 1976 with generally unsatisfactory results as theorized outcomes were not realized: the decentralized budget was being recaptured by the school board, competition for students was decreasing, private schools had not joined the program, and parents were failing to move their students to nonneighborhood options (Levinson, 1976).
It wasn't until 1990 that Wisconsin state legislators established a more permanent voucher program in Milwaukee. Shortly thereafter, Ohio created a similar program for students in Cleveland. Since then, a number of different types of voucher programs have been established around the country.
Programs in New Orleans, La.; Cleveland; Milwaukee; and Washington, D.C., are limited in scope to specific cities (as well as by family income and other requirements), while statewide voucher programs for students with special needs have been established in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah. The Arizona and Florida programs ended after the supreme courts in those states ruled that vouchers violated the state constitution.
In part to address constitutional concerns and further separate government programs and religious schools, tuition tax credit programs were established. These programs generally take two forms: individual tax credits or deductions for education expenses (such as in Illinois) or tax credits and deductions for contributions to private tuition-granting organizations, which then transfer the money to qualifying families.
This second type of tax credit program requires the tuition-granting organizations to establish policies for awarding scholarships and may require scholarships to go to specific populations, such as students in poverty or with special needs. It also generally includes provisions that bar the awarding of scholarships back to the individual donors.
Nine states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—currently have some type of education tax credit program in place. Even though Arizona's program had been found to violate the U.S. Constitution, in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn et al, 2011), the majority ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring suit (see the Federal Issues section), and the program remains in place.
Taken together, these voucher and tax credit programs redirect more than $1 billion to private schools each year.
Legal Issues
Although a full review of the legal history related to voucher programs is beyond the scope of this brief, it is important to understand the key constitutional issues surrounding these programs, which have in some cases, depending on the state and program design, been found to violate both the federal and state constitutions. These issues include constitutional barriers to state support of religion at both federal and state levels, as well as provision of a system of free public schools at the state level.
Federal Issues
In 2002, a split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002) largely established the legality of voucher programs under current interpretations of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ."). The justices ruled that voucher programs do not violate the Establishment Clause as long as they have a secular purpose; do not serve to advance religion; directly aid the parents (not religious schools); cover a broad class of beneficiaries; and offer choice regarding religious or nonreligious options, including existing public schools.
This was a major shift from earlier decisions, which did not generally define public schools as part of the nonreligious options unless they were a specific part of the voucher program. As a result of this decision, most of the legal challenges regarding voucher programs have shifted to the state courts.
The one notable exception is the recent Arizona v. Winn decision. As with other tax credit laws, Arizona's law allows individuals and corporations to claim tax credits for donations to nonprofit tuition-granting organizations. The complication in this case stemmed from the fact that many of these nonprofits award their scholarships based on religious criteria, which could be interpreted as advancing religion.
Another complexity in this case related to a taxpayer's standing to sue the state. While taxpayers generally cannot sue a state over the way it spends resources, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed taxpayers to sue if they feel the Establishment Clause is being violated. In deciding this case, the majority of the justices, in a split decision (5–4), ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue, so the program could not be challenged under the Establishment Clause.
The ruling in this case could have far-reaching effects, even beyond public school systems. Because the taxpayers' right to sue was severely limited by the court, state legislators no longer need to be as concerned about federal constitutional lawsuits when designing privatization programs. Indeed, as Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent, "the Court's arbitrary distinction [between appropriations and tax expenditures] threatens to eliminate all occasions for a taxpayer to contest the government's monetary support of religion" (slip op. at p. 27). Despite this decision, state constitutions, which are generally much more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution, will still prove challenging for legislators interested in establishing tuition tax credit and voucher programs.
Private School Tuition Programs
State Issues
At the state level, voucher programs are primarily vulnerable to constitutional charges on two grounds: that they violate prohibitions against using tax funds to advance religion based on the state constitution and that they violate the state mandate to create a uniform system of publicly controlled schools.
Thirty-nine states have language in their constitutions that bars the state from providing aid to private religious schools, which varies from state to state and is generally much stronger than the language found in the U.S. Constitution. While such language does not preclude states from adopting voucher or tax credit programs (for example, the Ohio and Wisconsin programs have survived court challenges), it does make the programs vulnerable to lawsuits and review by the state courts, which is why programs in Arizona and Florida were found to violate their state constitutions. Some state constitutions have provisions barring aid to both sectarian and nonsectarian private schools, effectively prohibiting those states from offering voucher programs.
In addition to restrictions related to religious schools, many state constitutions require a system of common public schools, public control of education, or common school funds, limiting the extent to which state governments can aid nonpublic schools of any type. Based on a review of state constitutions and relevant case law, the Institute for Justice (a pro-voucher advocacy group) suggests that state constitutions effectively preclude vouchers systems in at least 18 states and bar tax credits in Massachusetts and Michigan (Mellor & Roman, 2007).
Public and Policymaker Opinion
Respondents to public polls regarding vouchers can be interpreted as opposing vouchers and tax credits or supporting increased access to private schools at public expense, depending on how the questions are worded (Clowes, 2004; Lorence & Dworkin, 2008). Despite these competing poll results, when given the direct option through ballot initiatives, voters have consistently and overwhelmingly rejected voucher programs. Since 1972 there have been at least 12 such initiatives, all of which have failed.
In 2000, initiatives in California and Michigan failed by 2:1 margins. In a more recent effort in Utah, voters effectively overturned a law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that would have established a statewide voucher program. Statewide, 62 percent of voters rejected the program, and it also failed in every county in the state.
Although it is harder to gauge policymakers' attitudes and opinions related to vouchers, research published in 2002 gathered responses from 89 state legislators across six states that had voucher programs in place or had considered voucher program legislation. While the research showed that the respondents generally accepted the market arguments used by voucher advocates, it also found they were sympathetic to equity concerns and funding issues raised by voucher opponents. Perhaps most relevant, it found that among a range of policy options for improving public schools, respondents did not rate vouchers highly (Laitsch, 2002).
Evaluations and Research
Academic Outcomes
Supporters of voucher programs suggest that giving students the option to attend private schools will significantly improve their academic outcomes. However, as with the research on public opinion, the research on voucher outcomes is mixed and frequently aligns with the ideological dispositions of the researchers or organizations funding the research (Belfield & Levin, 2005; Metcalf, 1998). Legislation establishing the current voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., also included an evaluation component, and all of the evaluations returned mixed results regarding student achievement (Plucker, Muller, Hansen, Ravert, & Makel, 2006; Witte, Sterr, & Thorn, 1995; Wolf et al., 2009).
Additionally, these evaluations faced a variety of methodological challenges regarding student attrition and tracking, assessment changes, confounding choice options, and so forth that make these mixed findings more difficult to interpret. Research looking at pilot voucher programs in New York; Dayton, Ohio; and Florida also found that vouchers had little or no significant effect on student outcomes (Barrow & Rouse, 2008; Levin, 1998). Indeed, some voucher proponents now conclude that the improvements predicted to be caused by voucher programs are not likely to be realized (Dodenhoff, 2007).
The lack of any significant effect on academic outcomes is perhaps not surprising, because voucher programs are not intended to change the education experiences of students. They do not target changes in instruction, learning, learning conditions, or curriculum; rather, they simply change the manner in which the money supporting education programs is allocated.
Recent research into achievement differences between schools funded through public and private systems suggests little difference in the outcomes among comparable students (Lubienski & Lubienski, 2006; Lubienski, Lubienski, & Crane, 2008; Wenglinsky, 2007). This absence of definitive academic benefits to students using vouchers may be why voucher proponents have shifted their emphasis toward the more nebulous "parental satisfaction" as a primary measure of success.
Other Outcomes
Beyond the effect on student academic achievement, vouchers may also more broadly affect communities and the larger society. Again, the research on social outcomes related to the use of private school vouchers paints a complex picture. Research shows that the parents who participate in voucher systems are generally more satisfied with their choice of school (Wolf, 2008). However, it also suggests that parents are likely to choose schools for religious, not academic, reasons (Denessen, Driessena, & Sleegers, 2005; Ji & Boyatt, 2007).
When he proposed vouchers in 1962, Friedman also warned that voucher programs might result in a stratification of communities along religious, ethic, or economic lines. Although he then dismissed these concerns as lacking evidence, research from other countries where vouchers are much more widely used and firmly entrenched in the education system suggests that the stratification does occur (Levin, 1998).
Research on Chile's voucher system has found that the system has exacerbated inequities, with public schools serving more disadvantaged, low-income, and indigenous students than private voucher schools (Elacqua, 2009; Elacqua & de Gobierno, 2006; González, Mizala, & Romaguera, 2004). Additionally, within voucher schools there is further stratification linked to differences in tuition levels (Elacqua, 2009; Elacqua & de Gobierno, 2006).
Recent research looking at outcomes in Sweden also found that choice policies resulted in a large increase in social and economic stratification (Wiborg, 2008). In the United States, econometric research and research on other forms of school choice (charters and open enrollment) suggests that "choice" programs in general may result in greater economic and ethnic stratification (Bifulco, Ladd, & Ross, 2009; Brunner, Imazeki, & Ross, 2010; d'Entremont & Gulosino, 2008; Koedel, Betts, Rice, & Zau, 2010).
Other Concerns
One concern regarding vouchers expressed by private schools and their advocates is that public aid will ultimately result in pressures for greater regulation of these schools as governments seek greater accountability for the use of public funds. Evidence from Wisconsin suggests this may be the case. Among other regulations, Wisconsin Act 28, signed into law in 2009,
  • Requires private schools participating in the Milwaukee voucher program to adopt specific curricular standards and administer all assessments mandated for the state's public schools;
  • Adds requirements related to private school graduation standards and grade promotion;
  • Adds specific education and qualification requirements for private school personnel;
  • Specifies minimum instructional hours students must receive;
  • Defines mandated reporting requirements; and
  • Adds requirements related to parent meetings with the private school governing boards (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, 2009).
Such increased regulation significantly alters the current relationship between public and private school systems and may have far-reaching implications for structural reform.
In addition, changes in state policies and priorities frequently result in uncertainty for private schools and their students participating in voucher programs. Students in the Florida and Arizona programs that were found unconstitutional were faced with the sudden withdrawal of funds that had supported their attendance at private schools. Similarly, changes in the payment frequency for students using vouchers in Georgia's program caused disruption, as funding delays meant that schools and parents needed to come up with additional funding on short notice. Such challenges highlight the fact that voucher programs are not part of a free system of public schools—rather, they are individual programs that are subject to the vagaries of state policies and politics.
Moving Forward
Envisioned as a mechanism for increasing market competition and improving system performance in 1962, vouchers may be an education reform whose time has passed. Since Milwaukee launched the first modern voucher program in 1990, small-scale implementations have spread across a handful of states. To bypass constitutional restrictions on state support of religion, advocates have also established tuition tax credit programs.
Despite 20 years of debate in legislatures and state and federal courts, no definitive agreement on the constitutionality of such programs exists. When decisions are rendered, they are contentious and frequently interrupt the programs in place and disrupt the lives of the students and families in those programs.
Twenty years of research has also done little to clarify the effectiveness of these programs as academic interventions, and significant research has identified serious concerns regarding the likelihood that communities using vouchers will become more stratified along religious, economic, and ethnic lines, breaking down the multicultural fabric of our society.
An inherent lack of public accountability in voucher and tax credit programs has led investigators to make significant claims of abuse of public funds (Borsuk, 1999; Gabrielson & Reese, 2009) and resulted in increased regulation of the private sector (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, 2009). Intended to strengthen private education options, vouchers and tax credits may conversely erode the independence of the nation's private schools.
Research looking at the values and attitudes related to school improvement and vouchers suggests that policymakers have a much greater interest in strengthening public schools than in turning to a semiprivatized system of voucher schools (Haselkorn, & Harris, 1998; Laitsch, 2002). New programs for teacher training and preparation, early childhood education, strengthened curricula, and new standards and accountability frameworks all hold the potential for a much stronger and more direct effect on student education outcomes.
As policymakers look to improve education in the coming years, further efforts to privatize the K–12 education system through expanding voucher and tax credit programs seem to be misdirected.
For a list of references for this issue of Policy Priorities, check out the issue online atwww.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/policypriorities/vol17/num02/References.aspx.
Dan Laitsch is an assistant professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, B.C., Canada.

Copyright © 2011 by ASCD

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