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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Today's education reforms are all about follow the money, or the lack of it

From the Chicago Sun Times

by David Sirota

As 2011 draws to a close, we can confidently declare that one of the biggest debates over education is — mercifully — resolved. We haven’t addressed all the huge challenges facing our schools, but we finally have empirical data ruling out apocryphal theories and exposing the fundamental problems.

We’ve learned that our entire education system is not “in crisis,” as so many executives in the for-profit education industry insist when pushing to privatize public schools. On the contrary, results from Program for International Student Assessment exams show that Americans in low-poverty schools are among the highest achieving students in the world.

We’ve also learned that no matter how much self-styled education “reformers” claim otherwise, the always-demonized teachers unions are not holding our education system back. As the New York Times recently noted: “If unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect” felt in the very unionized schools that so consistently graduate top students?

Now, at year’s end, we’ve learned from two studies just how powerful economics are in education outcomes — and how disadvantaged kids are being unduly punished by government policy.

The first report, from Stanford University, showed that with a rising “income achievement gap,” a family’s economic situation is a bigger determinative force in a child’s performance than any other major demographic factor. For poor kids, that means the intensifying hardships of poverty are now creating massive obstacles to academic progress.

Because of this reality, schools in destitute areas naturally require more resources than those in rich ones. Yet, according to the second report from the U.S. Department of Education, “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding.” This financing scheme “leav(es) students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.” In practice, that equals less funding to recruit teachers, upgrade classrooms, reduce class sizes.

Put all this together and behold the crux of America’s education problems in bumper-sticker terms: It’s poverty and punitive funding formulas, stupid.

Thus, we arrive at the factor that decides so many things in American society: money.

As the revelations of 2011 prove, students aren’t helped by billionaire-executives-turned-education-dilettantes who leverage their riches to force their faith-based theories into schools. Likewise, they aren’t aided by millionaire pundits sententiously claiming that we just “need better parents.” And kids most certainly don’t benefit from politicians pretending that incessant union-busting, teacher-bashing and standardized testing represent successful school “reforms.”

Instead, America’s youth need the painfully obvious: a national commitment to combatting poverty and more funds spent on schools in the poorest areas than on schools in the richest areas — not the other way around.

Within education, achieving those objectives requires efforts to stop financing schools via property tax systems (i.e., systems that by design direct more resources to wealthy areas). It also requires initiatives that better target public education appropriations at schools in low-income neighborhoods — and changing those existing funding formulas that actively exacerbate inequality.

Policy-wise, it’s a straightforward proposition. The only thing complex is making it happen. Doing that asks us to change resource-hoarding attitudes that encourage us to care only about our own schools, everyone else’s be damned.

In America’s greed-is-good culture, achieving such a shift in mass psychology is about the toughest task imaginable — but it’s the real education reform that’s most needed.

David Sirota writes for, where this essay was posted.

Why don't Florida's charter schools have transparency?

from Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

The editors of the Miami Herald have a wish list of goals for south Florida’s recovery. Here’s what they say about education:

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed K-12 education budget, which invests almost $1 billion in public schools, is welcome, but it still leaves the system years behind in needed funding to repair old schools. Funding for the state’s universities and colleges, particularly Miami Dade College, remains a shell game that’s shortchanging students. At the federal level, we will continue to push for Congress to invest in Pell Grants for smart students who can’t afford college — an investment in growing the middle class. We will also be monitoring more-rigorous FCAT rules and pushing legislators to bring transparency to the finances of charter schools. We’ll also be looking at how the Broward school district’s new leadership cleans up an ailing, ethically challenged system

I’m not aware of editorial board in the state who’s not been critical of Rick Scott’s leadership on education. Especially so when it comes to charter schools. The Herald will be watching charter school legislation closely as it was their paper who published a comprehensive look at south Florida’s often shaky charter school finances.

Charter school transparency will be interesting legislative initiative to follow during this session as it is a democrat, Miami Sen. Larcenia Bullard who is proposing it. Can Bullard overcome the might of two state charter school lobbies and the influence of five republican legislators who have financial interests in charter schools? Would a Rick Scott – who couldn’t be closer to charter school interests - even sign such a bill?

There are a few subtleties in Tallahassee landscape next month to consider. First is the skepticism that comes from republican Sen. David Simmons from Maitland who during an October senate committee meeting expressed concern for charter schools’ academic record and financials. Simmons is likely to not be the only republican who feels this way. There’s also local school board push-back and lobbying from the state school board association to give final charter school purview back to them. Nevermind charter schools’ considerable bad press.

And then there are the editorial boards of state newspapers like the Miami Herald.

Standardized tests have lost their way. They harm not help education.

Standardized tests have lost their way. They have become punitive in nature punishing schools, children and teachers alike. Kids fail grades, schools are closed and teachers are held responsible for things beyond their control. How is this good for education?

I understand the idea behind the FCAT as twisted and perverted as it has become and it wouldn’t take a lot to make it relevant and helpful again. If the FCAT was administered the first week of school, the schools could know what the kids needed to learn and then get them the help they needed, teach them the skills they lacked. Then if you wanted to see how the teacher did and if the kids were ready to move on give the test again the last week of school.

I believe even this way there would still be a lot of teaching to the test, which is handicapping our education system, but this is a much way to do things than the purely punitive system we have now.

The Florida legislature denies parents an important choice about their child's education

There is one choice the Florida legislature does not want your child have and that’s to opt out of the FCAT. Many localities and states throughout the nation allow parents to opt out of their standardized tests. Many experts in the education community by the way believe standardized have hurt not helped education and that’s because they are punitive in nature. Furthermore more and more are coming to believe that the test does not measure skills students’ need for life. If your child doesn’t do well enough they fail their grade, if the school doesn’t do well enough they are in danger of being closed. How does the FCAT help again?

The Florida legislature beats the word choice like a drum and then refuses to let parents have the one choice that might make a difference in their child’s lives. It is time the Florida Legislature put their money where their mouth was and gave parents the choice to opt out of the FCAT.

Either that or it is time Florida opted out of the FCAT all together.

What's happeneing with education in Florida

From the Tampa Bay Times

by Jeff Solochek

Some Florida lawmakers have said they want to give the schools a breather in 2012 so they can implement all the new rules put in place during 2011. Many superintendents have made it their legislative priority, in fact, to request a moratorium on new mandates. Will it happen? Looking ahead to the 2012 session, we see several proposals that make you wonder. What's coming up in the new year?

Higher ed in the spotlight - Having tackled teacher contracts in 2011, lawmakers have indicated a desire to target professor tenure in 2012. Gov. Rick Scott has talked about focusing on getting more STEM degree programs in place, with less emphasis on the liberal arts - a proposal that has caused backlash at the universities. Tuition keeps rising, while the days of the Bright Futures scholarship look numbered. Will professors and students stick around? Or will they head out of state, where the scenario isn't so bleak?

Choice, choice, choice - Florida already leads the nation in charter schools, voucher-type programs and related choice options. It doesn't look likely to stop anytime soon. Lawmakers have proposed expanding the caps on corporate tax credit scholarships to low-income students. They have filed bills that would give more money and further flexibility to charter schools. Some critics have suggested a move to increase FCAT cut scores will help by making parents think their public schools are performing poorly, an incentive to look elsewhere for education. The courts might offer the only respite for critics, as they consider challenges to the state's new law expanding charter school operations. Does school choice hit new levels this year?

How much money do schools really need? - Gov. Rick Scott has recommended putting $1 billion back into the state's K-12 system, saying he won't sign a budget that does not significantly increase education funding. But $1 billion is less than what the state took away in 2011. Districts also face the loss of federal EduJobs money they used in 2011, plus any other one-time revenue sources they relied on such as transfers of cash from capital to operating budgets. And let's not forget, state forecasters have predicted an enrollment increase that would place further demands on already tight resources. Many superintendents have already announced they expect layoffs and cuts even with another $1 billion in the pot.

Get out and vote - It's time for many elected representatives, including state lawmakers, local school board members and non-appointed superintendents, to stand for their jobs again. Some have taken the heat for being anti-teacher and anti-public school. Some have been criticized as being in the pocket of teacher unions. Will any face opposition? They haven't always in the past. With education remaining a hot-ticket item, expect the debate to heat up.

Curriculum matters - Kids do go to school for a reason, and it's not just about governance and organizational structure. They're supposed to be learning, and the state continues to push toward more technology-based instruction, with deeper standards and more attention to science, technology, math and engineering. The common core is coming, with Florida playing a role in developing the tests to see if the kids are there yet. But some school leaders say it's not likely unless Florida extends the school day or year, and that's not viable without more money to put into the system. Vicious circle?

What are your predictions? Share them so we can keep track for next year.

The best and worse education stories of 2011

From NYC Public School Parents

by Leonie Haimson

Worst education news of 2011:

Schools suffer huge budget cuts across the nation & class sizes increases, with the support of billionaires like Bill Gates, Bloomberg and other members of the .0001%, who send their own kids to expensive private schools and who claim that resources and class sizes don’t matter.

The child poverty rate grows even higher, with 11 states added to the list of those with rates of twenty percent or more.

Cheating scandals from Atlanta to DC to Philadelphia reveal the pressures of high-stakes testing.

The Gates Foundation continues its hegemony over education policy, providing funding to shady right-wing organization ALEC, responsible for much of the worst anti-union, anti-equity, and anti-kids legislation being passed all over the country.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from the Billionaire Boys Club of Gates, Broad, the Walton family, and the Koch brothers are funneled into creating and expanding numerous Astroturf organizations like Stand for Children, Students First, Teach Plus, 50Can, etc. all devoted towards spreading their tentacles into both political parties, to choke off democracy, demonize teachers, mandate more high-stakes testing, and privatize our public schools.

States rush to pass multiple laws in response to Race to the Top bribery, mandating unreliable teacher evaluation systems tied to test scores, alignment with the experimental (and controversial) Common Core standards, and the spread of charter schools; while the Obama administration holds out the promise of NCLB waivers based on the same damaging pre-conditions.

More districts follow the corporate model of Bloomberg & Co., by awarding useless merit pay schemes, divisive charter co-locations, heart-breaking school closings, and wasteful payments to consultants and private managers, rather than hiring teachers, expanding programs, or investing in the classroom.

The Gates Foundation, along with Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation, creates a new limited corporation, euphemistically called The Learning Collaborative, to collect and crunch confidential teacher & student data, that states have voluntarily (and probably illegally) provided to them without parental consent.

Charters continue to expand rapidly, with over two million students enrolled, with hedge fund operators buying off politicians, while billionaires like Bloomberg donates big bucks to the campaigns of pro-charter school board members in Louisiana, to ensure their continued spread statewide – even after 70% of New Orleans schools have already been privatized.

The growth of online learning also continues apace, despite the lack of evidence of its efficacy, impelled not by the priorities of parents or what’s good for kids but by the greed of edu-entrepreneurs and profiteers.

Best education news of 2011

The popular uprisings in Wisconsin spark a national wakeup call about the heinous attempts to undermine the rights of public sector workers, galvanizing resistance throughout the country and leading to the repeal of Ohio’s anti-union and anti-teacher legislation, SB 5.

The emergence of Occupy Wall St sparks protests nationwide and impels a sharp awareness about the widening income gap, and the way in which the 1% has perverted our politics and educational policies, with mic checks taking over school board meetings from NYC to Rochester to Chicago and elsewhere.

The gathering and amplification of opposition voices at the SOS March in DC, and the appearance of Matt Damon as the first bonafide celebrity to help us push back against the big money and power of corporate education reform

The parent voice grows in influence, with the emergence of Parents Across America and its affiliates, speaking out about how the current policies are undermining our schools, and propounding an alternative vision of progressive education reform.

Diane Ravitch’s star grows ever brighter, as the inspirational and intellectual leader of the anti-corporate reform movement, as she travels the country, headlines at the SOS march, appears on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, while her bestselling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, comes out in paperback.

The National Academy of Sciences and academic experts release multiple reports, attesting to the invalid, reductionist, and intellectually vapid nature of test based accountability systems, value –added teacher evaluation, and merit pay.

The revulsion against high stakes testing grows, and a national opt –out movement emerges, energized by the movie Race to Nowhere and brilliant thinkers like Yong Zhao.

Mayoral control is unmasked as a failure at improving schools or student outcomes in either NYC or Chicago, and most recently, the mayor of Rochester NY gives up his attempt to take over the city’s schools.

Cathie Black is fired as NYC chancellor, putting to rest the notion that a successful business career is good preparation for running a large school system, while Broad-trained superintendents are ousted from their positions due to popular opposition, including Maria Goodloe-Johnson in Seattle, Arlene Ackerman in Philadelphia, and Lavonne Sheffield in Rockford, Illinois, (though other Broadies, like Jean Claude Brizard and John Covington , merely move from one district to another, in a dance of the lemons.)

Independent and progressive school board members are elected in Seattle WA, Wake County NC and elsewhere.

Jonah Edelman and Stand for Children are self-outed as corporate reform toadies.

After sleeping through much of the Bloomberg administration, the NY Times finally begins publishing actual investigative education reporting locally, by Fernanda Santos and Anna Phillips, publishes trenchant opinion pieces critiquing school “choice” like this and this; features a pivotal piece by Sam Dillon on the overweening influence of the Gates Foundation, runs a terrific series on online learning and gives a platform to the invaluable Michael Winerip, who returns to the scene just in time to rake clueless educrats, charter operators, and oligarchs over the coals.

NY principals join the battle vs. inane and unworkable teacher evaluation systems.

The real reformers take center stage in the movie “The Inconvenient Truth behind Waiting for Superman” a documentary made for pennies by NYC teachers, now distributed in all continents and shown in every state, without any promotional budget.

Finally, despite the big bucks and political muscle of the Billionaire Boys Club, the hedge funders, the privatisers, and the other edu-entrepreneurs, real stakeholders, including parents and teachers dominate the online debate through tweeting and blogging – and use social media tools (which are free, after all) to spread the truth about #corpreform and #realreform.

I will end with a quote from my mentor and hero, Diane Ravitch:

“"We need to say, again and again, that they may have money and hold the reins of power (for now), but their ideas are failing. And now the public is getting it. And the louder we are, in whatever forums open to us, the more the mask will fall away, and the public will understand that the corporate reformers have hijacked the language of reform to protect the privileges and power of the 1% and we are reaching the public because we are many and they are few."

Thanks to my friends and compadres at Parents Across America for many of these suggestions, and apologies if the list is too NY-centric. And let’s all hope for a better 2012 for parents, our children and public schools everywhere.

Frank Biden's break from reality

From the Broward Palm Beach News Times

by Lisa Rabb

Responding to this week's cover story about the charter school chain he runs, Frank Biden continues to insist Mavericks in Education Florida is not profiting from its schools. He says it's just the school buildings that bring in the dough.

"We're not profiting from our schools. Anybody with half a brain can figure that out," he says. "We remain sustainable as a result of our accurate and predictable location and our buildings."

Mavericks opens schools in poor neighborhoods, where property values are cheap. Then it charges the schools rent of $350,000 per year for five years, regardless of the price of the building. (Read more about the real estate deals here). But don't call it profiting!

Meanwhile, the vice president's brother also cleared up a mystery about a federal tax lien filed against him in Kentucky. The $32,500 in unpaid income taxes are from 2003 to 2005, a time when Biden says he was still struggling with alcohol addiction. Now, he says, he pays off the debt in monthly installments. "That will be paid within a year," he says.

As for the academics at Mavericks charter high schools, Biden says students are not just sitting in front of computers all day. They also receive some traditional classroom instruction -- for roughly an hour a day, according to Liz Downey, the school secretary at Mavericks High in Palm Springs. For the next three hours, students sit at computers taking online courses, while their teachers are on hand to answer questions. Students can also receive some one-on-one tutoring.

"[We're] trying to get these kids across the finish line," Biden says. "We're not perfect, but we're pretty good. We hope to get better."

Finally, Biden insists Mavericks' legal fight with former CEO Mark Thimmig was recently settled. However, Broward court records indicate the case is still pending. The last docket entry says the case was referred to mediation in late November.

Florida's unfunded education mandates are strangling education

From the News Herald's editorial board

The state of Florida has 573 pages (single-spaced) of public education rules and regulations that local school districts must follow. It covers topics both large (curriculum) and small (minimum sizes for American flags).

While the thicket of mandates has grown over the years, state funding to local schools recently has declined, making compliance even more costly and difficult. It’s hard for many districts to prioritize spending and make trade-offs when the state gives them so little wiggle room to decide.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed restoring $1 billion in state education funding for 2012. Tallahassee would do well to have a concurrent reduction in the amount of strings it attaches to that money.

Take, for instance, Rep. Larry Metz’s bill (HB 4057) that eliminates the mandate that middle schools provide physical education classes for all students. Metz, a Republican from Yalaha and a former Lake County School Board member, argues that that the current requirement for P.E. comes without funding and that schools should have the choice whether to provide such classes.

That has sparked stiff opposition from those who argue that children are suffering from an "obesity epidemic" and need the exercise to slim down. Overweight kids, though, pick up most of their bad habits — unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyles — at home, where they spend most of their time. It’s hard to see how 150 minutes a week in P.E. classes over a 180-day school year can compete with that, let alone reverse it.

Others point to studies that indicate that students who had increased physical activity before, during and after school hours improved their academic performance, test scores and classroom behavior. There’s little doubt that some mid-day exercise would help rejuvenate many young minds and bodies (and some older ones, too). But again, the key is that "before" and "after" time — home life has a much greater impact on the student.

Indeed, it is inarguable that students who come from homes where reading and studying are encouraged by parents who take an active role in their children’s education are much more likely to succeed academically than those who come from families where learning is neglected. And that’s when students spend far more hours in classrooms than they do in gyms and playing fields.

Schools’ primary responsibility is to educate students. The state already ties districts’ hands on the amount of time they can spend teaching, what they can teach, how and when they should test. The FCAT alone has forced officials to construct school calendars solely around testing days. There simply is little room left to maneuver.

Pruning one twig from Tallahassee’s tree of education regulations, as Metz’s bill does, would give districts a little more freedom to concentrate on meeting state and federal academic standards. But Florida should go further and cull more mandates from the education codebook.

Read more:

Florida gambles with our children's futures

From the Ledger's editorial board

The state Board of Education has approved new passing scores for standardized tests, raising the ante in its already high-stakes student assessments.

Part of the resulting costs could be paid through increased lottery ticket sales.

But the tests are not a game for the third-graders and high school students who have to pass them in order to advance. Failure means that a 10-year-old may be held back a grade while his or her classmates go forward. The teenager who fails can be denied a diploma.

Those are the harsh, disheartening consequences of failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at those grade levels.

The FCAT could be a useful tool for gauging the strengths or weaknesses of Florida's students and schools, and developing the state's response. Instead, the state treats the test like high-stakes poker: You pass, you win; you fail, you lose — and big.

The long-term consequences can be even more severe. Research shows that repeating one grade more than doubles the odds of eventually dropping out of school. Failure to gain a high school diploma, even for those who stay in school, can have the same effects as dropping out: lower lifetime earnings, more unemployment, more crime, more welfare and a litany of other social ills.


Unfortunately, as we said, the state has just raised the stakes for students. On Dec. 19, the Board of Education approved higher passing scores for all levels of the yearly reading-and-math tests. This follows Florida's move last year to a more rigorous version of the FCAT.

As a result, The Associated Press reported, "the percentage of students not earning a high enough score to advance to the fourth grade or graduate from high school is likely to increase."

The state estimates that the proportion of students not passing the third-grade reading exam — required for advancement — will increase from 16 percent to 18 percent. The percentage of high school students who pass the 10th-grade FCAT — required to graduate — is expected to drop from 60 percent to 52 percent. Almost half will fail.

For those third-graders and 10th-graders who do fail, there's still hope: Summer and in-school remedial programs give those students a chance to prepare, retake and, they hope, pass the FCAT.

But remedial programs cost money and, on that score, the state itself has been a dismal failure.

Because of deep cuts in education funding in recent years, school districts across Florida have been forced to reduce or even erase funding for student-support services.

The Associated Press reported Dec. 21 that Scott, as a way to raise more money for schools, wants the Legislature to increase the number of retailers selling lottery tickets and the number of lottery-ticket vending machines.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Florida the state where education is an after thought, a nussance to Tallahassee

From the Palm Beach Post

by Jack Wilder Versteeg

'This next year is going to be chaos. Absolute chaos. And to watch my party get up and say, if you had 10 bucks of spending cuts and one buck of tax increases, they wouldn't take it - it looked like nine robot hands went up out of the mechanical morass.'

Former Republican Sen. ALAN SIMPSON, co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles commission, on the prospects of a debt-reduction deal in 2012.

'The American people still don't believe you need to make hard choices. They believe you should balance the budget. But when it comes down to doing the things that need to be done to accomplish that, they don't support them. Until the American people believe we need to change some things, it's unlikely we're going to accomplish them here.'

Senate Budget Committee Chairman KENT CONRAD, D-N.D.

When it comes to public education, the Florida Constitution is a blunt instrument. As such, it is more suited to mayhem than nurturing.

Voters intended to nurture public education when, in 1998, they amended the constitution to declare that providing a "high quality" public education is "a paramount duty" of the state. A current lawsuit that relies on that provision asks the courts to order the Legislature to give public schools more money and quit harassing teachers with FCAT-based school grades and performance reviews. Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford has ruled that courts have that authority, if the plaintiffs were to prevail. The 1st District Court of Appeal sort of agreed, but mostly asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in.

Maybe the high court will allow courts to force lawmakers to cough up more money for schools, but I'd be stunned. Most likely, the "paramount duty" language will remain what it's always been: a noble sentiment with no practical impact.

Of equal note, Judge Fulford's colleague on the Leon County circuit bench, Judge Terry Lewis, has issued a ruling that, if it stands up, would stop the enemies of public education from wielding a new constitutional bludgeon. This spring the Legislature endorsed a constitutional amendment for the November 2012 ballot that, if approved, would kill off the current constitutional prohibition against giving state money to religious institutions. That prohibition is the only thing that has kept Tallahassee from giving vouchers to every parent who wants to send his or her child to a private religious school.

The Legislature called its proposed constitutional change the "Religious Freedom" amendment. Nobody would vote against "Religious Freedom," right? But Judge Lewis correctly ruled that the Legislature's language describing the amendment was deceptive. Leave it to our lawmakers to lie in the service of religion.

The lawmakers claim that Florida's prohibition against giving state money directly to religious institutions amounts to discrimination against religion.

In fact, it is the purest way to keep from favoring one religion over another or from "establishing" a religion. In other words, a ban on direct aid to religious organizations is the best way to uphold the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Florida already has gone too far in finding clever ways to give money to religious schools. The state allows private groups to raise money to give vouchers to low-income students. Those voucher recipients then can choose private religious schools. The corporations that contribute to those private groups then get to take a dollar-for-dollar deduction from taxes owed to Florida.

That little dodge costs the state millions of dollars. And it probably produces a crop of poorly educated kids. But if those students aren't doing as well as students in traditional public schools, Florida doesn't want to know about it. Voucher students in those religious schools don't take the FCAT.

Judge Lewis' ruling isn't final. Attorney General Pam Bondi made minor changes to the wording that probably pass legal muster but don't make clear that the proposed amendment is about vouchers. The word vouchers still doesn't appear. So, to me, it's still deceptive.

Those who disagree with my premise that constitutional changes more easily harm than help education might point to the class-size amendment of 2002. It offers a string of lessons about Florida, not all of them good.

First, the Legislature refused to fully pay for the amendment. Then in the last session, legislators rewrote the rules to radically reduce the type and number of classes that had to comply with the enrollment caps. That end-around the constitution produced barely a ripple of public protest.

Meanwhile, the man who led the drive to put the class-size amendment into the constitution, Kendrick Meek, lost his 2010 bid to become a U.S. senator. Florida voters also rejected in that race Charlie Crist, who as governor in 2010 vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to fire teachers based on students' FCAT scores.

Voters elected instead Marco Rubio, who as a legislative leader fully backed Jeb Bush's FCAT follies. In the same election, Florida voters chose a governor who promptly signed a version of the bill Mr. Crist had vetoed.

Voters say they want good public education when it's some vague thing in the Florida Constitution. But when it comes to electing people who will make it happen by, say, paying for it and not giving away resources to religious schools? The message could not be more blunt.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is deputy editor of the editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. His e-mail address is Randy Schultz's column returns next week.

Why education reforms are failing


The complexity, scale, and importance of school reform is mesmerizing. In fact, this scale often ends up obscuring solutions; as a single idea, “school reform” offers such immensity—and so many distracting particulars–that the whole is missed for the part.

Traditionally speaking, school improvement has focused on, well, schools. (I suppose that makes sense.)

Its stepfather, education reform, unfortunately stands a bit taller, and so gets tangled into all sorts of additional mess—bureaucracy, funding, political rhetoric, and even corporate influence.

For all of their collective gnashing of teeth and wailing, each is missing the point entirely. The gremlin bounds within a much larger ecology.

Imagine a world without school. Not simply our current world where schools have disappeared, but rather a world that somehow has evolved separately from our own, and “school” never existed. How might it be different? Start at the beginning. Why should we learn?

Citizenship might be a good first response.

Citizenship requires awareness, and awareness starts with learning of some kind. The need for a literate society extends beyond concepts of industry and workforce: the human spirit has prevailed for millennia in societies absent our sprawling Capitalism. So in this kind of society, where does the “learning” happen?

History’s greatest learners and thinkers thrived in alongside formal learning institutions, not because of them. That’s not to say they don’t offer value. Certainly, offering physical areas where people gather share resources, and cognitively mingle is a noble endeavor. The problem is, culture has turned their backs on schools, trusting the “industry” of education to shape them minds of their young. For generations families have sent out children to these “learning places,” and hoped for the best. Provided learners seems to be learning, and are “getting good grades,” the machine whirred on.

Now, that idea has calcified. You go to school to learn. That’s where learning “happens.”

And you learn not for self-knowledge or hippie notions of citizenship, but to “get a job.”

These ideas are difficult to change.

As a society, we’ve lost context. To us, learning happens “at school”–at best, it’s supported at home with equally-broken methods of tutoring. And if learning is mediocre or worse, harmful, we think first to fix the school. Improve the teachers. Improve the curriculum. Study harder. Send them to a “private” school.

Flip the classroom.

This focus on the “school” is a normal first reaction. However, after uncountable failures to “fix school,” it’s curious we haven’t learned better.

Part of it may be due to sentimentality. We’re so attached to the notion of school—it’s a cultural icon after all—that we cannot see other possibilities. Lunchboxes, recess, pigtails, and letter grades are powerful symbols. Ultimately, while formal locusts of learning are entirely appropriate, entrenched and highly artificial constructs of academia are not. Prevailing definitions of intelligence, creativity, and even collaboration are not simply overly-narrow, they’re lies that have been told through a stained-glass mosaic of report cards, standardized testing, and the illusion of “higher education.”

And all were made possible due to a distracted society drunk on sentimentality and old ways.

Take for example, the icon of education, the letter grade.

In the best of cases (where they aren’t simply thinly-veiled measures of learner compliance), letter grades are standards-based and objective, but entirely incomplete as a measure of a child’s understanding, progress, or value, depending as much on emotional support at home and general reading level as they do on higher-level content knowledge. Spirited creativity, collaboration, and higher-order thinking (ideas learners are instinctively drawn to) is less accessible and expensive, so schools do what any most businesses would do: measure what is accessible in as cost-effective a manner as possible. The problem is, schools aren’t businesses, and there is more at risk than profit.

Out of this tangle stems corporate-sourced notions of “plans,” “policy,” and “standards,” each domains of the inattentive and impersonal.

Letter grades simply offer an opinion on how well the student understands academic standards created by people who they’ve never met in states they’ve never seen. (And let’s not even approach the fact that many of the grade-assigners—the teachers—can’t even agree what the standards demand that a learner actually understands, nor the best way to measure that understanding.)

Even “whole child” initiatives fail because they are woefully insufficient, akin to throwing a towel to a person waist-deep in a pool.

It is hard to call our current results anything else other than outright failure. What are the terms of “failure” in education? It depends on who you’re asking. Failure can be defined by a range of results from the obvious to the tempting comfort of mediocre progress on norm and criterion-based standardized assessments. But this is all failure.

And every time—every single time—school reform is going to fail.

Education reform will fail each time as well.

Why? Because by design each shifts the opportunity of learning–and the burden of “accountability”–away from the individual, the family, and community.

And it doesn’t matter where. It’s gone. Learners are now “components” in a “system” and dangerously anonymous.

It almost doesn’t matter that this shift is towards industrialized buildings full of over-worked teachers delivering non-authentic curriculum whose success is measured by myopic standardized testing. Even the best school and education reform possible still de-centralizes learning, intellectual authority, and the opportunity for cultural and spiritual guidance that can only occur in local circumstances. In either case, self-knowledge, self-pace, and self-actuation are gone.

Learning starts with self-awareness, affectionate knowledge of “other,” and practice reaching for that which is just out of reach. This can be supported in schools, but not birthed.

Learning necessitates a kind of “intellectual life” that is grown in an intimacy available only at home, in neighborhoods and other communities where “self” and “other” are carefully known.

Here, even digital environments are available. A ”community” is any place where the learner is intimately known, and seeks to know “other” with similar intimacy–whether that “other” is a person, an issue, or both. This includes difficult thinking about difficult issues, and honoring all the uncertainty any “solution” might bring.

The enormous effort of learning reform is Sisyphean in both repetition and scale because the challenge itself overwhelms through repetition and scale. Repeatedly we train our sights on the wrong targets, looking to improve curriculum, assessment, and schools through plans, policy, and standards.

Plans, policy, and standards have no knowledge of the intimate—or the learner. They are lifeless conjurings from well-intended institutions applying corporate spirit to that which is decidedly non-corporate.

And so when they lead, they will always lead to failure.

–Terry Heick

When kids have kids learning dies

From the City

by Gerry Garibaldi

In my short time as a teacher in Connecticut, I have muddled through President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, which tied federal funding of schools to various reforms, and through President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which does much the same thing, though with different benchmarks. Thanks to the feds, urban schools like mine—already entitled to substantial federal largesse under Title I, which provides funds to public schools with large low-income populations—are swimming in money. At my school, we pay five teachers to tutor kids after school and on Saturdays. They sit in classrooms waiting for kids who never show up. We don’t want for books—or for any of the cutting-edge gizmos that non–Title I schools can’t afford: computerized whiteboards, Elmo projectors, the works. Our facility is state-of-the-art, thanks to a recent $40 million face-lift, with gleaming new hallways and bathrooms and a fully computerized library.

Here’s my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children—all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.

My first encounter with teen pregnancy was a girl named Nicole, a pretty 15-year-old who had rings on every finger and great looped earrings and a red pen with fluffy pink feathers and a heart that lit up when she wrote with it. Hearts seemed to be on everything—in her signature, on her binder; there was often a little plastic heart barrette in her hair, which she had dyed in bright hues recalling a Siamese fighting fish. She was enrolled in two of my classes: English and journalism.

My main gripe with Nicole was that she fell asleep in class. Each morning—bang!—her head hit the desk. Waking her was like waking a badger. Nicole’s unmarried mother, it turned out, worked nights, so Nicole would slip out with friends every evening, sometimes staying out until 3 am, and then show up in class exhausted, surly, and hungry.

After a dozen calls home, her mother finally got back to me. Your daughter is staying out late, I reported. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded abashed and bone-weary. “I know, I know, I’m sorry,” she repeated over and over. “I’ll talk to her. I’m sorry.”

For a short time, things got better. Nicole’s grades started to improve. Encouraged, I hectored and cajoled and praised her every small effort. She was an innately bright girl who might, if I dragged her by the heels, eventually survive the rigors of a community college.

Then one morning, her head dropped again. I rapped my knuckles on her desk. “Leave me alone, mister,” she said. “I feel sick.”

There was a sly exchange of looks among the other girls in class, a giggle or two, and then one of them said: “She’s pregnant, Mr. Garibaldi.”

She lifted her face and smiled at her friends, then dropped her head back down. I picked up my grimy metal garbage can and set it beside her desk, just in case. A moment later she vomited, and I dispatched her to the nurse. In the years since, I’ve escorted girls whose water has just broken, their legs trembling and wobbly, to the principal’s office, where their condition barely raises an eyebrow.

Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.

None of this is lost on my students. In today’s urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant. Other girls in school want to pat their stomachs. Their friends throw baby showers at which meager little gifts are given. After delivery, the girls return to school with baby pictures on their cell phones or slipped into their binders, which they eagerly share with me. Often they sit together in my classes, sharing insights into parenting, discussing the taste of Pedialite or the exhaustion that goes with the job. On my way home at night, I often see my students in the projects that surround our school, pushing their strollers or hanging out on their stoops instead of doing their homework.

Connecticut is among the most generous of the states to out-of-wedlock mothers. Teenage girls like Nicole qualify for a vast array of welfare benefits from the state and federal governments: medical coverage when they become pregnant (called “Healthy Start”); later, medical insurance for the family (“Husky”); child care (“Care 4 Kids”); Section 8 housing subsidies; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; cash assistance. If you need to get to an appointment, state-sponsored dial-a-ride is available. If that appointment is college-related, no sweat: education grants for single mothers are available, too. Nicole didn’t have to worry about finishing the school year; the state sent a $35-an-hour tutor directly to her home halfway into her final trimester and for six weeks after the baby arrived.

In theory, this provision of services is humane and defensible, an essential safety net for the most vulnerable—children who have children. What it amounts to in practice is a monolithic public endorsement of single motherhood—one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock.

The young father almost always greets the pregnancy with adolescent excitement, as if a baby were a new Xbox game. In Nicole’s case, the father’s name was David. David manfully walked Nicole to class each morning and gave her a kiss at the door. I had him in homeroom and asked if he planned to marry her. “No” was his frank answer. But he did have plans to help out. David himself lived with his mother. His dad had served a short sentence in prison for drug possession and ran a motorcycle-repair shop somewhere upstate. One afternoon, David proudly opened his father’s website to show me the customized motorcycles he built. There he was, the spit and image of his son, smiling atop a gleaming vintage Harley, not a care in the world.

Boys without fathers, like David, cultivate an overweening bravado to overcome a deeper sense of vulnerability and male confusion. They strut, swear, and swagger. There’s a he-man thing to getting a girl pregnant that marks you as an adult in the eyes of your equally unmoored peers. But a boy’s interest in his child quickly vanishes. When I ask girls if the father is helping out with the baby, they shrug. “I don’t care if he does or not,” I’ve heard too often.

As for girls without fathers, they are often among my most disruptive students. You walk on eggshells with them. You broker remarks, you negotiate insults, all the while trying to pull them along on a slender thread. Their anger toward male authority can be lacerating. They view trips to the principal’s office like victory laps.

With Nicole, I dug in. In journalism class, I brought up the subject of teen pregnancy and suggested that she and a friend of hers, Maria, write a piece together about their experiences. They hesitated; I pressed the matter. “Do you think getting pregnant when you’re a teenager is a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Depends,” Nicole replied caustically, glancing at Maria and another friend, Shanice, for support. They knew this was coming and went on the defensive.

“On what?”

“My mom and my grandma both got pregnant when they were teens, and they’re good mothers.”

“Nobody gets married any more, mister,” Shanice and Maria chime in. “You’re just picking on us because we have kids.”

At this point, my “picking” has only just begun. It’s partly for their benefit, but mostly for the other girls in the room, who haven’t said a word. As much as Nicole is aware of her mother’s sacrifices, she is equally proud of her mother’s choice to keep her. It’s locked away in her heart like a cameo. They’re best friends, she offers. The talk turns to her mother’s loyalty and love, and soon the class rises in a choir to mom’s defense.

“Fine,” I say, glowering like Heath Ledger’s Joker. “If that’s your position, like any good journalist, you have to back up your arguments with facts and statistics.”

As do most of my 11th-graders, Nicole reads at a fifth-grade level, which means I must peruse the articles and statistics along with her, side by side. She groans each time I pick out a long article and counts the number of pages before she reads. With my persistent nudging, she and Maria begin to pull out the statistics for the children of single parents. From the FBI: 63 percent of all suicides are individuals from single-parent households. From the Centers for Disease Control: 75 percent of adolescents in chemical-dependency hospitals come from single-parent households. From the Children’s Defense Fund: more than half of all youths incarcerated for criminal acts come from single-parent households. And so on.

“I don’t want to write about this!” Nicole complains. “I’ve changed my mind.”


“Nobody wants to read it.”

I point out that they committed to it. If they don’t complete the essay by the due date, they know I will give them an F.

Their first drafts are little more than two scribbled paragraphs, which they toss to me as a completed assignment and I toss back. Maria, in particular, rebels. She wants to recast the article in a rosier vein and talk about how happy her son makes her. It’s in these light skirmishes that we have our richest discussions. When the girls open up, their vague doubts come to the surface, and my flinty-eyed circuit preacher melts away. A father myself, I understand a parent’s love. Our talk turns more sweetly to teething cures, diaper rashes, and solid food. Nicole listens to us with tender interest. It’s in these moments that I feel most effective as a teacher. I suggest ways of incorporating that love into the piece, while also hoping that some of these grim statistics have gotten through to them.

As morbid as it sounds, the students take an interest in obituary writing. I have them write their own obits, fictional biographies that foretell the arc of their lives. From Nicole’s, I learn that her mother was 16 when she had Nicole; her father, 14. After high school, the fictional Nicole went on to have four more kids—with strangely concocted names, all beginning with M—whom she loved dearly and who loved her dearly. She also left six grandchildren. She died of old age in her bed.

“Nicole, you never got married?” I remarked.

“No,” she responded with a note of obstinacy in her voice.

“I think you would make a wonderful wife for someone.”

“I would make a good wife,” she replied. “I know a lot of stuff. But I’m not going to get married.” She was speaking to a hard fate that she was accepting as her future. She was slipping away.

As Nicole entered her third trimester, she had a minor complication with her pregnancy and disappeared for nearly two weeks. She returned, pale and far behind in my classes. She no longer had to report to two classes: physical education and a science lab where strong chemicals were used. The administration didn’t want her to be alone during those periods, and since my schedule coincided with the vacant spots, I was asked to be her chaperone.

For five weeks, Nicole became my shadow. If I had cafeteria duty, she’d happily trot along. I’d buy her a candy bar and she’d plop down in the seat beside me. I’d also escort her to her restroom runs, which were frequent, and wait for her outside the door. She carried a grainy sonogram picture of the baby, framed in a pink card with a stork on the front. Gazing at it with a smile, I felt my duplicity and the ragged trap of my convictions.

Her paleness and fatigue alarmed me. I carried Vitamin C drops in my pocket and slipped her a constant supply. A second private concern began to nag at me: the father in me wanted to be protective and kind, but Nicole was becoming too connected with me. She blew off assignments regularly now. When I admonished her, she only giggled and promised to get them done. She trusted me and would never think that falling behind in my classes would result in a failing grade. Life had allowed her to slide before, through every year of her education, as others in her life had slid—starting with her father, whom she barely recalled.

I felt that I was being drawn into this undertow. A simple D would ease everyone’s load, particularly mine, and Nicole wouldn’t register yet another betrayal of trust. More than anything, she wanted a buoy in her choppy sea.

Nicole failed both my classes, which meant summer school. When she returned the following year, she was in good spirits. The birth of her son had gone well. She had a heart-adorned album full of photos of her boy. Things were settled, she said. She was going to work hard this year; she felt motivated, even eager. And by year’s end, her reading level had indeed risen nearly two grades—but it was still far below what she would need to score as proficient on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, one of the yardsticks for accountability in Title I schools.

The path for young, unwed mothers—and for their children—can be brutal. Consider how often girls get molested in their own homes after Mom has decided to let her boyfriend move in. The boyfriend splits the rent and the food bill, but he often sees his girlfriend’s teenage daughter as fair game. Teachers whisper their suspicions in the lunchroom or in the hallways when they notice that one of their students has become suddenly emotional, that her grades have inexplicably dropped, or that she stays late after school to hang out in her teacher’s classroom or begins sleeping over at a friend’s house several nights a week. Sometimes she simply disappears.

And there are other dangers. I once had a student named Jasmine, who had given birth over the summer. She did just enough to earn Ds in my class. One day, I observed her staring off mulishly into space for nearly the entire period, not hearing a word I said and ignoring her assignment. At the end of class, I took her aside and asked, with some irritation, what the matter was.

Her eyes welled with tears. “I gave my son to his father to look after yesterday. When I picked him up, he had bruises on his head and a cut.” Her son was six months old.

Honestly? I just wanted that day to go by. But we have a duty to our students, both moral and legal. “You have to be a brave mama and report him,” I said. I led her to the office and to the school social worker, and I tipped off the campus trooper. Even with that support, she backed off from filing a complaint and shortly afterward dropped out of school to be with her baby.

My students often become curious about my personal life. The question most frequently asked is, “Do you have kids?”

“Two,” I say.

The next question is always heartbreaking.

“Do they live with you?”

Every fall, new education theories arrive, born like orchids in the hothouses of big-time university education departments. Urban teachers are always first in line for each new bloom. We’ve been retrofitted as teachers a dozen times over. This year’s innovation is the Data Wall, a strategy in which teachers must test endlessly in order to produce data about students’ progress. The Obama administration has spent lavishly to ensure that professional consultants monitor its implementation.

Every year, the national statistics summon a fresh chorus of outrage at the failure of urban public schools. Next year, I fear, will be little different.

Gerry Garibaldi was an executive and screenwriter in Hollywood before becoming an English teacher at an urban high school in Connecticut.

10 Education predictions for 2012

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

By Larry Ferlazzo

I’m going to take a stab at some prognostication for 2012. I batted close to 50% in last year’s predictions, which can’t be much worse than those made by professional pundits. Feel free to add your own predictions — and don’t hesitate to include “wishful thinking!”

My predictions for 2012:

1. Proponents of what is typically called “corporate school reform” — expansion of charter schools and teacher merit pay, primarily evaluating teachers by student test scores, erosion of seniority rights — will emphasize expanding their agenda through three major avenues: Teach For America will use their new $50 million grant from the federal government to enter multiple new districts; KIPP charter Schools will do the same with their new $25.5 million grant from the Walton FamilyFoundation; and, in California at least, charter operators will build on their recent push to have county Boards of Education’s approve charter applications over school district objections.

2. Notwithstanding recent court decisions in New York City, efforts to publish teacher ratings by test scores in local newspapers will die out. Newspapers will shy away from publicizing this misleading data after seeing the backlash received by The Los Angeles Times after they pioneered this questionable practice. In addition, since more districts are unfortunately including student test scores in teacher evaluations, the practice of making “job reviews” public will becoming increasingly questionable legally.

3. There will be a surge of interest in the concept of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), the idea of explicitly helping students learn about and develop character traits like self-control and perseverance. Unfortunately, that interest will be combined with a strong desire to test and grade, and much of its potential effectiveness will be lost.

4. Here in California, Gov. Jerry Brown and his allies will be successful in convincing proponents of other tax initiatives to focus on supporting his ballot drive. His plan to increase taxes would result in billions more for schools, and will pass handily. That success will inspire similar efforts in other states during following years.

5. As the 2012 presidential election nears, and the polls show a Romney/Obama contest as a nail-biter, the Obama administration will offer a “fall surprise” to teachers by offering states waivers to No Child Left Behind requirements that don’t have the “poison pills” of rules and costs that their present waiver hold. The tactic will work, and larger numbers of educators will actively campaign for the president in the election’s final months.

6. The inaccurate teacher evaluations in New York, Tennessee and Florida will force states to go much more slowly in implementing ones that include student test scores as a sizable percentage of the ranking. Unfortunately, the momentum for these types of evaluations will only be slowed, not stopped.

7. There will be a renewed interest in using Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) as an evaluation and professional development strategy. Districts that expand the use of this process, which treats educators as professionals, will find increasing success for students, their families, and educators alike.

8. Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee will continue her decline in public credibility and relevance. Her work with some of the most conservative, and anti-teacher, Republicans has made her highly unpopular among many Democrats. And, as her Republican allies falter in their own success and popularity across the country, she is, incredibly and unsuccessfully, trying to build a base here in California.

9. Strategies to use technology as a transformative tool in education will take a backseat as for-profit online learning charlatans and the Khan Academy take up the tech money and the media space.

10. As I did last year, I’m borrowing this last one from Bill Ivey, a colleague in the Teacher Leaders Network. He predicts that “Each and every school day will bring tens of thousands of reasons to celebrate in schools across the country.” That sure sounds good to me…

Please share your reactions, and your own predictions!

Why can't parents opt their kids out of the FCAT

From the Huffington Post

by Timothy Slekar

Since our district's superintendent has decided to actively fight the opt-out movement I have tried to engage him by sending him articles that document the folly of high stakes testing and writing letter's explaining the opt out motives. I thought that we might enter into a civil discussion concerning government mandated public school reform as defined by the corporate elite.

I came across a Marion Brady article posted by Valerie Strauss. The Brady article hit some excellent points so I decided to forward it to the administrators of our district -- superintendent included. I received a response rather quickly to the Brady article from our superintendent.

The superintendent said that he agreed that research does not support high stakes testing and even mentioned listening to a Yong Zhao speech. However, according to our superintendent, the problem was our politicians. In fact he said, "The politicians are deaf to hearing about research."

This is a super observation because it is absolutely true. At this point in time, I also have no faith that our politicians have any intentions of "listening" to research challenging the failing school narrative and halting the high stakes testing regime. Therefore I sent our superintendent the response below.

Dear Superintendent,

You are absolutely right. However, the bigger problem is that politicians are not going to start listening to research anytime soon. You've met with them. I've met with them. They're not going to budge unless something forces them to budge. Take a look at their campaign contributors. All the major testing companies are funneling millions of dollars to the politicians. Research doesn't stand a chance against a system that is designed to ignore research.

That is why I want you to understand that the parents that opt out are not doing it because they want to hurt you, the teachers, or the school. They're doing it because politicians have taken you and the teachers out of the equation. You're not allowed to speak up against this misuse of resources that is designed to hurt our school. If you do, politicians will paint you as a "status quo" educator.

Whatever you think the "opt out" motivation to be, please be certain that it is not to hurt "our" school. It is the only thing left to do as a parent. Once we know the research concerning high stakes testing and the damage it causes, how do we as responsible parents allow our children to take part in a system that was never based on solid research and instead was imposed by political operatives, lobbyists, and think tanks that only want to get at the money tied up in public schools and declare the public system a failure?

Opting out of the PSSAs is the only action left. We want our public schools back. We want you, the principals and teachers to make the decisions. You are the experts.


After sending the email above I immediately crafted the email below. I just did not feel that the response above captured the emotions that I was feeling. It was factual and slightly passionate, but it was missing something. I wanted the superintendent to get a sense that the "opt-outers" were only engaging in this form of civil disobedience because the politicians have forced parents to take a more radical stand.

Dear Superintendent,
I would like to start this note out from a more positive place than our last exchange. Let me clear up a misconception. I have no desire to hurt the school district, the town, or you personally. I love our town and I love the school district. My actions are actually being done in support of this small town and it's wonderful school system. You may question the opt-out tactic, but what is left to do instead?

I have sat with state and federal representatives and talked about the damage high stakes testing (NCLB, PSSA) is having on our children, teachers and schools. I have written these same representatives and detailed all the research that demonstrates the train wreck that is NCLB. I have written numerous Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor in local and national papers. I write a national blog for The Huffington Post. I have spent 5 years on local AM radio. I have been on CNN and FOX. None of this has changed anything.

I still walk into classrooms daily (all over the county) and I still see teachers wasting time on PSSA preparation. I talk to these same teachers. They are demoralized because of the deprofessionalization they have had to endure during NCLB. I know 30 veteran teachers that easily would have taught for years to come but tell me they're leaving because they can't take it anymore. They simply can't take not being able to teach. I have worked with teacher education students for 13 years. Each year it is clearly evident that they are products of the NCLB system. They have no ability to think or maybe worse, they have no desire to think.

There is nothing left to do but opt out. Will this action stop unneeded high stakes testing? I really do not know. However, I do know that if I do nothing it will continue until the entire public school system is dismantled.



Jeb Bush's assult on education and teachers picks up steam

From the Washington Post

by Nick Anderson

The president who turned No Child Left Behind from slogan into statute is gone from Washington, and the influence of his signature education law is fading. But another brand of Bush school reform is on the rise.

The salesman is not the 43rd president, George W. Bush, but the 43rd governor of Florida, his brother Jeb.

At the core of the Jeb Bush agenda are ideas drawn from his Florida playbook: Give every public school a grade from A to F. Offer students vouchers to help pay for private school. Don’t let them move into fourth grade unless they know how to read.

Through two foundations he leads in Florida and his vast political connections, Jeb Bush is advancing such policies in states where Republicans have sought his advice on improving schools. His stature in the party and widening role in state-level legislation make him one of the foremost GOP voices on education.

“He is the standard-bearer,” said Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. “Those governors who are going to have religion on education reform are looking to him to be their mentor.”

With Bush’s support, several states are embracing letter grades for schools. This week, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed bills to launch A-to-F school rating systems in their states, following similar actions in Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana. A voucher bill is moving through the Indiana legislature. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who met with Bush this week, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) are promoting education agendas that echo what Bush calls the “Florida formula.”

Some Democrats are finding common ground with Bush on schools, even though their party scorns his family name.

President Obama joined Bush on March 4 at a Miami high school that the ex-governor had suggested as a turnaround success story. John Hickenlooper invited Bush to his Denver home in December — shortly before the Democrat was sworn in as Colorado governor — to talk about reading programs and mentoring youths. Former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D) teamed up with Bush last year on a national initiative to expand digital learning.

Seeking a bridge

For Obama, who opposes vouchers but encourages teacher performance pay and charter schools, Bush represents a bridge to conservative Republicans who say the federal government meddles too much in schools. Bush is angling to empower states, but he accepts that Washington has a role in formulating education policy — and that Obama’s views are not too far from his own. On that subject, Bush wants a political truce.

“On education issues, the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bush said in a recent interview in Washington. “He cares about students. My attitude is, on the things where there isn’t a fundamental disagreement, it seems to me we ought to pause, celebrate that and find ways to build on it.”

Activism in education could pay off for Bush, 58, if he seeks to succeed his father and brother in the White House. But Bush waves off questions about presidential ambition, veering into wonkish talk about the importance of longitudinal student data.

He said his mission is “to advocate intense, broad-based reform to accelerate student learning. I don’t think you can do it unless you tear down the walls of resistance and change laws. Systemic change requires policy change. That’s our niche.”

Many Democrats and labor leaders denounce the Bush agenda. They say that vouchers drain funding from public education and that grades of D and F stigmatize schools that need help. Critics also say other policies he espouses — including merit pay — are unfair to teachers and rely too much on standardized tests.

Florida’s academic gains, critics say, could have been much larger if Bush had sought more collaboration.

“He doesn’t believe in bringing people along with him,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. “He just forces his will on everybody.”

Ford said many teachers were irate that Obama shared a platform in Miami with a former governor who fought the union almost nonstop for eight years. “The White House is on the wrong track by associating with Jeb Bush,” he said.

Bush said it is “foolhardy” to suggest that teachers unions are “somehow going to be in the vanguard of efforts to raise student achievement.”

When he became governor in 1999, Bush launched a top-to-bottom overhaul of Florida education. It presaged in some respects the testing and accountability regimen of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Florida schools were given letter grades based on academic progress and achievement — a measure Bush said would provide parents a clearer picture of school performance. The state ended what Bush called “social promotion” of third-graders and provided vouchers so those in repeatedly failing public schools could go to private schools — a program later struck down in court.

In one of his biggest defeats, Bush opposed limiting class sizes, which state voters approved in a referendum in 2002.

Bush left office in 2007, and his legacy is much debated. Federal test scores show that Florida’s fourth-graders, especially Hispanic students, made big strides in reading from 1998 to 2009. Eighth-graders posted more modest gains. Participation in Advanced Placement testing has boomed. But the graduation rate (as tracked by Education Week) and 12th-grade reading scores are below the national averages, and major racial and ethnic achievement gaps persist.

In the past few years, Bush has become a guru for state school chiefs, governors, legislative committee chairmen and others — mostly Republicans — in a position to influence education rules and laws.

His Foundation for Florida’s Future pushes Bush priorities within that state, including legislation to expand merit pay and phase out tenure, which Gov. Rick Scott (R) recently signed. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education promotes his agenda elsewhere. He draws no salary from the two entities. Among the financial backers of his national effort are foundations led by Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and the Walton family.

Bush often voices solidarity with GOP governors known for battling teachers unions, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich. A March 15 tweet from @JebBush: “Ohio is focused on improving student achievement! Great to see @JohnKasich’s ed plan has digital learning, accountability, choices & more.”

Bush has helped several state school leaders, including Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson, form a coalition for “bold reform” known as “Chiefs for Change.” He has also organized education summits that draw hundreds of policymakers from across the country. Last fall, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan shared the stage with Bush in a Q-and-A session at a conference in Washington.

“Arne and Jeb are really the most influential people at the national level right now pushing college and career readiness for our kids and improvement for our schools,” said Paul G. Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of education and a Republican. “Jeb is working with statehouses and state leaders to directly impact the agenda. He is above all others on the issue among Republicans.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Full-time cyber schools expanding despite no evidence of their effectiveness, new report finds

from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Pratice

Study finds more questions than answers about the benefit of full-time virtual schools

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Oct. 25, 2011) — Full-time virtual schools are expanding despite no high-quality evidence that they are effective, according to a new report released today.

Cash-strapped states and school districts are using online education — including full-time virtual schools with no face-to-face contact between students and teachers — as a lower-cost alternative to traditional public schools. In states such as Florida, virtual schools are used as a loophole in laws that limit the size of classes.

According to the report, authored by University of Colorado education professors Gene V Glass and Kevin G. Welner, full-time "cyber schools" are now operating in 27 states. In at least one case in Arizona, a private firm outsourced essay grading to low-paid workers in India.

"Private operators are gaining access to large streams of public revenue to run cyber schools," Glass said. "But school districts are not getting full information on the actual costs of these programs, so it's not clear if taxpayer money is being used effectively — or properly."

Cyber schools are subject to only minimal government oversight, according to the report.

"We have to make sure that cyber schools don't become just a cheap way of providing second-rate service to disadvantaged schools and students," Glass said.

"No matter where they live or in what form they receive instruction, all students deserve quality teachers, supported by a rigorous program of accreditation and accountability," Welner said.

As virtual schools continue to grow, Glass and Welner offered several recommendations for state legislators and other policymakers. The recommendations are contained in model legislation also released today by University of Kentucky educator professor and attorney Justin Bathon. These recommendations include:

Financial audits of cyber schools to determine their actual per-student expenses, so school districts can determine appropriate reimbursement.
Authentication of student work: An online instructor, whether located in the U.S. or abroad, has no way to determine whether work submitted via computer was performed by the student enrolled in the class. Trusted organizations should be engaged to administer in-person exams, as is currently the practice at several virtual schools.

Accreditation: To avoid abuses that have been found in other proprietary schools – such as truck driving and cosmetology academies – traditional high school accrediting agencies and state and federal departments of education should work together to develop a rigorous approach to accreditation of both part- and full-time cyber schools.

The full report, "Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation" and the model legislation were produced by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

To read Glass and Welner's full report and to view Bathon's model legislation, go to:

Both are also available on the NEPC website:

Florida's charter schools don't live up to promisies

Friends’ charter schools were supposed to be engines of innovation and experimentation where kids could get a good education. In Florida many have become for profit, public subsidized, monstrosities run by real estate moguls and hedge fund operators who care about profits not our children and if you want proof of this click the title or cut and paste below into your browser.

Then sit back and be disapointed by our leaders in Tallahassee.

Can we afford more of Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals leadership?

The Times Union says we need to give our school leadership more time.

Is it leadership to allow principals to fire hundreds of teachers with satisfactory evaluations and not give them a reason?

Is it leadership to rift about a hundred teachers and then contract with Teach for America to bring in about a hundred more for a 2400-dollar finders fee. If you didn’t know, TFA takes non-education majors, puts them through a two-week crash course and then sticks them in some of our hardest classrooms.

Is it leadership to plead with Tallahassee to give us one more year with our intervene schools and then just days before the year began to give control of those schools and two million dollars to the education management organization Education Directions. By the way at least one executive at Ed Directions has close ties to the district.

Is it leadership to approve the creation of two more KIPP schools after the first one failed spectacularly? The first school had the lowest score in North East Florida. KIPP schools do have a place in education but is it too much to ask that they have some success before they are allowed to expand.

Is it leadership to allow any student to use learning recovery to repeat classes they failed? What if they failed the classes because they skipped, disrupted classes or made no effort at all?

Is it leadership that leads to low teacher morale? One of the school board chair Betty Burney’s three goals for the year is improving teacher morale.

Is it leadership to, with a wink and a nod, have teachers promote kids along without the skills they need to be successful, something the TU itself admits happens when they write about kids not being able to read at grade level.

Is it leadership that led to seven of our schools, including six neighborhood high schools to be on the intervene list? Six out of thirteen neighborhood high schools, let that sink in, and people are worried about Lee and First Coast too.

Is all this leadership? Is this the leadership we want? Is this the leadership our city and kids can afford?

Friends if all this is leadership then we have way too much! With friends like this we don’t need any enemies.

The cognitive dissonance the Times Union has for education

I am continuoulsy amazed by the cognitive dissonance constantly displayed by the Times Union’s editorial board when it comes to public education. They showed their complete lack of understanding when they praised the recent uptick in our graduation rates and called for more patience for the current leadership of Ed Pratt-Dannals

First friends, like most of the district numbers are, our graduation rate improvement is all smoke and mirrors. 71% even on it’s face is at the bottom of the state and nearly ten points below the state average but it’s worse than that. Thousands of students aren’t factored into the rate and our rate is inflated by the overuse of grade recovery which helps graduate kids ill prepared for life.

Then lets talk about leadership. Which came first the chicken or the egg? Which came first, problems in our intervene schools or leadership that led to these problems. I believe the team in place now is responsible. They ignored discipline, cajoled teachers into passing children who weren’t prepared to be successful, something the TU as much admits when they talk about kids not being able to read on grade level, accelerated the brain drain from schools through the creation of more and more magnet schools and then sat back and ignored the problems these decisions created at many of our schools.

Here is a heads up Mr. Editor; four of our schools were already voluntarily given away to Education Direction just days before the school year began. Next year it won’t be voluntary and more schools will join them.

Last year I wrote the Times Union and asked them how much longer are we going to let this administration run our schools into the ground? I did the same thing the year before and I am going to do the same thing next year too unless there is a change. This administration’s only cards are to move administrators around and blame teachers. How long should we wait Mr. Editor? How many more children have to fall through the cracks or graduate knee capped because of the poor education they received?

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Charter Schools, the oops of education

Charter schools are not hamstrung like many pubic schools are but study after study shows they do no better and often do worse. -cpg

By Larry Cuban,

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and top policymakers have promoted and funded small urban high schools for nearly a decade. Then Bill Gates said in his 2009 Annual Letter that while these small urban high schools had accomplished much for students they had largely failed to improve academic achievement. No more big bucks for this initiative. No other foundation executives or federal/state officials, all of whom had tripped over themselves in hailing small urban high schools, said "Oops!"

Ditto for charter schools. Policy elites across both political parties for the past decade have promoted charter schools to offer urban parents and their children choices they would not have in district regular schools. A 15-state study concluded that, indeed, 17 percent of charters offered “superior educational opportunities for their students.” Nearly half of the charters, however, differed little from regular public school “options,” and here is the kicker: 37 percent of the charters “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

There’s more bad news on charters (I winced because, in general, I support this public option and sit on a charter school board). In a recent report from the Thomas Fordham Institute, a researcher tracked 2,000 low-performing regular and charter schools between 2003-2009 to see if they had turned around, been closed, or remained low-performing. Eighty percent of these low performing regular public schools were still in business–yes, 80 percent.

But here’s the surprise: 72 percent of low-performing charters also stayed open and continued to perform poorly. In spite of all that talk from policy elites championing charters that “our bad schools don’t last–either they improve or they close,” there has been persistent failure....

Sure, turning around failing schools is tough work but only 1 percent of public and charter schools did, indeed, make it into the top half of their state’s proficiency rankings–a very high bar to cross. OK, another "oops," but one that few officials pushing charters will voice.

Then there is the three-decade long, unrelenting promotion of computers in classrooms and online instruction. Now, we have a new corporate and civic-driven coalition chaired by two ex-state governors [Florida's Jeb Bush and West Virginia's Bob Wise] issuing a report (p. 19 of Digital Learning Now Report FINAL lists corporate, foundation, and top policymakers who participated).

To be charitable, evidence of students’ academic achievement gains attributed to online instruction, laptops, and other hardware and software in schools is scant. Evidence that regular instructional use of these machines will transform teaching and learning is barely visible.

And the dream that school use of these machines and applications will lead to better jobs (except in programs where technical certificates can lead to work–e.g., Cisco–if they are available), well, I won’t even mention the scarcity of evidence to support that dream.

So what do these two governors plug in their Digital Learning Commission report?

“Providing a customized, personalized education for students was a dream just a decade ago. Technology can turn that dream into reality today. The Digital Learning Council will develop the roadmap to achieve that ultimate goal.”

Sure, this is an advertisement pushing for-profit online outfits such as K-12 and non-profit projects such as the Florida Virtual School and “hybrid” schools. See here and here. These ex-governors want states to alter their policies to accommodate this “Brave New World” where students get individual lessons tailored to what they need to learn.

Question: After decades of blue-ribbon commissions issuing utopian reports promising “revolutionary” and “transformed” schools, where is the evidence that such futures are either possible or worthwhile?

Answer: When it comes to technology policy, evidence doesn’t matter.

The rational part of me still expects top decision-makers, even ex-governors, to use the best evidence available to support proposed directions. The real-world political part of me recognizes that policy elites cherry-pick studies and facts to support decisions already determined.

I guess I am still innocent enough to expect top decision-makers faced with an accumulation of evidence that runs counter to their small high school, charter, or technology policies, at the very least, would pull up their socks and admit that they either goofed or would reconsider their decision. They won’t because "oops!" is taboo in policymakers’ vocabulary.

I would find the expression of honest doubts about policies derived from facts, not faith, to be both refreshing and courageous.

Taken from the Washington Post:

New teachers versus experienced teachers

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

by Anthony Cody

Last week during Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall, there was one phrase that keeps sticking in my mind. Moderator John Merrow asked Duncan what his message is for teachers who feel under attack. Duncan's response included this:

“We have to do everything we can to support teachers. I worry about losing too much of our great young talent.”

It is hard to disagree with this. I spent the last four years leading a program in Oakland designed to do just that. We created TeamScience to give novice science teachers a professional community to belong to, offering them experienced colleagues as mentors as well as workshops, curriculum and professional development. We did this because we have a huge turnover issue among our science teachers. Most of the vacancies are filled with interns from Teach For America and other programs, and three years after they start, 75% of these teachers have left the District.

I served as a mentor myself to more than a dozen of these interns over the past few years. As with almost all beginning teachers, they start out very green and have a great deal to learn. These interns have usually only had a six-week long summer training program to prepare them, so the learning curve is steep.

We wanted to retain these teachers for a number of reasons. First of all, it takes a huge investment of energy and resources to support beginning teachers. The District pays thousands of dollars to underwrite their recruitment and summer training. In our TeamScience program, we pair them with mentors who meet with them weekly, and offer them extensive support. We tailor much of our professional development to serve beginning teachers, to make sure their students have access to a solid hands-on science curriculum. These novices are learning a great deal in their first three years. When they depart, they take this investment and expertise with them, and the students get a fresh recruit in their place, usually inexperienced and far less effective.

Our efforts made a dent in this problem. We were able to reduce the turnover of these interns somewhat, though the long-term outlook is less clear. The problem is that there are a number of systemic factors that promote turnover in urban districts like Oakland. Here are some of them:

1. When you recruit people into the teaching profession for a two-year commitment, and present the classroom as a stepping stone to greater career opportunities (as does Teach For America), it is not surprising that people leave after completing two or three years.

2. These interns are being placed in the most challenging teaching environments possible. These schools are often in neighborhoods where unemployment, poverty and violence are high. The interns are often unfamiliar with the culture and language of the students. The schools are under-resources, and overcrowded. This can be overwhelming for any teacher, let alone a beginner.

3. Our high needs schools continue to be under intense pressure to increase test scores. While Secretary Duncan deplores teaching to the test, almost every policy initiative he promotes raises the stakes attached to these tests. As a result, these schools tend not to be places where innovation and creativity are encouraged. Furthermore, the schools with the highest levels of poverty, and with the largest number of English learners, are likely to find themselves in that bottom 5% when the test scores come out, which subjects them to the “turnaround” strategies mandated by the Department of Education itself. This subjects teachers and administrators at these schools to the risk of mass firings or reassignments. These are not stable places in which to base one’s career. They are made unstable by official policy.

4. Oakland, like many urban districts, has so many demands on its limited state funding that teacher salaries lag behind many neighboring districts. That means even interns who decide to remain in the profession tend to move to another district, where they can earn thousands of dollars more each year.

So the question is: Why are Secretary Duncan and many of our would-be education “reformers” so focused on retaining great YOUNG talent?

Sometimes it seems as if our education reformers have decided that one of the problems with our schools is that we have too many OLD teachers, because many of the “reforms” seem to undermine this group.

We have concerted efforts to cut pension benefits. We have new policies being enacted that remove seniority protections for teachers, and instead allow layoffs to be decided based on “effectiveness” (usually determined by how well a teacher has raised test scores). As I wrote last month, the efforts of the education “reform” non-profit Teach Plus in Indiana were focused on protecting “promising young teachers” from the effects of layoffs.

From Memphis, Tennessee comes news that an initiative funded by the Gates Foundation led the district there to choose to hire novice teachers rather than experienced ones. And last December, with no apparent opposition from the Department of Education, Congress acted to change the definition of “highly effective eacher” within No Child Left Behind to explicitly include poorly trained interns, after a court decision ruled them out.

So why are young teachers so attractive?

Young teachers are cheap. These teachers in their first few years are at the bottom of the pay scale, and may earn only 60% of what a senior teacher might make.

Young teachers may be just as effective at raising test scores as experienced teachers. Many of the intern programs put great emphasis on effective test preparation, and schools that are under pressure to raise scores may find this very desirable.

Young teachers are malleable, and can be easily fired. They will not even have due process protections for their first few years, and can be released pretty much at will by the administrator.

What do we MISS when this sort of teacher becomes the solution?

A certain magical balance can be reached when you have just the right mix of experienced and novice teachers. The novices bring energy and fresh ideas, but the veterans bring precious knowledge of the school, the community, and the needs of the students. In Oakland, some of our schools have lost that balance, as they may experience turnover of half or more of their teachers in a given year. Turnover of administrators is high as well, so it is not uncommon for schools to begin the year with the majority of staff starting anew.

Teachers are the heart and soul of a school. I was at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland for 18 years, and when I started there, a number of my colleagues had been there for more than a decade, some more than 30 years. We were connected to the community, and we taught generations of students from the neighborhood. This kind of connection to the parent community builds real accountability for student learning. When teachers turn over at high rates, continuity is broken and this kind of connection is much more difficult.

Students suffer because great teaching goes way beyond test scores, and many of these dimensions beyond tests deepen as a teacher gains experience. More experienced teachers learn how to connect more with individual students, how to better differentiate for diverse learning styles, and how to connect with a larger range of students. They learn more about the students’ cultures, and the specific issues that exist in the community, and this knowledge can help them connect on more levels with more of their students.

More advanced professional growth suffers. Beginning teachers are likely to be focused on learning how to manage their classrooms, or getting their basic curriculum together. They are less likely to seek out more in-depth practices like scientific inquiry, or Project-Based Learning. They may not be ready for things like National Board certification, Lesson Study, or teacher action research. If there is a critical mass of experienced teachers, then novices may join in and benefit greatly from this sort of activity, but lacking that, they are usually not going to be ready.

Experienced teachers see the novices come and go, and may not have the energy to invest in mentoring this revolving staff. Cohesion suffers, as do consistent management policies that keep schools running smoothly. Without experienced colleagues to offer support, novices are left to reinvent their curriculum and procedures, at great expense.

When we designed TeamScience, we wanted to retain experienced teachers as well. So we did our best to build a collegial community, and provide opportunities for the mentors to grow and be recognized for their expertise. While I agree with Secretary Duncan that we need to retain great young teachers, I am even MORE concerned about the great experienced teachers we are losing. For this reason it concerns me that when he is asked about teacher retention, he only voices a concern for the young ones. It also concerns me that many urban districts have come to rely on interns who make a relatively short commitment to the teaching profession, and turn over in high numbers.

We need to address the big reasons we are losing teachers, and fix these problems. Getting more “great young talent” to fill these vacancies is not a systemic solution. And while we may make some minor gains when we try to retain them, my experience in Oakland suggests that until we address the underlying issues that drive this turnover, more short-timers will not fill the void.