Friday, August 31, 2012

The Elephant at the White House by YinzerThing

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.
This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) 

What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Great Expectations

Eric Cooper and Veronica McDermott //Aug. 29, 2012 // 4:55 Pm
When it comes to education philosophy, famed novelist Charles Dickens proved that the past really is prologue.

Nearly 160 years ago, long before such terms as "adequate yearly progress" and "teaching to the test" entered our lives, Dickens created authority figures in his novel "Hard Times" who never met a fact they didn't like. In one memorable example, a young girl who "fancies" horses offers to draw the animal when she can't define it. Mr. M'Choakumchild, a government officer, becomes apoplectic.

"You are not to do anything of the kind," he declares. "Fact, fact, fact. You are to be in all things regulated and governed by fact." 

If it sounds familiar, it should. Dickens' fictional classroom has come to life for many students across this country. Relentless focus on passing tests has quashed the more fanciful and deliberative aspects of learning and grounded what could have been flights of imagination, creativity and playfulness. Dickens' fictional school may have been "regulated and governed by facts," but today's schools - especially urban schools with large numbers of underperforming students - are regulated and governed by tests

Dickens' students might have acquiesced to this intellectual suffocation with a curtsy and a polite "Yes, sir." Today's students tend to react with one of two extremes.  Some jump through the academic and assessment hoops for the sole sake of getting a good grade or scoring well on an exam. They don't learn to love the pursuit of knowledge or recognize that learning from mistakes can be the most powerful lesson of all. Other students lose interest and drop out. All too many of them become fuel for the school-to-prison pipeline: Approximately two-thirds of the nation's inmates are high school dropouts.

The latter is especially common for schoolchildren of color and those challenged by poverty. They know society expects them to fail. These "stereotype threats" cause them to lose confidence and fulfill the prophecy. Some students, especially African Americans, go so far as to internalize the perception that they are not as smart as their white classmates. They all have the ability to succeed, of course. But fear causes the part of the brain that regulates emotion, behavior and motivation, to release the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. If this happens consistently, memory and the ability to think are impaired.

We've observed this test-taking fear in schools across the country and for many years. One of us has even seen it in his own children. One child can break down in tears at the thought of taking tests, while the other literally becomes intellectually paralyzed during an exam.  

And fear of being stereotyped is color-blind. All children - white, brown, black, Asian and Native American - can suffer from it, according to Claude Steele, a social scientist and I. James Quillen Dean for the School of Education at Stanford University. As an example, he cites his studies showing that because of a stereotype that blacks are more athletic, white university students performed more poorly than their black peers when the white students were told they would require athletic ability to score well on a written test about golf. Additionally, Steele found, merely mentioning to women that they are inferior to men negatively affected their performance on a math test.  

Changing belief systems and reducing the threat of stereotype is a challenge all teachers and principals must meet. Fortunately, it is within reach.

Affirmation exercises can be used before tests and as part of regular classroom instruction to remind students of their larger sense of competence and their greater worth to society. These help students relax, freeing up mental resources and improving performance. 

Teachers also need to consider the signals they send. All children have the intellectual capacity to contribute in class, but some worry they will come off as "stupid" if they give an incorrect answer. Educators need to find a way to embrace wrong answers; helping the students to learn from their mistakes, and guiding students toward discovering the correct ones.

With every new school year, hope is renewed for America's students and faith is reinvigorated for educators who know they have the power to build strong relationships with students and shape young lives. A further key is encouraging students to embrace subject matter as an exploration, using knowledge acquisition to create confident learners.
And that's a fact.

Teachers Unions, Federal Spending Slammed at GOP Convention

By Mark Bomster on August 29, 2012 3:07 AM

Tampa, Fla.
The Republicans offered up a lot of tough talk Tuesday night—including battering President Barack Obama and teachers unions—as they hailed Mitt Romney as their newly nominated candidate for president.
Campaign 2012
By far the sharpest attacks in a long night of speeches at the Republican National Convention came from Gov. Chris Christie, of New Jersey, whose fire-breathing keynote speech attacked the educational establishment, especially teachers unions.
Christie said that in New Jersey, he defied naysayers by successfully taking on "the third rail of politics" to overhaul the public employee health and benefit system in his state. He put the projected savings to taxpayers at $132 billion over 30 years.
President Barack Obama's Truth Team quickly disputed that statement.
As for overhauling teacher tenure, Christie said teachers unions were "just too powerful. Real teacher tenure reform that demands accountability and ends the guarantee of a job for life regardless of performance would never happen. For the first time in 100 years with bipartisan support, we did it."
But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten fired back at Christie on Twitter.
"Christie evidently believes teachers should be seen but not heard—they may be important, but not their views about what they need to help kids," she wrote.
Jennifer Beck, a New Jersey state senator, gave Christie high marks for being able to sell many of his reforms to lawmakers across the aisle.
Despite the harsh criticism of Democrats, Christie has been able to work with many in the legislature, Beck said. "The bill he just signed on tenure reforms [K-12] in a very significant way," she said.
Christie went on to use the teachers-union battle as part of a litany of contrasts between his view of Democratic and Republican leadership. Here's a particularly potent portion of his speech:
"We believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed to put students first so that America can compete," he said of Republicans. "Teachers don't teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children. We believe that we should honor and reward the good ones while doing what's best for our nation's future—demanding accountability, demanding higher standards and demanding the best teacher in every classroom in America.They [Dems] ... believe in pitting unions against teachers, educators against parents, and lobbyists against children. They believe in teacher's unions. We believe in teachers."
Common Core Criticized
Earlier in the evening, the man who has probably done more than anyone in the GOP to rankle teachers' unions also got an enormous embrace from the crowd. Gov. Scott Walker, of Wisconsin survived a recall vote on June 5 prompted by his push last year the scale back the collective-bargaining rights of public employees in that state, including teachers.
He hammered on that theme from the convention stage Tuesday night, saying Wisconsin voters "got to determine who was in charge—was it the big government special interests in Washington ... or the hard-working taxpayers of our state. The good news is that ... the hard-working taxpayers won."
Some other pointed remarks came from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was among Republican-nominee Romney's one-time rivals for the GOP presidential nomination. In an at-times personal speech, Santorum placed education as a key part of the formula for staying out of poverty, along with hard work and getting married before having children.
"A solid education should be [a key rung] on the ladder to success, but the system is failing. Obama's solution has been to deny parents choice, attack private schools, and nationalize curriculum and student loans," he said, taking an apparent dig at the Common Core State Standards, which are not an initiative of the federal government, but have been embraced by the federal Department of Education. "Mitt Romney believes that parents and the local community must be put in charge—not the Department of Education."
Sunnier Speech
The emotional centerpiece of the four-hour program of speeches was first-lady hopeful Ann Romney. She delivered a personal tribute to her husband's leadership qualities, including praise of his education record as governor of Massachusetts.
"Under Mitt, Massachusetts schools were the best in the nation. The best," she declared. "He started the John and Abigail Adams scholarships, which give the top 25 percent of high school graduates a four-year tuition-free scholarship. This is the man America needs."

Why Complex Teacher Evaluations Don't Work

By Mike Schmoker

Here they come: those complex, bloated, evaluation templates that are now being dumped on teachers and administrators. These are supposed to make schools perform better.
Once again, we are rushing into a premature, ill-conceived innovation—without any solid evidence that it promotes better teaching. These jargon-laced, confusing documents are to be used to evaluate or even to compensate teachers on the basis of multiple, full-period, pre-announced classroom observations. Each observation is to be preceded and followed by meetings between teachers and administrators that will require enormous amounts of time, paperwork, and preparation. Like so many past reforms, this one will be launched nationally, like a bad movie, without being piloted and refined first. (Imagine if we did this with prescription drugs.) It will consume a disproportionate share of precious training time and promote misguided practices that could endure for the next decade. Rather than improve schools, it will only crowd out and postpone our highest, most urgent curricular and instructional priorities.
Don't misunderstand me: Teacher observation and evaluation are among the strongest components of effective school-improvement efforts. If you visit classrooms across the nation (as many of us do), you know that most teaching is at odds with some of the most obvious elements of sound practice. But these frameworks aren't the solution. They lack clarity and focus, and their use should be postponed on the basis of their sheer bulk (most are dozens of pages long) and their murky, agenda-driven language.
In February, The New York Times reported that one of these frameworks contains an astonishing 116 "subcategories" by which educators' lessons are to be assessed. I can only imagine teachers, whose morale is already at a record low, encountering these unwieldy instruments and the anxiety they will provoke.
Done right, teacher evaluation could ensure precisely the kind of systematic action that would guarantee immediate improvement, i.e., by clarifying a minimal set of the most essential, widely known criteria for effective curriculum, such as rich content taught largely thought literacy activities and sound instruction.
—Steve Braden
Once clarified, evaluation would then focus on only one or two elements at a time, with multiple opportunities for teachers to practice and receive feedback from their evaluators. Teachers' progress and performance on these criteria would be the basis for evaluation.
Jim Collins, the business consultant and author of Good to Great, and the organizational-improvement expert Marcus Buckingham discovered that the performance and morale of both employees and managers skyrockets when managers:
• Severely reduce the number of criteria by which they judge an employee's performance; and
• Have "crystal clarity" for those very few criteria, abandoning any language that could confuse a practitioner.
Teachers need assurances that we will never, ever require them to pore through dozens of bewildering boxes and bullets about how they should perform. Policymakers have yet to learn that less is more with respect to strategic planning, our (still-gargantuan) standards documents, or our ever-expanding and exotic menus of programs and professional-development offerings. And now teacher-evaluation frameworks.
One popular multipage framework requires that lessons be taught with "simultaneous multisensory representations" during the lesson and "facilitation . . . that results in students' application of interdisciplinary knowledge through the lens of local and global issues." Another framework—in similarly mangled language—requires that lessons "reflect understanding of prerequisite relationships among topics and concepts and a link to necessary cognitive structures." I guarantee that is not the kind of advice average teachers need to improve their lessons. Moreover, most of these frameworks insist—against all research and evidence to the contrary—that teachers must provide lessons that include special materials for each individual student or subgroup, all while addressing dozens of other criteria.
We'll never improve instruction this way. Here's the alternative.
First, we should do everything in our power to ensure that there is a clear, coherent curriculum in place before we attach high stakes to any evaluation. The absence of such a curriculum explains a great portion of the aimless, ineffective lessons we see in our schools. In addition, this curriculum must include generous amounts of what is now—finally—being emphasized in the "three shifts" that capture the essence of the English/language arts common core, i.e., daily opportunities to read, discuss, and write. These should all be grounded in evidence found in high-quality, content-rich texts across the disciplines. This simple, timeless emphasis is the key to success on tests, in college, and in careers. It is nowhere to be found, however, in our most popular evaluation templates.
Without such a curriculum, instruction inevitably devolves into the kinds of inane worksheets, group activities, and misguided practices that now predominate in our schools.
Once such a curriculum is in place, we should evaluate teachers on whether they are actually implementing and improving their curriculum in teams, with their same-course colleagues.
"Done right, teacher evaluation could ensure precisely the kind of systematic action that would guarantee immediate improvement."
Finally, we should observe and evaluate teachers on the basis of (mostly) short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits, using the same, few, age-old criteria. The noted researcher Robert Marzano, among others, exhorts us to regard these as "routine components" of any and every effective lesson:
• Attention and engagement (i.e., steps are taken to ensure that all students are attentive and on task throughout the lesson);
• A clear, well-defined purpose and objective to the lesson; followed by ...
• Multiple short segments of instruction; immediately followed by ...
• Opportunities for students to process or practice what was just taught, while the teacher checks and monitors to see how well the class has learned; followed by ...
• Adjustments to the lesson and the pace of the lesson to ensure that all students, or as close to that as possible, can succeed on each phase of instruction, until they can achieve the objective of that day's lesson or group project.
These elements, which guarantee improvement, can actually be found in some of the evaluation frameworks. But they are not written clearly or prominently enough to be seen as indispensable priorities. Instead, they are obscured by the dozens of other specious, confusing evaluation criteria that surround them. To reiterate: The observations that are the basis of an evaluation must occur largely unannounced. We can't afford to repeat the feckless protocols refuted decades ago—those built around pre-announced visits, followed by lengthy pre- and post-conferences.
It is high time that the reform community grows up and learns that schools won't improve until we put the brakes on untested, overblown initiatives. These prevent us from focusing on the most effective practices long enough for them to take hold.Until this changes, as the author and teacher-evaluation expert Kim Marshall and others have made so clear, teacher evaluation will continue to be nothing more than what teachers and administrators have aptly called a dog-and-pony show, with one difference: It will be even more confusing and time-consuming.
Clear, minimalist, priority-driven teacher evaluation could play a central role in ensuring that such practices become the norm. If they do, we will beyond any doubt hasten the improvement of schools in virtually any setting.

Teachers and Teacher Unions Are the Same

By John Wilson on August 30, 2012 7:15 AM

There they go again--trying to divide teachers from their union. Do they really think teachers will choose the unfilled promises of a politician over their union? Teachers know New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is no friend of theirs and that the New Jersey Education Association and the National Education Association have been tireless advocates for their interests and the interests of their students.
Listening to Governor Christie deliver his keynote speech to the Republican National Convention was a fairy tale moment. He said, "They (Democrats) believe in teacher unions. We (Republicans) believe in teachers." As we say in the south, "That dog won't hunt."
Governor Christie, diminishing pension benefits does not demonstrate a belief in teachers. Raising class sizes so that the rich can have lower taxes than the middle class--which includes educators--does not benefit teachers. Freezing or, even worse, cutting salaries is not a gift that teachers welcome. Refusing to fund education for our kids and claiming that money does not matter is not a believable argument for teachers. No, Governor Christie, you and your fellow Republicans have not shown the respect for teachers that they deserve.
Teachers are not in the pocket of Democrats. The National Education Association is about 40 percent Democratic, 30 percent Republican, and 30 percent unaffiliated. Republican policies that undermine public education by using public dollars for private schools while starving the public schools of adequate funds turns teachers toward the Democratic Party. If Republicans want teachers to respect them, they must change their policies and change their votes in Congress and state legislatures across the country.
It is obvious that 2012 will not be the year that Republicans show the love and respect for teachers; therefore, teachers must be united in sending their standard message. Our students deserve a world class education with the best teachers, who are well-paid, empowered to teach, and supported by politicians and parents.
Until the Republican Party gets it, teachers will believe in the few Republican politicians who get it, but not in those Republicans who follow a party platform and politicians that disrespect their profession and their right to free association.

Catholic Schools Feeling Squeeze From Charters

By Sean Cavanagh

Adriana Landeros staples colored paper to the wall of a classroom after summer school at Our Lady of Lourdes, a Roman Catholic school in Los Angeles. Catholic schools find themselves competing for students with the growing charter school sector, especially in urban areas.
—Grant Hindsley/AP

Competition for students squeezes parochial schools

The nation's Roman Catholic schools have labored for decades under increasingly adverse economic and demographic conditions, which have undermined their finances and sapped their enrollment. Today, researchers and supporters say those schools face one of their most complex challenges yet: the continued growth of charter schools.
Since they first opened two decades ago, charter schools have emerged as competitors to Catholic schools for reasons connected to school systems' missions, their academic models, and the populations they serve.
Charter schools, which as public schools are free of tuition, have their strongest presence in urban centers, traditional strongholds of Catholic education. Many charter schools tout attributes similar to those offered by the church's schools, such as disciplined environments, an emphasis on personal responsibility and character development, and distinctive instructional and curricular approaches.
Those competitive pressures are coming into new focus with the release of research and analysis that attempts to quantify the extent to which Catholic schools' enrollment is slipping as a result of charter school growth—and seeks to offer strategies for how the church's schools might rebound.
"Catholic schools cannot compete with charter schools that look like them, and have a longer school day, and school uniforms—and which are free," said Abraham M. Lackman, a scholar-in-residence at the Albany Law School, in Albany, N.Y., and the author of a forthcoming paper on the shift of students from Catholic schools to charters. As political support for charters grows and their enrollment expands, the number of Catholic schools will fall, he predicted, and "we have to decide whether that's good public policy or not."

Dueling Trends

Since the nation's first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, the number of those independently managed public schools has risen steadily. Today, some 5,600 charter schools, serving about 2 million students, operate in 41 states and the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, the number of students in Catholic schools has fallen. Since 2000, 1,942 Catholic schools around the country have shut their doors, and enrollment has dropped by 621,583 students, to just over 2 million today, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. If that decline continues, charter enrollment will surpass that of Catholic schools for the first time this academic year, according to Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., who has examined the two systems.
As Mr. Lackman and others acknowledge, Catholic schools' financial struggles began well before the rise of charter schools.
Many of those woes can be traced to the exodus of middle-income families from the cities, Mr. Lackman noted. Catholic schools' finances were also hurt by the costs associated with their increased use of lay teachers and other staff members, a trend that greatly accelerated after the 1960s, he added, and a steep drop in the number of nuns, who had been the mainstay of the teaching force.
Mr. Lackman concludes that charter school growth is having a similarly broad, and deleterious, effect on Catholic schools. In a paper scheduled to be published by the Albany Government Law Review this fall, he examines enrollment patterns in New York state and concludes that 30 percent of the recent decline in K-8 Catholic school enrollment in the state can be attributed to students leaving for charter schools, compared with 42 percent migrating to regular public schools and 28 percent leaving because of broader demographic trends. In some New York cities, such as Albany, the impact of charters has been especially pronounced, he concludes. Albany's Catholic school enrollment plummeted by 64 percent from 2000 to 2010, a much steeper decline than has occurred statewide. The number of charter schools, which he says now serve 2,400 students in the city, has steadily grown.
One school that may have been swept under by those currents was St. Casimir, a Catholic school that opened in 1897 with 18 students, and shut its doors in 2009.
For years, the school's enrollment held fairly steady, with 175 to 200 students, though it also struggled financially, recalled Jim Leveskas, the school's former principal. But over its last few years of existence, financial pressures mounted, some of them caused by competition from nearby charters, and St. Casimir's enrollment dropped below 125 students, at which point the school could no longer stay open.
The school's closing saddened Ronnie Nicholson, whose daughter attended St. Casimir. Mr. Nicholson isn't Catholic, but he said the school's overall emphasis on religious instruction appealed to him, as did its small scale.
His daughter, now 14, later attended an Albany charter school, and now attends a regular public one.
"It was family-oriented," Mr. Nicholson said of the Catholic school. "You could get answers to your questions. You could talk to the principal, or the people at the front desk. ... I cried when they closed that school."

Impact on Public Sector?

Catholic schools' troubles also bring a financial toll for the public sector, some say. By Mr. Lackman's calculation, about 18,000 students across New York have moved from Catholic to charter schools. As a result, students once educated on the private sector's tab now cost the public sector $320 million a year, he estimates.
Another analysis, scheduled for release this week by the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, examines nationwide data and concludes that in most urban districts, charters draw about 10 percent of their elementary school enrollment from Catholic schools. Charter schools take a larger portion of students, 18 percent, from nonreligious schools. But because Catholic schools represent a relatively large share of the overall private school population, even the departure of a relatively small percentage of students from the Catholic system can have a big impact, Richard Buddin, the study's author, said in an interview.
Those student migrations could carry big costs for the public. A paperRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader Cato published along with Mr. Buddin's study puts the yearly, national price tag of students moving to the charter school sector at $1.8 billion.
Mr. Lackman served as a top legislative aide in New York during the 1990s, when state lawmakers allowed for the creation of charter schools, an effort he supported. The financial implications for taxpayers of students' migration to charters was largely overlooked during those legislative discussions, he said.
"In hindsight, we all missed it," Mr. Lackman said.
But Bill Phillips, the president of the New York Charter Schools Association, suggested that estimates of the financial costs of the Catholic-to-charter shift are exaggerated.
Mr. Lackman's premise assumes that if charter schools did not exist, Catholic school students would have stayed in those schools, rather than leaving for regular public schools—a decision that many students were making before charters came into being, and continue to make today, Mr. Phillips said.
It's clear that charters are putting pressure on Catholic schools, Mr. Phillips said. In fact, he is convinced that Catholic and other private schools' difficulties are a concern for both the charters and regular public school sectors, which he said benefit from private-sector competition and innovation.
"It's not a good thing for us to have that sector not be vibrant," Mr. Phillips said of Catholic education.
Some supporters of school choice, and Catholic school officials, believe that the church's schools will benefit from the growth of private-school-voucher programs, which have become more popular in recent years, particularly in Republican-led state governments.
While many tuition-voucher programs have been limited to low-income and special-needs students, a few states, such as Indiana and Louisiana, have laid the foundation for larger-scale voucher programs, which reach some middleclass families and offer relatively large amounts of taxpayer funds for private school costs.
Those ambitious programs have the potential to help Catholic schools, said Robert Enlow, president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis group that backs vouchers.
"We need to create a level playing field," said Mr. Enlow. If state vouchers are too small to cover a significant chunk of private school costs, he argued, more families are likely to turn to the free alternative to regular public schools—charter schools.
But with heftier vouchers, "the private school option becomes more attractive," he said.
In Washington, church leaders took a dramatic step in response to the financial pressures on schools. The Archdiocese of Washington five years ago approved the conversion of several Catholic schools to charter schools, a move designed to keep them open, and financially viable. ("Former D.C. Catholic Schools Start New Life as Charters," Sept. 10, 2008.)

Vouchers' Role

In those two states, the impact of relatively new voucher expansions on the Catholic schools landscape remains unclear.
In Indiana, Catholic school enrollment, which hovers at around 55,000, has increased slightly since the state's voucher law was enacted last year, said Glenn Tebbe, the executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public-policy voice of the church in that state.
In Louisiana, where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a sweeping voucher measure into law this year, about 3,600 of the 5,600 students awarded vouchers through the program so far are in Catholic schools, and 69 of 119 participating schools are affiliated with the church, state officials say.
But others warn that Catholic schools should not count on vouchers coming the rescue.
Catholic schools cannot take for granted continued political support for vouchers, which varies from state to state and election to election—or assume that voucher amounts will match those schools' increases in tuition, said Mr. Kennedy of the Lexington Institute, who supports vouchers.
Relying on state voucher policies amounts to "putting Catholic schools' future in the hands of state bureaucrats," Mr. Kennedy said. If political conditions shift in individual states, many Catholic schools, he said, will "still have an unsustainable business model, without political support."
Karen M. Ristau, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Arlington, Va., said many of the church's schools already use sophisticated instructional tools and methods and aggressive marketing strategies. Some of charter schools' advantages, she believes, stem from extensive corporate and philanthropic support.In a reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader released this month, Mr. Kennedy argues that Catholic schools need to do far more to improve their use of technology and data if they are going to compete with, and learn from, the experiences of charter schools. Making those improvements, he says, could reduce costs and help them customize lessons for students' needs. Improved use of data will make Catholic schools more accountable, and help them engage parents and explain schools' academic goals and expectations, he says.
As more Catholic schools embrace academic innovations, and benefit from growth of private school choice, their enrollment will rebound, she predicted.
Families who "want a full education," Ms. Ristau said, "with a faith dimension, they'll choose us."

How School Choice Became an Explosive Issue

How School Choice Became an Explosive Issue

Larry Downing/Reuters
Bill Cosby and Dick Morris presumably disagree about most things, so it's instructive to note that both have officially endorsed "School Choice Week," which began yesterday with a series of rallies and events around the country celebrating the idea of parents being able to decide where their children go to school. Indeed, school choice seems like such an obviously good idea that the most interesting thing about School Choice Week is why it exists at all

That school choice is valuable is beyond dispute. That's why there's a multi-billion dollar private school industry serving millions of students. And it's why there is a much larger system of school choice embedded in the American real estate market. While some parents pay school tuition directly, many more pay it through their monthly mortgage and property tax bills. Anyone who has deliberately purchased a home in a "good" school district is, by definition, a beneficiary and supporter of school choice.

Because school choice is so dependant on financial means, students from well-off families are much more likely to attend schools that have both high overall levels of quality and are tailored to their specific educational needs. These are the same children who, studies have shown, also experience much more enriching educational environments outside of school than their less privileged peers. In combination, this goes a long way toward explaining the persistent educational achievement gap between rich and poor children that haunts American education.

At its best, the school choice movement is dedicated to leveling the educational playing field by giving more parents access to choices they can't afford in the free market. Who could object? Plenty of people, as it turns out. This disagreement is a major impediment to achieving education justice in America. School choice is a perfect example of a fundamentally sound public policy idea that has been corrupted by a combination of ideology and naivete.

The birth of the school choice movement is usually dated to the publication of Milton Friedman's 1955 essay "The Role of Government in Education," in which he proposed:

... giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on "approved" educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an "approved" institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds.

Friedman, as we all know, was enormously influential in shaping conservative economic thought. But it took a long time for his educational ideas to become embedded on one side of partisan lines. In the early 1970s, liberal education activists openly promoted the idea giving poor students Friedman-like vouchers in order to help them escape dysfunctional urban school systems.

But at the same time, the Republican party was in the midst of shifting toward a new brand of free-market, anti-government ideology. As Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform whose education planks were voucher-focused, school choice became an issue like abortion or gun control that people learn to be stridently for or against based on their larger party affiliation.

The fact that that the likely recipients of vouchers were either religious or non-unionized private schools made the divisions even more acute. For Republicans, vouchers were a way to be pro-God, pro-market and anti-labor all at the same time. This proved to be such a satisfying combination that many conservative politicians have never bothered to adopt any other discernible position on public education. Similarly, liberals could use vouchers to support their union allies and fight for the separation of church and state.

Such deep political trenches made school choice legislation difficult to pass. To this day, vouchers are only available to a small handful of students. Then, a decade after Reagan's election, school choice manifested in a new idea that was designed to address many of the obvious weaknesses of vouchers: charter schools. First conceived in Minnesota and given a crucial "New Democrat" endorsement by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, charters have since expanded across the nation.

Charter schools are public schools accountable through a contract or "charter" to public bodies. If they fail to meet the terms of the charter, they can be quickly shut down. Like regular public schools, charters are accountable for student scores on standardized tests under laws like the federal No Child Left Behind act. Unlike private schools that pick and choose their pupils, charters are open to all students and allocate scarce openings via lotteries. The large majority of charters are run by non-profit organizations and thus harder to charge with profit-taking at the expense of public schools.

Yet charters, too, have become charged with ideology. Efforts to create them have often met with staunch resistance from teachers unions and other organizations representing traditional public schools. Many liberals see charters as little more than vouchers in sheep's clothing, another plot to privatize and undermine public education. So charters, too, have been slow to spread in many states.

That's why this week is School Choice Week. While school choice has steadily advanced over the last two decades, primarily through the expansion of charters, the fact remains that the large majority of middle- and lower-income parents don't have any meaningful choices for their children. They're stuck with local schools that too often range from inadequate to shockingly bad, and they can't afford to buy access to better ones.

Changing this will require a lot more in the way of discipline, good faith, and smart thinking on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Many conservatives have proved more interested in using vouchers as a political club than actually making them work on behalf of students. Students participating in the longest-lived and most well-studied voucher experiment, in Milwaukee, score no better on standardized tests than similar students who attended regular public schools.

Indeed, vouchers have become so tainted in discussion and practice that many conservatives now favor re-branded voucher programs that work through the tax code: Instead of getting a voucher for X amount of money to attend a private school, you get a "tuition tax credit" for X amount of money spent to attend a private school. A variation on the program was created in Arizona granting taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for "donations" to private schools. This soon spawned a corrupt system of log-rolling wherein private school parents gave donations to schools on behalf of each other's children.

The legislation, moreover, required that donations be funneled through "non-profit" middleman organizations run by, incredibly, the very same state legislators who wrote the legislation in the first place. These selfless public servants then skimmed off some of the money to lease luxury cars for themselves, give jobs to relatives, and rent space from for-profit corporations they owned. Making free government money available with no oversight turns out to have some drawbacks.

Indeed, both vouchers and tax credit programs suffer from the same underlying design flaw: they trust parental choice in a free market to, by itself, ensure that students will attend good schools. Notably, even Milton Friedman thought this was a bad idea. That's why he proposed that vouchers be limited to "approved institutions." He didn't spell out how approval would work in much detail, but the smartest balance between flexibility and accountability looks very much like the process charter schools are subject to today.

Yet conservatives have continued to flog vouchers and tax credits for obviously partisan reasons. This has led to the spectacle of national attention given to the "D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program," a small, benign, and not particularly effective effort that at its core is nothing more than its name suggests: a program that awards scholarships to a small group of poor families to partially offset the cost of attending private school in a medium-sized mid-Atlantic city. But because that city is the nation's capital and the scholarships are understood to be "vouchers," no less than Speaker of the House John Boehner threw his weight behind legislation expanding the program last year.

These tactics only work if liberal interest groups take the bait. And to their discredit, they have. When Democrats last took control of Congress, they were pressured by national teachers unions to cut funding for the Opportunity Scholarships, for precisely the same political reasons that led Boehner to support them. So even as President Obama sends his children to private school in the District of Columbia, Democrats were preventing poor black children from doing the same.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, whose interest in the welfare of disadvantaged children is normally confined to making sure that they have less of it, gleefully plastered the Washington, D.C., Metro system with pro-Opportunity Scholarship billboards in 2009 featuring a rainbow of minority children and the civil rights-ish slogan "Let Me Rise." The whole debate is a farce and an embarrassment for Democrats.

More broadly, liberal groups stand as the biggest obstacle to the expansion of charter schools, even as minority parents line up for the chance to send their children to charters and the best schools of choice achieve results on behalf of poor children that are unmatched by nearby regular public schools. Anyone visiting a good charter school built in a high-poverty neighborhood--and if you live or work in Washington, D.C., there's probably one within walking distance--will find people who have literally dedicated their lives to improving the well-being of the disadvantaged. Denouncing them from the left as con artists or agents of educational apartheid brings nothing but shame to progressive education policy.

So the challenge during School Choice Week, as well as the other 51 weeks of the year, is to do more than just promote school choice, an idea that, whether they realize it or not, pretty much everyone already supports. The far tougher problem is to create a set of political conditions that make meaningful school choice possible for a much larger number of students than receive it today.

We can start by purging the worst rhetoric from the school choice conversation. Dick Morris may support school choice, but Dick Morris is also a repugnant ideologue who says that teachers unions are "thugs" who have "destroyed public education in America." Featuring him as a school choice supporter simply confirms the worst fears of choice opponents. Liberals who aim similar vitriol at charter schools are no better. Politicians on both sides of the aisle who use programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship as a political football are putting the interests of children behind selfish political considerations.

Then we need to acknowledge that school choice has proven to be a far more difficult idea to implement than its supporters originally supposed. Choice requires both information and consumers who are well equipped to use it. Schools are highly complex organizations whose workings aren't always apparent at first glance. It's very difficult for parents who have no personal experience of having attended a good school to pick and choose among school choice options for their children. Looks can be deceiving--shiny new facilities and well-organized classrooms can mask poor teaching and incoherent curricula. Schools vying for students in the market tend, like any competitor, to present a self-interested view of themselves. Parents need much better information about school performance, and education in its interpretation, in order to make good choices on behalf of their children.

They also need good schools from which to choose. Opening up K-12 education to the free market does not magically conjure from the air organizations that know how to educate children. Two decades into the charter experiment, the number of organizations like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) that have consistently demonstrated the ability to build and run more than a handful of high-quality schools can be counted on, if not one hand, certainly two. That's why while results at KIPP are stellar, studies suggest that student performance at the average charter school is often no better than at regular public schools nearby. The school choice market requires major investments in the quality of both supply and demand.

Even then, the market will still require strong oversight from public officials to grant the "approved" status Friedman envisioned over a half-century ago--and the willingness to revoke that approval when performance is sub-par.

These are all achievable goals that, if realized, will have lasting benefits for large numbers of children. But they won't be met if school choice continues to be ghettoized as one of those eternal points of division that ideologues would rather never resolve.

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.

Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.

The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life -- Newsweek ranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.

Finland's schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model -- long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization -- Finland's success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation's education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.

So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.

And yet it wasn't clear that Sahlberg's message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.

During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Times jockeyed for position with Dan Rather's TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an "intriguing school-reform model."

Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point, "and there are no private schools in Finland."

This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

The irony of Sahlberg's making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America's best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend -- not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg's statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.

Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he's become their go-to guy in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.

Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland's success. Sahlberg's new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The American Public School Teacher Past, Present, and Future

Darrel Drury and Justin Baer, foreword by Judith Warren Little

At its heart are the National Education Association’s “Status of the American Public School Teacher” surveys, which are conducted every five years and offer unprecedented insights into the professional lives and experiences of teachers nationwide. This volume analyzes and summarizes the survey’s findings, while also offering commentaries on the findings from leading figures in the worlds of education, business, politics, and research. 


This is a stunning achievement. The authors mined a trove of data about public school teachers dating back to 1955, then asked a diverse group of thoughtful men and women to analyze, interpret, and comment. Interspersed among the essays are anecdotes from teachers and former teachers, some of which will tug your heartstrings. You will have favorites among the essays—I did—but very few will disappoint. The American Public School Teacher is a modern-day book of revelations.      

— John Merrow, education correspondent, PBS NewsHour

The American Public School Teacher provides an unflinching look into the classrooms of our nation’s schools and offers an overview of the current environment that could serve as a survey course on public education. The authors have convened a stellar lineup of scholars, teachers, government leaders, and policy makers to dissect and prognosticate about the future of schools. The result is an honest, provocative assessment that underscores the complications of meeting our oft-stated national goal of helping all students achieve at high levels.      — Anthony S. Bryk, president, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Improving schools requires improving teaching. But how can we do that? What does it even mean to be a good teacher in today’s world? With historical perspective, data analysis, and informed opinion, The American Public School Teacher provides a range of answers from top scholars and national education leaders. A must-read for anyone who cares about our most important school resource.      — Douglas N. Harris, associate professor, Educational Policy and Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Drury and Baer’s examination of teaching, based on an intriguing compendium of survey data collected over the past half century, is sharp, heterodox, and even-handed. At a time when the teaching profession and the role of teachers’ unions are more hotly debated than ever, I enthusiastically recommend this thoughtful volume to educators, policy makers, and would-be reformers.      — Frederick M. Hess, director, Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Popular Posts