Author: RiShawn Biddle

Voices of the Dropout Nation: Jeffery White on the Challenges of Reforming Big-City Schools

Few failure mills and dropout factories have ever been transformed into cultures of genius. And small corps of men and women who have had success in doing so rarely keep…

Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Star

Few failure mills and dropout factories have ever been transformed into cultures of genius. And small corps of men and women who have had success in doing so rarely keep their jobs. As this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on school leadership points out, abysmal school leaders in central offices — including, in many cases, the superintendents themselves — are far too unwilling to challenge mindsets of failure. Reform-minded superintendents rarely lack the political constituencies needed (and almost never stay around long enough) to support their change-agent principals. National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals, uninterested in losing influence or bodies regardless of their performance, will push hard against any turnaround. And the poisonous cultures fostered by laggards tends to all but ensure that failure persists.

Yet, as longtime school principal Jeffery White can attest, the work is worth doing for the futures as our children. In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, White — who found himself battling both teachers’ and superintendents (including the notorious Eugene White) during his tenures overhauling John Marshall Middle School in Indianapolis and East Chicago High School in the Hoosier State’s northern areas near Chicago — White explains the challenges of reforming failure factories, especially in our nation’s big cities, and why it must be done. Read, consider, and think about what you can do to spur much-needed school reform.

As a father, husband, and educator I have experienced on several occasions the tests of family, faith, and my willingness to continue being an urban school reformer. My reasons for writing this article are to provide aspiring urban school reformers examples of lived experiences on the road to urban school reform. Moreover, after reading this article I would like to know are you willing to always do “what is in the best interest of students?”

As an urban school principal, I’m very proud of my immediate success at transforming John Marshall Middle School and East Chicago Central High School into schools that are safe, orderly, and conducive to academic achievement.  There is an array of data and news stories to illustrate my creation of student centered schools fostered an increase in academic achievement, faculty/student attendance, and a decrease in disruptive behavior. The instantaneous success at each school evolves from providing an open line of communication for students, parents, faculty members, and community partners.

Consequently, during my tenure as Principal of two urban schools, I’ve never had any student protests, gang fights, or community boycotts because of the open line of communication. My experiences as a successful Director of Curriculum and School Partnerships encompassed implementing standards based instruction, recruiting and hiring highly qualified teachers, grant writing, creating community partnerships, and instilling high expectations improve academic achievement.  Without arrogance, I’m proud of the numerous awards I’ve received for “doing what is in the best interest of students.”

As the father of two beautiful daughters who attend Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry, I’m very pleased with the safe, caring, and nurturing learning environment my children love attending.  As a disclaimer, my wife Samantha Adair-White is a very vocal member of the Indianapolis Public Schools Board of Commissioners and drives by at least three public, charter, and private schools to take our daughters to and from school.  Consequently, my daughters have benefited academically and socially from school choice and having two VERY outspoken parents who do “what is in the best interest of students.

Just as I pronounce the good days of being actively involved in urban school reform, there have been voluminous bad days.   There has been countless times of which my family has faced the reality of the bread winner being either reprimanded, demoted, or terminated for doing “what is in the best interest of students.”

For example, in 2007, I received a verbal reprimand from IPS Superintendent Dr. Eugene White for criticizing community and faith-based leaders for not being actively involved in the police investigation of a fourteen year old girl who was raped, sodomized, beaten, and made run through the public streets naked screaming for help. A later, in 2008, year I received a three day PAID suspension for questioning the proposed removal of more than half my school’s teachers and staff members. They were the same faculty and staff members who just celebrated increasing the state standardized test scores the highest John Marshall Middle School had obtained in over a decade. They also faithfully assisted students and parents who were left homeless and hungry after a violent tornado destroyed over 100 homes within the John Marshall Community. In other words, the faculty and staff members demonstrated their intestinal fortitude to do what was “in the best interest of students.”

Then in 2009, I faced additional sanctions for allegedly failing to follow the directives of my supervisor when I proudly suspended several unruly students for disrupting the learning environment, theft, and assaulting faculty members.  I experienced anger and sadness when a math teacher, who was hired by another IPS principal, but was assigned to John Marshall Community High School, sexually assaulted two of my students. The former math teacher is currently serving a fifty-five year prison sentence.  It’s important to illuminate I tried to fire the teacher but the school district and the teachers union supported the teacher. Another example of archaic policies and employment practices I perceive as not being “in the best interest of students.”

Last year, I tested my faith and family by accepting the position of Principal of East Chicago Central High School.  East Chicago Central High School is a two hour drive from Indianapolis, has one of the strongest teacher unions in the state of Indiana, and I was going to be the sixth principal in five years. Furthermore, if Central High School failed to meet the 2010-2011 state proposed academic benchmarks, the Indiana Department of Education would take over the daily operations of the high school. Two prominent state politicians gave me marching orders to fix the school and fast.

“In the best interest of students,” we implemented standard based bell-to-bell instruction, a strict dress code policy, credit recovery, hall sweeps, a community supported strategic action plan, and required all teachers to complete Academic Failure Prevention Plans for all students who were failing at least one subject.  I received an abundance of resistance from union officials, ineffective veteran teachers, and supporters of the status quo. However, with the assistance of several caring teachers, concerned parents, and academically talented students, our unconditional commitment to do what is “in the best interest of students” saved the high school. The end results were improved academic outcomes which deterred the Indiana Department of Education from taking over the only high school in East Chicago. A big victory for a small community.

Nevertheless, I was told by the superintendent hit the road for not having a cozy relationship with supporters of the status quo.  Again, another example of my faith, family, and commitment to urban school reform being tested for doing what is “in the best interest of students.”

In conclusion, it is not a secret there is a shortage of urban school reformers who are willing to pass a “test of fire” from superintendents, school board members, parents, community members, faculty members, and the students. While many urban school reformers, including myself, value the extent to which we are able to influence educational policies and practices through our positions, we are aware of the greater breadth and power that reside in the superintendent’s chair.

My lived experiences lead me to believe the real test of one’s unconditional commitment to urban school reform involves answering the question “ as an urban school reformer, are you willing to question the policies and practices that impede academic achievement knowing the superintendent holds the power and the support of the school board to remove you?”  While it feels good earning a salary by improving high school graduation rates, decreasing expulsion rates of at-risk students, and receiving notes from former students thanking you for believing in their abilities; it only takes a recommendation from the superintendent and a majority vote from the school board to take you from a bread winner to a crumb snatcher.

Before emailing me your replies, questions, and answers, think long and hard about your willingness to do “what is in the best interest of students?”

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: End the Failure of School Leadership

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I explain why we need to foster good-to-great principals and superintendents capable of overhauling American public education. From the abysmal record (and recent statements)…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I explain why we need to foster good-to-great principals and superintendents capable of overhauling American public education. From the abysmal record (and recent statements) of Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White, to Los Angeles Unified School District’s lousy handling of teacher performance management, we have far too many school leaders who aren’t worth of their titles.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

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Lawsuits for School Reform?: Parent Power May Insert Itself in L.A. Unified’s Teachers’ Contract

Earlier this year, Dropout Nation argued that one way that school reformers — including school choice activists and Parent Power groups — could advance reform and expand school choice was…

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News.

Earlier this year, Dropout Nation argued that one way that school reformers — including school choice activists and Parent Power groups — could advance reform and expand school choice was to file lawsuits similar to school funding torts used for the past four decades by school funding advocates. But now, it looks like Parent Power activists may be filing a lawsuit in Los Angeles on a different front: Overhauling teacher evaluations. And the Los Angeles Unified School District may be the place where the first suit is filed.

In a letter sent on behalf of some families Wednesday to L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy and the school board — and just before the district begins negotiations with the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels unit over a new contract — Barnes & Thornburg’s Kyle Kirwan demanded that the district “implement a comprehensive system” of evaluating teachers that ties “pupil progress” data to teacher evaluations. Kirwan and the group he represents are also asking for the district to begin evaluating all teachers “regardless of tenure status” and to reject any contract with the American Federation of Teachers local that allows for any veteran teacher with more than a decade on the job to go longer than two years without an evaluation if they haven’t had one in the first place.

The demands Kirwan is making are based on California’s Stull Act, which governs how L.A. Unified and other districts are supposed to handle teacher evaluations and performance management. Under the law, newly-hired teachers are supposed to be evaluated every year until they earn tenure, while tenured veterans are evaluated every two years until they reach their 10th year on the job. Once a teacher reaches a decade in the classroom, they can go without evaluations for at least five years unless their performance falls below expectations during the last evaluation and the district doesn’t agree to skip evaluations for that length of time. Teachers have to be evaluated based on the Golden State’s curriculum standards, and those evaluations must be put in writing in order to be valid.

The problem, according to Kirwan’s letter is that L.A. Unified has never met those rules since the Stull Act’s passage five decades ago. Barnes & Thornburg partner Scott J. Witlin, who is working with Kirwan on the suit, argues that Stull Act required the district to use data from the state’s “criterion reference test” in evaluating teachers, yet it hasn’t done so. Witlin also argues that L.A. Unified has also failed to provide its teachers provide meaningful and specific feedback on performance, and help laggard teachers improve their instruction. In essence, the district hasn’t followed the law for the last 40 years. “The school district is supposed to exist for the benefit of the children and not for the adults,” says Witlin in an interview with Dropout Nation just a few minutes ago. “We have to get it back to that focus.”

The assertions follow along the lines of a report released earlier this year by the National Council on Teacher Quality based on a study it conducted for the United Way’s City of Angels operation and a group of civil rights groups earlier this year. According to the study, just 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires were evaluated by the district during the 2009-2010 school year. NCTQ does note that L.A. Unified’s evaluation procedures do follow the letter of state law, but argues that the district hasn’t made the evaluations more-thorough and of better use for teachers and principals alike, even though state law does allow the district to do so. For example, California moved two years ago to allow student test data to be tied into teacher performance as part of the development of the now-kiboshed CALPADS and CALTIDES data systems. (As noted by California Department of Education honcho Keric Ashley, CALPADS remains in operation.)

At this moment, Barnes & Thornburg is representing some families and their kids at this moment. How many will ultimately be part of any named suit? Says Witlin: “Stay tuned.” Credit for initial news about the letter goes to Andy Rotherham’s Eduwonk, which revealed the letter earlier today.

Kirwan’s lawsuit is part of a much-larger debate going on about school reform in the City of Angels. Over the past three decades, mayors such as Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa have fought to place reform-minded players on the district’s school board, while grassroots reformers such as Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr and the group that is now known as Parent Revolution have successfully forced L.A. Unified to start an effort to spin off over 200 of its traditional public schools into charter school operators and grassroots groups. But those efforts have stalled, especially as all but 51 of the schools handed off so far have been taken over by United Teachers Los Angeles, the AFT affiliate that has long kept the district under its thumb. In August, the district’s board (now back under AFT control), voted to put the kibosh on the spin-offs.

L.A. Unified is looking to pilot a teacher evaluation program that will use student test data in measuring performance; Deasy made clear that this will come up during the district’s contract negotiations with the AFT. Some groups within the AFT itself are demanding the union to accede to allowing student test data to at least be a component of those exams. But given the stalling on other reform efforts, families can’t count on L.A. Unified to do right by their children.

So it will take Parent Power groups and civil rights activists to apply the pressure needed to force reform. Two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union’s SoCal branch successfully sued the Los Angeles Unified School District over the effects of reverse-seniority layoffs on three of the district’s middle school failure factories. The suit led to a settlement that abolishes the use of seniority in determining teacher layoffs at L.A. Unified’s worst failure mills. Efforts to force teacher quality reform got a boost last year when the Los Angeles Times revealed the performance of the district’s 11,500 elementary school teachers — by name — during its powerful, controversial and much-needed series on the low quality of the district’s instruction. The move led Deasy to make additional moves, including unveiling a rating of schools based on Value-Added analysis of student (and ultimately, teacher) progress.

This time around, a suit could essentially snarl negotiations between L.A. Unified and the AFT, forcing families to the table of education decision-making. Of course, whether it happens is one of those big “ifs”. But if it happens, that’s a good thing. Reformers should watch what happens in L.A. and consider how they will make such demands for reform both in the Beltway and in school board meeting rooms around the country.

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Voices of the Dropout Nation: Laura Suarez on the Overuse of Suspensions

The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions –one of the culprits in the nation’s education and dropout crisis — remains as much a problem now as it was when your…

Photo courtesy of Georgia Public Broadcasting

The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions –one of the culprits in the nation’s education and dropout crisis — remains as much a problem now as it was when your editor first began writing about the problem six years ago. With 15 percent of all middle-school boys suspended by the time they reach eighth grade  — and black males suspended at an abominable rate of 28 percent —  according to Daniel Losen and Russ Skiba in their Suspended Education report, we have far too many young men and women who are kicked out of school for long periods of time, missing precious learning time that they need for their academic success. And they are suspended and expelled not because they have harmed their fellow students, but because of misbehavior that teachers and principals can easily deal with through better means and discretionary school discipline policies that particularly hurt black and Latino students.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, English Language Learner teacher Laura Suarez, who, as a middle-schooler, was pulled off the path of illiteracy and dropping out by school counselor, recalls her experiences with school leaders and others who were far too willing to throw our students into poverty and despair. Read, consider, and take action.

In the years that I worked in public schools, I always started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance.  As a teacher of students who were learning English, I wanted them to be proud of this country. The phrase, “liberty and justice for all,” resonated with me in a deeply personal way. I would always have my students sing a patriotic or inspirational song after reciting the pledge.  We learned everything from “America” to the 1960s protest song, Freedom Road. I wanted my English learners to celebrate the culture of their new country and retain a sense of pride in the land from which they came. I also taught my students that all people of this land should be treated with dignity and respect.

Little did I know in my early years of teaching that the values I held so deeply and taught so passionately were not shared by all of my colleagues in the field of education.

In my 26 years in education, I have seen more unsettling stories than I care to remember. I came into this field with a willingness to ask questions and a desire to promote values of equity and fairness into the classroom. Yes, I was the teacher at the staff meeting that often asked the wrong questions. For this I make no apologies. I entered the profession of teaching because I believed that all children deserved an education that would prepare them for a successful and fulfilling life. I believed that by becoming an educational leader, I could continue to follow my heart in bringing about equality and justice for every student, regardless of culture and country of origin.

Unfortunately, sometimes my convictions regarding the basic rights of students resulted in some very difficult and career-shaking events for me. For example, my career as an administrator was brought to a screeching halt when I spoke out about injustices that were taking place at my school. During that year, more than a dozen middle students were expelled after administrators used coercive and highly questionable interrogation tactics to get the students to admit they had committed a serious school infraction.  The expulsions suddenly stopped after I spoke to a district official about the nature of the interrogations that had taken place.

In spite of this fact, only three of the boys were able to return to school that year. They came from white families whose parents threatened to take legal action against the school district. The rest of the boys did not return. They were all from poor Hispanic families that were bused in from a low-income area.

Unfortunately, the system of justice in public schools is often determined by one’s economic class and culture. I have seen far too many examples of this in the course of professional career in education. During my short time as an administrator, I found that administrators were more likely to suspend and expel students in need as opposed to taking the time to work with these young people to help them work through issues. I grew very disappointed with the lack of interest in helping students who are at-risk or struggling to succeed in school.

My decision to speak out in the case of the middle school boys resulted in an abrupt end to my career as an administrator.  This was not the first time (nor the last) that I have found myself in hot water for speaking out for the rights of my students.

As an educator I have always felt that it is a privilege and a responsibility to serve the community. Therefore, I feel obligated to take great care in using my own moral compass to act in a manner that is respectful of the rights of my students. The question becomes– how far should an educator go to stand up for the fundamental rights of students? Should one stay quiet until those years of service add up to a comfortable life in retirement? Or, should one risk it all to save a student from injustice?

Luckily, most of us never have to make that choice. Many teachers never have an opportunity to test their own sense of integrity against the omnipotent “powers that be” behind office doors.

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The Future of Teachers: It Means Accepting Parent Power

What is happening in among some school districts in Idaho offers a glimpse into one of the many changes that will (and have to) come to the teaching profession in…

What is happening in among some school districts in Idaho offers a glimpse into one of the many changes that will (and have to) come to the teaching profession in general — and American public education overall. Thanks to a state law passed earlier this year, teachers will receive merit bonuses based on meeting a series of metrics related to improving student achievement. For the Wendell district in Twin Falls, which is looking to better-engage the families of the children they teach, the bonus plan has become a blessing in disguise. At Wendell High School, as much as 70 percent of the bonuses that will be handed out is based on whether teachers bring 40 percent or more of parents into classrooms for parent-teacher conferences; similar incentives are in place for teachers in other schools throughout the district. And so far, the move (along with others) have had a good result: Seventy-seven percent of families showed up for the district’s parent-teachers conferences this year, an 18 percentage point increase over the previous school year.

The current generation of teachers — and those who will follow them into the profession over the next two decades — should expect more of this in the future. Engaging families and accepting their lead position as decision-makers in education will be one of the three factors in teacher performance evaluations, will factor into merit bonuses and pay increases, may play a part in grants that they can receive for high-quality work, and could even make a difference between whether a teacher moves up from one performance-based salary band to another or, perhaps, even becoming a principal. This means going beyond far-too-late report cards and oft-inconvenient parent-teacher conferences to really active communication that starts weeks before kids enter their classrooms for the first time.

And this will also be true for principals: As the weakening of collective bargaining agreements lead to districts handing principals more power over hiring and firing staff, those school leaders will have to be accountable for the efforts of all teachers in improving student achievement. Not only does this mean improving student test score performance — the most-objective and reliable way of measuring student and teacher success — but working more-productively with families who demand better and want to help. So principals must spot teachers who not only do a great job in improving student performance, but who also know how to well with families, especially those from poor and first-time middle class backgrounds who are just learning how to navigate American public education.

These will be jarring changes for many teachers, principals, and schools. But they are needed. Accepting families as lead decision-makers in education is not only critical to addressing the nation’s education crisis, it also helps improve the professionalism of the teaching profession itself. Lawyers and doctors can attest that they cannot do their jobs on behalf of their clients without being responsive to their concerns; same is true for nearly every aspect of the private sector. It is time that education embraces a family- and child-centered focus in helping all students succeed in school and in life.

As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III noted in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education that families have never been really welcomed in schools, and have been treated as afterthoughts, nuisances, and political pawns. Principals and teachers have relegated families to helping out on field trips and homework. Superintendents and school boards co-opted parents and parent-teacher outfits for the purposes of winning tax increases, additional federal and state subsidies, and fundraising from the private sector. Education traditionalists conveniently blame families whenever there are revelations of the failings of the system they have long perpetuated.

Education traditionalists always (rightfully) tout the importance of it in student success. Yet their attitudes toward parents hardly makes such engagement likely. From the parent-teacher open houses that are often scheduled during the work day, to report cards that are sent out far too late in the school year for families to do anything to help their kids get back on track (or stay on it), schools don’t do a good job of making it easy for parents to be engaged in the first place. As Dr. Steve Perry makes clear in his new book, Push Has Come to Shove, American public education has done a great job of alienating parents (and making them feel bad about not being as involved as they want to be without making) and a terrible job of including them in school decision-making.

This state of affairs is true for nearly all families stuck with traditional district schools regardless of where they live and how much they earn. As Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews noted in a piece he wrote this month about the fracas between parents at Leesburg Elementary School in Virginia’s Loudoun County and the school’s principal, the very idea of families asking questions is something of an anathema. The condescension displayed in one teacher’s piece on “Burger King parents” and “Grass-is-greener parents” ends up being more typical than rare — especially for  middle-class black and Latino families, who find themselves fighting to keep their kids from being steered off the college route by ability tracking regimes. For big-city families, including those from poor and minority backgrounds, the state of affairs is often even worse. Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of at the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement that urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.”

Why have we made it so easy for many teachers and principals to neglect their obligations to families? Start with the structure of American public education, which makes real family engagement and communication less than valuable for schools. Just one-fifth of all American families in position to exercise any meaningful form of school choice — including vouchers, charter schools and intra-district choice. This means that for most traditional districts, families are a captive market, and thus, can be ignored by teachers and administrators, who don’t have to worry about loss of jobs or revenue.  Former New York City chancellor Joel Klein’s tale about how a secretary noted that he could just simply ignore a ringing telephone because it was probably just some parents on the other line is, in most districts, the reality. The fact that family engagement are not categories for evaluation in teacher and principal performance reviews also means that the only time these groups worry about parents is when they have to deal with those with either enough influence to cause pain to their bosses in central offices, or are children of teachers and administrators who work there. And even if a principal wants to be attentive to families, he has limited ability to address  the biggest issues  on their minds: Their relationships with the teachers who instruct their children. Since collective bargaining agreements dictate that hiring is a central office affair, principals can’t just toss out a teacher because they don’t deal well with parents.

Contrast this with private schools, which continuously communicate with families because those institutions depend on paying customers (and, thus, have power), or good-to-great charter schools, which understand that family engagement is critical to building cultures of genius in which the potential of kids are nurtured (and, also depend on paying customers). Both spend a lot of time developing more-welcoming school cultures, creating special days (at convenient times) when grandparents and others family members can visit and check up on school performance. Since principals and headmasters in those schools often have authority to hire, evaluate, reward, and fire teachers, they can easily take the steps needed to foster more-robust family engagement.

Another culprit lies with university schools of education, which train nearly all of the nation’s teachers and principals. Besides failing to recruit aspiring teachers for subject-matter competency and empathy to children, ed schools don’t even select teacher candidates based on their capacity to be as conversant with parents and other adults — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — as they are with kids. Once aspiring teachers are in training, they are rarely taught such matters as cultural competence (which would allow them to communicate with families from different backgrounds) or how to integrate such simple communications activities as calling families into their classroom work. Add in the system of degree-based pay scales, which reward teachers for acquiring degrees (and, in the process, helps foster a class divide in which some look down on less-credentialed families), and the fact that traditional public education structures teaching as a solo activity instead of a collaborative effort, and it is no wonder why many teachers regard parents as problems.

This inability to converse and work with families extends to principals. As The New Teacher Project noted in a study of teacher evaluation it conducted for the Houston school district, most principals would rather spend less time dealing with parents and caregivers. Because most school leadership training programs — including those developed by school reformers — don’t bother dealing with family engagement, principals (and their bosses at the central office) This, by the way, is part of a larger problem of communication within American public education. As Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha noted in his series on school leadership, the fact that most principals come from the teaching ranks means that they are better-equipped to talk to children than to lead teachers and converse with parents and other adults.

But now, the expansion of charter schools in big cities, along with the growth of school vouchers and voucher-like tax credit programs in 13 states, have given families more opportunities to choose schools for their kids and not put up with mistreatment. The passage of Parent Trigger laws in three states — which allow families to demand the overhaul of failing schools — along with the emergence of Parent Power groups also means that more districts will have to accept families as lead decision-makers in education. And the efforts of National PTA to demand districts to engage in real family engagement — including its National Standards for Family-School Partnerships and the rewards the organization hands out to schools that make the grade — and actually require it as part of school turnaround efforts has also brought new pressures on teachers and principals used to having it their way.

Meanwhile the systemic reform of American public education is also slowly forcing a change in the relationship between teachers, principals, and the families whose children they serve.

As more states move to weighted student funding formulas under which funding follows students no matter the school they attend — essentially voucherizing school funding — decisions will move from central offices down to schools. This, along with expanded school choice and the slow disintegration of the traditional district model along the lines of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, will force schools and principals to compete for families (and dollars). More-robust school data systems will lead to additional information on how teachers and schools affect student progress, giving families more information they can use the same way they shop for cars with, Consumer Reports and other guides. The move away from degree- and seniority-based pay scales and into new structures for compensating teachers (including performance-based salary bands, performance bonuses, and even grants that can be used to start new programs) means that teachers will have to be more entrepreneurial in their work, figuring out new ways to work with families. And with more-rigorous evaluations (and the use of Value-Added analysis of student test data in those performance reviews), teachers and principals will have to work more-productively with families in order to help kids succeed.

All these changes, fostered by revelations of mediocrity and abject failure in traditional public education fostered by the accountability and data disaggregation requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, are helping many parents to finally that the old notion that any school or teacher will do is a myth. They will have to be active players in shaping education. Which means teaching and school leadership must change. Many teachers will have to realize that parents will no longer accept arguments that they need autonomy, that they are the sole experts in education, and that they must simply trust that the kids are learning. Principals will have to accept that working with families is as important for their success as evaluating teachers; so they must set the example in their own activities and demand everyone in the building to follow accordingly.

And many teachers and principals will need to stop looking at families as nuisances and enemies. After all, they are the adults who run the schools at the center of the lives of the children these families love. They deserve respect

Our systems of recruiting, training, and rewarding teachers and principals must adapt to this reality. And school reformers must make this happen. The revamp of evaluations offers opportunities to make family engagement and Parent Power key elements in measuring teacher and principal performance. So does the further expansion of school choice; as a report . These immediate solutions can help pave the way for stronger, more-robust relations between families and schools.

So can simply adapting to the times. In an age in which Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail are communications tools for every family no matter their economic status, there is no reason why a teacher cannot inform families immediately once their kids starts veering off track academically. The KIPP chain of charter schools, for example, expects teachers to be available by phone; this should be the case in every school. Principals should make it clear that they expect teachers to start communicating early and often with families — in fact, meeting before the start of the school year. And in an age in which every adult in two-parent household works — and households led by single parents, along with aging grandparents, teachers and principals should make it easier for families to meet them face-to-face.

Over the long haul, the recruiting and training of aspiring teachers must also change. Ed schools, along with alternative teacher training programs, should add ability to communicate (and empathize) with families as a critical element of selecting their candidates. Early clinical training in actual school settings is also important to helping aspiring teachers learn how to work with families. Ed schools must also ditch outdated pedagogies — including the Poverty Myth of Education — that hold little regard for the role of families as leaders in schools. Outfits geared toward developing principals and superintendents such as New Leaders for New Schools and the Broad Foundation should also develop training programs that emphasize Parent Power and family engagement in their curricula.

Parent Power is part of the future of teaching in American public education. It should have always been a part of it. And everyone who works in schools must adapt to these changes — or be left behind in the ashbin of education history.

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Tom Corbett’s Stand for Parent Power

If there was one state that could be considered the one most-likely to embrace school choice and Parent Power in meaningful ways this year, it was Pennsylvania. Just four years…

If there was one state that could be considered the one most-likely to embrace school choice and Parent Power in meaningful ways this year, it was Pennsylvania. Just four years earlier, the work of activists such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams led to the passage of a charter school law by the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature. Last year, school reformers had managed to secure support for a school voucher plan from both of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidates. And with a (theoretically) more-favorable Republican-controlled legislature in place, Parent Power and school choice activists could easily get a choice plan (either in the form of vouchers or tax credit plans that allow companies to offer vouchers to poor and minority children) passed this year.

It didn’t happen that way. The state’s National Education Association affiliate teamed up with school districts to rally opposition against the plan throughout the state. With two proposals on the table, reformers sabotaged themselves with an intramural sparring match over whether vouchers were preferable to tax credit plans (with the oft-contrary education team at the Cato Institute, which can never make up its mind about whether it wants school choice or just engage in martyrdom of ideological purity, fanning the flames). It then got lost in the much-larger debate over the state budget and cuts in education spending.

The biggest problem started and ended with the lack of leadership on the issue from Gov. Tom Corbett, who, as a gubernatorial candidate, made school choice a centerpiece of his political agenda. Corbett was seemingly absent from nearly all the discussions, essentially allowing the push for school choice to slip into the political quagmire. By the time Corbett corralled together state legislators to push them to vote for at least one of the competing plans, the session was coming to an end. Legislators were too busy wrangling a budget and working on Corbett’s other school reform plan — to force districts looking to hike spending above inflation to seek voter approval for their budgets — to craft together a viable voucher plan.

But now, Corbett is finally stepping up to push through a school choice plan. Besides a series of speeches, Corbett has gotten the state legislature back together to consider a package of legislation that would move the ball on reform. This includes another version of the education tax credit as well as the creation of a state agency charged with authorizing charter schools akin to those in California; expect districts and the NEA affiliate to challenge the latter with the same arguments being made in New Jersey and Massachusetts (and more successfully, in Georgia). All of the plan makes sense.

But the voucher initiative is the centerpiece. Under the proposal — which will face a senate vote by the end of the month — kids from households making less than $29,000 a year can get a full voucher of equal to what is spent in the district in which they reside (including full subsidy the Keystone State hands out) instead of having to attend any of the state’s 144 failure mills; kids from households earning less than $41,000 would get a voucher equal to 75 percent of the subsidy amount. On average, a family would receive $7,700 for each student, but can get as much as $13,000. Essentially, it is akin to the kind of funding follows the child concept Dropout Nation has long touted.

For families from low-income backgrounds, especially black and minority households, the voucher plan would offer one more opportunity to escape schools where educational neglect and malpractice has been the norm for far too long. These families can now take new steps towards helping their kids succeed in school and in life. More importantly, the expansion of choice will also help breed new activism for reform; families who have benefited from choice are less likely to docile and support those who have been far too willing to sacrifice the futures of children in order to remain comfortable in their jobs.

If the voucher plan is passed, it will start another important conversation: Expanding school choice to middle-class households, especially in suburbia, who may know that the traditional districts in their communities offer mediocre instruction and curricula, but don’t have any idea of what alternatives may be. Black and Latino middle-class households are already dissatisfied with schools that seem unwilling to allow their kids to take Advanced Placement courses and stay on the college track. And as Dropout Nation pointed out last week, the achievement gaps among between young men and women — especially those from college-educated households — are as common in suburban districts as it is in their big-city counterparts.

Corbett is finally taking the lead on expanding choice and Parent Power. This is good. But he can also do more. Proposing a Parent Trigger law similar to those already passed in California, Connecticut, and Texas would also help parents take their rightful places as lead decision-makers in education. Families could come together and force overhauls (including replacing the district with a charter school operator or a school management nonprofit they can form themselves) would allow families to bring good-to-great teaching and rigorous curricula to their own communities instead of waiting on either the district to finally overhaul the school or for high-quality charters to move in.

Another important step Corbett can take is forcing the end of the traditional district model of school operations. One way to do this is to require failing districts and those with wide achievement gaps to hand over their schools to a state agency similar to New Orleans’ successful Recovery School District; that agency would then convert every school into a charter, requiring that each is governed by a board of parents who can hold operators and staffs accountable for success. The families in each community can then vote out those boards if they don’t substantially improve student achievement. This idea, along with the Parent Trigger proposal, should be a part of Corbett’s next round of school reform plans.

By the end of this year, Corbett may join counterparts such as Rick Snyder in Michigan, Florida’s Rick Scott, Bill Haslam in Tennessee, and once-and-future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber as strong school reformers. And Pennsylvania may live up to its promise on this front.

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