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The Next Step in Parent Power: An L.A. Story: As you already know, families of children attending Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn., are using the nation’s second Parent Trigger law in an effort to take over and overhaul the school. One of the obstacles is the district that currently operates Walsh, which has declared so far that they don’t have to actually allow the families launch a school takeover. This attitude isn’t surprising: One reason why districts so oppose Parent Trigger laws is because their leaders (along with many teachers who work in schools, and the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) consider families to be little more than nuisances who shouldn’t be at the education decision-making table. One can expect a tough slog over the future control over Walsh, which will likely end up involving Nutmeg State Commissioner Stefan Pryor (whose Commissioner’s Network of turnaround schools would also lose out if Walsh parents succeed in their takeover).

Contrast the attitude in Waterbury with that of Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy and Warren Fletcher, the president of the AFT’s City of Angels local, United Teachers Los Angeles, when a group of families over at 24th Street Elementary School in the city’s West Adams section announced yesterday that it would launch its own Parent Trigger takeover. Deasy politely pledged to work with the families, and is scheduling a meeting next week with the families. Fletcher publicly apologized to the families for the failures of his rank-and-file members to be responsive to the concerns of 24th Street Elementary’s families. Fletcher isn’t exactly fond of the Parent Trigger law (or the move by the 24th Street families) for obvious reasons; but he’s less overtly hostile than his counterparts in other districts confronted by Parent Power actions.

One can’t help but be a little skeptical about what Deasy and Fletcher will do in regards to this Parent Power initiative; the AFT affiliate’s actions after yesterday will be interesting to watch. But one can be sure that both men earned a lesson from what happened to board members of Adelanto Unified last year after the district and the National Education Association local there there fought stubbornly (and dirty) in to unsuccessfully beat back efforts by parents of kids attending Desert Trails Elementary to take the failing school out of the district’s hands. Two of the district’s incumbent board members lost their seats as the battle with the Desert Trails families revealed where their concerns truly lie. Although Deasy is appointed by L.A. Unified board, he is quite aware that several of its board members (including current chair and reformer Monica Garcia) are up for re-election; he would rather focus on battling Fletcher over the terms of the district’s collective bargaining agreement (and battling with state Supt. Tom Torlakson over the latter’s effort eliminate standardized testing that will be used in teacher evaluations his allies oppose). Same is also likely true for Fletcher, who would rather spend the union’s energies keeping together the AFT-influenced governing coalition on the board than get caught up in a fight with parents that would garner the union no sympathy whatsoever. Fletcher must also keep in mind that any fight against families launching Parent Trigger takeovers may not go over well with reform-minded teachers who now hold seats on the AFT local’s legislative bod (and who also helped him become the local’s boss two years ago).

Deasy and Fletcher should also know the consequences of opposing a Parent Power takeover well because L.A. Unified has already been through this before. Eight years ago, families of children attending Thomas Jefferson High School teamed up with Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr to petition the district to let them convert the school into a charter (and move it out of L.A. Unified’s direct control) after the district failed to address their frustrations with rioting and academic failure. When L.A. Unified rejected their request, the families and Barr ended up forming what is now Parent Revolution, putting the district on the defensive. It would lead to the more-successful removal of Locke High School from  L.A. Unified’s control, with the district  handing the school over to Green Dot (which has since turned the school around); it also led to a brief period of dominance by a Garcia’s reform-minded coalition, as well as the move by the district to allow families to launch takeovers of district-controlled schools. But the consequences extended beyond L.A. Unified. It was in part because of the unsuccessful parent takeover of Jefferson that the Golden State passed the nation’s first Parent Trigger law four years ago, launching the modern Parent Power movement.

Certainly not all Parent Trigger takeovers will go so nicely so far; there is just as much chance that the 24th Street Elementary effort can face opposition from the L.A. Unified board once Election Day comes and goes in May. But other districts in states with Parent Trigger laws should at least follow L.A. Unified’s example, and not that of Adelanto and Waterbury.

The Beginning of the New for IPS: As Dropout Nation predicted on Monday, Indianapolis Public Schools Supt. Eugene White has been sent packing. The district will pay White $800,000 for the remaining years of his contract and let him retire from its employ. Certainly some in the Circle City are annoyed that he is getting so much for doing so little. From where I sit, it’s money well spent; failed school leaders such as White cost more to keep around than to buy out and move on.

But getting rid of White is just the first step reformers on the district’s board must take to either begin a full overhaul of its teaching, curricula, and school cultures, or to begin embracing the Hollywood Model of Education and essentially get IPS out of the business of operating schools. Board members will have to pick a strong, thoughtful, and audacious school leader willing to face down the district’s woefully inept bureaucracy as well as deal carefully with the players outside the district who are often under the thrall of those failures. Considering that IPS is the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit — and that White and his predecessors failed miserably at turning things around — the task facing a new superintendent is daunting. At the same time, the children and families in the city’s Center Township area stuck with IPS as the largest education provider deserve better than what the district has dealt them for the past four decades. Besides, for an ambitious school leader, there is plenty that can be gained from revamping IPS’ operations.

So who should the IPS board pick? As your editor suggested in November, Mind Trust boss David Harris (who oversaw Indianapolis’ charter school authorizing efforts during Bart Peterson’s days in the City-County Building) would be a top choice. He already knows all the players throughout the city, already has strong national and Indiana-wide credentials as a reformer, and would be willing to implement the plan Mind Trust offered up last year to overhaul the district. One of his successors in overseeing charter schools, Stand for Children’s Indiana boss M. Karega Rausch (a protege of Indiana University school discipline reformer Russell Skiba) would also be a fine choice.

Given that neither are experienced school operators, the board may want to go in a different direction, a tough matter given that there will be pressure from Indianapolis players skeptical of outsiders to stick to homegrown talent regardless of their capacity to do the work. Since Dropout Nation Contributor (and former John Marshall Middle School principal) Jeffery White is married to one of the IPS board members who led White’s ouster, he’s out of the running. But if IPS wanted to look to outside talent, they could select someone like Bellwether Education staffer Andy Smarick (who could finally put the ideas in his latest book to work) or Jason Kamras, who is currently overseeing D.C.’s teacher quality reform efforts.

No matter which choice IPS’ board makes, the new superintendent needs to be the kind ready to push for bold reform in a city (and state) that struggles philosophically to embrace change. And that person will have to get to work. Fast.

More Anti-Common Core Nonsense: Yong Zhao Division: Your editor could make a good business out of reacting to all the carping of Common Core foes (and their deliberately misleading statements about the additional emphasis on nonfiction texts such as A Wealth of Nations that is at the heart of the reading portion of the curricula standards). But then, I would be bored to tears. Same is true, by the way, for addressing the overstatements of Common Core’s benefits by its defenders.

Which is why I almost passed on weighing in on University of Oregon education scholar (and Common Core foe) Yong Zhao’s responses to Marc Tucker’s thoughtful defense of Common Core appearing this week on the Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet. But then, I read closely one of Yong’s key arguments against Common Core: Because it would supposedly narrow what is taught in schools, taking time away from music and arts classes, basing his statement on what he alleges had happened after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act twelve years ago. I had to laugh. Because Zhao is mistaken in his argument.

As I noted last year in my piece on expanding educational experiences, both the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research’s Robert Morrison have pointed out that arts and music classes remain plentiful throughout American public education with only a slight decline in the number of drama classes at the high school level. The bigger issue Zhao fails to address is one of the key symptoms of the nation’s education crisis: That schools generally provide cultural courses  of low quality; that districts often fail to leverage the cultural institutions around them to provide more-expansive learning to children; and that school leaders and teachers fail to help kids connect those lessons to what is learned in reading, math, science, and history. The last point is important because background knowledge on the world, including understanding of Handel’s Messiah, is as critical to reading comprehension as phonics and whole language mastery. There is no reason why a music teacher cannot talk about the historic forces that shaped Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, or that an art teacher cannot talk about how the picturesque Book of Kells helped influence a revival in Celtic design and, in turn, helped fuel the nationalism that led to Ireland’s independence revolt from Great Britain. But because many teachers coming into classrooms lack both subject-matter competency and were poorly trained by ed schools, this doesn’t happen.

Certainly Common Core doesn’t address those issues in a direct way. But in bringing nonfiction into the mix, the standards promote the move by teachers to do the kind of linking, integrating, and reinforcing of cultural and core courses that children need and deserve. On this basis alone, embracing Common Core makes more sense than continuing the stumbling around on standards that has been the norm in American public education for far too long.

Errata

  • Chicago Teachers’ Pension Plays with Gun Control Grandstanding, Fails on Fiscal Solvency: I guess it is all well and good that Chicago’s teachers’ pension is liquidating its holdings in gun-makers such as Smith & Wesson after the outcry over such holdings amid the Newtown massacres. From where I sit, the move does little to address the underlying issues that drive crime within the Second City or anywhere else. It would be better if the pension and Chicago Public Schools would finally begin taking steps toward addressing the pension’s massive deficit. This would start by admitting that the $6.8 billion in reported underfunding is likely understated by at least $2.5 billion (based on Moody’s Investor Service’s model discussed yesterday on these pages), and conceding that its anticipated rate of return of eight percent is illusory too. Certainly this would likely force Chicago to pay out at least 50 percent a year more in order to address the shortfall (and force other conversations, including those with the AFT’s bellicose Second City local). But making such moves are far more necessary than a liquidation of assets that is more show than substance.
  • A Bronx Cheer for Duncan: It is also nice that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attempted to intervene in New York City’s unsuccessful effort to convince the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local to agree to the city’s implementation of New York State’s teacher evaluation system. But as Dropout Nation noted yesterday, the sparring wouldn’t have occurred as it did in the first place if Duncan and the Obama administration did not insist on districts and states seeking the permission of AFT and NEA affiliates to move ahead on overhauling teacher evaluations and compensation. At some point, Duncan will have to admit that this reality: That systemic reform will often involve having to battle with traditionalists who have no interest in  having their comfort being afflicted in order to help kids get high-quality teaching. This isn’t to say that reform-minded districts should just steamroll NEA and AFT affiliates; strong school leaders also understand the importance of reaching out to high-quality teachers who want change as much as they do. What it does mean is that spending a lot of time negotiating with local presidents will often lead to nothing ever getting done.
  • School Data Reform: Tribes Matter: One of the least-considered aspects of providing comprehensive, high-quality data for use in making smart school decisions is how this would benefit the nation’s American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, many of which are now stepping up to become real players in education decision-making for our Native children. Although tribes are essentially given a status above that of states under the U.S. Constitution — in fact, considered sovereign nations dependent on the federal government’s beneficence — these governments cannot access individual student data the way states and school districts can. Which is amazing given that tribes are often providing child welfare and other services to children who are living on and off reservations. So it is heartening to see efforts such as the Oklahoma’s work with Choctaw nation on piloting its School Partner Data Tool, which will provide such information. It is also great to see this week’s announcement by Utah state officials that it will provide school data to Navajo Nation, which is actually making moves to take full oversight over the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education contract (or charter) schools serving their children. Reformers working on school data need to think harder about how they can work with tribes on this as well as other aspects of reform in order to help Native students get the education they need and deserve.
  • Will Harkin Push No Child’s Reauthorization?: The answer is yes. The Iowa U.S. senator and chairman of Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will soon begin the process of writing a new version of No Child. That’s all well and good. But the Obama administration has already made clear through its No Child waiver gambit that it will even engage in such an effort, while Harkin’s counterpart in the House, John Kline, will likely repeat his effort in the last Congress of passing a series of bills that eviscerate No Child altogether. In short, nothing will be happening on the reauthorization front for the next two years outside of some smoke from Harkin’s committee. Not that what he came up with the last time he pushed for reauthorization was worth the paper upon which it was written.