Author: RiShawn Biddle

Another Bad Obama No Child Waiver (Pennsylvania Edition)

Back in April, Dropout Nation reviewed Pennsylvania’s proposed plan to participate in the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions and found it wanting….

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Back in April, Dropout Nation reviewed Pennsylvania’s proposed plan to participate in the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions and found it wanting. As it was noted back then, the Keystone State’s proposal — including the Plessy v Ferguson-like Cut the Gap in Half approach used by states such as Tennessee and Florida — would do little more than set back the state’s already half-hearted effort at advancing systemic reform.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngSo it wasn’t all that surprising that the peer review panel reviewing Pennsylvania’s waiver plan also found it to be wanting. It was even less surprising that in spite of those concerns, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went ahead this week and blessed the mess anyway. Once again, the peer review notes, along with the decision by Duncan to approve the plan anyway shows how sloppy the Obama Administration has become on the education policy front. And this sloppiness, driven by the administration’s arrogant goal of placing its own stamp on federal education policy, is already having terrible consequences for the futures of children.

As with most of the 39 other states and the District of Columbia, the Keystone State did as little as possible to vet its plans with families, civil rights groups, and others. Peer reviewers raised concerns that the Pennsylvania Department of Education “submitted limited evidence specifying the organizations involved” in developing the plan. Considering that the state didn’t even share its proposal until Dropout Nation and other outlets called out the state (along with the Obama Administration) for lack of immediate disclosure, the unwillingness of the state to actually discuss its plan with the public is hardly surprising; the state’s own “stakeholder group” working on the new teacher evaluation system didn’t include any families or community leaders.

Pennsylvania’s plans to implement Common Core reading and math standards was also found to be problematic. Even before Gov. Tom Corbett moved in June to temporarily halt implementation of the standards, peer reviewers were concerned that the state didn’t provide information on implementation strategies and other “action steps” needed to make the effort a success. The fact that Pennsylvania didn’t offer specifics on how English Language Learners and children condemned to special education ghettos would be provided comprehensive college-preparatory coursework also showed how “underdeveloped” the state’s plan is. Add in Pennsylvania’s decision to develop its own Common Core-aligned exams instead of using those developed by the PARCC and Smarter Balance consortia, along with the lack of information on how it would set test proficiency cut scores, and one can conclude that the Keystone State is just winging it on the implementation front. Given the political pressure on Gov. Corbett to ditch Common Core altogether, the Obama Administration’s approval of the waiver without having the state address peer review concerns is another case of Duncan and his staff approving plans without actually looking at what is happening on the ground within states. Sloppy, careless, and thoughtless policymaking.

Meanwhile Pennsylvania’s proposed accountability system — including the supposedly “ambitious yet achievable” Annual Measurable Objectives the Obama Administration wants states to set — isn’t worthy of the name. As already mentioned, the state says it looks to cut achievement gaps — in the case, the percentage of poor and minority children who are not scoring proficient on the state’s battery of exams — by 50 percent by 2018-2019. But as peer reviewers pointed out, the state “doesn’t adequately describe whether its gap closure measure sets the expectation that a 50 percent gap closure will be achieved after six years” even after a phone call with state education officials in April to discuss their concerns. Even that low bar of addressing achievement gaps only accounts for 10 percent of a school’s performance rating. By the way: The fact that Pennsylvania’s proficiency cut score targets are inflated — 35.4 percent of fourth-graders read Advanced on the state’s reading exam in 2011, four times greater than the eight percent of all students reading Advanced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress that year — makes it difficult to buy into any target the state sets.

It gets worse. One of the AMO targets districts must meet is ensuring that 95 percent of students take the Keystone State’s battery of exams, which is hardly ambitious (though certainly achievable). Graduation rates only account for 2 percent of a high school’s rating. Even worse, the state will also add a five-year graduation rate (based on ninth-grade enrollment instead of eighth, as it should be) alongside the more-accurate and honest four-year graduation rate, which the state will use to see if a district graduates 85 percent of its ninth graders.  This essentially allows districts to cheat the accountability system because the state will defer to the five-year graduation rate if it meets the 85 percent goal and if the district doesn’t meet the goal as it is supposed to within four years.

The worst part of Pennsylvania’s accountability system is that it includes a form of the super-subgroup subterfuges used by states such as Indiana and New Mexico. This version, called Historically Underperforming Students, lumps special ed students with kids in ELL programs and poor children. As with other super-subgroup efforts, the problem with the Historically Underperforming Students subgroup is that the performance of each student subgroup within it (and, in fact, the performance of all of these students) can end up being obscured because of the structure of the accountability system itself. A school or district can be ranked high-performing and still do poorly in educating poor children and kids trapped in special ed. This was a particular concern of the peer reviewers. And yet, it not only did Pennsylvania officials not address it, the Obama Administration approved the proposal anyway.

Considering Pennsylvania’s woeful record on systemic reform — especially that of Corbett, whose proposals to expand school choice has fallen to seed because of his unwillingness to use his political capital and bully pulpit — the shoddiness of its No Child waiver plan is no shock at all. Nor is it stunning that the Obama Administration has approved it. Duncan and his boss, President Barack Obama, have proven over and over — most-recently with its approval of the waiver plan submitted by the eight-district California Office for Reform Education — that they are far more concerned with their arrogant goal of putting their stamp on federal education policy than about pursuing their goals sensibly with the futures of children in mind.

Yet the administration has garnered little in good results. As seen last week with the administration’s move last week to put the approved plans from Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State in “high risk status” (and thus, threatening to cancel the waivers) because of their lack of follow-through on promised reforms, the administration’s penchant for approving half-baked waiver plans in spite of questions raised by its own reviewers about whether states would even fulfill them is rearing its ugly head. By allowing states to focus on the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps), the administration is also letting districts not under watch off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. As University of Southern California professor Morgan Polikoff and graduate student Andrew McEachin have pointed out in a study released last year, focusing just on the lowest-performing schools may not work as a reform approach unless states put the right accountability systems in place.

The controversy over A-to-F grading systems approved by the administration is a reminder that moving away from the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability approach developed under No Child has grave consequences for the credibility of accountability overall. Moves by the administration on other fronts — including the continuing effort to shut down D.C.’s school voucher program, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit filed yesterday against Louisiana for expanding high-quality school options by providing vouchers to poor and minority kids because those kids attend schools in districts under school desegregation court orders — runs contradictory, both intellectually and in terms of policy, to its own efforts on advancing reform. Bayou State Gov. Bobby Jindal is right to call out President Obama for “trying to keep kids trapped in failing public schools against the wishes of their parents”.  Amid growing evidence — especially from Harvard professor Paul Peterson — that the Obama Administration’s efforts may have led to a halt in the improvements in student achievement made under No Child, there is little about the waiver gambit that deserves praise.

In just two years, President Obama, with the help of Duncan, has managed to gain the unenviable legacy of being the first black president to support plans that essentially subject poor and minority children who look like him to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Even worse, the president has damaged the very systemic reform efforts he helped sustain with smarter policies such as Race to the Top. Obama, along with his education secretary, should be ashamed of himself.

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Three Thoughts: More Reasons for the End of Ed Schools and Teacher Credentialing

The End of Ed Schools — and Teacher Credentialing, Part II: There are numerous reasons why far too many low-quality teachers end up in classrooms perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice on…

Photo courtesy of Colorado State University

Photo courtesy of Colorado State University

The End of Ed Schools — and Teacher Credentialing, Part II: There are numerous reasons why far too many low-quality teachers end up in classrooms perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice on our children. One is because the nation’s university schools of education do such a shoddy job in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. Another and equally important reason is because the battery of exams (including the PRAXIS tests administered by the Educational Testing Service and exams offered by the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium that includes the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education) used in credentialing teachers (and, in some states, even to decide whether an aspiring teacher can be admitted into an ed school), do little to weed out laggard teachers from high quality counterparts. This is a considerable problem because PRAXIS and other exams are usually the only gates available for determining teacher competence; once teachers pass the exams, they land in the classroom, unlikely to leave the profession unless a district is aggressive in weeding out laggards through the use of evaluations using objective student test score growth data. Just as importantly, the exams end up being a drudgery for teachers, who often have to take more than one exam depending on whether or not they are instructing in more than one subject. An instructor in Indiana, for example, may have to take four or more exams, depending on the subjects they are teaching and the setting in which they work; a teacher will take even more tests just to gain National Board recognition (and additional dollars in salary).

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngThe fact that PRAXIS and other exams merely the whether teachers have the minimum level of knowledge needed to instruct in a particular subject is part of the problem; after all, you want to know that a teacher can help kids improve their achievement and that they care for every child in classrooms regardless of background, along with knowing that they have some level of subject-matter competency. But as the U.S. Department of Education highlighted last week in its report on the quality of teacher training and certification, another culprit lies with the fact that state teacher certification agencies poorly utilize the tests to assess subject-matter competency by setting cut scores lower than necessary. As a result, pass rates for aspiring teachers on the exams are likely higher than they should be.

Alabama, for example, set a cut score of 137 points (or a mere 68.5 percent of the 200 points total) for aspiring teachers to pass the Praxis II exam called Elementary Education Content Knowledge in 2009-2010. This is 21 points lower than the national mean passing score of 166 (or 83 percent of the total points) achieved by those who successfully completed the exam. [The average scaled score for those taking the exam was 163 points, or three points below the national mean.] No wonder 98.5 percent of aspiring teachers passed the exam in 2009-2010. In Tennessee, the cut score for the same exam is even lower, with aspiring teachers needing to score 140 points (or 70 percent of total points) to pass. This is 26 points below the national mean score of successful test takers. [The average aspiring teacher in the Volunteer State scored 164 points on the test or two points below the national mean for those passing the exam.] All but three-tenths of one percent of the 1,785 teachers taking the exam passed it. Meanwhile Rhode Island had set a higher passing score for this Praxis II exam, demanding that aspiring teachers score at least 148 points (or 74 percent of total points) on the test. Even then, it is still 18 points lower than the national mean passing score achieved by those who passed the test; on average, teachers in the state taking the exam scored only 158 points on it. Ninety nine-point-three percent of teachers in Rhode Island taking the test passed it.

Not one state using the Praxis II exam on elementary education content knowledge had set a cut score above 150 points. Only half of the 12 states that used this particular Praxis II exam had average scaled scores that were either at or above the national mean for aspiring teachers who passed the test. Certainly one has to be cautious in reading the results, as Education Week‘s Steve Sawchuk noted yesterday in his report. The fact that aspiring teachers can take the test multiple times raises questions as to whether their scores are weighing down the average scaled scores; federal officials noted in one report that the mean score for those who failed the test was 34 points lower than the mean for those who passed. There’s also the reality that Praxis doesn’t really do the job in assessing whether an aspiring teacher can hack it in a classroom. In any case, the fact that the cut scores for this PRAXIS II test and other exams are so low– especially given that that many teacher licensing tests include relatively easy questions such as figuring out the percentage of ninth-graders on a school bus — should be a concern.

Of course, one can argue that teacher credentialing is a waste anyway. As studies, including one on  Florida teachers released two years ago by the Manhattan Institute, there is no correlation between credentials — including certification and attaining graduate degrees  — and student achievement; in fact, studies have shown that have shown that credentials and experience account for only three-to-five percent of student performance, making the credentialing process all but meaningless. This fact is one reason why American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s constant (and disingenuous) call for submitting teachers to exams similar to those given to law school graduates to gain admittance to the bar have fallen flat; almost no one believes that teachers should be subjected to taking yet another test that is unlikely to provide information on their levels of competence. The better approach to selecting aspiring teachers is to take a combination of approaches: This includes selecting from those with the highest scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, using the approach pioneered by legendary teacher training guru Martin Haberman of placing aspiring teachers in rooms with students from backgrounds different from their own, and embracing Teach For America’s emphasis on selecting teaching candidates who have entrepreneurial self-starter and leadership ability. [Efforts on the recruiting and training front, by the way, would also ease the burden on districts and other school operators, who can then focus on weeding out those few laggards who may have slipped in, as well as supporting high-quality teachers on their payrolls.]

This work is what the nation’s ed schools should be doing. But they are not. In fact, ed schools are failing when it comes to training their teachers, especially in reading instruction. Expecting them to do a better job of selecting teacher candidates is akin to wishing upon stars. After all, growing evidence suggests that ed schools aren’t tightening up standards because it would mean sacrificing revenue; after all, based on the fact that grade point averages for ed school students are higher than those for economics and other courses of study, ed schools may be way stations for collegians, who have figured out that getting a teaching degree is such easy work that they just go in, grab the degree, and then head into another field.

That problem could be mitigated if states did a better job of identifying and shutting down the worst of the abysmal lot of ed schools out there. But that’s not happening. Thirty-five states have never identified an ed school either deemed low-performing or at risk of being shut down. Florida, New York, and South Carolina were the most aggressive in identifying failing ed schools; Florida identified at least one low-performing or at risk ed school every year from 2003-2004 to 2010-2011, while New York  and South Carolina each identified at least one laggard ed school for seven years between 2002-2003 and 2010-2011. Of those that have, a mere 38 were identified in 2009-2010, while another 28 were identified a year earlier. This shouldn’t a surprise. Because ed schools in most states are supervised by teacher certification agencies separate from education departments means that ed schools are not well-scrutinized and regulated; the fact that the certification agencies themselves are also stuck in an old-school mindset (and, until recently, have been banned in nearly all states from even allowing for the use of value-added data in certification) is also a problem. The federal government hasn’t done a good job of holding states responsible either. Because  ed schools are governed by federal law under the Higher Education Act — which deals solely with universities — and not under the No Child Left Behind Act (which deals with teacher quality and its impact on American public education), ed schools escape much-needed scrutiny and accountability.

It is really hard for ed schools to continue justifying their existence. Same too for state teacher credentialing agencies. We need to move to a system of teacher recruiting and training that focuses on performance instead of on paper.

When Hess and Merrow Behave Badly: As you know, Dropout Nation celebrates sparring, especially among reformers over solutions for the nation’s education crisis. After all, healthy conflict is good for the movement. Yet this publication is none too thrilled when conflict borders on the juvenile. Such antics do nothing to shed light on the substantial issues at the heart of discussions.

The latest example of this came earlier this week when Rick Hess, the education policy czar for the American Enterprise Institute, proclaimed that Learning Matters’ John Merrow’s latest reporting on allegations of test-cheating in D.C. Public Schools under the watch of Michelle Rhee — along with earlier, more-positive reporting on Rhee’s work — exemplified what Hess thought was a tendency for “wheeling so hormonally from one extreme to another.” >Merrow, in turn, took to Hess’ Education Week column to insinuate that Hess was just snippy because Merrow had mentioned the supposedly “hidden support” Hess and AEI have received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the think tank’s education policy shop. Wrote Merrow: “Neither my company nor I have ever hidden our sources of support, nor do I ever expect to do so.”

Both men should be ashamed of themselves. Certainly one can argue honestly and fairly that Merrow ruined what was an otherwise fine example of investigative reporting (and in the process, became a partisan in the ongoing controversy) with his editorializing against the use of objective student test score data in teacher evaluations and about the success of the reform efforts undertaken under Rhee’s tenure and that of her successor, Kaya Henderson. But in proclaiming that Merrow is merely behaving like a “dumped sophomore”, Hess did little more than engage in the kind of grade school nastiness unfitting of his stature in the education policy arena.

At the same time, Merrow’s declaration that Hess’ criticisms merely stemmed from anger over information on AEI’s funding sources is rather ridiculous. Gates Foundation has long provided a database on all of its funding sources for public perusal. AEI has also fully disclosed Gates Foundation funding in its pieces, including a report released in January 2011 on college completion. As Merrow noted himself, Gates Foundation’s support for AEI’s education policy work has also been reported on by outlets such as the New York Times, a story in which Hess was quoted. Insinuating that Hess and AEI were engaged in unethical behavior, as Merrow (a dean of education reporting) has done, when the evidence doesn’t support it is unacceptable.

Hess and Merrow owe each other an apology. Enough said.

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Julian Castro and the Importance of Mayoral Control in Engaging City Leaders in Systemic Reform

Dropout Nation readers weren’t surprised when San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro discussed his efforts to reform education during his appearance at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week. After…

Dropout Nation readers weren’t surprised when San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro discussed his efforts to reform education during his appearance at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week. After all, the Harvard grad was briefly profiled on these pages last year after he announced a series of plans, including supporting what became the successful campaign of former city councilwoman Patti Radle to the board of the largest of the 16 districts serving children and families within its limits. Since we last mentioned looked into Castro’s efforts, the mayor has stepped further into advancing reform, unsuccessfully backing another school board candidate, while taking aim at the Harlindale district on the city’s south side for ousting its superintendent after a little more than three years on the job; in the latter case, Castro even showed up at a Harlandale board meeting to give school leaders the business.  And most-recently, Castro managed to use his bully pulpit to put the kibosh on the San Antonio district’s plans to use bond money for converting one of its stadiums into an entertainment center.

Certainly Castro is doing more than just offering talk when it comes to systemic reform. He is also following a path paved by mayors past and present such as Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and his successor, Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as Stephen Goldsmith, Bart Peterson, and Greg Ballard in Indianapolis (which, like San Antonio, is served by several traditional districts). Yet at the same time, it isn’t enough to deal with the woeful conditions of education for land of the Alamo children. Just 58 percent of the eighth-graders in San Antonio Independent’s original Class of 2009 graduated on time while only 62 percent of South San Antonio’s eighth-graders and 72 percent of their peers in Harlandale graduated five years later. For the young Latino men who look like Castro when he was young, the prospects of graduation are especially dim. One-third of young Latino men who made up the San Antonio district’s Class of 2009 weren’t promoted to senior year of high school five years later, while the promoting power rate for young Latino men in South San Antonio and Harlandale were, respectively, 62 percent and 70 percent.

Meanwhile his fellow city leaders, notably on the seven-member council, seem far less-engaged in addressing the aspect of the nation’s education crisis affecting their municipality and its consequences on the growth prospects of what has been up to now, one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolises. While Castro’s fellow councilmembers moved last month to approve his plan for the city to run early childhood programs, they haven’t been as engaged as the mayor in robust conversations about how to overhaul traditional districts or even in whether to move into the arena of authorizing public charter schools. This is understandable. Given that neither Castro nor the council oversee traditional districts, and the need for both to master the other aspects of their respective jobs (especially keeping crime low, managing city finances, and attending to other quality of life issues), it is hard to put more than scant attention to systemic reform.

Castro can’t simply use his bully pulpit alone in order to transform education in San Antonio and improve its long-term economic prospects (as well as that of the children and families in the city). So he (along with City Manager Sheryl Scully, who runs San Antonio’s day to day operations) needs to follow the path paved by current and former counterparts such as Michael Bloomberg in New York City, and Richard Daley in Chicago, and take full control of at least one of the district’s serving the nation’s seventh most-populous city.

As Dropout Nation has made clear over the past few years, mayoral control has largely proven to be a successful approach to advancing reform. Certainly the fact that citizens can hold one person responsible for the success or failure of a district instead of having to deal with often unaccountable school boards (which tend to be servile to National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) is one reason why it works as a form of school governance. The bigger reason lies in the fact that putting the city’s too executive in charge of schools immediately engages city government in doing what it takes to overhaul schools. Mayors have to wisely pick school chief executives, who will have plenty of time (so long as the mayor remains in office), ensuring that those school leaders stay on the job for superintendents in traditional district arrangements. In New York City, for example, Joel Klein remained in charge of Bloomberg’s effort for eight years, while Tom Payzant in Boston held his job for 11 years.

But this focused attention on schools extends beyond the mayor. As any councilmember in the Big Apple can attest, district budgets, school closures, and even teacher quality issues can become important discussion points both within city hall chambers and in community meetings. This is because anything a mayor touches ultimately becomes a matter for city legislators to consider, shape, and approve. This engagement of city councilmembers extends to the wider community, with residents demanding that all city leaders do more to fix failure mills in their neighborhoods and expand school choice and Parent Power options throughout the community.

This can be seen in Washington, D.C., where the takeover of the school district overseen by former mayor Adrian Fenty during his only term in office has led members of the otherwise clownish city council to be more active on education policy. Before resigning his spot as council chairman after his fraud conviction this past July, Kwame Brown managed to generate robust discussion about rewarding high-quality teachers, spurring family engagement, and expanding the number of middle schools that serve the District’s student population. His predecessor, Vincent Gray, has gleaned the experiences he has had in dealing with the efforts undertaken under Fenty (whom he ousted from from the mayoral job two years ago) to continue the reforms — including the path-breaking IMPACT teacher evaluation system — Fenty and his schools czar, Michelle Rhee, had put together.

This isn’t to say that engaging city councilmembers in systemic reform has no adverse consequences. As seen in New York City, mayoral control means that affiliates of the NEA and AFT also become more-engaged in lobbying those city officials and using their vast war chests to preserve the decline in influence that comes with the end of school board control. The very intimidation the two unions use in beating back reform efforts in state legislatures also becomes an issue at the local legislative level. And given the prevalence of graft and corruption in many cities, one can expect city councilors to try to turn schools into their own nests for corruption.

Yet this stepped-up engagement is an important thing. For one, given the important economic and social role districts play in communities and municipalities, it makes sense for city councilmembers to be as concerned about schools as they are about potholes and sidewalks. When city councilors focus on revamping dropout factories, they are are addressing one of the most-critical culprits of rising crime and declining tax bases.

It also makes fiscal sense, especially for districts themselves. One of the reasons why traditional urban systems such as Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn., generate so little in local tax dollars, even when their tax rates are higher than suburban counterparts, is because of the dysfunctional fiscal policies — including tax abatements given to developers for costly real estate schemes that siphon off dollars from district coffers. In those cities, politicians who run the rest of government can ignore the fiscal needs of the school district, whose operations they don’t oversee. This disconnect between district and city finances (along with the result of state governments taking over as much as 80 percent of annual district expenditures) results in city leaders failing to concern themselves with either school funding or with district operations.When city councilmembers must address school budgets, they are then forced to be more-thoughtful about whether they should hand off tax breaks to developers that do little to improve local economic profiles for the long haul, and actually end up damaging schools.

Ultimately, mayoral control can spur councilmembers to become the strong reformers needed to advance the transformation of American public education. If not for mayoral control in New York City, Eva Moskowitz likely wouldn’t have become an activist for advancing reform during her time on the city council, and certainly not bothered to play a more-active role in expanding school choice by launching the Success Academy chain of charter schools. Mayoral control can actually serve to breed even more reformers who have the political savvy and passion for helping all kids succeed needed to sustain reform. And, at the end of the day, it will take city legislators and strong mayors to overhaul failing urban districts.

For Castro and other reform-minded mayors, handing failing traditional districts into the hands of city leaders would certainly help bolster the city’s economic, social, and quality of life fabric. And it will lead other city leaders to take active roles in creating the conditions that help all kids succeed.

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The Failure of Leadership: The Latest on Eugene White’s Efforts to Flee His Malpractice in Indianapolis

Earlier this week, Dropout Nation analyzed the failed tenure of Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White and his attempt to find new gigs in Greenville, S.C. Since the piece ran,…

Earlier this week, Dropout Nation analyzed the failed tenure of Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White and his attempt to find new gigs in Greenville, S.C. Since the piece ran, White’s luck in landing another job hasn’t gone so well. On Tuesday, days after deadlocking on whether to hire White, Greenville’s school board voted 7-5 to pick the district’s interim superintendent to fill the top slot. Then another district to which White was attempting to flee, this in Mobile, Ala., unanimously picked another internal candidate. With almost no options this time around, White announced that he would remain as top boss of the Titanic district. Declared White: “I’m going to do what needs to be done.” And upon hearing the news, one can imagine all the parents in Indianapolis served by the district who can afford to leave put their kids’ names up for charter school lotteries and called U-Haul. (The ones who can’t are stuck with abject failure that damages the futures of their kids.)

But White’s future remains cloudy, even if IPS’ clown college of a school board (which has indulged his incompetence for seven years) decides not to send him packing in the next few months. The threat of Circle City Mayor Greg Ballard taking control of the district looms large, especially after the mayor (who already authorizes charter schools) hired a former Teach For America executive to be his education czar. The state branch of Democrats for Education Reform stepped up the pressure to reform the district this week by holding a confab featuring Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, who discussed how Indianapolis had to embrace at least part of the Recovery School District model that has advanced reform in the Crescent City. And Indiana’s state government could weigh in further this summer by seizing more IPS schools from White’s management.

Certainly White isn’t the only failure among school district chieftains. He may not even be the worst of them. But we cannot continue to tolerate those in charge of providing education for our kids remaining in jobs they are ill-equipped to hold. If we are to hold laggard teachers accountable for their failures in the classroom, then we require all school leaders (including superintendents and those on school boards who abet them) to meet the same high standards.

No matter what happens, it is high time for White to take his leave of the district. As I said seven years ago about both White’s predecessor, Duncan “Pat” Pritchett and then-state superintendent Suellen Reed, White’s departure would do a host of good for the Circle City’s children.

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Time for Freedom Riders for School Reform

The 1961 Freedom Rides have become among the most-memorable events in American history — and a major marker of the Civil Rights Movements successful fight to end of Jim Crow…

The 1961 Freedom Rides have become among the most-memorable events in American history — and a major marker of the Civil Rights Movements successful fight to end of Jim Crow segregation. But the Greyhound Bus rides were also the key turning point that reshaped the direction and the tenor of the movement and its leadership. More importantly, it forced John F. Kennedy, an American president who had little interest in advancing civil rights, to finally begin the steps that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other legislation that ended official (and de-facto) segregation for good. Now, more than ever, the lessons about unapologetic grassroots activism and speaking truth to power are ones that should be embraced by all school reformer in what is sadly turning out to be a post-No Child Left Behind Act era in which some have lost their focus on what they are supposed to do.

At the time the Freedom Rides began, the Civil Rights Movement was at a crossroads. Starting in the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its legal mastermind, Thurgood Marshall, had successfully used the courts to challenge Jim Crow laws that condemned blacks to second-class status in American society. This included the case of Irene Morgan, a Baltimore woman who had just gotten over a miscarriage arrested by Hayes Store, Va., police in 1944 for refusing to hand her seat on a Greyhound bus to white riders.

The NAACP would take up her case, successfully appealing it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that states could not apply Jim Crow to any form of interstate commerce. The legal and public policy strategy reached its crescendo in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet governors and legislators in southern states refused to enforce the court rulings and did all they could to circumvent them. In response to the Morgan ruling, states continued to segregate bus stations and other facilities; other states, including Arkansas and Virginia would respond to Brown by refusing to integrate scho0ls and even shutting down entire school districts in a form of massive resistance. The fact that Marshall and his team were reluctant to actually take it to the streets in protests, unwilling to force states to actually abide by federal rulings, and fearful of being tarred as disloyal by Americans still spooked by fears of communism (and the presence of spies, real and otherwise, working on behalf of the Soviets) made the NAACP a toothless tiger.

At the same time, another strategy pursued by the civil rights movement — the nonviolent resistance inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s successful push for India’s independence — was also struggling. Initially pushed by Bayard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality during the 1940s, it gained traction during the 1950s thanks to the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery, Ala. bus, and the emergence of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. as the leading voice of the civil rights movement. The efforts of King and the newly-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gained national attention, especially as media coverage of lynchings, bombings and the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, finally alarmed Americans about the viciousness of state-sanctioned segregation.

But King and his fellow nonviolent activists found themselves in a quandary. The fact that black southerners were forced to live daily with segregation — and the violence that came to their doorstep any time they fought against segregation — made them less interested in nonviolent protests. Some, such as a NAACP leader in Monroe County, N.C., Robert Williams, called for “armed self-reliance” and lived up to his word in 1957 when he and other locals shot at Klansmen. (Northerners such as Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were equally as vocal in their support for violent resistance to racial bigotry.) The rest, well-aware of the murders of such civil rights activists as Sam O’Quinn in Centreville, Miss., made others rather docile. Keeping the peace was more important for daily survival than forcing America to realize its due. That King and his fellow pastors, many of whom were the establishment in their own communities (and thus, a tad on the conservative side philosophically) meant that they were not quick to take action and did little in the way of strong, public action. They also had to deal with the NAACP, which opposed King’s strategy (and were also competing with him and the SCLC for attention and resources).

Meanwhile the federal government wished to stay out of the civil rights conversation altogether. President Harry s. Truman desegregated the military in 1947, and Dwight David Eisenhower sent National Guard troopers to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School a decade later. But neither administration was willing to take any further steps towards making America’s promise of equal opportunity for all a reality. Both administrations were unwilling to challenge the traditional view of federalism, which essentially restricted the federal role in governing how states treated citizens under law. They were also more-preoccupied with the Cold War and containing Communism than with civil rights.

The incoming president in 1961, John F. Kennedy, shared this reluctance to delve into the civil rights battle. A fierce Cold Warrior, he was more than willing to ignore the concerns of the very African-American voters who helped him win a narrow victory over Richard Nixon the previous year. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, also made sure to push the one true civil rights activist in the administration’s cabinet, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (who actually worked to pass the nation’s first civil rights act during his term as U.S. Senate majority leader) to the wayside.

As both camps struggled with their own strategies and battled with one another, a new group of voices for freedom emerged. Starting in 1959, students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities began conducting sit-ins at local restaurants and stores, demanding to sit and be served alongside whites. These protests began capturing national attention a year later when four students attending North Carolina A&T in Greensboro sat down at a lunch counter in a local Woolworth’s and ordered coffee; 20 more students would come a day later to take their place, launching one of the biggest sit-in protests of the era — and fostered sit-ins by HBCU students in cities such as Nashville and Atlanta.

These students, well-educated, talented, and energetic, were tired of being treated as second-class citizens by Jim Crow segregationists. They were also especially annoyed with the NAACP and Dr. King’s SCLC, which refused to fully support their protests and were unwilling to be the strong grassroots activists these young men and women expected them to be. And they would form their own group, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, to rally their cause. From this group would come a generation of black leaders both legendary and otherwise, including John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, mathematician Bob Moses and (unfortunately) Marion Barry. They were joined by older civil rights leaders such as Ella Baker who were equally ready to take action and were just as frustrated with the reluctance of the NAACP and SCLC to join common cause.

But one established organization was more than willing to join these young protestors. And that was CORE. An offshoot of the international Fellowship of Reconciliation movement, the organization had attempted to rally support for nonviolent protests with such efforts as the Journey of Reconciliation, a bus ride that attempted to test southern compliance to the Morgan decision. But by the 1960s, CORE was in the doldrums. The ouster of its dynamic cofounder, Jim Farmer, along with the unfamiliarity with nonviolent protest and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of alleged communists, forced the group into the wilderness. Having been the pioneer of nonviolent struggle, the emergence of King had stole its thunder; nor was it welcomed by either King’s supporters or national NAACP leaders. But the new, campus-based civil rights activists were more than ready to get any support from any established group. And even before the Greensboro protest, CORE began staging its own sit-ins and nonviolent protests in cities such as Miami.

But CORE was ready to do more, especially after Farmer returned to CORE in 1961 to retake its reigns. A tireless protester, Farmer decided that it was time to dust off one of the organization’s earlier efforts, the Journey of Reconciliation, and do a new series of protest Greyhound rides into southern cities. Calling it the Freedom Ride, Farmer and his team recruited a rainbow coalition of 13 men and women, including SNCC cofounder Lewis, and Jim Peck, a longtime CORE player, to ride on Greyhound and Trailways buses into Mississippi and Alabama. The selection was deliberate. Farmer wanted to present a face of unity, that blacks and whites could live together in brotherhood. He also wanted to make sure that the Freedom Riders were ready for anything. This meant not only mixing northern whites with their black counterparts, but even brought in the young HBCU students who were experienced with — and tired of — segregation.

They took to the road on May 4 of that year — and rode into history. At first, the riders encountered little trouble as they road through Virginia and North Carolina; one of the riders, Joe Perkins, was arrested after sitting at a shoe-shine station designated for whites. But then, in Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis was assaulted after walking into a whites-only waiting room at a Greyhound bus station. By the time the riders arrived in Atlanta, their tour had begun to capture attention and was even a distant thought in the minds of Robert Kennedy, the newly-appointed U.S. Attorney General, and his staff. The ride had also gotten the attention of Alabama’s police officials and the United Klans of America — and they had already begun conspiring to maim CORE’s crew.

When the Greyhound bus carrying some of the Freedom Riders came into Anniston, Ala., the Klan was ready. Aided and abetted by police officers, and Alabama highway patrolmen riding alongside the Freedom Riders on their bus, the Klansmen and their crew attacked the bus, smashing windows and damaging its shell. Unable to get the Riders off the bus so they can beat them, the Klan then firebombed the bus, the pommeled the Riders as they fled out of the flaming wreck. Only the fast work of the legendary Fred Shuttlesworth kept the Riders from facing an even nastier fate.

Their colleagues on the Trailways bus suffered an even worse fate. While they road from Atlanta to Alabama, Klansmen on board the bus began beating up the Riders; Peck, was particularly beaten up, with blood spurting from his face. Once the Riders got into the state capital of Montgomery, the notorious sheriff Bull Connor allowed local Klansmen to suffer even more beatings. In front of CBS newsman Howard K. Smith and other reporters, Klansmen along with other bigots chased down Peck and his colleagues, beating them mercilessly. By the time the day was over, the Riders were either in local hospitals or in Shuttleworth’s home recovering and waiting.

Thanks to Smith’s coverage and that of his fellow reporters, the beatdown of the Riders caught national attention. For the Kennedy administration, the exposure of Jim Crow violence wasn’t what it wanted. More-interested in fighting the Cold War than in dealing with the civil rights struggle, JFK and his brother, Bobby wanted to do anything they can to keep the problem on the hush. Through the administration’s point man, newspaperman-turned-Justice Department official John Seigenthaler, the administration managed to get the Riders out of Montgomery (by plane) into New Orleans, where CORE celebrated the anniversary of the Brown ruling and facing criticism from media players, the administration, and traditional civil rights organizations, wondered what it would do next.

But even as the original Riders, battered and beaten, began recovering from their wounds, new protesters were coming. The leadership of SNCC, including feisty, dynamic Fisk University student Diane Nash, decided to pull together a contingent of students to embark on their own Freedom Ride; Lewis, who had left the original Ride before the Anniston and Montgomery showdowns (in order to win a fellowship) joined them. They didn’t bother waiting for help from King, the NAACP or even on CORE (which was reluctant to undertake another civil rights road trip), and they ignored entreaties from the Kennedy administration (which would rather have seen the civil rights movement disappear altogether). They sent 10 volunteers, including Lewis, to go to Montgomery. But when their bus arrived in Birmingham, police officers stopped the bus from going further; the Riders were then arrested and jailed along with Shuttlesworth (who was detained for helping the Riders make their way). When they finally got into Montgomery, they faced another round of violence from Klansmen, who didn’t discriminate in their beatings; they even mercilessly beat Kennedy administration point man Seigenthaler when he tried to intervene.

Even as the first SNCC riders were being arrested and jailed, SNCC kept sending more Riders. So did CORE, which teamed up with SNCC on the protests. Their efforts, along with the public fascination with the movement and the growing group of collegians and middle-aged civil rights activists ready to join the Riders, finally forced the NAACP and King to offer their support. Together with SNCC and CORE, they formed a coalition that recruited and trained aspiring Riders to be ready for the roughness of Jim Crow injustice.

They had plenty who wanted to join. Some 400 people would join the rides that year, according to historian Raymond Arsenault, the author of the 2006 book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. One-third were southern blacks who grew up with the horrors of state-sanctioned discrimination and wanted to rid the nation of it. They knew that in order to rally their brothers and sisters to change things for the better (and knowing that their elders were not willing to risk their own lives to do so) they had to step up, step out and do something. And they did pay the price. Alabama and Misssissippi officials, ready to defend Jim Crow at any cost, jailed every Freedom Rider who arrived into a bus station.

The Riders didn’t necessarily have public opinion on its side. Middle class whites, in particular, were not all that interested in ending state-sanctioned racial bigotry. As Arsenault pointed out, 64 percent of Americans polled by Gallup who knew of the Rides disapproved of them. Most thought of the Freedom Riders as troublemakers disturbing a status quo that was tolerable (even if they also opposed racism). But the Riders were succeeding. Their example helped foster and energize civil rights activists even in Jim Crow hotbeds such as Neshoba, Miss.; by August, locals were also participating in Freedom Rides, challenging segregationist mythmaking that only outsiders were agitating for the end of the status quo. The Rides would to the first series of voter registration drives, bringing in natives such as Fanny Lou Hamer, whose demand for her Democratic Party affiliate to be seated at the party’s 1964 convention would be the beginning of the end of segregationist political power.

The action on the ground (and the accompanying violence and injustice perpetuated by Jim Crow regimes), along with King’s renewed advocacy, the agitation of SNCC and CORE, and support from presidential aspirants such as New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, also backed the Kennedy administration into a corner. The fact that the protests attracted international attention — and was threatening America’s global standing as the beacon of liberty against the threat of Soviet communism — also caused John and Bobby considerable anguish; that other administration officials, including Seigenthaler and future U.S. senator Harris Wofford, supported the Riders, also meant that the administration could no longer accomodate race-baiting politicians such as Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and his fellow-traveler in the U.S. Senate, James O. Eastland, who held sway in Democratic Party politics. By July, Bobby Kennedy had petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to pass a rule ending separate-but-equal in bus stations and Greyhound rides; by year-end, it became a reality. The federal government was shamed and prodded into expanding its role in ending racial discrimination, a step that would be expanded under the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s less-bigotry-tolerant successor, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

By year-end, the Freeom Rides were done. Struggling financially,CORE suspend the protests and handed off the legal representation of the Riders to the NAACP’s legal arm. But the impact of the Rides reached far beyond that year. It was the Freedom Rides that would help accelerate the plans for the March on Washington two years later, along with King’s I Have a Dream speech. It helped spur such antidiscrimination marches as those in Selma, Ala., and Montgomery. And even as SNCC disappeared into the ether, and CORE became a shell of its former glory, their strong advocacy would ultimately lead to America finally fulfilling its promise of equal legal and social opportunity for all under law; that Riders such as Lewis would go on to prominent political careers further proved the significance of the Rides in fostering servant leaders for social reform.

Five decades later, the Freedom Rides offer important lessons for school reformers, who now face an environment in which their push to overhaul American public education is attracting new voices, yet the think tankers, advocates and social entrepreneurs whose strategies have catalyzed this find themselves at a crossroads. The move by President Barack Obama last month to essentially gut No Child, along with efforts by congressional and Senate Republicans to push for the same now means that federal education policy is less-focused on pushing for systemic reform and holding states and districts accountable for improving teaching and curricula. Reversing this backslide is critical toward continuing school reform’ momentum. It is also critical to get Beltway reformers and social enterepreneurs such as charter school operators to work more-closely with grassroots advocates. And it is important to remind some Beltway reformers that focusing on poor and minority children will not only help all kids, but can even win suppoet from middle class blacks and Latinos, who will make up the majority of all Americans by mid-century.

This means that our new voices for reform, including the growing Parent Power movement must challenge education tradtionalists and political leaders through strong, vocal advocacy. This includes taking to the streets in a proverbial sense, using the Innternet to rally families, challenge failing and mediocre districts and even forcing state and federal leaders to expand choice and pass Parent Trigger laws. Using the courts as tools for reform alongside grassroots advocacy and policymaking is also key; as seen with films such as The Lottery, video and film can also serve well in furthering reform. And the new voices must call out longstanding reformers when they support positions or ideas that will weaken the ultimate goal of overhauling education for all children. This must be dome smartly, since new voices must also think through any flaws in their own efforts; but it should be done.

Fifty years after the first Freedom Riders changed America for the better, school reformers can follow their example. And help give our children schools fit for their futures.

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More on the End of Ed Schools

This week’s This is Dropout Nation report on the continuing problems of America’s ed schools garnered some interesting responses. One of them came from Dimitri Sevastapoulo, a Harris Brown Stevens…

This week’s This is Dropout Nation report on the continuing problems of America’s ed schools garnered some interesting responses. One of them came from Dimitri Sevastapoulo, a Harris Brown Stevens real estate broker who, before going into that arena, taught in New York City public schools, headed up the high school division of the famed Dalton School in New York City, and presided over the board of the Caedmon School, a private Montessori school that his child attends. He notes that a decade ago, when he tried to go back to New York University to complete his master’s degree in education, he was told that his “credits were stale” and had to begin the whole process of getting that degree again.

What he figured out? Writes Sevastapoulo: “A graduate degree in education is an expensive, worthless piece of paper.” More importantly, he notes that “competence in a serious field of study… accountability and dedication are the key ingredients for good teaching.” His points are on the mark.

Meanwhile Devon Skerritt, who manages the volunteer operations at Harvard’s ed school, takes issue with Dropout Nation‘s surmising that ed schools are probably no longer useful. For Skerritt, the idea of eliminating ed schools leads to the bigger question of “how do we create/support strong scholars’ research in ed?”Certainly, this is an important question. After all, ed schools are generally the centers of research in education. At the same time, however, one must remember that education research, like ed school training, isn’t close to being in tip-top shape. As my former Forbes editor, Seth Lubove, noted a decade in his report on the controversy surrounding the Success for All reading program, the education research field is often so incestuous that a supposed peer reviewer can also have a business relationship with the researcher presenting the data (and not recuse themselves in light of the conflict).  The interpretations by researchers can also be so agenda-driven that even if underlying data is solid, it becomes sullied by association. As a result, education research isn’t as exacting as it is in more-rigorous hard- and social science fields.

Education research is getting better. But ed schools haven’t been the ones driving this. The development of Value-Added Assessment, for example, was driven by William Sanders, first while running the University of Tennessee’s assessment center (which was run independent of the education school), and then, when he worked for privately-held software outfit SAS. The pioneering work of Paul Hill, Paul Peterson, Jonah Rockoff, Michael Podgursky and Marguerite Roza have also happened outside of ed school confines. And when one starts to look at the graduation rate and dropout crisis efforts of Robert Balfanz, Jay P. Greene, Christopher Swanson, and Michael Holzman, it slowly becomes clear that ed schools have lagged far behind in developing pioneering research addressing the underlying issues of the nation’s education crisis.

This isn’t to say that ed schools can’t exist in order to have strong research roles. It’s just that they haven’t actually taken up such work. Far too many ed school professors are either too busy maintaining the status quo within their institutions — or trying to make names for themselves as poor man’s Diane Ravitches — than improving the quality of education research conducted within their respective institutions.

Skerritt also notes, rightfully, that there are some ed schools that are doing fantastic work in training teachers and principals. It may be time to follow the path of Abraham Flexner, whose Carnegie Corp.-funded review of medical schools led to improvements in how doctors are selected into med schools, shut down laggard institutions, and spurred innovation and better training throughout the medical field. Ed schools clearly need the same kind of housecleaning. If they don’t change, they should move aside for better institutions for training the teachers our children need for their success in school and in life.

We will talk more about this issue on Wednesday, when Dropout Nation hosts a special podcast on the future of ed schools featuring Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality. He will argue for the existence of ed schools, but also for the full reform of their work in training teachers.

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