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October 28, 2014 standard

Back in 1977, when I was nine years old, my mom stood in the lobby of the Stanford University Medical Center and told her doctor to “go to hell”. Of course, that’s the nicest way I could put it; the language she used was decidedly saltier. While my mother’s words were uncouth — and as a child, left me shocked — the point she was making to her oncologist was bloody well spot-on.

At the time, physicians would evaluate a patient and come up with the best course of treatment. Any questions other than “how long will I live?” or “what will radiation do to me?” would generally be met with a paternalistic “Mrs. Lammé, you need not concern yourself with trying to understand other options. I have chosen the optimum treatment plan for you.”

That did not sit well with my mother. She didn’t want the paternalism of those physicians. So my mother found an oncologist at a different hospital who was willing to treat her as a partner in her health, rather than a bystander. All my mother wanted was a doctor that would treat her as an equal, help to educate her on the available treatment options, and realize that she was well suited to make decisions about the best choices for her own life. It was from this experience that I learned that knowledge is power.

More than 30 years later, as a public school parent who happens to work in education reform, I am reminded of this old adage. The idea that more and better information is the key to making informed decisions remains a reality. As the Data Quality Campaign points out today in its new brief, Empowering Parents and Communities through Quality Public Reporting, is no other place that this is crucial than in American public education.

Making education data available for public consumption is a relatively new concept. This is why the No Child Left Behind Act’s focus on making school performance transparent was a major step in the right direction. As Data Quality Campaign correctly notes, policymakers realized that shining a light on student achievement, especially for poor and minority children, would help in holding states and districts accountable. But while No Child was an important step forward in making data “publicly available”, it and other efforts didn’t necessarily lead to data that is “easy to understand.

As a society, we have made the promise to provide a quality education to every kid. But, are all kids receiving the same promise? The whole point of No Child’s data reporting requirements was to ensure that all parties – from teachers to administrators to elected officials to policy-makers to parents – had full and complete information that would allow them to make the best decisions for kids when it came to education.

When I served on the School Site Council of my son’s elementary school, we delved deeply into the data that was not generally available prior to No Child. As a Title I school with more than 20 languages spoken and over 70 percent of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, it was critical for us to be able to ascertain how different segments of the campus population were performing. We utilized this data to readjust applicable purchases of materials, teaching staff, and other matters. But we did not just look at a report and make our decisions. I actually had to get trained on what the data meant and how it could be interpreted.

As a software engineer for nearly two decades before I joined the School Site Council. I worked on taking complex data sets in different industries and distilling them into information that was easy to understand and use to take action. But even I needed training to comprehend much of the data that I was required to understand when deliberating how the school should focus its efforts.

Transparent and easily understandable data enables state education authorities, schools districts and individual school sites to identify schools and student populations that are struggling and may need additional interventions or resources, by utilizing data comparability. But, this data has to be understandable and useful. Unfortunately many states aren’t doing well on both counts.

As pointed out in the Data Quality Campaign brief, some states are fully recognizing that data needs to be easy to understand, and presented differently for various audiences. One of the states they highlight is Illinois. The state’s board of education recognized that even though its report card was in compliance with the law, its presentation was an impediment to easy comprehension. So in 2011, the Land of Lincoln’s P-20 council got to work. It convened 60 focus groups – including parents, teachers, and school leaders – to make sure that the new report cards would be useful to everyone.

The state recognized that even though they produced a report card that was far better than previously existed, it was important that they continue to evaluate the report card in future years and adjust it to continually meet the goal of relevance to those who have a stake in public education.

I do not claim to be an expert when it comes to education policy. But I am an expert on what motivates my son. I know what my expectations are regarding what he learns and the environment in which that learning is provided.

If my wife and I are to be better partners to our son’s teachers, if we are to make better decisions regarding his education, we need to know what is going on with his school, especially compared to other schools. We don’t want to just be told what will happen to our son. We want to be provided the options and the information so that we can make the best decisions possible on his behalf. States should follow the lead of Illinois and Ohio and others who have made a good faith effort to recognize that a successful education experience comes from data transparency that promotes true partnership, not paternalism.

October 24, 2014 standard

New Orleans is a relatively small American city that sometimes seems not to be part of the United States at all. Until Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was glamorized by images of black jazz and white dissipation. After Katrina, as if a curtain had been ripped away, it was revealed as a particularly extreme example of the continuing subjugation of the descendents of enslaved Africans.

Today, New Orleans is two cities. One is white and prosperous; the other, black and poor. Caste is presented in a most literal manner in New Orleans: White neighborhoods are on higher ground than the predominately Black neighborhoods of the city. This became a crucial difference after the hurricane, when the ill-constructed levees broke, as the authorities knew that they would, and the lowest-lying parts of the city were flooded 20 feet deep, many of their inhabitants drowned, others driven out of the city. Reconstruction, as well, was conducted on racial lines, abetted by and abetting private profit, almost as if the ill-constructed levees, the botched emergency measures, and the vulture reconstruction were intended to alter the demography of the city. Which is what happened. Post-Katrina, the black population declined by 119,000 people, more than the current white population of the city, half of whom did not live there before Katrina.

Those remaining black residents of New Orleans, especially men, die much younger than their white counterparts. Life expectancy for the average white person is 76.2 years; for blacks, it is 67.4 years. For blacks in the city’s poorest communities, life expectancy is 54.5 years – or nearly a generation shorter than that of their White fellow citizens.

Income disparities in New Orleans are also quite extreme. White per capita income in the city is $43,022 and quite concentrated at the top: a quarter of New Orleans White families have incomes over $150,000 a year. And fifteen percent of White families – 3,154 families – have incomes over $200,000 per year, a higher level than the six percent national average. On the other end of the income distribution, the poverty rate for white people in New Orleans was 13.5 percent in 2010, with just seven percent of white residents receiving food stamps and SNAP benefits, while only eight percent of white children under age 18 lived in poverty.

This picture of prosperity contrasts with the poverty of African American New Orleans. Black per capita income is $15,243; only two of black families earn more than $150,000 a year, and hardly any earn over $200,000. The poverty rate for black families was 30 percent in 2010, more than twice the rate for whites. Twenty-eight percent of black residents collect food stamps and SNAP benefits, four times the proportion of white counterparts. Forty-six percent of black children under age 18 live in poverty, nearly six times the rate for their white peers. More than half oof black families and no husband present live in poverty, more than twice the percentage of white families without husbands.
This extreme downward compression of Black incomes in New Orleans is a manifestation of the limited types of employment opportunities for African Americans in the city. In White New Orleans, 55 percent of the civilian employed population are managers, business and professional people, while just 14 percent work in service populations. In Black New Orleans, only 24 percent are managers, business and professional people, while 28 percent work in service occupations. Black New Orleans serves White New Orleans. You might say it has always been thus. There are just fewer, poorer, African Americans in town these days.

For young black men in New Orleans, the future — educationally and otherwise — still remains bleak.

Wealth, the “real” property of housing and financial assets, is crucial to the well-being of people living in a non-socialist economy. Wealth is a cushion against adversity (such as a hurricane or unemployment) and is crucial for intergenerational economic mobility. As with incomes, there are stark disparities in wealth between black and white communities in New Orleans. Thirty-seven percent of white households held interest, dividends, or net rental income in 2010, as compared to seven percent of black households. The largest asset of most American families is an owner-occupied house. Vincanne Adams has documented the catastrophic effects of Katrina and the privatized “recovery” actions, which have left many families without the homes in which they had lived for generations. The wealth of the average white household in New Orleans is at least twenty times larger than that of the average black household. This is not a difference of class; it is a demarcation of caste.

There is little intergenerational family income upward mobility in New Orleans’s black community. The odds are two-to-one against a black child in New Orleans doing much better in life than that child’s parents. In Black New Orleans, 60 percent of the children are born into the bottom national quintile in income, 80 percent are born in the bottom two. Two-thirds of the Crescent City’s Black American population live at poverty level with little wealth and even less hope of improving their lots in life.

What are the forces at work forcing black people in New Orleans into a subordinate caste? They can be found in the city’s education and criminal justice systems.

We know by now that levels of educational attainment are correlated with income, wealth, economic mobility and probability of incarceration. Nearly a quarter of New Orleans’ black adults, ages 25 and over, do not have a high school diploma; only six percent of white residents are high school dropouts. . Fifty-six percent of white residents of the city have baccalaureate degrees or higher, as compared to only 15 percent of black residents. The low levels of educational attainment for blacks in New Orleans limits their economic attainment, and given the unusually high degree of educational attainment of the White community in the city, is significant for the disparities between those communities.

New Orleans remains two cities — with Black New Orleans continuing to decay.

For decades, the Orleans Parish School Board supported large numbers of black teachers and staff, but didn’t necessarily serve well the predominantly-black children attending its schools. But after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana state government took control of the majority of those schools from the board and placed them under the supervision of the Recovery School District. Today, both districts exist alongside each other as well as alongside a diverse collection of public charter schools. The situation is made all the more-unusual by the state’s voucher program, which now sends 18 percent of New Orleans’ black students to private schools ranging from those run by the Catholic Church to operations not recognized by the state’s education department.

There has been plenty of praise for the efforts of Recovery School District and the other school reform efforts in New Orleans. I have my own thoughts. But I do keep in mind that the state’s decisions have led to thousands of black employees losing their jobs, devastating the meager black middle class that did exist. More importantly, what matters most is whether the educational attainment of black children is improving for New Orleans as a whole. The data offers a somber story.

Just four percent of the eighth-graders served by both Orleans Parish and Recovery reached “Advanced” level on reading portion of the 2014 Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, while another 15 percent showed “Mastery”. This means that the remaining 81 percent of eighth-graders were reading below grade level. Despite this massive failure to teach the overwhelming majority of students to read and write at grade level in grade 8, the State Department of Education reports that the Orleans Parish public schools graduated 1,137 students in 2011-12 and the Recovery School District graduated 1,134. Of those 2,271 graduates, according to the state, 1,306 (58 percent) enrolled in college the next semester; 438 of them in two-year colleges and 869 in four-year colleges.

The larger of the local universities, the University of New Orleans enrolled 1,259 first-time students in 2009, 200 of whom were black, 82 of whom were black men. In 2012 it graduated 328 students within 150 percent of normal time, 31 of whom were black, 6 of whom were black men. Southern University at New Orleans enrolled 437 first-time degree-seeking students in 2009, of whom 429 were black and 167 of those were men. In 2012 it graduated 32 students within 150 percent of normal time, all of whom were black, 10 of whom were men. Therefore those two institutions together enrolled 629 black students, graduating 360 of them. Only 16 of the graduates were young black men.

For those living in the Treme district of New Orleans and the rest of the city, there is still little to celebrate.

If the state’s data on college attendance is accurate, it would appear that three-quarters of the New Orleans high school graduates who enrolled in four-year colleges attended those two schools and very few graduated within six years. (This accords with the fact that 58 percent of black New Orleans residents ages 25 years and over reported to the Census that they had gone no further in their education than a high school diploma.) Some graduating high school seniors went to other schools, some students in these schools came from other cities. There is a rough balance in these assumptions, given which, the data from the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans provides a reasonable gauge of the effectiveness of public education in New Orleans.

At which point we can turn to the issue of justice in Orleans Parish. Cindy Chang, writing in The Times-Picayune in 2012, reported that “Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts . . . Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.” Meanwhile the New Orleans Police Department has been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for arrest practices that leads to “an atmosphere in which discriminatory policing can occur unchecked.” This includes more than 500 black men under age 17 being arrested for serious offenses while just eight young white men being arrested on the same charges.

There are 26,000 young black men in New Orleans between ages 20 and 40. If we believe that about 60 percent of those graduated from high school, leaving at a minimum, 10,400 who did not. This is the group, nationally, most likely to suffer incarceration “in their life course,” as Bruce Western puts it. As the average prison sentence in the U.S. is about five years, it would seem that over the 20-year span of that cohort, it is highly likely that all black men in the city who did not graduate from high school would at some point by age 40 have been incarcerated, on parole, on probation, with limited employment opportunities and greatly damaged social relations. All those and a good few other black men in the city as well.

It is not therefore surprising that in 2010 the Census counted 3,090 African Americans in New Orleans in correctional facilities for adults – and just 1,761 in higher ed student housing.

The nationally funded and privately profitable “recovery” of New Orleans has decimated the city’s black community, clearing broad areas of the city of black people. Four out of every five (mostly-black) children are still unable to read at grade level nearly a decade after Katrina. Most of those who do manage to graduate are so ill-prepared for college that just a few hundred of them – nearly all women – graduate within six years. The men who drop out end up being available for jails and prisons, in some cases, run as for-profit enterprises.

General Sherman, when asked how to treat an enemy, advised that “they should be left with nothing but eyes with which to weep.” Do we wish it said that post-Katrina New Orleans is how the United States of America treats its own citizens at their most vulnerable?

Featured photo courtesy of James Van Dellen.

October 23, 2014 standard

You would think traditional districts and other school operators in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding metropolitan area would be especially focused on doing well for poor and minority children. After all, the region is home to some of the nation’s most financially-prosperous school districts, as well as the backyard of Beltway policy wonks and activists who are among the most-prominent players in the school reform movement. There’s even the fact the D.C. region is home to the nation’s Big Two teachers’ unions, which should be concerned about the success of the districts that serve the kids of staffers to whom they pay six-figure sums.

Yet as a Dropout Nation analysis of college-preparatory data for 10 school operators shows,, this isn’t even close to reality. Far too many black and Latino children are denied the higher ed-preparatory learning they need and deserve.

Raising the question about how well D.C.-area districts are doing for kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s effort to track spending patterns for districts and other school operators in the region. The School Spending Explorer, along with Fordham’s analysis on how badly many districts are doing in providing dollars to schools serving the poorest kids, has spurred plenty of chatter among wonks and others. And for that alone, the conservative reform think tank and its president, Michael Petrilli, deserve praise.

But as Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress and other researchers have long-ago confirmed, there is almost no correlation between spending levels and performance in improving student achievement. Just as importantly, a district can spend plenty on serving kids from poor and minority backgrounds and still fail to provide them with high-quality education. This is because most school funding is spent on teacher salaries and benefits (including efforts to shore up virtually-insolvent pensions). As a result, dollars actually follow instructors, not children or even programs.

One question that Fordham failed to answer (and couldn’t, given the limited scope of its research) is how well D.C. area-districts are doing in the one area of systemic reform that matters most: Preparing children, especially those from black and Latino households, for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education, as well as in careers after children leave school. This includes providing kids with Algebra 1 in middle school (a key course for helping them take on tougher math courses in high school), as well as Algebra 2 and advanced math courses such as trigonometry and statistics (the latter two being gateways to high-paying blue- and white-collar careers).

This matters because the achievement gap is as much a result of the denial of college-preparatory learning opportunities to poor and minority schools — often by teachers and guidance counselors who serve as gatekeepers to such programs (including gifted-and-talented courses) — as it is a result of the failure of districts to address illiteracy in the early grades. Opportunity gaps, especially those perpetuated by American public education, lead to achievement gaps that condemn poor and minority kids to the economic and social abyss.

To shed light on this matter, Dropout Nation culled data on course-providing in 2011-2012 (the latest year available) from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database. Your editor ultimately focused on 10 school operators in the immediate metropolitan area. This includes D.C. Public Schools; Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in Maryland; and Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Loudoun County, and Prince William County in Virginia. [Because of data collection issues, DN excluded Anne Arundel County, Md., which is increasingly as much a suburb of D.C., as it is a branch of the Baltimore metro area from the list.] The D.C. branch of the Knowledge is Power Program charter school chain was also included, partly because it serves as many students as many traditional districts in the region, as well as because of its specific college-preparatory focus.

What Dropout Nation found was shocking, but not close to surprising.

Few districts provide black and Latino children with Algebra 1: On average, 27 percent of black middle-school students in the D.C. area and 21 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. That’s lower than the 37 percent average for white middle-schoolers, and 42 percent for Asian schoolmates in the 10 districts and school operators surveyed. On average, 10 percent fewer black kids take Algebra 1 than their white peers, while the gap between Latino and white kids is 16 percent.

The interesting news: Middle-school children of all backgrounds attending Alexandria’s traditional district have a far-better chance of being provided introductory algebra than kids in other districts. KIPP does the best among all school operators at providing Algebra 1 to black children, with 45.3 percent of its middle-schoolers taking the college preparatory course. The worst: Prince William County, Va., where a mere 12 percent of black students — who make up the vast majority of kids attending its schools — took introductory algebra. But while Prince William is dreadful on that score, few districts do better. Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s provide Algebra 1 to fewer than three out of every 10 black middle-schoolers.

As for Latino kids: D.C. Public Schools did the best at providing Algebra 1 to those children, with 36.9 percent of Latino middle-schoolers taking the course. Prince George’s did the worst, with a mere one-in-10 Latino middle-schoolers taking the college prep course. [KIPP doesn't get mentioned because it didn't serve any Latino kids in 2011-2012.] But not one district in the D.C. metro area provided more than 37 percent of Latino students with introductory algebra. This includes Montgomery County, Md., where Latino kids make up a larger percentage of the student population (25.2 percent) than any of the districts on the list, and Fairfax County (which has the largest Latino student population of any of the schools on the list).

No district does well at providing kids with Algebra 2: On average, just 16 percent of high schoolers attending the 10 Beltway-area districts surveyed were provided Algebra 2, a critical course in helping them undertake tougher coursework in higher education. This included 18 percent of white high school students, 17.2 percent of black schoolmates, and 16 percent of Asian peers. Considering the necessity of Algebra 2 for success in college completion (and avoiding remedial math courses that condemn so many students to dropping out with crippling debt), the fact that districts are doing poorly in providing level two algebra for all kids is shocking.

Latino high-school kids fared worse of all, with just 13 percent of them being provided second-level algebra by the districts they attended; not one district or school operator surveyed provided Algebra 2 to a fifth of Latino kids. Alexandria did the worst, providing only 2.6 percent of Latino high-schoolers with Algebra 2; while Fairfax County did the best, with 17.7 percent of Latino students taking Algebra 2.

As for black high-school children: KIPP once again fared the best, providing the course to 22.7 percent of black students, while Arlington, DCPS, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County not falling far behind. Alexandria was again the worst in this category, providing Algebra 2 to just two percent of black students; Falls Church fared little better, with only 8.2 percent of black students taking the course.

Most districts fail to provide advanced math to minority kids: Trigonometry is critical for kids who want to get into high-paying blue-collar jobs such as welding, while statistics is an increasingly important skill for those who want to get into marketing and other white-collar careers.  Both courses, along with other forms of advanced math, would be especially helpful for black and Latino children who often come from low-income households. Yet these are the courses (outside of calculus) they are the least likely to be able to access.

On average, just 15 percent of black high school students and 13 percent of Latino peers were provided advanced math courses by the 10 school operators surveyed. This is lower than the 24 percent average for Asian high schoolers and 20 percent of white peers. Only two districts — Falls Church and Loudoun County — provided advanced math to 20 percent of more of their black and Latino high school students. For black families, Loudoun County may be the best bet for their kids getting advanced math; 24.4 percent of black high schoolers were provided the course in 2011-2012. For Latino families, Falls Church is the best bet, with 29.4 percent of Latino high schoolers being provided advanced math.

But Alexandria proves to be the worst for both black and Latino children, with less than five percent of them being provided trigonometry, statistics, and other higher-level math. But Alexandria isn’t the only tony district who falls short in this category: Fairfax and Montgomery County fail to provide advanced math to more than 16.4 percent of either black or Latino high schoolers, while providing those courses to as many as 35 percent of white and Asian peers.

As with spending data, these three data points alone don’t provide a full picture of the performance of traditional districts and other operators in the D.C. area in providing all kids with college-preparatory curricula and high-quality education. But the data does illustrate what other data has revealed for some time.

Montgomery County Supt. Joshua Starr has plenty of not so noble reasons to call for moratoriums on testing…

The first? That black and Latino children are poorly-served by traditional districts in the D.C. area. This is especially true for black and Latino families in Fairfax County and Montgomery County, both of which are still resting on their (mostly unearned) reputations for providing high-quality education. When you look at other college-preparatory data — including percentages of minority kids provided with access to Advance Placement courses — as well as revelations that Fairfax County was inflating its test-score performance by steering poor and minority kids into taking less-demanding Virginia assessments geared for special-ed students, it is clear that neither district is doing well by our most-vulnerable. Dropout Nation‘s analysis also adds to the evidence there are plenty of not-so-noble reasons why Montgomery County Supt. Joshua Starr is beating the drum for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing aligned with Common Core reading and math standards,

For black and Latino families, especially those emerging into the middle class, who have flocked to Fairfax and Montgomery, the reputations of both reputations for providing high-quality education have proven to be mere smoke and mirrors. Even worse, as sociologist Karyn Lacey revealed in Blue-Chip Black, her study of black life in the D.C. suburbs, families have found themselves fighting hard against school leaders and teachers unwilling to help their kids take challenging college prep courses that will help them attain future success. Considering that Fairfax and Montgomery, along with Arlington and Alexandria, are the districts in which many reformers choose to place their kids, the silence among many about how poorly these systems serve minority children is unacceptable.

And Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III has plenty of good reasons to take control of the faltering district.

Secondly: That poor-performing black-run school districts are perpetuating educational neglect on black children. Certainly D.C. Public Schools has cast-off its reputation as the toxic waste dump of American public education. But the district is still doing poorly in providing black children with college-preparatory curricula. The 15.6 percent of black middle-schoolers provided Algebra 1 by D.C. Public Schools’ is not only three times lower than than of the much-smaller KIPP, it is the second-lowest percentage (after Prince William County) for any district on the list. It is also the fourth-worst on the list (after Prince William, Prince George’s, and Fairfax County) in providing black high-schoolers with advanced math. Given the high levels of poverty among blacks in the nation’s capital, D.C. Public Schools must do better in helping their children gain opportunities for lifelong success.

But at least D.C. is improving. Prince George’s County, which is the home base for Dropout Nation (as well as the district serving the wealthiest majority-black county in America) should be especially ashamed of how poorly it is doing for black children. Prince George’s is third-worst in providing black middle-schoolers Algebra 1,   Even worse, it doesn’t even provide college-preparatory curricula to either Latino kids (its fastest-growing population) or to white kids. This isn’t to say that Prince George’s is doing terribly in everything for black children; the district is also home to some of the best-performing elementary schools in the D.C. area for young black men (something that can rarely be said for Fairfax or Montgomery County). But Prince George’s failure to provide black children with college-preparatory curricula (along with the impact of its missteps on the county’s future economic prospects) is one reason why County Executive Rushern Baker III successfully won partial control over the district’s operations last year. It is absolutely shameful that black teachers and school leaders are perpetuating the kind of educational abuse and neglect we would consider intolerable if done by their white counterparts.

Beltway reformers (and the movement overall) can’t hold districts in the rest of the nation accountable for providing high-quality education to poor and minority kids if they aren’t also holding school systems in their own back yard to account.

October 22, 2014 standard

Back in August, Dropout Nation explained how Oklahoma could have avoided losing its No Child waiver if it had simply moved quickly on validating the curricula standards to which it reverted after voting in May to ditch implementation of Common Core. As you may remember, conservative reformers who support Common Core such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli were particularly annoyed that the Obama Administration dared to hold the Sooner State accountable for not fulfilling the promise of having college- and career-ready curricula standards in place as a condition of the waiver.  They were also needlessly worried that the move would allow opponents of Common Core to portray implementation of the standards as a federal initiative.

Yet as I noted, Oklahoma could have easily kept its waiver if not for its own incompetence. More importantly, the state would likely regain the No Child waiver once the old standards, Priority Academic Student Skills, were labeled college- and-career ready. Which is what is starting to happen. Last week, the Sooner State’s higher education board validated PASS standards as college- and career-ready. Outgoing Supt. Janet Barresi announced it is submitting its No Child waiver proposal — essentially a rehash of its old plan with the PASS standards in place — and hopes for federal approval by year-end in order to avoid having to deal with telling districts and schools whether their schools are in need of improvement under No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision.

Yet the question remains: Should Oklahoma get a new No Child waiver? Your editor would argue no just on the principle that Obama Administration’s entire gambit has been a bungled exercise in policymaking that has weakened systemic reform and    . But that alone isn’t enough, especially since the administration has gone ahead and renewed waivers for six other states in the past two months. Particularly in the case of Oklahoma, the state shouldn’t get another waiver because it has proven that is incapable of actually fulfilling any of its promises.

This reality was made clear two years ago when the Obama Administration’s panel reviewing No Child waiver proposals raised numerous questions about Oklahoma’s plan. They were concerned that the A-to-F grading system it was planning to implement because Sooner State officials left several elements of the plan — including how much graduation rates would make up in the underlying calculation — were still “to be determined”, and didn’t include a student achievement growth model that would reward or hold schools and districts accountable for their work with kids in their care. In fact, the lack of a fully-developed grading program was so glaring that reviewers couldn’t determine if it would pass muster. [Let's note the fact that A-to-F grading has proven so far to be not ready for prime time.]

Peer reviewers were also concerned that Oklahoma’s Annual Measurable Objectives only included data from kids enrolled during the first 10 days of a school year, leaving out crucial data on kids who may start attending afterward. Meanwhile the state’s plan for identifying so-called Focus schools, or those with wide achievement gaps, was criticized for obscuring data on achievement gaps for subgroups who are minorities in otherwise homogeneous schools. Essentially districts and schools can do poorly by, say, American Indian kids (who make up 17 percent of the Sooner State’s student population) and still not be held accountable for how they fail to work with the most-vulnerable of children.

As I noted back in August, many of these concerns expressed by peer reviewers have come to pass. As Bellwether Education’s Anne Hyslop noted last year in a study for the New America Foundation on the No Child waivers, 54 percent of Oklahoma schools previously identified under the law as needs improvement were allowed to escape scrutiny under the new accountability system developed under the waiver. Eighty-five schools likely serving 32,448 kids (or 4.8 percent of the state’s student population) were likely performing poorly, but went unidentified.

Meanwhile the failure of Sooner State leaders to quickly validate the old PASS standards as college- and career-ready is just one example of its ineptitude in handling education governance. Last month, preparations for a series of high school tests scheduled for December were delayed when McGraw-Hill’s CTB division withdrew from administering them. The snafu was caused by the state board of education’s decision to not approve a contract with the firm, a move driven by earlier ire over McGraw-Hill’s earlier mishandling of other assessments. [State officials approved a new vendor last week.] On one side, you can blame the state board for waiting way too late to kibosh the contract; the board should also take responsibility for not adequately telling Barresi to select any vendor other than McGraw-Hill. Yet blame must also be heaped upon Barresi and her staff for insisting on choosing a vendor who was already viewed negatively for its failures on handling state testing, and thus, wasn’t likely to get another contract approval.

Given Oklahoma’s record as of late, no one should reasonably expect its officials to properly execute any No Child waiver proposal. When you consider that the plan it had successfully submitted (and will put before the Obama Administration again) hardly merited approval in the first place, there is no way that the administration should grant that waiver. Especially when you consider the yawning achievement gaps between white and minority children.

Between 2003 and 2013, the gap in average scale scores in math between white fourth-graders and their Native schoolmates decreased by a mere two points (from 10 points to eight points), according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the gap between white fourth-graders and their black and Latino peers  increased by one point (from 25 points to 26 points between white and blacks, and from 15 to 16 between white and Latino kids). While Oklahoma has done better than the nation in narrowing the gap for Native students (the nation’s achievement gap actually increased by three points, from 20 points to 23), it hasn’t done nearly as the rest of the country in improving education for black and Latino kids. Under the circumstances, allowing Oklahoma to return to using A-to-F grading and other approaches that ignore achievement gaps only condemns poor and minority kids to low expectations and even worse educational malpractice.

The Obama Administration would certainly benefit politically from granting Oklahoma a new New Child waiver. After all, it could (but not likely will) calm down criticism from Republicans, movement conservatives, and conservative-oriented Common Core foes about the entire waiver gambit being federal overreach. But it shouldn’t. Oklahoma’s plan, shoddy as it was (and will be) won’t be fulfilled to any satisfaction. And Sooner State children would be better off with the state being under No Child’s far-superior accountability rules.

October 20, 2014 standard

This morning’s move by the American Federation of Teachers (with help from the National Education Association’s Golden State affiliate) to launch a digital ad campaign aimed at beating back surging support for Marshall Tuck in his bid to become California Superintendent is another sign of how the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union deploys cash to oppose systemic reform. Certainly the ads — including one which accuses the school reformer of wanting to sell off public school buildings — are full of blarney; in fact, so laughable that they may backfire on the AFT (as well as the NEA) even among hardcore progressives. But at least the AFT is being nakedly honest about its ultimate goal — keeping in place current Supt. Tom Torkakson (who has done the bidding of its Golden State affiliate as well as that of the NEA’s California Teachers Association) — instead of concealing its aims under the guise of promoting social justice.

But the very fact that the AFT feels the need to launch a commercial at all is a clear sign that it fears that reformers can actually win control of the most-important agency within the state’s byzantine school governance system. Tuck has so far put Torlakson on the defensive for his decision to appeal the state superior court’s ruling in Vergara v. California, which struck down near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal rules at the heart of AFT and NEA influence over education policy. But as Dropout Nation determined in an analysis of campaign finance data and disclosures filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, the AFT is spending plenty of money on the Golden State.

Most of the attention on political campaign spending in California has been focused on the efforts of the NEA and its affiliate — and for good reason. California is the biggest base of power for the NEA thank to CTA, which has long been the biggest spender in Golden State politics; the AFT’s center of influence is in New York State thanks to the United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers (the latter of which is also an NEA unit in name only). But the AFT also has a big footprint in California thanks to United Teachers Los Angeles, which scored a victory last week with the ouster of John Deasy as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. This fact, along with the Vergara ruling, which is spawning similar lawsuits in New York and elsewhere, gives the AFT plenty of reason to spend plenty on campaigning.

Just last month, the AFT’s political action committee poured $125,000 into backing Torlakson’s political campaign, according to data from California’s Secretary of State. This is on top of another $125,000 the PAC put into the incumbent’s campaign back in May, just before the state’s primary. So far, the PAC still has $2.5 million in cash on hand, more than enough to finance Torlakson and other allies in public office inside and out of the Golden State.

The PAC for the AFT’s state affiliate, the California Federation of Teachers, also spent $125,000 on Torlakson’s campaign, on top of $13,600 put into his campaign back in July and $65,000 given five months earlier. Add in the $80,848.67 spent by the PAC on buttons and other campaign collateral to support Torlakson’s bid, and $431.57 in catering costs that it picked up on the union’s behalf as an in-kind donation, and the AFT affiliate’s PAC spent $284,880.24 this year to support Torlakson’s effort to keep his job.

But the CFT COPE isn’t just concerned about keeping Torlakson in office to do its bidding. Last month alone, the PAC poured $25,000 into the state Democratic Party’s central committee; so far this year, Democrats have been subsidized by the union to the tune of $55,000. Back in August, it donated $13,600 each into the campaigns of state Treasurer John Chiang, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, and Democratic nominee for state controller Betty Yee. Meanwhile the AFT affiliate’s PAC put money into “slate mailer” outfits working on behalf of labor unions within the state. This includes $50,000 to Opportunity PAC (which claims to be “a coalition of teachers, healthcare givers” and university staffers), and $25,000 to Californians for Working Families, a committee organized by the state branch of AFL-CIO. The PAC also dropped $15,000 into the political action committee of the AFT’s most-important Golden State local, United Teachers Los Angeles.

The PAC is also focusing on those all important state legislative races, hoping to ensure that the senate and assembly remain under the thrall of traditionalists. This includes $16,400 to former San Francisco Unified School District attorney-turned-city supervisor Dave Campos, whose running to fill the assembly seat currently held by Tom Ammiano (along with $15,000 to an independent committee supporting his bid). It also gave $11,700 to the campaign of teacher-turned union boss-turned-politician Tim Sbranti (who beat out an ally of Gov. Jerry Brown, Steve Glazer, to serve as labor’s standardbearer for the seat held by the reliably-traditionalist Joan Buchanan), as well as donated $20,000 to Californians for Economic Prosperity, another independent expenditure committee working on his behalf. Expect CFT and the NEA affiliate, California Teachers Association, to slot Sbranti into the assembly’s education committee once he wins office.

The CFT PAC did have one misstep: It gave $13,600 to the campaign of Derek Cressman, who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state against state Sen. Alex Padilla, whose two teacher dismissal bills (including Senate Bill 1530) were kiboshed by the COPE’s parent union and the NEA. Given the important role this office plays in certifying (and denying) ballot initiatives the union and other interests use to get their way, the AFT affiliate likely hoped that Cressman could succeed in keeping the school reform-minded Padilla off the ballot. It didn’t work out.

Altogether, the CFT’s main campaign finance committee spent $1 million on political efforts this year, and has $304,416.81 in cash on hand. Expect the AFT and its Golden State affiliate to use every dollar possible to back its favored candidates.

But the political activities don’t end with just this CFT PAC. Another campaign committee run by the AFT affiliate solely deals with ballot initiatives. This is where the AFT’s co-opting of social justice efforts is taking place. The PAC poured $50,000 into Yes on Prop. 47, which is advocating for the passage of a measure aimed at reclassifying most nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. It is also backing Prop. 45, an effort by Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones to force healthcare companies to run rate increases by his office for approval, to the tune of $75,000.

But the AFT is never really concerned about social justice. The PAC gave $25,000 to an outfit called Citizens for Retirement Security, which fought against a proposed pension reform effort in Ventura County, Calif.; that measure was one of many proposals floated by pension reform advocates in the wake of successful initiatives passed in San Jose and San Diego that would have eventually led to a focus on an even stronger measure to overhaul the California State Teachers Retirement System than that which Gov. Brown successfully passed this year.

Altogether, CFT’s ballot initiative PAC spent $967,060.31 so far this year, and has $1.9 million left in cash on hand. While most of the PAC’s spend ended up being given to locals for their political activities (classified as grants for internal political organizing projects), CFT also picked up plenty of cash. The PAC paid $407,638.87 for various expenses such as campaign consultants, staff assistance, office space, and even reimbursement for a “check deposited in error”. This means that nearly half of the ballot PAC’s spending went into the AFT affiliate’s own coffers. [CFT collected just $1,068.23 in fees from the main political action operation.]

But at least these direct political activities are funded by the voluntary donations of those AFT members who chose to do so. There are also the CFT’s organizing and other political activities that are heavily subsidized by national — and ultimately, by teachers through compulsory dues regardless of whether they want to be part of the union or not. This is money that those members, especially younger teachers in the rank-and-file, would likely rather have spent on elevating the teaching profession and improving their development.

The AFT subsidized the Golden State unit (including its Solidarity Account) to the tune of $1.3 million in 2013-2014, according to its latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. The AFT also tried to renew its effort to organize teachers working in the City of Angels’ public charter schools; it sent $283,657 to its Los Angeles Charter School effort. Meanwhile the union spent $319,725 on meetings in Los Angeles. While some of which was connected to planning for its annual convention held in the city this past July, the AFT’s meetings (along with the convention itself) were also geared in part to bolstering its presence (as well as that of UTLA and CFT) as a key player in Golden State education politics.

By the time Election Day rolls around, the AFT will have poured even more money into California just to keep its influence from declining. But there’s also a chance that Tuck will win — and that will be a blow to the union and its traditionalist allies everywhere.