Author: RiShawn Biddle

The Dropout Nation Podcast: Servant Leaders for School Reform

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I glean some lessons from a sermon by Dallas pastor Frederick D. Haynes III and discuss the need for servant leaders for overhauling American…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I glean some lessons from a sermon by Dallas pastor Frederick D. Haynes III and discuss the need for servant leaders for overhauling American public education. As important as education policy is to spurring systemic reform, it is even more important to embrace people such as Geoffrey Canada, Howard Fuller, and Parent Power activists who can serve our geniuses and lead them to brighter futures.

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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Two Thoughts on Education This Week: The Double-Speak of Dennis Van Roekel

A Little Consistency, Please, Mr. Van Roekel: Maybe the ghost of idiosyncratic-yet-militant teachers union legend Albert Shanker had taken a hold of him. Or perhaps, he is a little jealous…

A Little Consistency, Please, Mr. Van Roekel: Maybe the ghost of idiosyncratic-yet-militant teachers union legend Albert Shanker had taken a hold of him. Or perhaps, he is a little jealous of all the attention Randi Weingarten gets from her failed triangulation of the school reform movement. But National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel attempted to play the role of school reformer during an “education braintrust” session held yesterday at the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative pow-wow.

Between harrumphs about how the NEA is pushing for its form of school reform lite (essentially, keeping the status quo quite ante), Van Roekel told the crowd that the “all 9000 delegates at our assembly voted to endorse president Obama for a second term because he is a friend of education.” The fact that the Obama administration has all but ignored both the NEA or the American Federation of Teachers, has long had an acrimonious relationship with the two unions because they oppose the administration’s school reform agenda, and does little other than throw taxpayer dollars to them in order to help congressional Democrats secure at least partial control of Congress, doesn’t come up. Nor does Van Roekel admit that these days that Democrats at the state level are calling the shots, essentially helping to weaken its influence over education policy.

But that’s nothing compared to his musings on teacher quality. Declaring that school reformers have “wasted the last 18 months debating tenure, Van Roekel then proclaimed that the real problem lies with the abysmal way America recruits and trains its teachers. From where he sits, the “system of recruitment, training and hiring is broken” and needs an overhaul. This means changing the “system on the front end”, by improving how aspiring teachers are developed and trained before they go into classrooms.

Van Roekel is right. The low quality of teacher recruiting and training is one of the reasons why academic instruction in our classrooms is in such sorry shape. There would be less of a need for firing laggard teachers if ed schools did a better job of recruiting those aspiring to get into the profession. But Van Roekel would have more credibility arguing this point if the NEA wasn’t such as strong supporter of the very ed schools that bring in low-quality talent into the profession in the first place.

After all, it is the NEA that has long had comfy relations with the nation’s ed schools, even to the point of subsidizing the operations of the very trade groups that defend them from the systemic overhaul reformers have long championed. In 2009-2010, the NEA ladled out $381,576 to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which oversees teacher training programs, according to its filing with the U.S. Department of Labor; that’s part of $1.9 million the union gave to the group over a five-year period. In 2008-2009, the union handed out $252,262 to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the main trade group for ed schools.

With such financial and political leverage, the NEA could have forced ed schools into embracing reforms of its recruiting and training; the union could have even helped the National Council on Teacher Quality force ed schools into cooperating in the rating of ed schools it is conducting with U.S. News and World Report. The union has been silent on both counts. More importantly, Van Roekel fails to admit that the traditional teacher compensation system it defends — including near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure — is as much of the problem with teacher quality as recruiting and training. After all, what highly-talented collegian, especially one in math and science, would want to work in a profession in which the full compensation package — including $2 million in defined-benefit pension payments — cannot be reaped until they spend a decade or longer in the profession (and be forced to work with laggard colleagues who are paid the same wage to boot)?. The work rules that the union defends also makes it difficult for districts to do the kind of innovative practices — including increased specialization at the elementary school level — that can make teaching a more-sophisticated and attractive profession in the knowledge-based economy.

Van Roekel is certainly right about the need to improve teacher recruiting and training. But his union should set a better example on that front by pushing for systemic reform.

More on Rick Hess’ Achievement Gap Thoughtlessness: Over the past two days, American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess attempted to defend his recent pieces declaring that focusing on the achievement gap has siphoned research, policymaking and funding away from addressing other educational issues, and “has pushed all other considerations to the periphery”. Your editor could spend days tearing up what Dave Eggers would call Hess’ heartbreaking works of staggering nonsense. But I’ll stick to a series of specious examples he has used to prove his point.

Hess has argued that the achievement gap has excluded focus on subjects that aren’t considered core because they aren’t tested. One particular data point, which he culls from the Center for Applied Linguistics that the share of elementary schools offering foreign language courses has been in decline. Funny enough, Hess’ argument is similar to those offered by the very education traditionalists with whom he has long foisted, who have argued for the past decade that the expansion of standardized testing has led to the narrowing of curricula. And as the traditionalists have been wrong on that point, Hess is off-base on this subject as well.

The fact that foreign languages are generally offered at the middle- and high-school level immediately makes Hess’ citation rather suspect; the decline was only from 31 percent of elementary schools to 25 percent between 1997 and 2008, which is not all that significant. At the high school level, foreign language courses remains constant, with 91 percent of all high schools offering those course. More importantly, Hess’ argument fails to consider evidence that offerings of music and art courses  — which should also be in decline — remain as much a part of elementary- and secondary-school offerings as social studies.

Meanwhile Hess also tries to use the recent PISA data — which shows that America’s students, especially its top-performers, are trailing the rest of the world academically — to prove his point. The problem? This is not a recent trend. American students have been trailing their peers in literacy, numeracy and science for the past four decades, long before the current focus on stemming the achievement gap. In fact, this woeful performance compared to the rest of the world is one of the reasons why school reformers began focusing on closing achievement gaps in the first place. The more minority students moving from failure to academic proficiency, the more high-performing students and future entrepreneurs and workers this nation will have in an increasingly global economy.

Again, Hess should stop the intellectual madness. And just move off this dead horse of a theory.


  • Adam Emerson at Redefine Ed takes Education Sector’s Richard Lee Colvin to task on vouchers. And rightfully so. I admire Colvin’s work (after all, I did write a study for him while he was at the Hechinger Institute). But Colvin gets some things wrong when it comes to his view on vouchers. In particular, he wrongly casts the voucher debate as merely one between free-marketeers and education traditionalists, failing to consider the wide array of liberal Democrat reformers, urban families and others who are fans of vouchers (as well as libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute that now think vouchers are not worth considering). I can go on and on. But I won’t. For now.
  • Next week, I will take apart Pedro Noguera’s claptrap on vouchers, which appears today at NBC’s Education Nation Web site. And yes, Noguera once again proves that as wonderfully passionate as he may be when it comes to improving education for black males, he sticks to the kind of thoughtless education traditionalist beliefs that have helped create the problem in the first place. Expect Pedro to not take any more kindly to my thoughts than he did the last time I paid him mind.
  • Voices of the Dropout Nation in Quotes: No Child Department: “No Child has allowed us to identify the problems. It’s not enough to have 100 percent of the data. You have to know what is happening by subgroups.” — Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott at yesterday’s Congressional Black Caucus pow-wow on education.
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Arne and Obama Gut School Accountability

  As your editor expected, the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, aren’t worth the paper…


As your editor expected, the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written.

Under the Obama plan, states will be allowed to evade the aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision with a vague set of “ambitious but achievable goals” and an equally amorphous requirement that states must put “college and career-ready” curriculum standards in place. Many surmise the latter means implementing Common Core standards in reading and math — something that 45 states have done so far. But Duncan has had to avoid making such a public statement means in order to avoid the full wrath of congressional Republicans and some reformers who essentially declare that doing so oversteps the Department of Education’s authority. As a result, a state can probably come up with some mishmash, call it college- and career-ready, and easily get it past federal officials.

The rest of the proposed waiver standards, as being unveiled today by the administration, simply point to a full retreat on accountability. States will be able to allow all but 15 percent of the nation’s schools receiving Title 1 funds (including the 5,000 dropout factories and failure mills) to fully avoid accountability. Certainly, the administration wants states to focus on schools that either have “low graduation rates, large achievement gaps, or low student subgroup performance” to be subjected to scrutiny. But there’s no way that the administration can mandate this without reducing the flexibility it argues that the waivers will give. So the merely poor-performing schools — including suburban districts that are failing to properly educate poor and minority kids — will largely be left alone.

Essentially, Obama’s waiver plan amounts to the gutting of accountability. Like the plan offered up last week by Senate Republicans, the waivers don’t address the need to overhaul ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, or push for the development of alternative teacher training programs outside of university confines. The waiver plan doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. The waivers may allow for the possibility of states targeting gender for subgroup accountability (and thus, addressing the crisis of low educational attainment among young men of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds) on their own. But the conditions under which the waivers are being granted don’t require states to take on any additional accounting for the performance of young men or other children whose academic failures are the result of the education crisis.

The waivers don’t require states to set a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy — an early warning indicator of academic failure — that would give teachers and principals honest data that they can then use in keeping kids in school. Right now, only two states — California and Indiana — offer some sort of breakdown of chronic truancy data, and that’s not good enough. As for school choice and Parent Power? Not even a consideration.

The waivers, in short, aren’t worth anything when it comes to spurring systemic reform. The Obama plan is a step back, only slightly better than what congressional Republicans and their Senate counterparts are offering.

As Dropout Nation pointed out at the time of Duncan’s announcement in June, this move has weakened the administration’s hand without moving forward its reform agenda. With the waivers, Duncan will give the NEA, the AFT, suburban districts, and congressional Republicans what they really want — gutting accountability — without having to actually do the job themselves. They won’t have to face a full public debate over what this step would mean for addressing the nation’s education crisis and the consequences of laying out their positions in full view. Duncan’s move also allows them to argue that the Obama administration has already ditched accountability while also declaring that the college- and career-ready standards it wants states to put into place in exchange for “flexibility” is unconstitutional because it steps on congressional authority. And for reform-minded governors who have wielded No Child effectively (along with Race to the Top) to push through their own reforms? They are on their own.

In the process, Obama won’t gain traction for the rest of his school reform agenda. Congressional Republicans will not only use this move to bolster their efforts to keep control of the House, they will also refuse to pass any other reform measure Obama offers up. The gutting of AYP is largely unpopular among centrist and liberal Democrat allies such as the Education Trust and congressional Democrat education point man George Miller, as well as by Republicans such as No Child mastermind Sandy Kress and Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor as Secretary of Education. It is reviled among conservative reformers such as Rick Hess and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — which, by the way, want to gut No Child themselves, but want to put their stamp on it. Supporters and foes of Common Core standards, who still believe that Obama will tacitly require states to embrace those standards in exchange for receiving waivers, are also dismayed by the waiver effort; particularly among conservative supporters of Common Core, they can no longer dodge accusations that the standards will lead to the creation of national curricula. (Whether or not that is a bad thing, given the low quality of curricula and standards throughout the nation, is a whole different matter entirely.)

This doesn’t bold well for Obama’s re-election prospects. After all, education reform was one of the few issues on which he had bipartisan support. While the president can point to some real successes, those achievements are muffled by a weakening of school reform efforts and ultimately, a set of decisions that have essentially declared to black and Latino constituencies concerned with reforming education that their children are not worthy of concern.

And let’s be clear: Despite what Obama and Duncan may declare, the decision to gut AYP essentially declares that federal education policy is no longer concerned with improving education for the very poor and minority children, be they black, white, Latino or Asian, who were poorly served by America’s traditional public schools before No Child’s passage a decade ago.

No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, schools were forced to set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Through AYP, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.

And now, there is no real focus at the federal level on improving education for all children, including our poorest children and those from minority communities. Certainly, reformers may be able to keep pressing in states and districts throughout the country. But there won’t be much in the way of federal support. Given that America is increasingly a majority-minority country, retreating on accountability isn’t the smartest decision for the nation’s future.

Let’s give Obama and Duncan credit for Race to the Top and some of their other reform efforts, which have spurred major systemic reform over the past couple of years. But on the matter of No Child, it is clear Obama and his education secretary have failed where his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his education point people) certainly and laudably succeeded.

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The Future of Teachers: There May Be Fewer of Them

To get a sense of what is likely going to happen to many of the 3.2 million teachers employed in America’s classrooms who don’t teach core subjects such as reading,…

To get a sense of what is likely going to happen to many of the 3.2 million teachers employed in America’s classrooms who don’t teach core subjects such as reading, math, science, history and foreign language, consider the experience of a corporate lawyer who just spent a few days teaching business law at a high school in the D.C. suburb of Loudoun County.

Volunteering as part of a nonprofit that instructs teens on the ins and outs of the nation’s legal system, this lawyer spent time teaching a class of students about that lovely thing called torts and lawsuits. During those sessions, she finds herself getting into a lively Socratic discussion with her students, many of whom may not know about such terms as liable but definitely know about the spate of suits over statements made on Facebook and Twitter.  The kids are engaged, interested, and want to learn more. Theoretically, she is supposed to jointly teach with a full-time instructor who also handles high school electives in computer science and the golf team. But, in all honesty, the teacher can barely tell the difference between a summary judgment and a jury verdict, and barely considers his students — most of them Latino and black — capable of learning about any aspect of civics. In fact, instead of using the engaging course options offered by the nonprofit that would further immerse kids in learning — the teacher hands out worksheets on vocabulary terms.

At the end of her work, the young corporate lawyer figures out a few things — and that’s beyond realizing that the high school’s principal brought in the program in order to essentially keep this tenured and expensive laggard from doing any further damage to her students. The first? She enjoys every aspect of teaching, but she doesn’t want to give up her six-figure job to go full-time into a profession in which the lucrative benefits package doesn’t come into place for at least 20 years. The second? That she would do it on a contract basis, focusing on just business law electives, once she reaches her fifties and the kids are out of college. In fact, she would do it for just a small annual sum and without any need for either retirement benefits or healthcare coverage. Third: That her parents, both in their sixties, comfortably retired and still looking for new challenges, would love to teach kids and would do so on a contract basis themselves. Her father, a former school principal who plays in his own band, could definitely teach music as he did when he first came into education five decades ago; while her mother, a former chief nurse practitioner, could definitely take on such electives as health and sex education the same way she has been teaching young girls (including at the local church) for years.

Then she wonders: Why don’t districts just contract with these aspiring teachers? The kids could get high-quality learning in these electives from subject-matter experts who care about kids. Even better, school districts can get this expertise and save millions annually spent on salaries and benefits for teachers working on electives that contribute to student learning, but whose value can’t really be measured (because there are no tests for these areas), and, to be honest, the teachers are not exactly experts with up-to-date knowledge. Why not hire professional musicians as contract music instructors working for several local schools in a district? Or contracting with an auto body shop to teach students about the ins and outs of modern automobiles?

This young corporate lawyer has stumbled onto one of the realities that school reformers and education traditionalists will eventually have to confront: That current- and long-term fiscal realities, along with the need to provide our children with high-quality teachers in core subjects, makes it untenable to keep many of the majority of teachers dedicated solely to elective courses and subjects that may not be at the heart of improving student learning. The fact that many of these teachers aren’t exactly subject-matter experts or have knowledge that is out of date also means that students aren’t getting what the learning they deserve while taxpayers are bearing fiscal burdens that may not make sense. So it is time to develop new solutions that will help our kids get enriched learning experiences while also saving money. In many cases, this may mean replacing full-time teachers in elective courses with contractors and part-timers from the millions of aspiring teachers of middle age who already have the subject-matter competency and experience with children to do the job.

President Barack Obama played up the prospect of teacher layoffs earlier this month as part of his efforts to pass his $450 billion American Jobs Act stimulus plan, 30 percent of which is slated toward supposedly keeping teachers in classrooms. The fact that districts do as much as they can to avoid teacher layoffs, along with the ineffectiveness of Obama’s previous teachers’ union bailout plans, and the estimated 24,000 teachers that will be added to payrolls (according to U.S. Department of Education estimates) means that few teachers will lose their jobs in the next year.

But fewer teachers will be kept in classrooms over the next decade. Why? Start with the $137 billion in state budget shortfalls over the next two fiscal years. After years of increasing education spending, states are now reducing their subsidies, forcing districts to pare their own budgets. Districts have been able to find cuts in other areas (including trimming custodial staffs) and even hold off on raises. But eventually there will be teacher layoffs.

Then there are the long-term issues. With $1.4 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retiree healthcare costs, states can no longer afford to simply increase the number of teachers. The fact that fringe benefits have increased from 28 cents for every dollar of teacher salary to 32 cents is proving costly to districts. Moving away from defined-benefit pensions is one key step toward reducing these burdens, as will require teachers to contribute more to their benefits. But it won’t be enough. Headcounts will have to be cut.

If 1.6 million Baby Boomer teachers actually retire, as Denise Forte of the U.S. Department of Education predicts, then that will make some of those headcount decisions easy. Districts will simply have to whittle down by attrition, hiring fewer teachers to replace those heading into retirement. But given the personal financial difficulties — from mortgages under water to college bills for their kids — that some teachers in that age range could be facing, don’t count on it. And given that previous claims of mass retirements have not come to fruition, no one can count on attrition alone.

Then there is the most-important reason why we need fewer teachers: There are far too many laggards in our classrooms who are poorly-serving our kids. While middle-class families and teachers’ unions have been fans of class size reduction efforts that have led to more teachers working in classrooms with fewer kids, the initiatives have proven to be ineffective in improving student achievement. If anything, the addition of more teachers may actually dilute quality because ed schools — which were doing a poor job of training teachers before the advent of class size reductions — are sacrificing quality for quantity, doing an even worse job of weeding out the chaff from the wheat. Kids may be better off with larger classes taught by high-quality teachers.

There will be layoffs. The question is what this will look like. Elementary school teachers, who make up 1.7 million of our teachers, will likely be safe. As I discussed earlier this month, there could likely be more specialization, which means there will be just as many elementary school teachers working in the next decade as there are now. More importantly, a high-quality elementary education will ensure that kids will make it through the middle school years and high school toward graduation. Cutting elementary school teachers doesn’t make sense.

As for those working in the middle and high school ranks? A different story. If laws requiring reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoffs are reversed in the coming years, then districts can eliminate costly laggard teachers in reading, math, science and history regardless of their experience. Thanks to more-rigorous teacher evaluations coming into place such as the IMPACT system in D.C., this work becomes easier for districts to do. But given that the core courses (along with foreign languages and special education) account for only 33 percent of the 1.1 million teachers working in our nation’s high schools (and likely, a similar percentage of middle-school teachers), the teachers working in subjects that are either considered electives or non-core subjects such as music will also face the axe.

One could just make subject every school course to testing. But that won’t fly with many parents or even some school reformers. Why? Some believe that subjecting these courses to tests would ruin the enriching experiences that students may gain from them; while they are willing to subject students and teachers in core subjects to testing, they think the music teacher, the shop class instructor, and the art teacher should not have to deal with that stuff. Then there is the cost of testing those subjects themselves, which may be prohibitive financially and politically compared to the gains that can be reaped. Certainly there should be testing for foreign language proficiency; this makes sense in an age in which learning Mandarin or Spanish can be critical to lifelong success in an increasingly global economy. But one can imagine the cultural and political debates over what should be covered in a music appreciation exam.

What cannot be measured will not matter, or at least, not matter enough to employ a full-time teacher to hold that job. Since tests won’t be administered for these electives, those teachers cannot be evaluated in any meaningful way. Certainly, principals can evaluate for observable aspects of teaching, but not for the most-important and unobservable matter of student achievement. More importantly, since outcomes can be measured, American public education will be required to rely on outputs such as teacher credentials that do not correlate with student achievement. If depending solely on credentialing doesn’t make sense for measuring the performance of teachers in core subjects, it won’t make sense for those in electives either.

This leads to a predictable result: Fewer teachers in health, music, art, and other subjects. And it should. The salary and benefits are too costly. But this doesn’t have to mean the end of electives. After all, music and art are critical in building the background knowledge children need to be fully literate. One can also justify the existence of health and sex education courses. Then there are the vocational courses, which have, for most of the past 80 years, been way stations for students that American public education deemed incapable of college preparatory learning. The reality that blue-collar workers need the same high-level reading, math and science skills that white-collar counterparts must have makes vocational ed less necessary. But it is a good thing for kids to learn about woodworking; it can offer an outlet for kids for self-expression as well as learn a skill they can use at any point in life (think about having to put together a cabinet or fix shelving). Vocational courses can also offer new, relevant ways for kids to learn the college preparatory math and science lessons that they are being taught in traditional classrooms.

But this doesn’t mean continuing to keep hundreds of thousands of teachers in electives on full-time payrolls. One possibility starts with the millions of middle-aged professionals — including lawyers, nurses, blue-collar welders, auto shop owners and professional musicians — who are ready, willing and able to take on teaching those subjects at least on a part-time or contractual basis. One can imagine a district putting together a team of professional musicians who can teach at several schools throughout the school year, or even working with a technical university to provide weekly shop electives to interested students. I can easily imagine my mother-in-law, a social worker who now sits on Arkansas’ minority health commission, teaching health classes at a local high school — or my own mother teaching information technology classes to high schoolers in the Atlanta suburb in which she lives.

Best of all, these mid-career and Baby Boomer professionals, many of whom already demonstrated experience and have their retirement benefits already squared away, won’t need pensions, 401-K plans, or even much in the way of salary. And as Martin Haberman has noted, teachers coming into the profession late in life also have the practical skills needed to manage classrooms, command the respect of students, and get their job done with little supervision.

This not only creates an opportunity for schools (in terms of high-quality instruction at a cost savings) and students (who get relevant, up-to-date instruction with real professionals in those fields), but even for ed schools and alternative certification groups who can offer short courses on teaching method, cultural competency and other aspects of teaching. And it doesn’t need to take four years to get the needed certification. One can imagine a year-long clinical-based teacher training that gets aspiring teachers into the field within three months of passing tests that show subject competency, entrepreneurial drive and caring for children.

Education traditionalists, of course, don’t want to have this conversation because it means rethinking what a teaching career should look like. For the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, in particular, it also means fewer members upon which they can count for dues that they use to maintain their declining influence. As for school reformers? Far too many have been happy with talk about stretching spending and wringing out needed efficiencies in aspects of education such as transportation and building maintenance. They have also pressed admirably to end the array of practices — from reverse-seniority layoffs to abysmal performance management — that has been one of the causes of the nation’s education crisis. But with teacher salaries and benefits account for 60 percent of current spending, questions about teacher staffing can no longer be bypassed. We owe it to our children and to teachers to honestly think through what staffing can and should look like in the coming decades.

The reality is that there will be fewer teachers in America’s classrooms. Now is the time to discuss what that will look like and how we can ease the transitions that are going to come.

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Dear Rick Hess: There is Nothing Wrong with “Achievement Gap Mania”

When your Dropout Nation editor has been brought low by that horrible viral-based disease called Influenza, it not only forces him to spend days sleeping in bed (when not coughing…

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

When your Dropout Nation editor has been brought low by that horrible viral-based disease called Influenza, it not only forces him to spend days sleeping in bed (when not coughing and other disgusting aspects of being sick), but limits him to reading a lot of really smart people writing and saying dumb things. And if you have been reading this publication long enough, there are few things that displease me more than smart people — especially Beltway school reformers — uttering statements that shouldn’t even come from their minds, much less their pens.

So when the Thomas B. Fordham indulged in its obsession over the academic performance of high-achieving students with the latest report it released this week, I expected to chastise them mercilessly. For all of the admirable work Fordham does on school reform issues, it has this weird penchant of thinking that the only kids that seem to matter most are the ones in advanced classes. And I say this as someone who was one of those high-flying students. But save for its grand opening paragraph declaring that the nation needs to “maximize” the abilities of its smartest students, a finale that declares that our future leaders will come from top-performing students (a gross overstatement that fails to remember that many of our leading lights in business and public light, including Abraham Lincoln and Paul Orfalea, the founder of what is now Fedex Office, either didn’t attend school or were the “C” students in class) and and Fordham staffer Janie Scull’s post on Fordham’s Flypaper blog, the report was actually relatively balanced.

But then, I read American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess’ remarks about the study and the bold (in his mind) declaration that it is evidence of an “achievement gap mania” that has siphoned research, policymaking and funding away from addressing other educational issues, and “has pushed all other considerations to the periphery”. Apparently, Hess ignores the decade of research on other issues — from the expansion of school choice, to teacher quality reform efforts, to even the work on the academic prospects of high-achieving students being conducted by Fordham and other outfits — as well as the focus of state and federal policymaking on such matters as bullying and using schools to combat childhood obesity. The very fact that Hess makes such a gross overstatement renders his entire argument useless. For a Beltway reformer, an everyday observer of all that is happening on Capitol Hill, to even say this is just silly on its face.

The more-problematic aspect of Hess’ argument lies with his view (which he expresses both at Flypaper and in a piece appearing today in National Affairs) is that the achievement gap is a matter not worthy of addressing. This sort of backward thinking echo back to the days before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, when education policymakers and practitioners preferred to ignore the racialist policies that often made American public education a way-station to poverty and prison for poor and minority children. Hess fails to consider that the problem lies not with the focus on closing the achievement gap, but on decades of practices in American public education — from near-lifetime employment and the lack of rigorous evaluation of teachers, to the gamesmanship on academic standards that have been happening long before No Child, to even ability-tracking — that have poorly served all children (including those scoring the highest on test scores).

Hess also attempts to argue that the focus on the achievement gap has “shortchanged many children”. But he can’t prove that in any compelling way. What can be proved is this: American public education does an abysmal job of educating all children.

As the Fordham study notes — and as recent studies from such groups as the Education Trust have shown — wealthy suburban schools are often as abysmal in improving student achievement over time as urban failure mills, while even supposedly high-achieving districts don’t do well in addressing racial and gender achievement gaps. This shouldn’t be shocking. Three decades of student performance on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS has proven, our top-performing students have long been falling behind their peers around the world reading, math and science as their counterparts in other countries. As evidenced in Harvard’s analysis of 2009 PISA data, our top-performing students are outscored by top-performers in 22 other countries; top-performing white students are outperformed by students in 16 nations.

Here’s the thing: When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by American public education — including for young black, white and Latino men — we are improving education for our high-performing students as well. Providing all children with a rigorous, college-preparatory education, and ensuring that all kids are taught by high-quality teachers will not only help struggling students, it will even help high-performers who are just as often not getting the best they (and all children) deserve. More importantly, by addressing achievement gaps, we are also addressing the underlying problems that have made the nation’s education crisis a threat to our immediate- and long-term economic well-being. When we address the low graduation rates and underlying literacy issues facing young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds, we are also helping high-performing young women of all races and economic backgrounds succeed.

The benefits of closing these achievement gaps (as well as ending the penchant among school districts for preventing families from entering their kids into rigorous courses) can be measured. If just a third of the 3,110 residents living in poverty in the South Ozone Park neighborhood of New York City in which I grew up had attended college for at least two years, they would triple their income and contribute at least an additional $20 million a year in income to their neighborhoods (and more if they reach the nation’s median annual income). The benefits not only come in the form of higher incomes, but in spurring economic and social growth that feeds into our nation. And this is not just true for South Ozone Park, but for America as a whole. In a country in which blacks and Latinos will make up the majority of all Americans by mid-century, ignoring the achievement gap is tantamount to condemning America to the economic abyss.

Hess knows this. But sadly, the fact that he holds this view in spite of the evidence isn’t all that surprising.

These days, Hess seems to be more-obsessed with making “bold” and “contrarian” pronouncements that do little to advance much-needed systemic reform than the rigorous, thoughtful scholarship on education issues that once were his stock and trade. His apparent enthusiasm for the No Child backtrack being offered up by Senate Republicans makes one wonder if Hess has lost his appetite for strong systemic reform. He also seems to have a problem with what he calls “self-styled” reformers who have come on to the scene in recent years, essentially arguing that the likes of Steve Brill and Davis Guggenheim (as well as one would suspect, the editor of this publication) have no business offering an opinion, much less pushing for systemic reform. After all, neither Brill nor Guggenheim (or even other reformers, including those in the Parent Power movement) hold ed school degrees, are ensconced in think tanks, or have spent a day in a classroom — even though it doesn’t take the possession of either credential to know that American public education is in crisis.

In the process, Hess has taken on some of the worst qualities of Diane Ravitch and other education traditionalists, from their general disdain for focusing on improving education for poor and minority kids, to their belief in the myth of expertise — that only those who work in education or have ever taught in schools — have any right to say anything about American public education.

The Rick Hess of such seminal texts as Tough Love for Schools has seemingly disappeared into the ether. What is left makes a flu-suffering person like yours truly shake his head wondering “can the real Rick Hess please come back?”

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John Kline Fails on Parent Power

When a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing declares that it will focus on “Ensuring the Education System is Accountable to Parents and Communities“, one would expect to see…

Photo courtesy of Rep. John Kline

When a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing declares that it will focus on “Ensuring the Education System is Accountable to Parents and Communities“, one would expect to see a list of witnesses including Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, Matt Prewett of the Texas Parents Union, and even the folks at Black Alliance for Educational Options. But today, the House subcommittee conducting this hearing didn’t include any of these advocates for making parents the lead decision-makers in education. Shameful. The committee and its chairman, John Kline, have missed an opportunity to make Parent Power efforts — including Parent Trigger laws already passed in three states — a critical element of federal education policy, and actually spur systemic reform.

Given that the hearing also focused on Kline’s obsession with gutting the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (and his equally wrongheaded opposition to Common Core standards), it isn’t surprising that the subcommittee holding the hearing invited fellow-travelers such as otherwise admirable University of Arkansas scholar Jay P. Greene. But somehow, for some reason, Kline and subcommittee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), failed to invite any of the leading lights of the growing Parent Power movement, and, in the process, made the hearing rather incomplete.

After all, as Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times points out in his column today, the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law has already begun making an impact, forcing school districts to pay attention to the demands of families — especially those from poor and minority communities — for high-quality teaching and curricula. In the process, these laws, along with school voucher plans, inter-district school choice efforts such as that being pursued in Michigan by Gov. Rick Snyder, and charter schools, give parents and caregivers real voice in shaping the educational destinies of the children they love. Given that Parent Power activists are also among the leading players among the new, emerging civil rights activists replacing the old-school NAACP crowd — along with the rhetoric of Kline and company about making education a truly local concern — Parent Trigger laws are key in expanding the ability of parents to improve schools in their own communities. And as revealed last month by Dropout Nation, the very existence of Parent Power groups have also proven to be a threat taken seriously by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association; any reform effort considered a real threat by education traditionalists is one to which a congressional committee should pay attention.

The good news is that Bill Jackson of did mention the efforts of the Connecticut Parents Union. But that isn’t enough. By ignoring these activists, Kline, Hunter and their fellow congressional Republicans on the committee have ignored an area in which federal education policy can help encourage and expand. No Child’s school choice provisions, which required school districts to allow students in failing schools to move to better-performing operations, may have not been implemented well by districts which often had no high-performing schools to send those kids to them (and didn’t want to actually comply with that aspect of the law in the first place). But the provision, along with the federal Race to the Top initiative, has served as a catalyst for pushing states into passing school choice laws and expanding the reach of charter schools. This time around, Kline could have used the hearing as the opportunity to force Senate counterpart Tom Harkin and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the table on crafting a new No Child that would require states and districts to implement Parent Trigger laws. This could take place either in the petition format embraced in California or the slightly less-powerful version found in Connecticut. But Parent Power should be a part of those conversations.

Once again, Kline and his gang have proven to be less than serious when it comes to federal education policy. Luckily for families, the Parent Power movement will grow long before congressional Republicans finally give it serious consideration.

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