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Friday, December 31, 2010

2010, the year poverty became nothing but an excuse

By Mike Klonsky.Educator, Author of "Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society

"We don't use poverty as an excuse for low achievement." -- Springfield, Ill. School District 186 Superintendent Walter Milton, Jr.

2010 wasn't a very good year for public education -- or public anything, for that matter.

A so-far jobless economic recovery has seen a sharp rise in child poverty and with it, new barriers for schools, teachers and learners. It's a matter of fact that hungry and often homeless children aren't as successful in the classroom as those who are well fed, clad and housed.

The past year has seen a drying up of stimulus funds along with further erosion and selling off and privatization of public space, more public school closings and consolidations. Schools and classrooms are growing in size. Massive tuition increases at both private and public colleges and universities render a college education less accessible to working class families, cutting off one of the few remaining pathways to class mobility.

To make matters worse, the past year was marked by a sharp political swing to the right, with big victories for anti-tax Republicans in the mid-term elections. This swing was accompanied by new calls to stop "throwing money at" public education and for the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Sadly, education leaders within the Obama administration are echoing many of these calls and bending to right-wing pressures.

It was just about a year ago for example, that Education Secretary Arne Duncan began his "no excuses" campaign, announcing in the press that he had "no patience for teachers and schools" that tick off all the reasons why their poor or minority students can't score as high on standardized tests.

Duncan has chosen to ignore poverty's downward effect on test scores and focus entirely on what he calls "bad teachers" and "failing schools." Recently confronted by educators teaching in some of the nation's highest-poverty areas about the need to do something about the living conditions of their students, Duncan cynically responded, "poverty is not destiny."

His "no excuses" mantra, essentially blaming poor students and their teachers for low test results, is now being echoed by many governors, urban mayors and school administrators like Springfield's Milton, all hoping their compliance will somehow be rewarded with federal dollars from Duncan to fill the holes in their shrinking school budgets.

Child poverty has been on the climb in Milton's district and surrounding counties in central Illinois. "It's a sign of the times the past decade in rural American and rural Illinois," said Les Huddle, superintendent of the Jacksonville School District.

In nearby Morgan County, the growing poverty rate and personal financial hardships create a "less-than-stable learning environment for students at home," said Huddle, noting that the Jacksonville district's enrollment dropped by more than 350 students as job losses drove many families away.

Duncan's "lack of patience" has also been taken as a call for tax breaks for the rich, coupled with deep and widespread cuts in social services, public housing, and other anti-poverty measures. The entire burden of his Race To The Top reform has been placed on teachers and their unions, and narrowly focused on schools and on the classroom. In some urban districts, teachers' names are now being posted in the media next to their students' test scores, as if individual teachers are solely responsible for those scores. Inadequate accountability measures, such as value-added, are being pushed as alternatives to collective-bargaining agreements to determine which teachers are to be fired and how much those remaining are to be paid.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that for the first time since the Education Department started counting, there are nearly a million homeless students in the United States. The Post reports that most drift with their families among motels, shelters and relatives' homes with a growing fraction living completely on their own, unparented, uninsured, ill-fed and surviving by their own devices.

Fairfax (VA) one of only two counties in the nation with median household incomes above $100,000, counts nearly 2,000 homeless students in its school division - about 200 of whom are..."unaccompanied." The latter figure is twice what the comparable figure was two years ago, a surge reflected nationally as the faltering economy has undermined many families. (WaPo)
With a surge in family poverty and a growing homeless student population, public school systems are under even more stress and are being turned into beggars. Schools have increasingly been forced to take on the role a welfare provider, both on and off campus, with few of the necessary resources, personnel, or skill sets.

The notion that rising unemployment, declining real wages, and a shocking increase in family poverty are mere "excuses," with little or no impact on student learning, is unworthy of our nation's top school leaders. It tells me that current school reform policies have little to do with sound social or educational research, but instead are ideologically or politically (in the worst sense) driven. In this political environment, Duncan's chants of "poverty is not destiny" sound downright pollyannish and even cruel in light of current conditions and his own policies.,b=facebook

Who does Teach for America have nude pictures of

John Affeldt.Managing Attorney at Public Advocates, a non-profit civil rights law firm; twice recognized as California Attorney of the Year

As I reported in the Huffington Post last Thursday and updated since, Congress seems ready to lower the standard of teacher owed every child in the country -- particularly impacting children in poor and minority communities -- and to hide that fact while they're at it.

Slipped in at the 11th hour into the Continuing Resolution to fund the government, the provision at issue proposes to call novice teachers still learning how to teach in alternative preparation programs on nights and weekends "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That designation relieves districts of having to tell parents of the teachers' sub-par preparation and allows their continued concentration in poor and minority schools.

Pushed by Teach for America so that they can continue to operate business as usual, it appears more important to Congress to change the law to accommodate TFA than to ensure the equity provisions of NCLB operate as intended. Alternate route trainees (only a few percent of which are actually from TFA) are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, high minority schools despite NCLB's requirement that teachers lacking full credentials be equitably distributed across schools.

The problem is that actual parents and students in schools where these alternative route trainees teach don't want their classrooms to be the exclusive training grounds. They also want the disclosures that NCLB promises as to which teachers have been fully prepared to teach their children and which haven't.

Secondly, serious concerns have been raised by researchers about exposing children to a churn of these novice teacher-trainees in low-income schools--both because these teachers on average do not seem to produce the same achievement gains that fully-trained teachers do (i.e., those who have graduated from traditional or alternative preparation programs like TFA) and because the interns are churning through and not staying around for the long haul.

And that will be the biggest loss under NCLB if amended: states and districts will be relieved of having to develop policies that attract and retain fully-prepared teachers to the neediest schools. Instead, they can continue to maintain the status quo of having so-called "highly qualified" alternative route trainees learn on poor peoples' children--and then move on.

Of course, these same parents and students want Congress to enact new laws requiring states and districts to evaluate teachers for effectiveness and to equitably distribute effective teachers too. But it's not an either or proposition, especially since effectiveness cannot meaningfully be measured for two to three years in. Parents want their child's new teacher to be adjudged fully-prepared and ready to teach on day one.

Responding to some of these concerns which were noted by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post blog today, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Committee that covers education, issued the following statement:

"There is broad, bipartisan agreement among members of Congress and the Obama administration that it is the intent of Congress for alternative-route teachers to be considered highly qualified, consistent with the regulation that has been in place for several years. Chairman Harkin strongly believes that teacher quality is essential to student success, and intends to address this issue as part of a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization. While that process is underway, the 9th Circuit's decision - which reverses a previous court ruling in favor of the regulation - could cause significant disruptions in schools across the country and have a negative impact on students. Maintaining current practice is a temporary solution, and underscores the need to act quickly and reauthorize ESEA early in the next Congress."
Senator Harkin's statement fails to acknowledge that what the courts have called an illegal expansion of the "highly qualified" teacher definition has never been part of the law, and was rejected by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller early on. To write what was an illegally expansive regulation into law will be a major change from the past. To permit a teacher who may have only just enrolled in preparation to be called "highly qualified" before they have met any training standards defies common sense. To visit those underprepared teachers disproportionately on low-income students and students of color -- and on special education students who are among those most often taught by underprepared teachers -- and then hide that fact from parents and the public under a "highly qualified" moniker flies in the face of the equity, transparency and accountability that NCLB and our leaders apparently stand for.

The fear of "significant disruptions" in the teaching force has no basis, as the court case is currently being appealed and no classroom assignments will be upset mid-year. Furthermore, where there are needs, schools will continue to hire less-than-highly-qualified teachers, as is the case in several hundred thousand classrooms today. NCLB permits such teachers to continue to be employed as long as they fill shortage areas, are publicly disclosed and equitably distributed.

If this were just about enacting a "temporary solution" to avoid short-term disruptions, the language would not seek to modify the highly qualified teacher definition for the next 2½ years. Instead, it has now become more important to maintain the status quo of using poor and minority schools as the proving grounds for these trainee teachers than enforcing teacher equity as NCLB called for and as parents are demanding.

There is a real disruption here -- and it's been to the democratic process. Significantly modifying the standard of teacher quality owed every child in the nation is not something that should happen at the close of session, in the dead of night, behind closed doors in an appropriations bill, but where it is supposed to -- in the light of day during the ESEA reauthorization, with time for deliberation and public input.

[Update: 12/21/10: As expected, the Senate and House enacted the Continuing Resolution today. Congressman George Miller issued a statement explaining his vote in favor of watering the down the highly qualified teacher standard he played a significant role in writing. Miller maintained the vote was necessistated by the possible "major and unpredictable disruptions to schools across the country" if the 9th Circuit's decision were to be implemented. Both Harkin and Miller have now referred to disruptions without articulating just what these disruptions are. As I explained to Congressman Miller's staff on Monday, no disruptions are anywhere on the horizon given the status of the case on appeal and the desire of all parties to avoid any "disruptions." Certainly no imminent disruptions have been identified that warrant enacting this significant amendment to the ESEA without proper public processes and deliberation.]

[Disclosure: I am the lead plaintiffs' counsel in Renee v. Duncan, the case that produced the recent 9th Circuit decision striking down the Department of Education's regulation awarding highly qualified status to teacher trainees.]

Education needs more accountability, from parents

By Mark Goulston, M.D.. Vice Chairman at Steele Partners

In today's world of blame and finger-pointing, we're teaching our kids that accountability and responsibility are slippery slopes that don't mean what they used to. For example, have you witnessed a parent-teen conversation that went anything like this:

Teenager: "Please, Mom and Dad, just let me do this, and I promise that I will take full responsibility for it."

Parent: "Do you realize that taking full responsibility means that if it backfires and goes wrong, you will own up to it, pay back whatever it takes to make up for it going wrong and learn from it so that it doesn't happen again?"

Teenager: "I didn't agree to that."

Parent: "Well, then what do you think taking full responsibility means?"

Teenager: "That if it goes wrong, I will say, 'I'm sorry.'"

If you have witnessed such a conversation, do you agree with the following?

Among our main roles and responsibility as parents is to teach, coach, guide and pass on to our children the character (and I do mean character) traits of self-reliance, resourcefulness, initiative, taking responsibility for one's actions and learning from one's mistakes (see "How to Raise a Self-Confident Child").

If at age 18 they are lacking these, they are going to find success, happiness and life in general a challenge and even overwhelming.

To bring it into sharper focus, consider that at the exact moment that you as a parent bail out your child from facing the consequences of their screw-ups and taking full responsibility for them, literally millions of children in this world the same age as your child are taking full responsibility for their actions and becoming smarter, stronger and wiser. Within the next 10 to 20 years, those children (from China, India and elsewhere) will become your child's boss, and they won't bail out or accept your child's excuses. Instead, they will fire your children.

How Did America Mess Up Its Kids?

One explanation might be what preceding generations had to endure and what they wanted for their children.

For instance, Americans born between 1900 and 1924, referred to as the G.I. Generation, were born to parents who endured coming to the United States, then heard and watched how the countries that they came from became embroiled in World War I, then enlisted to fight in the Great War and then lived through the Great Depression. It's understandable how these parents who lived through such difficult times would want their children to have it better. Having it better was about having a life where they didn't need to fear for their lives or livelihoods. It wasn't about sexual freedom or accumulating disposable income to conspicuously consume with.

The G.I. Generation grew up during the Great Depression, went to fight in World War II and then gave birth to the Baby Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964. It's understandable that wanting their Baby Boomer children to have it better, especially during the prosperity and relatively peaceful years in the 1950s, would go beyond mere economic survival. Instead, it crossed over into giving their children more of what they had less of, from more sexual freedom to more drugs to more rock and roll to hot cars and especially more mobility as Baby Boomers left home to settle down across the country.

Next, early Baby Boomers gave birth to Generation X, and later Baby Boomers gave birth to Generation Y/Millennials. Although Baby Boomers experienced much more freedom than their parents, as a generation they still largely took responsibility for their actions and did not expect to be bailed out. Baby Boomers may have been tolerated and moderately indulged by their parents, but they didn't take it to the level of entitlement. That required another generational turn.

As the G.I. Generation gave their Baby Boomer children more freedom from oppression and repression, the Baby Boomers have given their Generation Y/Millennials freedom from responsibility and accountability for their actions. They have moved past indulging them directly to spoiling them. And rather than letting their children face the consequences of their actions, Baby Boomers have more often bailed out their Gen Y/Millennial children. And when children feel no responsibility or accountability for their actions, the next step is for them to feel and act entitled -- entitled to act according to how they feel and to what will immediately gratify them, and entitled to not do whatever they don't want to do. It is this attitude that would give rise to the Parent-Teenager dialogue that opened this blog.

What We Can and Need to Do About It

An initial step that might be helpful is to reach a consensus between parents and their children as to what terms related to personal responsibility mean. Here are ten terms that come to mind for me:

1.Commitment: the level of dedicated action(s) you continue to take after your enthusiasm for an enterprise stops.
2.Accountability: taking full responsibility for your actions by owning up to the negative or failed results, taking action to make up for it to the person(s) you let down, and learning what you did wrong so that it doesn't occur again.
3.Maturity: how well you are able to resist an irresistible impulse and instead have and exercise judgment and do the reasonable thing. In the brain we refer to this as exercising one's executive function.
4.Honesty: this is simply telling the truth according to the facts as you understand them. You know honesty best, when you tell a lie. Pathological liars lie whenever they are trying to get their way and take advantage of a situation. Compulsive liars lie both when the are trying to get their way and when they are trying to get out of facing the consequences of their actions.
5.Forthrightness: this is coming forward and telling the truth and revealing untruths that you become aware of. It's believing and following Justice Louis Brandeis words: "Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant."
6.Character: what you do when you are frustrated, angry, annoyed, afraid and/or bored and nobody is watching and your chance of getting caught is close to nil.
7.Sacrifice: what you do unto others who will not (immediately) be able to pay you back by doing unto you.
8.Compassion: what you feel unto others who will not be able to do more than say, "Thank you."
9.Thinking ahead and planning: overcoming the aversion to anything that causes you to forego immediate gratification.
10.Listening: and then pausing to consider what you've heard before rejecting it, tuning out or competing with it (a skill every generation needs to learn).
What additions or corrections would you make to this list? What terms come to your mind regarding personal responsibility and being accountable and what would be your definitions?

Next step...

As soon as it's possible, parents, teachers and children need to begin having an ongoing discussion of these terms at the beginning of every school year from the third grade forward. That is because these concepts will take on different meanings as children grow. Include as much interactive and experiential exercises as possible. And finally, make a central part of those discussions: a) why children should care about these ideas and values (one reason being that if they don't, they will be unhirable at age 22 when they finish college); and b) how to implement these values into curriculums and schoolwork.

Here is the challenge: People don't do what's important, they do what they care about. So children will only take personal responsibility and be accountable for their actions when parents care enough to start saying "no" instead of "yes" and then stick to it.

It's also helpful for parents to keep in mind the advice I provide managers and leaders: "If you sacrifice being respected for being liked, you won't be either."

Additional Resources:

•Character Counts at the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics
•The Blessings of a Skinned Knee (Scribner,15.00) by Wendy Mogel
•Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior (Perigee,13.95)
•"Potential is a Terrible Thing to Waste: How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Help Others Do the Same" (Worldwide Association of Business Coaches)
•"Just Listen" Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (Amacom,24.95)
•Change Your Thinking Forever in 8 Minutes

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Teacher pay: Of kryptonite and silver bullets


"SB 6 being revised; no sponsor yet," is a headline that speaks volumes.
It seems that the only people who are truly interested in re-mixing this highly controversial teacher pay legislation are people who haven't been elected to anything, at least not lately.

But unlike last session, this year former Gov. Jeb Bush has come out of the closet by advertising his foundation's role in backing the ultimately vetoed bill.

Our elected representatives are wise to proceed cautiously. If they were smart, they'd go ahead and proclaim victory in achieving progress on pay-for-performance.

Whether you love or hate state Sen. John Thrasher, whether you were for or against his strong-arm push on SB 6, Thrasher should get credit for waking up Florida's parents and teaching professionals.

His efforts on this front helped generate unprecedented headlines, public discussion and citizen activism on public education.

Thrasher - with help from his opponents - set the stage for stakeholders across the state to collaborate on Florida's successful Race to the Top 2 application, which they did, after the bill was vetoed.

Among the architects of the statewide Race to the Top blueprint was Duval County School Board Chairman W.C. Gentry.

This should address most of the elements included in SB 6.
The Legislature should step back and allow the vital local collective bargaining processes to work to bring home critical Race to the Top dollars, and to benefit students.

Teachers across Florida are now examining their contracts with an eye toward a pay-for-performance plan that turns on student performance. Now is the time for them to hash out the details with their elected school boards, beginning with the Race to the Top blueprint

Now is not the time for any presidential wannabes to push their purely political agendas.

Education reform should be about consensus building - not political posturing. Superman is not real, and the unions are not kryptonite.

It's time to stop vilifying public education and public school teachers, and to stop exalting charter schools and private schools as silver bullet solutions. Studies clearly show that, for our most vulnerable students, they're not.

All schools - traditional public, private and charter - simply must do better.

KIPP executive director Tom Majdanics hits the nail on the head when he says, "There are no 100 percent solutions; there are 100 1 percent solutions."

With all due respect to mythical superheroes, the real work happens here on the ground.

Bloomberg's double standard

Where are the calls to privitize the fire and police departments. -cpg

By Lynne Winderbaum, retired teacher

Is the mayor guilty of a double standard, as he defends the performance of the sanitation workers and fire department, whose ability to fulfill their duties were hampered by the blizzard, and yet he continues to blame teachers for conditions out of their control, and is pushing to release the unreliable teacher data reports? Lynne Winderbaum makes the case.
No one should say that our mayor is not understanding of how unique challenges can affect the statistical measurement of one’s job performance. And so it was that I listened to Mayor Bloomberg explain with a bit of impatience and annoyance that the city’s performance in the wake of the snowstorm was not up to par because of a series of unique challenges.

He begged for understanding because, you see, there were a large number of city agencies and personnel involved, there were near white-out conditions, and hundreds of city buses and dozens of ambulances were stuck in the snow.

But the mayor should be aware that all that matters is the outcome, not the difficulties inherent to the job. The data shows that the average response time to structural fires in 2008 was four minutes 33 seconds. The average response time for medical emergencies in 2008 was four minutes 30 seconds. However, in this case, data released today show that the Fire Department had a 3-hour delay in response to critical cases, like heart attacks, and 12-hour delays for non-critical calls. A five alarm fire in Elmhurst raged for 3 hours when firefighters were delayed by the blizzard conditions.

Surely, firemen and EMT’s are to be judged “ineffective” when it comes to a response time so far below the city standard.

Extraordinary challenges notwithstanding, emergency responses to all calls should be within five minutes. It is incumbent on the news organizations, for the sake of our citizens, to FOIL a list of all firemen and EMT’s that were on duty during this time period and to identify them by name in the newspapers. The mere fact that response time data was influenced by so many factors beyond their control, as detailed by the mayor above, is no excuse to fail to reach or exceed the standard of response time expected by the city. It is also unfounded to excuse the longer response times from any engine companies who were impacted by the increased demands created by the closure of firehouses in their neighborhoods.

It is commendable that the FDNY receives the gratitude of the citizenry and the satisfaction of knowing they have saved lives and property. But these things are not measurable as are response times.

Perhaps there should be merit bonuses for the fastest responders to ensure that firefighters show more dedication to their work and our citizens’ welfare. Those who take on the most challenging conditions are no exception. Data is king and the statistics are the only objective way to measure the value of the workers.

It is incomprehensible that in the face of this disappointing data the mayor would excuse FDNY performance by saying, ““And I want them to know that we do appreciate the severity of these conditions they face, and that the bottom line is we are doing everything we possibly can, and pulling every resource from every possible place to meet the unique challenges…”

Oh wait. Nobody wants to privatize the Fire Department or find reason for it to be run by corporate interests who have scant experience improving performance in fire and medical emergencies. Never mind. --

Mayor Peyton calls Duval County school district colossal failure

In a Times Union editorial Mayor John Peyton referred to the Duval County Public School District as a colossal failure. Wow right, not just a failure but a colossal failure. Why didn’t he just say a failure of biblical proportions?

The Times Union said they wouldn’t go that far, after all the district has received a B grade from the state. Sorry to disappoint the Times Union but it is a gentlemen’s B as the district has become an expert at massaging certain numbers like more kids taking A.P. classes, giving fewer suspensions and making it nearly impossible to withdraw kids to inflate our grade. Though to be honest I wouldn’t go as far as “colossal failure” either.

The truth is there are incredible things going on at all our schools; even our supposed worse schools and for the most part they are the interactions between our teachers and our students. The thing is the district cannot continue to put our students and teachers in no win situations and then scratch their heads when they don’t succeed to the level that they wanted. It’s a wonder and a credit to our fine teachers dedication and professionalism that we are doing as well as we are.

We can’t continue to push kids through with out the skills they need, ignore discipline and over load and dump on teachers. We must try to address our most struggling kids problems most of which aren’t school related and also have more than the one size fits all, everybody is going to go to college curriculum which serves fewer and fewer children that we have now. If we want to be successful that is. If we don’t do those things then it probably won’t be long before the Times Union as most of the city already does, agrees with the mayor.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

NBER Report: Great Teachers Are Worth $400,000 A Year

From the Huffington Post

How much is a good teacher worth? Some would say they're priceless, but recent findings in the National Bureau of Economic Research's The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality, is a bit more exact. The report, written by Eric A. Hanushek, suggests that quality teachers with 20 students are worth $400,000 more in the future earnings of their students than an average teacher, annually.

Hanushek examines how the quality and effectiveness of a good teacher can impact a student's future success and how this achievement can effect future economic outcomes for the country as a whole.

According to his calculations, it isn't just that good teachers are worth a lot when considering our economic future as a country; alternatively, bad teachers are costing us trillions. Hanushek says that by exchanging the bottom 5-8 percent of crummy teachers with average teachers, the United States, as a country, could jump up the ranks to top in math and science, generating an astounding $100 trillion in present-day value. Hanushek writes:

The policy of eliminating the least effective teachers is very consistent with the McKinsey analysis of the policies found in high-performing school systems around the world (Barber and Mourshed 2007). Their analysis suggests that the best school systems do not allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom for long.

His research brings up a huge concern, no matter your take on educational policy and reform; emphasizing the necessity for good teachers means much for the country's economic future.

However, education policy reformers aren't left with a simple solution. These numbers leave much up for debate. The writer suggests that we fire the lower percentile of bad teachers, which opens a pandora's box of battles with teachers unions committed to teacher tenure.

Further, the ultimate measurement for teacher effectiveness remains unclear. Standardized testing appears to be the most obvious solution. But if teachers begin to fear being fired by being in the bottom percentage, they could refocus their efforts on standardized tests again or also choose to work in higher-performing schools, where they won't have to worry about low test scores

Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute blogs in a section of the Washington Post against Hanushek's proposed solution:

Instead of trying to fire our way to the high performance of Finland or anywhere else, why not try to emulate the policies that these nations actually employ? It seems very strange to shoot for the achievement levels of these nations by doing the exact opposite of what they do.
These findings also unearth another debate regarding teacher salary; if good teachers are worth more, should they be paid more?

This means we should be willing to pay more for good teachers, but it also increases the benefit of getting rid of bad teachers and ensuring we have a system that can do that. After all, every dollar spent on a bad teacher has the high opportunity cost of good teachers.

With such startling findings, and many questions needing solutions, there is still much up for debate.

Is Rick Scott’s Private Voucher Plan Just An Overton Window Mover?

By Ray Seaman

When I first heard of Governor-Elect Rick Scott’s plans to dismantle Florida’s public education system and turn it into a giant private voucher experiment, I was like most folks, both angry and worried. If you’re unfamiliar with Scott’s plan, here it is:

Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Thursday blew the door wide open to the idea of a voucherlike program for all students, saying he’s working with lawmakers to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose.

He did not use the term vouchers. Others called it an “education savings account.”

But whatever it’s called, the incoming governor, key lawmakers and a foundation tied to former Gov. Jeb Bush are setting the stage for Florida to consider one of the most radical education ideas that it — or arguably any state — has ever considered.

Scott’s plan has already received an outpouring of opposition. I haven’t heard much support at all for such a plan excluding the usual suspects like Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) and other public school haters. Perhaps the most surprising reaction however came from big time voucher hucksters themselves. Andrew Coulson, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said Scott’s proposal goes too far:

But what if the ESA [Education Savings Accounts] has no serious hope of passing muster with the state Supreme Court, and in the process of being struck down would jeopardize successful existing programs? Sadly, that appears to be the most likely outcome.

In light of the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 Bush v. Holmes ruling, in which it struck down the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] voucher program, there does not seem to be any way for the Court could uphold any sort of voucher program in Florida even if it wanted to (see below)—and there’s no reason to think it wants to. In fact, it seems likely that a lower court would grant an injunction against any voucher program even being implemented in Florida, pending the outcome of the inevitable lawsuit.

The result of simultaneously passing the ESA program and abolishing the corporate income tax would thus be to gut Florida’s existing, successful, popular, money-saving scholarship donation tax credit program without providing a viable alternative. That would decimate school choice in Florida. Furthermore, an additional anti-voucher ruling by the Court might expand on its earlier Bush v. Holmes ruling, thereby jeopardizing the McKay voucher program for special needs children that is also successful, popular, and far more efficient than the public school system.

Leave aside for a moment the fact there doesn’t seem to be any substantial evidence showing Florida’s existing voucher program actually outperforms our public schools. However, Coulson is likely correct about the legal implications for passing a universal private voucher program into law. The St. Petersburg Times editorial board discussed this when they knocked Scott’s plans:

The Florida Supreme Court struck down the Bush-inspired Opportunity Scholarships, which were tuition vouchers to be given to students in failing public schools. The 2006 court opinion found those vouchers violated a constitutional requirement for a “uniform system of free public schools.” The high court was silent on another constitutional provision that bars state money from going to religious institutions, which a lower appellate court cited. Two existing voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit voucher for students from low-income families and the McKay Scholarship voucher for disabled students, are similarly flawed but have yet to be legally tested.

I’m not a lawyer or an expert on the Florida constitution, but it seems that based on the evidence, if Scott and the far right really wanted a universal voucher program, they would have to pass a constitutional amendment of some kind to neuter or muddy up the “uniform system of free public schools” language in the constitution. I highly doubt Florida voters would pass such an amendment with more than 60% of the vote. I would be surprised if such an idea even received a majority of the vote. Keep in mind, 62% of voters in Utah (yes, Utah) defeated a statewide ballot proposal creating a universal voucher program in 2007.

So what’s this all about then, anyway if Scott’s universal voucher plan is a legal absurdity? The only thing I can think of is the tried and true tactic of the right, which is moving the public discourse to more favorable conservative ground. This is what’s called “Moving the Overton window.” Basically, by pushing such an extreme proposal, even if it’s defeated, it becomes less crazy the next time around, and in the meantime it allows you to successfully push through less extreme, but still radical ideas into the mainstream.

So Scott’s push for universal vouchers may just make things like basing half of a teacher’s pay on a student’s test scores a more palatable idea. Keep in mind, such a proposal in the form of Senate Bill 6 caused a firestorm of opposition earlier this year, leading to its demise at the hands of Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto pen. Now, in the context of Rick Scott’s very crazy plan to essentially dismantle their schools, at least some teachers are reportedly warming up to the idea of a less destructive form of SB 6. Never mind the fact that the only major controlled study on merit pay demonstrates that it doesn’t work at all. Yet we’re still tinkering with the idea like it’s something we have to have to make public schools better. Witness the moving of the Overton window.

So while public education supporters and advocates should certainly target Scott’s universal voucher plan for defeat, they shouldn’t forget about all the other fires the legislature has burning out there. If anything, Scott’s radical plans could just be a giant distraction to get a lot of other horrible anti-public school legislation passed.

How desperate for reform should we be

By Larry M. Elkin

Our public schools are awash in high-stakes testing, but we aren’t doing well enough. We know this, of course, because the latest test results tell us so.

“To be brutally honest…a host of developed nations are out-educating us,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this month in response to recently released international rankings produced by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The United States placed 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 OECD countries.

The real surprises, however, were the scores of two non-OECD education systems included in the study: Shanghai and Hong Kong. Averaged across the three disciplines measured, the United States had a score of 496 on a scale of zero to 1,000. Hong Kong scored 546. Shanghai averaged 577, ranking first in all three categories.

President Obama declared the situation to be a new “Sputnik moment” for American education, referring to the Cold War fears triggered by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite in 1957. At that time, the U.S. made a massive push to improve math and science curricula as a way of retaining the country’s technical advantage. Harking back to the language of the Space Race, Obama said he wants to protect investments in education (that means spend a lot of federal money) to “win the race” for jobs and economic development.

In reality, however, the U.S. never really fell behind in its race with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. had a few strong suits, in which it rivaled or surpassed our abilities. Rocketry, at that moment, was one of them. But there was never a time when, overall, the Soviets remotely approached the level of American technology, efficiency or productivity. From cars to nuclear power, Soviet technology was an unreliable backwater.

The current “Sputnik moment” is, like the original, an overreaction.

The PISA rankings show that the average 15-year-old American student cannot answer as many test questions correctly as the average 15-year-old student in Shanghai. But this is no cause for societal or economic panic. What is important is that our companies are able to find the talent they need to develop. Is Boeing having trouble finding enough people with the knowledge of advanced calculus necessary to design airplanes? Are publishing houses struggling to locate people with the reading skills necessary to edit books? I don’t think so. As long as I’m right, American companies will be on solid ground.

Even if companies were having difficulty accessing talent, the most practical solution at a policy level would be, not to teach more Americans calculus or editing, but to reform labor and immigration laws to enable companies to hire the people who have those skills, wherever they reside. The practical solution on a corporate level would be to send the work requiring specific skills to the places where people with those skills are available. Boeing might open a design facility in Finland, which scored an impressive 541 on the math assessment. Harper Collins might hire freelance editors based in Canada, which bested us by 24 points in reading.

The answer is not to simply amp up competition in American schools in order to try to raise our position in international competitions. This, unfortunately, seems to be what education officials intend to do. Education Secretary Duncan said at a press conference following the release of the PISA scores, “The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

But “accelerating student learning” to “compete” with other nations is not a path to economic prominence. Japan’s education system continues to be rated one of the best in the world, and is routinely held up as a model which critics of our system argue we ought to emulate. Yet Japan’s economy has remained lethargic ever since it tanked in 1990, and the country’s population – a better indicator of a society’s overall health, in my view – is in an accelerating decline.

The Japanese system, along with many others in Asia modeled after it, emphasizes high-stakes standardized testing. Test scores are used to separate students into stratified levels which dictate their future educational possibilities.

This leads to heavy stress and early burn-outs, so that, by the time they reach the university level, many Japanese students have already exhausted their best intellectual energies. A Canadian who teaches English at a Japanese university wrote in a critique of the country’s education system, “The result of all this test-taking and stress, is a nation of order takers who have trouble making decisions, let alone stating an opinion.”

Already I think the U.S. is in danger of falling into the same pattern. As Rebecca Pavese wrote here recently, some parents of 5-year-olds are so eager to score a competitive advantage for their children that they wait a year before allowing them to start school. This allows these children to accumulate more skills before they enter the now-cutthroat world of kindergarten.

At the high school level, the unprecedented number of star students, all within a few grade points of one another, has led several schools to start naming multiple valedictorians. William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, told The New York Times that he had heard of some schools with as many as 100 valedictorians. This crowding at the top forces students who are set on attending top colleges to do even more to distinguish themselves. Scores of colleges these days seem unwilling to admit anyone other than card-carrying superheroes.

Of course, excessive pressure to overachieve is not the only problem troubling the American education system. Far too many kids don’t graduate, and far too many of those who do graduate lack the skills necessary to be productive in a high-tech, service-based economy. Particularly troubling is the ongoing achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We need to fix these problems, but our need to do so is not contingent on how other countries are doing.

Education is very important. Being the international valedictorians based on PISA scores is not. To be successful, a country needs policies that encourage actual economic growth and social development, not good test taking.

A strong nation requires wise government spending, flexible labor markets, the ability to form coalitions, openness to competition, orderly politics, and the willingness to import labor through immigration or to outsource it through trade as needed. These are the things we need to focus on. If America does not continue to thrive in the world, it will be because of the things we do or fail to do, not because of the things people do elsewhere.

Fed Up with the Unintended Consequences of NCLB

From the blog, In the Trenches with School Reform

The name for this post can’t be A Nation at Risk. That’s already been done, but as Diane Ravitch points out in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, sound recommendations stemming from A Nation at Risk (1983) got lost or watered down in the political fray. Now it’s 2010 and we’re all floundering in the aftermath of NCLB. I should call my first post A Nation in Crisis — because I believe that’s where we are as a result of the last 30+ years of educational reform.

I don’t have to write a blog. Diane Ravitch has said everything that needs to be said. And John Merrow warns us where we’re headed in his latest book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity — and What We Can Do About It. Not only does he discuss how school reform has led to mediocrity, but he warns about the unintended consequences of school reform on our democratic way of life.

But until Arne Duncan reads their books and pays attention — and until President Obama instructs Arne to listen — meaning: stop talking and really listen to educators when they’re trying to educate him on the realities of school reform, I will keep this blog up and running. My hope is that you will leave a comment above, spread the word and get educators and parents to come to this blog, find their state on the map,and leave comments about their specific experiences with NCLB. If enough of you who serve in the trenches are willing to share, we may be able to get our policymakers to take notice. If teachers from 50 states + D.C. reiterate the same concerns over and over, perhaps some policymaker of influence and importance will finally listen.

I could be wrong and all of you will tell me what a delightful, meaningful time you’ve had with NCLB the last nine years. But if I’m right and enough concern is revealed in your comments . . . I’ll categorize your comments and get them available in some kind of organized shape. (I’ll reveal only your username and state.) If you too have been blogging, let me know and I will make sure that others visiting this site know about you. (See bottom of page for who some of these committed and very professional people are.)

Feel free to comment on Race to the Top, the Core Standards and so on.

Then we’ll move on to proposing solutions. (I am adapting Dr. Treffinger’s model for creative problem solving to our problem.) Along the way we’ll try as educators to come to consensus about important topics related to school reform, such as the goals of American education. Let’s try to get the train back on the track before it completely derails. We’d better hurry because sometime in late 2010 or early 2011, decisions about school reform will be made in Washington and will be, as they have these last nine years, out of our control.

Unintended Consequences of NCLB

Every change always seems to have unintended consequences — some good, some pesky, and some totally undesirable. Think of just about any change you’ve made in your classroom or your school. Most times you’ve had to pause and tweak a bit — or a lot. That’s what I’m calling for. Congress needs to pause and assess. It just makes good sense, especially with the sweeping, monumental reform our schools have undergone since NCLB. Once this assessment has taken place, it will be clear to Congress that the unintended consequences have been disastrous. President Obama and Arne Duncan refuse to listen. As for me, I’ve given up on the two of them. Congress is our last hope.

My recommended course of action for Congress: Do not reauthorize NCLB and, along with it, Blueprint for Reform. Reauthorize ESEA as it stood under Title 1. Fully fund IDEA. Then sponsor a Continental Congress on school reform. Give a voice to those in the trenches — educators and parents — and listen to them. They will do what you did not do when NCLB was so quickly passed as President Bush’s first bill. They will start with the end in mind: what are the goals of American education? What are the barriers that have kept us from meeting these goals? You will then begin to see proposals for meaningful reform — but not one set of reforms that must be applied to every school in the nation. And then at the end, where it belongs, you will see addressed what NCLB is largely about — accountability. It’s a worthy and necessary issue. No one is denying that.

My own recommendation: The federal government’s role in school reform should be only to provide direction and clarity of purpose. Support? Yes. Leadership? No. NCLB sent a shock wave throughout the country. It continues to reverberate with unintended consequences that no one could have foreseen. Federal legislation applies to all states and all districts. Interstate commerce, highways and bridges, the military — federal legislation can work in a coherent way. But schools and the populations they serve are diverse, and one law can not fit all. NCLB is the proof.

Teachers, other educators, and parents: go to the map above and record your own comments about your experiences serving in the trenches under NCLB. Explore this website to see what it’s about and what I hope it can help accomplish. Your voice, along with the voices of every educator we can get to this site, can make a difference. Go to my first blog, which is the first of several about my own experiences with school reform as a principal over the last 15 years in Arizona. Anything there sound familiar?

Regardless, before you leave this website, click on your state and leave your comments about school reform. Time is of the essence. It looks now as if Congress will deal with reauthorization of NCLB in January 2011. American Enterprise Institute held a hearing on November 9, 2010, with Congressional aides who are working to reauthorize NCLB. Watch the hearing. You’ll get an idea where things are headed.

Who Else is Trying to Get the Word Across? Where Else Can You Go to Help?

Anthony Cody, who began Teachers’ Letters to Obama on Facebook, writes an excellent blog for Teacher Magazine ( Facebook also has a section on “School Reform.” Read teacherken’s posts, called “diaries” at Daily Kos and read his comments there as well as his posts on Huffington Read Nancy Flanagan’s comments and many others, on Teachers’ Letters to Obama on Facebook. Nancy Flanagan also has a blog on More and more groups are forming. Go to Uniting 4 Kids and Jesse Turner’s Children are More than Test Scores on Facebook. Join Jesse and Christopher Janotta’s rally July 28-31, including the Save Our Schools Million Teacher March July 30 in Washington, D.C. So many of you are trying to get the word out. I continue to update a list of blogs on the sidebar to the right. If I’ve overlooked you, let me know.

Subversive educators in action

By Larry Strauss, Veteran high school English teacher, novelist

Amid the very contentious debate about reforming public education, some of us have to enter classrooms every day and deliver instruction to students who cannot wait for systemic change--and while I greatly admire the passion and knowledge and intelligence sometimes represented in this ongoing debate I have little faith that any of this will be resolved any time soon and, alas, even less faith that it will be resolved to the benefit of my students.

So for now, at least, and probably for some time to come, I pledge--and hope other teachers will join me--to be a subversive educator. That is, to provide quality education for our students, by any means necessary.

I am not suggesting rebellion for its own sake. Where policy supports quality education, I will obediently adhere. But, like many of you reading this, I have been doing this long enough to know that (notwithstanding the many fraudulent claims of those who have no direct contact with our students) putting students first--I mean really placing their interests ahead of all others--is very often at odds with what we are told to do in our classrooms.

Subversive educators have for decades toiled in secrecy, sometimes at great risk, to provide their students with an education that is enlightening, awakening, and inspiring. I would not be the teacher I am today without the inspiration of my subversive colleagues. I would not, in fact, be a teacher at all.

Putting students first often involves great risk. I have had the good fortune to spend my career in South Los Angeles where many high schools have a significant number of unfilled positions and where, barring serious student or parent complaints, administrators rarely keep track of the antics of their teachers. I understand that many teachers in other places operate under much closer scrutiny and far more stringent limitations. To those I say, do what you reasonably can.

Administrators and politicians and union leadership may claim that there is no disparity between what they tell us to do and what is best for students--but we know that is often not the case. When I began teaching I had a colleague who--whenever he was asked to do anything outside his classroom, professional development or otherwise--would ask, "How is this benefiting my students?" A simple question but a profound guiding principle. He did not show up to work each day to support the ambitions of administrators or politicians. Neither do I. Therefore:

•I will teach students. I will not teach "testable material." Increasing student test scores has never been a morally defensible goal. What students need is to become culturally and scientifically literate, to learn to think critically and do research and synthesize data, to become both open-minded and skeptical, to respect themselves and others and love learning, to understand whatever they read and be able to articulate themselves with clarity and confidence. Some of that might be measured, to some degree, by standardized tests but when their scores become ends unto themselves, then we have sold out ourselves and our students.

•I will not recognize so-called sub-groups. I may differentiate instruction in an attempt to address different ability levels and learning styles and temperaments, but I will not calculate a moment of instruction to address the specific movement of any particular students between so-called achievement levels. I will work with equal ambition toward the advancement of all students, even those who have already demonstrated mastery (and whose improvement, therefore, would not boost my school's API or AYP).

•I will teach with the same dedication regardless of whether what I am teaching will be tested at all. Originality of thought, for example, cannot be measured on a multiple choice tests. Neither can the development of a literary or rhetorical voice. Wherever possible, I will let student interests and passions influence what I teach them--indifferent as standardized tests may be to such considerations.

•I will not permit those who know nothing about my students to dictate how and what I teach them. This includes people in government and in the text book industry. I remain open-minded and will consider any and all suggestions that might benefit my students.

•When I do use a text book (as opposed to an original source), I will teach students how to critique the text book and understand the political and economic context within which it was devised and guide them to recognize bias in everything they read and see and hear, including what I say.

•I will spend my own money and resources on what students need--to the degree that I can afford to--even if my union encourages me not to.

•I will not, except in extreme circumstances, withhold instruction from my students in order to advance the interests of my union. I will stay at school late to help students though I am not paid to do so. I will be available via Email and telephone to assist my students, also for no additional pay. If my colleagues and I vote to strike, I will not cross the picket line, but I will remain accessible to my students via Email and telephone and continue to write college recommendations and assist seniors with their personal statements, etc.

•I will assist struggling teachers--whether or not I am assigned to or paid for it--but I will also assist my administration in any way I can to purge my school and the system in general of egregiously and intractably incompetent colleagues. It is a crime not to report child abuse--the same penalties should apply to educational mal-practice.

•I will not treat my students like inmates. I will not enforce rules that are unnecessarily oppressive. I will respect them and empower them with a voice. I will be demanding. I will insist on decorum. But I will be reasonable. I will encourage students to question authority--mine included.

Teaching should be pure joy. That so many of us are frustrated and alienated--some to the point of despair--is intolerable. We can end the suffering by making 2011 the year of the subversive educator. And if we can all conspire together on behalf of students (why not make this the decade of the subversive educator?), then maybe we can save the system; we can be the reform.

Taken from the Huffington Post:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Education Narrative (rough draft)

There is an education narrative being rammed down the people’s throats by the powers-that-be. Prominent citizens like Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush and their proxies are telling it. Like most snake oil salesman they weave a smooth tale using cherry picked facts and figures and enticing sound bites and blurbs to get their way and in doing so have made teachers and their unions the boogey men of the story. Watch out parents they shout as they like wise make enticing promises.

The truth however is they are using cherry picked stats and figures to try and convince, make that to try and scare Joe and Judy public into believing the narrative that their children are getting a substandard education and that the future of America is at stake and that it is all teachers fault. If we could just get rid of five percent of the bad teachers we could have dramatic improvements but the teachers unions are trying to protect bad teachers. We want to give vouchers to all parents so they can have school choice but the teachers unions are against them. We want to reward the top teachers with merit pay, how can the unions be against more money for thier best members but they are. Our education ranking in the world has steadily dropped over the last quarter century it must be because we have bad teachers. Why can’t we be more like Finland? On and on they go. Well friends not since a snake convinced a naive young girl to take a bite of an apple has their been such a masterful con job been perpetrated.

Until the recent recession you couldn’t give a teaching job away as there were always openings. Does anybody remember how they were advertising in Canada and India to find teachers, does anybody remember the push to get people from the business world to enter the classroom? I do. Of course we want our best and our brightest in the classroom but you know what else we want, we want the willing to be there to. Are there teachers that should be replaced, yes of course there are just like there are people in every profession that would serve it best by not being in it. Unions however are not protecting bad teachers they are just making sure that teachers get due process and in my home town that only kicks in after they have proved themselves for three years. That’s right at any time during a teachers first three years at the end of one they can be let go. But say we did somehow identify and get rid of the worse five percent, not the five percent the admin doesn’t like because they more often than the worse suffer the consequences of speaking up or being innovative who would we replace them with?

Another stat the ant-teacher mongers like to throw out is that education draws just under a quarter of our top graduates that means the most of our kids are being taught by someone other than a teacher with a high grade point average. First I am not sure if straight G.P.A. should be a factor but why is this a bad thing. Are 23 percent of the nations top grads entering law enforcement, or medicine or business or any other field? I don’t think so and if the stat is right that means over a fifth or our supposed best and brightest are choosing education over the thousands and thousands of other careers out there. But instead of celebrating that it’s used as an indictment against teachers. Teachers can’t win at the top, not enough of the best grads enter education and they can’t win at the bottom, the unions are protecting bad teachers.
Then they compare us to industrialized countries like Finland that have zoomed past us in the international industrial rankings. This to must e the teachers and their unions fault they scream protecting all those bad teachers and resisting reforms. They don’t tell you that if we factor out kids that live in poverty our ranking zooms all the way to second and about the countries they are comparing us to. It’s true that Finland draws the vast amount of its staff from the top third of college graduates but the ed deformers fail to mention that teachers in Finland are paid substantially more than their American counterparts, there classes are very small, they play a role in policy and curriculum and are one of the most highly unionized groups around. Comparing teachers in both countries is not like comparing apples and oranges it’s like comparing apples to a five-course meal, with America being the apple.

What about vouchers? How can people who really care about children and education be against them after all they give parents the choice to do what they feel is best for their children. Sounds pretty seductive right especially in Florida where they are promising parent five thousand five hundred dollars. The problem is charter schools and their private school counter parts despite the fact that they can pick and choose who they allow in and don’t have to play by the same rules as their public school counter parts haven’t been found to do any better, in fact for the most part they are found to do the same or worse. Furthermore the universal voucher system will amount to welfare for the well off program as it siphons much needed money away from already cash starved public schools. We don’t get to pick our police, our fire department, our military our meat inspectors and so many other things but for some reason the powers-that-be will have you believe it is better to abandon public schools.

You want proof unions are against education reform those spinning the anti-teacher narrative ask. Well look at merit pay, how can they be against merit pay for the nations best teachers. The thing with merit pay is like school choice it sounds very enticing but like school choice often becomes no choice merit pay can be very misleading. The one-year I received merit pay I knew there were a dozen teachers better than me that didn’t. The one-year I didn’t receive merit pay I knew there were a dozen teachers worse than me that did. So often it comes down to whom the principal likes or whatever perception he has but worse than that it there is no relationship between those who receive merit pay and their children doing better.

The anti-teacher narrative has more holes in it than a colander but somehow it is gaining traction and teachers have gone from valued members of society to borderline pariahs holding the country back. Teachers who I remind you the vast majority work many untold and un paid extra hours, who donate their time and resources to other peoples children as often theirs wait in extended day or in front of the television why they take home papers to grade or work on lesson plans. Teachers who give so much and frankly throughout time have received so little have become the bad guys of the narrative while the policy makers, politicians absentee parents and children raised without a sense of respect or a willingness to work get a pass.

Furthermore it’s worse. Do you know where Mayor Bloomberg and Jeb Bush and many of those selling the anti teacher story sent their children? They sent them to private schools, which tout teachers experience and smaller class sizes as selling points, two things the ed deformers have recently been minimizing. Jeb Bushes family and Bill Gates have made millions and stand to make millions more on the education reforms they are selling (standardized tests and virtual, computer based, schools). Also do you know how many of the people selling the teachers union bad, teachers substandard story have been teachers and actually been in classrooms? Well of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s education team only one is a teacher and he works at a virtual school. Of the leaders mentioned in the opening only Michelle Rhee was a teacher and she came up through Teach for America which some have renamed Teach for a while because of the staggeringly high amount of participants who serve their two years and then leave. This is who is writing the education narrative, those that have had nothing to do with teaching and those that would seek to profit off of it.

A look back at Florida education in 2010

From the St. Petersberg Times Grade Book

A look back gives insight for future of Florida education news
Some say the past is preview and prologue for the future. That seems likely the case for Florida's biggest education stories of 2010, all of which have tendrils into 2011.

Look no further than Senate Bill 6. The legislation, which emerged quietly in March, aimed to dramatically change the way Florida contracts, hires, fires, evaluates and certifies its public school teachers. It itself was the offshoot of an unsuccessful 2009 House bill with the moniker "Quality Teachers For All Students Act."

Once word of SB 6 hit, it generated a furious backlash. Not the usual FCAT-hating, Jeb Bush-bashing variety. No, this was a real grassroots effort, from Facebook to street corner, that joined parents and teachers in opposition to an effort that seemed to ignore input from those who had a key stake in the matter as state leaders pushed to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding. (Who wouldn't want a nearly $1 billion infusion during tough times, after all?)

Only a last minute veto by Gov. Charlie Crist killed the initiative. But only for the moment. Crist won't be governor anymore, and governor-elect Rick Scott looks more favorably upon the teacher "tenure" proposals expected to come from a veto-proof GOP majority in 2011.

Also on the Tallahassee front, the Legislature began the end of the high school FCAT, authorizing the creation of end-of-course exams more closely aligned to individual course curricula. Those exams begin in 2011 with Algebra I. Lawmakers expanded the number of corporate tax credit scholarships (vouchers to some) available to Florida students, perhaps paving the way for a 2011 discussion on vouchers for all that Scott kicked off in the final days of the year to a frenzy of national commentary.

And lawmakers took yet another shot at scaling back the 2002 class size amendment, asking voters to ease the restrictions that otherwise would take effect with the 2010-11 academic year. The November referendum didn't cross the 60 percent threshold needed for approval, leaving the issue of implementation in tough budget times open for yet another year of debate. Already the Pasco School Board has approved more restrictive school choice rules to align more closely to the class size mandate, while also redrawing attendance zones to make it easier to comply.

Speaking of tough budget times, 2010 marked yet another year of school board spending cuts across Florida and the Tampa Bay region. Teachers saw their pay continue to stagnate while also being required to do more work and, in some instances, pay more for shrinking benefits. Districts tried to avoid layoffs and program cuts with varying degrees of success. With revenue estimates looking bleak and federal stimulus funding coming to an end, budget cuts promise to remain with us in 2011.

Still, the Hillsborough school district was able to find money to match its Gates Foundation grant for changing its teacher evaluation system. The effort, still in its infancy, has received enough teacher support without major public infighting to win national attention as the kinder, gentler way to approach teacher quality reform.

Contrast that with Pinellas County's attempt to overhaul its academic programs through a series of moves and mergers. As each idea gained a public airing (or sometimes because it didn't), parents, educators and even students came out to blast the concepts and press the School Board to kill it. Two new members elected in November joined the majority to adopt some of the concepts, such as a new International Baccalaureate program. But overall the new majority approved only a shell of superintendent Julie Janssen's recommendation.

All the area school districts saw major improvement in their graduation rates and high school grades from the state, as the Department of Education adopted new standards for each. Yet even within that good news lay the seeds of future problems, as the new definitions included measures that appeared to obscure reality. (One example is giving Advanced Placement participation greater weight than performance for school grades. The ratio will change over two years.) Calls for fixes began the day after the press releases hit.

Still, Florida's school grading system remained the envy of many other states, where leaders brought in former governor Bush or his team of supporters to explain the Florida model. The ideas began to take hold in several places, including New Mexico, where former Florida deputy education commissioner Hanna Skandera was appointed to become education secretary, as well as Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma and a host of others. That's yet another Florida education story that promises to take root in 2011.

Stay tuned.

Virtually Worthless

Virtual learning is a huge part of Rick Scotts proposed education reforms. -cpg

By Mc Nelly Torres, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Rodolfo M. Rodriguez, a 24-year-old cashier at a gas station in Davie, was searching online for a school that would allow him to earn a high school diploma.

It was February, and Rodriguez found Continental Academy, a virtual school based in Miramar.

“Study at home at your own pace,” Continental Academy’s website advertised. “No classes to attend.”

The father of two boys, ages 4 and 3, paid the initial $350 fee and began to take courses in math, reading, science and English. In about four weeks, Rodriguez completed the program without initiating any communication with teachers or receiving guidance from school staff, he said.

Continental Academy’s Written Response to FCIR
After declining interview requests, Continental Academy provided written responses to 10 questions from FCIR.

But Rodriguez’s dreams of obtaining a college education and pursuing a career as a dental or medical assistant to better provide for his family were dashed in March after Concorde Career Institute, a technical-vocational school that specializes in health care training, refused to accept his Continental Academy diploma.

The reason: Continental Academy has not been accredited by an academic standards organization that Concorde accepts. In other words, as far as Miramar-based Concorde Career Institute was concerned, Rodriguez’s Continental Academy diploma was just a piece of paper.

“The (Continental Academy) website said that it was accredited,” Rodriguez, a high school dropout, said. “I put so much work into this para nada (for nothing).”

Claudette Simpson, head of admissions at Concorde, said the school turns away many students because they don’t have a “valid” diploma, according to Concorde’s criteria. Concorde accepts private high school diplomas from schools that have been accredited by a group recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have a list of schools that we won’t accept diplomas from,” Simpson said, without revealing an exact number of schools but explaining that Concorde’s list has grown over the years. “We are very diligent about this.”

Continental Academy is one of the schools on that list.

Tammy Dawn Shedd, of Cornelia, Ga., has also struggled with Continental’s lack of credentials. Five colleges, including Virginia Tech, have turned her down because they wouldn’t accept her Continental diploma.

The problem is that many vocational schools and institutions of higher learning do not recognize the two accrediting organizations, the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, which accredit Continental.

“They cheated me of about $500,” Shedd, 32, said because none of the colleges she applied to would accept her Continental Academy diploma.

Rodriguez and Shedd are two of 59 students from around the country who have filed complaints with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services against Continental Academy since 2006. They allege Continental Academy provided false information about accreditation.

These students, many of whom said they graduated with honors from Continental Academy, reported that colleges nationwide, including Virginia Tech and Southwestern College in Ohio, have refused to accept them because their high school diploma is from Continental.

Their complaints underscore a fundamental problem in distance learning and online education. Dozens of organizations accredit schools, but the U.S. higher education community at large only recognizes a handful of accrediting organizations as legitimate, education experts said. If you obtain a high school diploma from an organization not widely recognized by colleges and post-secondary schools, as Rodriguez did, then your degree is worthless.

The Better Business Bureau has given Continental an “F” rating because the school failed to resolve a handful of complaints in a timely manner, and in some cases, school officials have not responded to several complaints filed against the school.

In a written statement to Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Jeffrey Lopez, vice principal of Continental Academy, said Continental takes complaints seriously. But Lopez admitted that Continental Academy’s diploma is refused by colleges and post-secondary schools so often that the Miramar school keeps a form letter on hand to address the issue.

“When we challenge the college’s decision to deny admission to one of our graduates in writing, we never hear from the college and never hear from the graduate,” Lopez said in a written statement. Lopez provided a copy of the form letter to FCIR.

It is unclear, however, if any colleges have accepted Continental graduates after receiving the school’s appeal letter. None of the Continental graduates who spoke with FCIR received this type of support from Continental Academy after colleges refused to accept their high school diplomas.

In connection with this article, Lopez refused FCIR’s request for an in-person meeting and later canceled a scheduled phone interview. Instead, he requested questions in writing. FCIR e-mailed 13 questions, of which Lopez answered only 10.

“Continental Academy has advised students who Continental Academy is accredited by and that the acceptance of credits or graduate is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer,” Lopez wrote.

Continental Academy doesn’t provide a disclaimer on its site to warn students about this issue and students who spoke with FCIR said Continental Academy did not make this clear to them before they enrolled.

A big market with no regulation
Distance-learning schools, traditionally done through mail as students received materials and worked at home, have been around for years. But with the explosive growth of the Internet, many of these operations have flourished online, reaching large groups of students with little or no oversight from state and federal regulators.

In 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education described high schools and for-profit colleges lacking accreditation as “degree mills,” reporting that these operations have grown into a billion-dollar industry.

Education experts and consumer advocates said many of these online high schools use accrediting groups with questionable credentials, giving the schools an endorsement that unsuspecting students often do not question. And these schools appeal to would-be students by offering study-at-home convenience and fast results while charging $300 to $1,200 for a high school diploma.

“It’s a mess, and we are all discovering this is a problem in all states,” said Alan L. Contreras, a national expert and administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a state agency that administers laws and standards for post-secondary schools to ensure colleges operating in Oregon offer degrees that have credentials accepted by the state.

The Florida Commission for Independent Education, a state regulatory agency that oversees for-profit and public post-secondary institutions in the state, has received complaints from consumers about suspected diploma mills, said Tom Butler, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.

“Keep in mind that this is a national problem and Florida does not have any statutory authority over the schools that are running diploma mills,” Butler said. “Students must be prudent and do their diligence when pursuing admission to schools.”

Since private schools aren’t regulated by state or federal agencies, the Better Business Bureau has sounded alarms about certain schools.

In 2009, for example, the BBB issued a warning about high school diplomas and advanced degrees from Belford High School and Belford University, both based in Texas. The Better Business Bureau received 117 complaints about the schools from students living in 40 states.

In November 2009, a group of former students filed a class-action lawsuit against Belford High School, alleging the Texas school defrauded them by using two “two fictitious accrediting entities created to give Belford High School the appearance of legitimacy.”

The federal government has just begun to examine online schools like Continental Academy.

In recent years, federal education officials identified more than 13 online high schools described as “potentially operating as diploma mills” and suspected of granting at least 9,500 diplomas since 2005, Mary Mitchelson, then acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education, said during Oct. 14, 2009, testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Federal investigators are interested in high school diploma mills because 11 percent of all federal financial aid – about $12 billion a year in grants and student loans – has gone to students who earned high school diplomas from schools not accredited to award them, Mitchelson said.

No organization tracks the total number of online high schools operating in the United States or the number of students attending these schools. But a 2008 survey from the Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts whose mission is to help institutions and educators improve the quality of online education, found that 3.9 million students who attended secondary and post-secondary schools were enrolled in at least one online course in 2007 — a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

In Florida, 2,189 private K-12 schools, including online schools, are registered with the state Department of Education. More than 250,000 students were enrolled in private schools in Florida during the 2007-08 school year, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Education that collects and analyzes education data.

The state Department of Education doesn’t regulate private schools. By state law, these schools are required to register with the state and submit an annual survey that includes student enrollment, number of teachers, administrators and other staff and student demographics. However, officials do not verify information submitted by schools, according to state officials. The state’s private school directory identifies religious-based, nonprofit or for-profit schools, but it doesn’t specify which ones are distance learning and online schools.

Besides a high school diploma, students can earn a GED (General Educational Development) certification, which is inexpensive — $50 on average to take the test — and widely accepted by many colleges and employers. Students can contact the nearest GED Testing Center to take the rigorous seven-and-a-half-hour test, which measures knowledge of social studies, science, math, reading and writing. Tests are not offered online.

CT Turner, associate director of marketing and public relations for GED Testing Service, a program of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that develops and delivers the GED test, said few online high schools issue diplomas that are accepted by colleges, universities and post-secondary schools.

“People are so desperate to earn that credential, and many of these schools are preying on people who are struggling financially,” Turner said. “Another problem is that there are a lot of people who are not reporting this to state agencies.”

Schools seeking accreditation from a respected accrediting organization must pass a review to ensure they meet educational standards. The accreditation gives individual diplomas value because its teachers, coursework, facilities, equipment and supplies are reviewed on a routine basis to ensure students receive a quality education.

But an accreditation only has value if the U.S. educational community at large accepts the organization that provides the accreditation.

Mark Elgart, chief executive of the respected Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said few well-recognized groups are willing to accredit distance-learning schools. AdvancED, now the parent organization of SACS, currently accredits 130 distance-learning schools and has accredited more than 27,000 schools in 69 countries.

“The online world is largely unregulated,” Elgart said. “States need to enact more regulation because they have a responsibility to the consumer.”

AdvancED staff visits schools every five years and works with administrators to ensure adherence to the highest educational standards. Schools that do not meet the standards are monitored closely.

“We have hundreds of schools that lose accreditation every year,” Elgart said. “The process pushes some schools out because they can’t meet the standards and criteria.”

Seeking an education
Continental Academy’s website advertises that the school has helped 95,000 students earn high school diplomas since its founding in 1996. Graduates have moved on to higher-paying jobs, vocational schools, community colleges, universities and new careers, according to Continental.

The school also provides student testimonials — from adults in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida — showing pictures and only listing first names.

When Rodriguez found Continental Academy, he thought the school was fine based on its website.

Continental Academy is located in an office park in Miramar, where signage for a related company, Home School of America, is displayed. (Photo by Mc Nelly Torres.)
But after Concorde would not accept his high school diploma, Rodriguez called Continental Academy and complained to the principal. Continental officials simply told him the school is accredited without providing further explanation, he said. In response, Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

“I’m angry,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t understand how Continental Academy has been allowed to take advantage of people who are trying to complete a high school education and attend college.”

Continental Academy, which is registered with the state Department of Education, as all private schools are in Florida, obtained accreditation on July 26, 2006, from SACS, one of the widely respected organizations. But in 2009, Continental Academy withdrew its accreditation, according to Jennifer Oliver, a spokesperson for AdvancED.

“They didn’t want to comply with requirements that would ensure they met the standards of accreditation,” Oliver said without providing details.

In April 2009, the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, a now-defunct umbrella group created in 1994 by six regional accreditation groups including SACS, issued a letter to address concerns about Continental’s accreditation status.

The letter said the “Fast Track Program,” which Continental offered at the time, “does not meet the spirit and intent of a high school diploma.”

Lopez said Continental officials were not aware of the letter until a parent brought it to their attention.

“After much consideration, Continental Academy’s governing body has decided that it is not in the best interest of Continental Academy to maintain its accreditation with AdvancED/SACS/CASI,” Continental officials said in a statement to FCIR. “Aside from the lack of institutional support and structural confusion that Continental Academy received from SACS, a stark reality of maintaining SACS accreditation is that a school or school district must have a significant amount of financial resources available for continuous school improvement.”

Lopez said CITA’s letter has affected thousands of Continental Academy graduates who earned a SACS-accredited high school diploma through Fast Track from July 2006 to May 2008 because colleges and universities will not recognize Continental Academy graduates from this program.

After withdrawing Continental Academy accreditation from SACS, Continental owners tried to get SACS to accredit a new school, Elgart said.

SACS officials refused.

“It was the same people behind the school with questionable business practices,” Elgart said.

Continental reported to the state that it graduated 13,204 students during the 2008-09 academic year, according to its annual survey for the state Department of Education. In the 2009-10 survey, Continental reported a staff of eight, with six administrators and two counselors, and 2,984 students were enrolled for that academic year – a student-to-staff ratio of 373-to-1.

Lopez said in a statement to Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that Continental has 18 employees. He didn’t specify the number of certified teachers, as FCIR requested, and would not provide resumes for the company’s principals.

When contacted by phone with follow-up questions, Lopez said: “We are done with that interview. Just use your professional judgment and good luck to you.”

The National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools now accredit Continental. NALSAS accredits based only on one standard: consumer protection. NCACS is simply a membership group.

Ed Nagel, chief executive officer of NALSAS, defended Continental and his organization’s accreditation of the school.

“(Continental Academy) is helping people go on with their education and get better jobs,” Nagel said.

Nagel said NALSAS has conducted three on-site visits at Continental Academy since 2000, has reviewed the school’s marketing materials, and has ensured the school employs certified teachers.

“They have one of the best education programs in the country,” said Nagel, also the former chair and national office manager of NCACS. “They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.”

NALSAS has accredited 13 private schools in Florida, including Continental.

More Information
◦The National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn’t accept virtual schools such as Continental, and the organization has a list of schools whose courses, grades and diplomas cannot be submitted as part of the NCAA eligibility process.
◦On Oct. 28, the U.S. Department of Education released new student-aid rules requiring college institutions to develop procedures to evaluate the validity of a student’s high school diploma.
◦The U.S. Department of Education provides resources for accreditation and diploma mills.
◦The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has a database listing more than 7,700 degree-granting and non-degree granting institutions and more than 18,700 programs that are accredited by organizations in the United States.

Continental now list three programs on its website: P.A.C.E., an accelerated online high school diploma program for adults 18 and older; O.U.T.R.E.A.C.H., an online high school diploma program for students 16 and older; and S.E.A.L., a high school diploma program through mail for students 16 years and older. The school charges $350 to $850 depending on the program.

Florida incorporation records indicate that Home School of America Inc. owns Continental Academy. Those records also list Nersy Lopez, 63, and Jeffrey Lopez, 42, both of Davie, and Joseph A. Aguilera, 59, of Miami, as the registered agents of Continental Academy. Although state law does not require it, none of these individuals has a teaching certificate with the Florida Department of Education.

Nersy and Jeffrey Lopez and Aguilera are also listed as registered agents of other businesses, including Home School of America Inc. and Home School of America Holdings LLC. Jeffrey Lopez and Aguilera are listed as registered agents of Southeastern High School, another virtual school. Incorporation records list the same address in Miramar as the principal address for these businesses.

Jeffrey Lopez is the school principal of Southeastern High School, a virtual school established in 2007, according to the most recent annual survey submitted to the Department of Education. Like Continental Academy, Southeastern received its accreditation from NALSAS and is a member of NCACS.

In his professional profile on LinkedIn, Lopez lists himself as the senior vice president of finance and corporate affairs of Home School of America.

Continental Academy’s revenue and profits are unknown. But its principals, records show, are millionaires. In 2005, Jeffrey and Nersy Lopez created N & J Lopez Family Limited Partnership, putting down $1 million in initial contributions. The partners anticipated contributions of up to $5 million, records show, and Nersy Lopez signed as the general partner.

Both Lopezes have made substantial investments in real estate as well.

In 2006, Nersy and Jeffrey Lopez bought a 7,334-square-foot house in Davie valued now at $943,870, for which Jeffrey Lopez transferred ownership to Nersy Lopez on Nov. 18. The same day, Jeffrey Lopez transferred ownership, again to Nersy Lopez, of an undeveloped property in Plantation, which he purchased in July for $280,000, records show. Nersy Lopez also owns a house in Southwest Ranches valued at $896,840.

What’s more, in 1996, Nersy Lopez and Joseph Aguilera bought a residence in Pembroke Pines for $86,480 at the time. A year later, they transferred the property to Lopez, who sold the residence in 1999 for $116,000.

A diploma with no value
In recent years, Continental Academy has described itself in marketing materials as “trustworthy” and a “recognized educational institution.” In online promotional materials, the school encourages would-be students to earn a high school diploma instead of a GED.

The school also stated in a press release that Continental was accredited by the Florida Department of Education, though the state Department of Education doesn’t accredit schools.

Wendell Scott, 32, said he was impressed with Continental Academy’s brochure when he received it on the mail.

“It was a beautiful brochure, and I thought they were the real deal,” Scott said.

And he didn’t question accreditation when he decided to spend more than $500 to obtain his high school diploma. Scott, of Cincinnati, Ohio, completed the course work by mail in 2004.

Scott, who lost his job as a manager for a security company earlier this year, decided to pursue a new career and attend college. But after recently applying to several colleges, including Southwestern College in Cincinnati, Ohio, Scott learned the schools would not accept his Continental diploma.

“I’m very upset about this,” Scott said. “This puts me in a bad position and is making it harder for me to attend college. I’m unemployed and I’m not even a high school graduate.”

Texas governor Mark White wants to know, so should you

The class size amendment was suddenly villifyed here in Florida. Texas has similar issues but they have somebody who is willing to stand up for what is right too. -cpg

By Chris Curry

How did class size limits become the symbol of an unnecessary luxury in our schools?

Former Texas governor Mark White wants to know, if class size in public schools isn't important, "then why does every private school in America brag on 'we have a small class size?' "

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn't want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education.

Texas politicians and education administrators (note, not teachers) have upped the drumbeat in recent days, saying Texas can no longer afford its caps on class sizes, and hey, it might be better to educate students in larger classes anyway. The Senate Committee on Education is couching this in terms of "local control," its recommendation: "Modify class size limitations to allow more flexibility to school districts to meet the need of their students."

What they're more than willing to tinker with — some would say destroy — is one of the main parts of White's education legacy, the changes that went through in 1984 when the Legislature, working with the results of the Perot Commission on Education, allowed full-day kindergarten funding (although some members tried to take it back in the next regular session), no-pass, no-play and a 22-1 limit on the number of kids one teacher would have to face in a lower-grades classroom each day.

State Representative Scott Hochberg, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on education and vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, calls the current crop of proposals "budget reduction masquerading as education reform."

As the neo-reformers would have it, creative teachers and administrators have supposedly been crippled by the 22-1 rule for 26 years now. The problems with this worldview are twofold: No. 1, the 22-1 rule only applies to grades K-4, a compromise hammered out in 1984. It doesn't even make it all the way through elementary.

And second, a school district has always been able to apply for waivers to the class size cap — and a check of Texas Education Agency records shows these are pretty freely handed out.

Starting in the 1993-94 school year to the present day, a total of 3,085 waivers have been granted to school districts, according to TEA records. Since 1992, there have been only five waiver requests denied. Not five each year. That's five total.

"If this was something you needed to free up principals to do, you would already see that happening in the grades where there's no class size limits," Hochberg says. "If they wanted that flexibility, they already have it everywhere from high school down to fifth grade."

Nevertheless, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, in her recent FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) report assessing each school district in Texas for its fiscal effectiveness, recommends that the state "relax the limit of 22 students in K-4 classes to permit an average of 22 students per class."

The word "average" sounds innocuous enough unless you figure out that if you match a small class (say special ed) with a larger one, that second one can get pretty big and still meet the "average" requirement.

Mark White grew up knowing all about these kind of averages.

"The reason for 22-1, and it doesn't use the word 'average,' is because of what my mother told me every day when she came home from teaching in a first-grade classroom in which the state law called for a 28-1 average.

White has a photo of his mother's first-grade class at Briargrove Elementary school during the late '60s, early '70s, when the law was 28-1. "I go around and count the little shining faces in her first-grade class. Somehow or another, she has 34 kids in her class. Where'd those extra six kids come from?

"The next year she had the same number. So when all the administrators came in and said, 'Make it an average,' they averaged in the custodians and the cooks. That's the game we played."

However accurate White and Hochberg are, they are swimming against a majority tide of Republican state legislators who got into office promising to hold the line on taxes. If that means sticking a few extra kids in a classroom, so be it.

A famous education study done in Tennessee in the 1980s shows class size matters. In the four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, kindergarten-through-third-grade classes with 13-17 students in them were compared to those with 22-26 students, and the researchers found out, in fact, that smaller meant better in terms of academic milestones. A followup study showed the effect continues for several years.

But what many administrators now like to say is that class size doesn't matter till you get down to 15, Hochberg says. So if you can't do that, you might as well throw up your hands. Which is not what the study says. The study just compared two groups and said that of these two groups, those with an average of 15 did better.

"It didn't say until you get to 15 there's no difference," Hochberg says. "How you twist that into 'There's no difference till you get down to 15' is pure propaganda."

And, as it turns out, according to the Tennessee study, smaller class sizes are especially beneficial for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds — which describes a majority of students in HISD and, in fact, a significant portion of the student population across the Houston area.

"You don't see successful charter schools operating with 50 kids in a class," Hochberg says.

The call to discard 22-1 is nothing especially new. "Ever since the 22-1 requirement was put in under the Perot Commission back in the early '80s, superintendents have lobbied to remove it," Hochberg says. "It's always the thing that gets tossed out as something that needs to be done, which is interesting, given that K-4 is where we seem to do pretty well in terms of national comparisons, international comparisons."

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn't want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education.

Texas Senator Dan Patrick introduced Senate Bill 300, which would have moved K-4 to the 22 average.

Patrick is caught in an interesting situation in that the school district in his area, Cy-Fair ISD, has undergone some pretty dramatic change and now has about 40 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunches — and would seem to be a district whose students would benefit from smaller classes. At the same time, Patrick, who is tied to the Texas Tea Party, has dedicated himself to keeping taxes down for his constituency. Patrick declined our request for an interview.

Comptroller Combs, who is still working on her budget projections for the next biennium starting in September, has reportedly thrown out a figure of $557 million in savings that could be achieved by replacing the word "limit" with "average" — an important figure in a state that may be facing a $15 billion to $30 billion shortfall.

Not surprisingly, her proposal hasn't been embraced by teachers — larger classes mean fewer teachers.

Parent and former Bellaire High School English teacher Nancy Lomax fought hard for the education changes in 1984. She is against the call to eliminate the limits; in fact, she thinks they should be extended to other grades. "I'm not about to go quietly down this road."

She argues that the 22-1 limit is even more important now than ever, given the modern-day demographics of classrooms not just in urban districts like the Houston Independent School District, but suburban ones as well.

Her daughter is a fourth-grade teacher in the Lewisville School District near Dallas, where almost every child in the class has limited English proficiency; some are gifted while others are emotionally disturbed and special ed; and three are Burmese refugees. That's tough enough, she says. How does a teacher control an even larger class like that and really see to the needs of all the students?

In 2006, Governor Rick Perry ordered school districts to cut local property tax, saying the state would make up the difference.

"The state's new taxes to make up the difference didn't made up the difference," Hochberg says. "And so since that bill was passed in '06, we haven't had an internally balanced budget at the state level. We've been short every time. We covered it the first time because we had a surplus coming in. We covered it the second time with stimulus money — that nasty, awful stimulus money from Washington that we don't want to touch.

"We were 4 billion short on the budget last time without the stimulus money, and that's on a zero-growth budget. State revenues haven't balanced the budget for the last two cycles since those cuts were made."

HISD and other districts are already working on budgets for the next year —they have to submit them in June whether the Legislature has given them their numbers or not. All anyone knows for sure is that since education accounts for about 40 percent of the state budget, there's no way to avoid a hit. After two hours of budget talk at a recent HISD workshop, board president Greg Meyers said he wasn't sure too much clarity had been achieved.

But that's all right, says Hochberg. Just starting the discussion, and opening up to community groups for input as HISD is doing in January, is a good idea, he says, because they can't afford to wait. "They should really figure what their priorities are. I'm not sure we're going to do that at the state level."

"HISD is a billion-plus-dollar operation. If you're the school district in Canadian, Texas, and you've got 900 kids, then maybe you can wait till the last minute to figure out what you have to do. But if you're an operation the size of HISD, you would be foolhardy in terms of your own policies and unfair to your employees not to at least lay out a variety of scenarios that could occur and figure out what you're going to do about them. Because by the time you know it, it will be very difficult to turn the train."

Legislatures tend to make broad, general cuts, leaving the details (and the heat) to local school boards. School trustees need to make very clear to legislators what the exact losses will be, Hochberg says. "The legislators and the leadership in Austin should not be able to walk away from this session saying, 'Gee, I didn't know it would have this impact.'"

Hochberg knows schools waste money, and says he's ready to offer alternative savings proposals for schools — in fact, he's done so over his 18 years as a state legislator with little success.

Some of his proposals: Cut back state standardized testing to every other year for the kids who pass, stop buying textbooks that sit in a teacher's closet and instead go to more electronic textbooks, have a serious look at the cost of University Interscholastic League rules that require every school to offer every significant sport, he says.

Also, why not use long-distance, virtual learning for teachers' continuing education and cut out the need for regional service centers?

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn't want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education. "It may be easier to increase class sizes rather than to cut a hundred other things that add up to the same amount of savings," Hochberg says. "We do a lot of pennywise, pound foolish sorts of things."

White says the rule was and is simple: Keep it to 22 to 1, and when you get to 23, you build another classroom. "You can't afford to build another classroom, ask for a waiver."

"We let them off if they didn't have the money. They've always had the option to come in and ask for a waiver; many of them do. But we've never had anybody to come in and say, 'We just don't have the money to build that football stadium.' Somehow or another, they always found that money. So let's put our priorities right."

The former governor takes a long view of the state's present financial difficulties.

"We've been in tough times before. I almost laugh out loud when I think about how tough things must be in Austin when oil is priced at $80 a barrel and I've sat there and lived through $9-a-barrel oil — and I didn't ask for any bailouts nor did we ever receive any bailout from the federal government," he says.

"If it's right for Texas and its future to say, 'Oh, we don't have any money,' or 'We don't have enough money to pay for a quality education for the young people of our state,' then you have made the classic mistake of not just eating your seed corn but you've poured salt on the seed corn you didn't eat," White says.

Financing schools should be the first priority of the Legislature, according to White. "Let's do our cutting somewhere else. You could quit building highways in Texas for five years and it would not hurt the future of Texas quite as much as if you change the funding on classes and quality of education in our schools today."

It makes perfect sense to argue that just one more student won't destroy a classroom. The problem is, as White's mother knew, one becomes four becomes six. And at a certain point, all the great teaching in the world won't be able to overcome the numbers-up disparity.

"It's a little difficult to put a young person's education on pause till times get better," White says. "22 to 1 should not be the whipping boy for being short of cash."

Taken from the Houston Press: