Thursday, June 30, 2011

Striving for better educational opportunities for our children

Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice at the Education
Law Center

In a tempo that harkened to the days of the Civil Rights Movement, the young and dynamic NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recently urged a captivated audience to fight for better educational opportunities as if America’s children’s lives depend on it.

“Because they do,” he said to punctuate his call to action to end shocking gaps in educational opportunities, the re-segregation of America’s schools, and extreme incarceration rates.
The audience was with him, nodding and applauding, as he tied these problems together and connected with our own experience. He had people on the edges of their seats when he reminded us that the dream of the NAACP is to push the entire country toward equity and justice. (Fortunately, the organization is growing rapidly. Join, if you’re not a member!)

To fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, Jealous said – as he delivered the annual Education Justice Lecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey – we need to increase educational opportunity. 

“Most of what we call the achievement gap is a resource gap,” he said, and we need high-quality preschool, extended school days and years for kids who need more time to learn and ways to learn, and high-quality teaching for all students – a vision that is shared by the growing National Opportunity to Learn Campaign. (See OTL’s similar proposals here.) 

"If you are in a hospital and your recovery isn't going so well," he explained, "we give you more resources to catch you up, to make sure you walk out that door as strong and healthy as anybody else. In school it should be the same way. If you're falling behind, we should devote more attention to you, more resources."

In moving forward, Jealous said, it’s imperative to avoid the pitfalls of the past – namely the re-segregation of our schools. To drive home this point, he spoke of what he calls the "Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future" – the three North Carolina regions that illustrate the challenges of different stages of integration.

Brown never reached Halifax County, N.C., which Jealous labeled the Ghost of Christmas Past. The county has three highly segregated school districts, two of which serve almost exclusively black students, and one of which is primarily white. The district lines don't follow the geography of the city, Jealous explained, and instead track the boundaries of white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods, as they have since before Brown

Wake County, N.C., is the Ghost of Christmas Present. This district had one of the best desegregation strategies in the country, but newly elected school board members are seeking to dismantle the district's socioeconomic integration plan and return students to racially separate schools by basing enrollment on the district’s segregated neighborhoods.

That brought Jealous to Christmas Future -- Charlotte, N.C., which integrated its schools under a court order in 1972. In 2002, the court lifted the order because the district was integrated. With no court order, the district re-segregated, and, when the district recently decided to shut down a number of schools to save money, it chose schools that served primarily students of color, causing these students to bear the burden.

Jealous pointed out that school re-segregation is happening within a broader context of our country’s rapid regression on multiple fronts: voting rights are being attacked, hate crimes have increased, and there's a backlash against immigrants. To address this problem, he argued that we must begin by affirming and acknowledging that we have a long-term crisis. His generation of black men was raised to believe that they would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, but they became the most incarcerated generation on the planet. 

Pointing to Misplaced Priorities – a new NAACP report on America's escalating prison spending and how it’s bankrupting our states, especially our state colleges and universities – Jealous pulled out a startling statistic: with just five percent of world's population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. To counter this stark reality, he said, we should embrace rehabilitation, which is seven times more effective, and send the savings to our public higher education systems. 

In summing up this call to action, Jealous stressed his concern that as diversity is rising, prosperity is declining. One can be like Donald Trump, who attacked diversity to distract people from the economy, or be like Dr. King, who embraced diversity and focused on ending poverty and building up prosperity, Jealous said. 

Join us in the good fight, Jealous said, because “"to be silent is to be complicit."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Joel Klein vs. the so-called ‘apologists for the failed status quo’

This post was written by Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. It first appeared in Sociological Eye on Education, a blog that he writes for The Hechinger Report, and reposted in The Answer Sheet, a blog by Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post.
Pallas has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and served as a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. His most recent projects focus on the conditions in New York City public schools. 
Joel Klein is a hoot. Klein, who served as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools from 2002 to 2010, recently took to the opinion pages of The Washington Post to crown his friends and cronies the champions of education reform. Several alumni from the New York City Department of Education who presumably learned how to promote reform under Klein’s direction have assumed prominent leadership positions: John White is the superintendent in New Orleans, Cami Anderson in Newark, Jean-Claude Brizard in Chicago, Andres Alonso in Baltimore, and Marcia Lyles in Delaware’s Christina School District; similarly, Chris Cerf is the state commissioner of education in New Jersey. These names join others around the country, many trained by the Broad Superintendents Academy.

Klein argues that what sets these reformers apart from apologists for the failed status quo is that they have higher expectations. “Sure, educating children from difficult circumstances is often much harder,” he writes, “but the notion that schools can get much better results with those same kids than they’re now generally getting is no longer a matter of abstract debate. It’s now established fact.” The rhetoric here is, to my ear, quite remarkable. It doesn’t place children and their development in the foreground; rather, the emphasis is on what schools can extract from kids. It’s a dangerous rhetorical twist, because it points to accountability systems that can decouple school-performance measures from student learning. There’s little persuasive evidence that such systems can promote lasting achievement. Just last month, for example, the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council reported that test-based incentive programs have not had consistent and substantial effects on student achievement.

To support his claim, Klein points to a recent in-house study produced by KIPP, a chain of charter schools, showing that graduates from KIPP’s first two schools in New York City and Houston, overwhelmingly poor children of color, achieved four-year college graduation rates equivalent to those of white students. KIPP may indeed be doing great things, but any reputable social scientist would caution against concluding that participating in KIPP produced favorable outcomes without taking into account the mechanisms by which children are selected into and out of the program and its schools.

More peculiar is the use of KIPP as an example of the power of the school-reform movement. Joel Klein was Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools for eight years, and the individuals I named above all served as key deputies during his tenure. To the best of my knowledge, they had nothing to do with the performance of students attending these two KIPP schools.

On the other hand, Klein and his deputies presumably had a great deal to do with the performance of the 1.1 million students in the New York City public schools. So perhaps that’s a better place to look for the effect on the achievement gap of this concentration of school-reform talent.  What’s the evidence?

Here are the facts: On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a highly respected measure of student achievement, fourth- and eighth-graders achieved modest growth in reading and math achievement from 2003 to 2009, which was “prime time” for the reforms that Klein and his team enacted. That growth is to be applauded; scores on NAEP do not rise by themselves. There is, however, no evidence that the gains observed in New York City outpaced what was observed over the same time-frame in other urban school districts that were not led by the current wave of reformers. In other words, NAEP scores in reading and math rose just as much in districts led by “apologists for the failed status quo” as they did in the district with the greatest concentration of “reform talent” in the nation.  Head-to-head with Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia, Houston, Los Angeles and San Diego, in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, New York City gained more on NAEP between 2003 and 2009 11% of the time; gained less on NAEP 28% of the time; and was statistically indistinguishable from the comparison city 61% of the time. This is not strong evidence that the package of reforms promoted by this new cadre of school leaders in New York City resulted in better outcomes for children than the reforms pursued in other districts.

Moreover, the so-called “achievement gap”—group differences in educational achievement outcomes between white students, on the one hand, and black and Latino students, on the other—remained substantial at the conclusion of Joel Klein’s tenure, and didn’t budge between 2003 and 2009. In both reading and math, and in both fourth- and eighth-grade, the black-white and Latino-white differences in average performance on the NAEP among New York City students remains between .72 and .90 standard deviations, roughly the difference between the 50th percentile and the 80th percentile of overall student performance. The black-white and Latino-white group differences in New York City on the 2009 NAEP fourth- and eighth-grade science tests are even larger.

Does pointing these facts out mean that I think poor and minority children can’t learn? Does it make me an apologist for the failed status quo? I don’t think so. What it does mean is that I’m skeptical of unproven reforms that are championed by politicians, business leaders and philanthropists who seek to impose their view of what works on public education in the absence of credible evidence. Joel Klein contends that “the status quo is broken and that incremental change won’t work.” He and like-minded school leaders such as Michelle Rhee use these claims as a license to do just about anything that strikes their fancy, without regard to the time it takes to build the structures and cultures that can support reform.  The consequence is an unstable system that threatens to collapse at any moment. Substituting a sense of urgency for a deliberate and well-planned approach to incremental change may feel good, but it’s bad public policy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wisconsin is trying to run away from quality education

By Tom Beebe
Executive Director, Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools

Racine public schools have 21,000 students and a poverty rate of almost 60 percent. The economic slowdown has not treated this Wisconsin community kindly, as the school board just passed an interim budget that both raises taxes and cuts spending on kids

That’s sad, because we know what Racine and other communities across the country need to do for young people: Put highly effective teachers in front of kids who have access to challenging classes and quality resources, and we need to start their education early.

Instead, over the last two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars of opportunities have been stripped away and now a statewide budget has been approved that will cut children’s chances to learn by another $1.6 billion.

Racine school board members say enough is enough. No state budget should be balanced on the backs of kids. Left with no way out, board members are talking about suing the state to make sure Racine’s young people have the opportunities they need to learn.

The devastation to Wisconsin’s once proud public school system is breathtaking.

On top of past cuts, this Legislature eliminated Advanced Placement grants and school nurses; pared back school breakfasts, bilingual services, and aid to small schools; decreased the state’s share of the cost of special education and poverty services; slashed general aid by about $800 million; and told local school districts they couldn’t spend their own money to make up the difference.

Silly? Absolutely. Wisconsin is running as fast and as far as possible away from what we all know is right for our kids, their schools, and our communities.

The budget described above isn’t even in effect yet. All this pain, not just in Racine but around the state, is from past mistakes:
  • The Mosinee School District says its elementary Spanish program and unique outdoor science classes are “very good” but will have to be cut anyway.
  • The Phillips School District recently met its budget goal by slashing $662,800, including eliminating a late bus and reducing classroom supplies, and extra-curricular activities. Then, the district learned that the state's new budget means the board will have to come up with an additional $440,000 in cuts. 
  • Rufus King High School is a star in Milwaukee Public Schools. Yet at the very time we want better educated graduates the funding system reduces our investment in quality education. According to The King’s Page, the school lost in French, business, and English; the amount of materials for students and teachers was slashed; photography was cut; and the music and art departments cut back.
If Wisconsin is going to get out of the mess it is in, every child in the state needs opportunities to learn that will give them a chance to succeed, boost the economy, and contribute to society.

We are getting the opposite. Over the past two decades, state government—on both sides of the aisle—has taken away hundreds of millions of dollars of effective teachers, quality pre-schools, challenging curriculum, and equitable educational resources.

Now we have a Governor and a Legislature that has gone even further by suggesting that if we just take away another $1.6 billion of opportunities to learn children will be better educated.

As illogical as that is, they have also said that giving some of those public tax dollars to even more private schools for vouchers is better. Even if that worked (and the data questions that), it helps only a few children in Wisconsin. Furthermore, according to a recently filed claim, these policies discriminate against children with special needs

"It really isn't choice," said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "It is an attack on public education. …. This is the first step in disassembling public education and sending everyone to their own school based on their individual religious and social philosophy.”

Stunning, isn’t it? Everything we know to be true—based on research, experience, and common sense—has been cast aside. When we should move toward the future, we run headlong into the past and call it progress.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Getting it right shouldn’t be wrong

By Tina Dove
National Director, Opportunity to Learn Campaign

Studies show that access to a highly effective teacher – one who has strong content and pedagogy expertise and classroom experience – can significantly improve student achievement. And it’s imperative that federal leaders be willing to watch, learn and support replication of programs that have proven sound and successful. Instead, the federal Race to the Top competitive funding program has forced state education leaders to turn down millions of dollars in potential funding because they refuse to abandon programs that are working quite well.

Take, for example, the highly productive and widely lauded Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program in use in Maryland’s Montgomery County schools for just over a decade, a diverse district with 145,000 students, one-third of them from low-income families. During his tenure, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast developed PAR – the only program of its kind in the nation – into a model of teacher professional development.

As a former high school teacher, I can attest to the value of a collaborative endeavor such as PAR that engages teachers in the work evaluation process and avoids the pitfalls that come with a system that is punitive and confrontational. Through PAR, as reported in a recent New York Times article, several hundred senior teachers mentor new teachers and struggling veterans; a panel of eight teachers and eight principals oversees the progress of mentoring and helps makes decisions about how to proceed with struggling educators.

The New York Times also reported:

  •     The teachers’ union president says the program has fostered a more trusting relationship between his members and school system leadership. Five years ago, when the school system asked teachers to forego a 5.3 percent pay raise to help close budget gaps, the union agreed.  “We formulate the budget,” said Doug Prouty, union president. “We know where the money is, which makes us more trusting.” PAR, Prouty said, wouldn’t work without that trust.
  •      State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick has praised it as an “excellent system for professional development.” 
  •        The PAR panel has voted to fire 200 teachers, and an additional 300 have left rather than go through the PAR progress. 
  •         Nearly 85 percent of Montgomery County students attend college and 63 percent of them go on to earn degrees. 
  •        Among all of the nation’s Black students who pass an Advanced Placement test, 2.5 percent of them live in Montgomery County – more than five times its share of the country’s Black population.

In standing by his district’s program, Superintendent Weast was forced to turn down $12 million in Race to the Top funding because despite his obvious successes in improving teacher quality through PAR, the RTTT grant would have required him to shift course and use students’ state test results in assessing teacher performance. 

The bottom line is that Montgomery County’s program is yielding strong and consistent results that are improving the teacher corps there and helping students to succeed academically.

As Weast told The New York Times, the problem with Race to the Top’s teacher-evaluation system is that it imposes standards instead of including teachers and principals in the process of developing those standards. “People don’t tear down what they help build,” Weast said.

We at the OTL Campaign agree.  

Weast is creating opportunities to thrive for his teaching corps and opportunities to learn for the thousands of children in his system, and Race to the Top should reward proven educational reform approaches instead of aiming for one-size-fits-all methods that have produced uneven results.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CPER Convening spurs hope in fight for education justice

By Tina Dove
National Director, Opportunity to Learn Campaign

What an introduction! Hundreds of education allies from across the country were in Washington, D.C., met recently for this year’s Communities for Public Education Reform (CPER) Convening. Four years in, the Convening hosted an impressive list of groups who truly represent the heart of the grassroots movement for education justice. 

The diversity was fantastic. Attendees came from all races, ethnicities, ages and geographic locations. Though diverse, everyone was united to fight for education justice through campaigns that support improving public education, especially schools in low-income communities. The CPER community is large and growing, with six CPER sites (California, Chicago, Colorado, Mississippi, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania) and three affiliates sites (Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.) represented. 

After attending my first CPER convening as national director of the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, I am reflecting on numerous highlights from the experience. First, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, spoke passionately about the need for resource accountability in an era when far too often students, families and teachers are required to be accountable. She stressed that the federal, state and local governments have a responsibility to provide the resources our children need to be successful. 

She reminded us that it is the opportunity gap, not the achievement gap, where we must focus the national discussion if we are to turn things around for our most vulnerable children. Linda asked us to imagine a well-resourced school with health clinics, after-school programs, ESL programs for parents, arts and music classes, student-centered learning, and high levels of parent and community engagement. She then astonished the group when she revealed that this  is the reality for the average school in Finland. It begged the question, “Why is this not happening in American schools, particularly those serving our most vulnerable students, if competing internationally is our nation’s goal?” 

I was also moved by the efforts of local organizers—from Boston to Tunica, Mississippi, and from Chicago to Los Angeles, and places in between—all working to build a national movement. Clearly this work is paying dividends with organizers’ voices being heard in their respective states and districts. Whether it is the battle being waged in New York City by the Coalition for Educational Justice aimed at preventing teacher firings and school closures or the dropout prevention efforts being carried out by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, grassroots advocates are turning concerns into actions, taking their advocacy efforts to decision makers and raising the level of awareness of their causes.   

But as some speakers pointed out, their voices are not breaking through at the national level. It was encouraging to learn about efforts to change this reality. 

One vision of what is possible came when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed CPER attendees. He acknowledged the importance of the work communities across the country are doing and how it is critical at this time in our nation’s history. He received thunderous applause when he spoke of his and President Obama’s support for the DREAM Act—a grassroots effort that has mustered considerable national attention in recent years.

While the praise is appreciated, the battle is far from over. Despite years of bipartisan support over several Congresses and two presidential administrations, the DREAM Act is still not law. Worthy students are still being denied the opportunity to go to college and serve their country. And more states are passing laws that deny immigrant students access to college and subject immigrants to racial profiling and discrimination. Clearly the fight for justice is not yet won, and the actions of many of our so-called allies can at times be best described at trepidatious.     

As a former high school teacher, I was proud to see the work being done by the Alliance for Educational Justice. Their video promoting the National Rally & March for Youth Investment was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Much like the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Era, these young people took their passion to the streets, lifting their voices on the national stage to advocate for their futures and those of their peers. 

Joining their endeavor for sustainable school transformation is Communities for Excellent Public Schools, which calls for parent, student and community engagement and emphasizes that it will take all of us to strengthen our schools and communities. 

Finally, I am excited by the work of the Dignity in Schools Campaign on the issue of zero tolerance policies. Their efforts are sorely needed if we are to replace policies that punish and push students out of school with constructive alternatives that keep kids in school learning while addressing their problems in a manner that respects their dignity and human rights. This campaign, as it grows in strength, will have a significant impact on youth of color—boys in particular—and will help to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.

I left the CPER Convening with a sense of optimism about the future of our fight for educational equity and justice. We have so many great, smart, passionate people involved in this movement. Our challenge will be to ensure that our voices are being heard by those holding the levers of power at the local, state and national levels. 

Through the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, I pledge to do all within my power to connect with advocates and the organizations they represent, to continue to learn about the realities of their schools and communities, and to work with them to hold public officials accountable. This movement is strong and I look forward to the work ahead.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Colorado is a big step closer to ending zero tolerance

Colorado students, parents, community members and organizational allies have made a significant stride in the effort to end the school-to-jail pipeline with the passage of legislation that calls on leaders to formulate alternatives to zero tolerance policies.

This is the latest and one of the most significant developments in a growing movement to challenge the wisdom of zero-tolerance policies in schools and other policies and practices that put one-size-fits all solutions in front of common sense and the well-being of our young people. 

Colorado is joined by other states and cities coast to coast – from North Carolina and Denver and Baltimore to Los Angeles – that are rethinking zero-tolerance policies and putting into place more constructive solutions that aim to keep kids in school, as a Washington Post article highlighted today.

In Colorado, Padres & Jรณvenes Unidos members have been instrumental in focusing legislative attention on the issue. 

Colorado’s legislation, SB 133, passed last week with bipartisan support and was signed today into law by Gov. Hickenlooper. The bill’s overwhelming bipartisan support underscored the need for a legislative solution.
SB 133 will create an interim committee comprised of legislators, students, parents, educators and community members, to study the issue of school discipline and provide legislative recommendations for the 2012 session. 

While SB 133 is a step forward in ending the school-to-jail track in Colorado, there is much to be done in Colorado – but there is no doubt that supporters will act with urgency. The next step will involve the measure’s supporters organizing to influence decision makers at the state Capitol, educate local communities and build a strong youth-led movement to maintain momentum in the effort.

Colorado is on the right track. Zero-tolerance responses have no place in education, as they leave no room for school administrators and teachers to use their own common sense to handle such situations and to help children learn from their mistakes in the structured environment of the schoolhouse.
Educators need to be focused on teaching and nurturing children – not putting them on the path to incarceration. 

With stark statistics such as the U.S. Department of Education’s research indicates that nationally more than 3 million students each year are suspended and nearly 100,000 more are expelled, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, there is no doubt reason to be concerned about the counterproductive nature of zero-tolerance policies.

We applaud efforts such as Colorado’s to eliminate these counterproductive policies.