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November 20, 2011 standard

Wall Street followers and those with long memories of the leveraged buyout boom of the 1980s will remember Theodore Forstmann as one of the biggest players of his time. Eschewing the notorious Drexel Burnham Lambert and junk bonds, the man who coined the term used by legendary writer Bryan Burrough and John Helyar for their famed book on the RJR Nabisco takeover, Barbarians at the Gate, managed to unlock shareholder value — and then building up firms — with buyouts of such outfits as aircraft maker Gulfstream, sports agency IMG, and what is now Dr. Pepper-Seven Up.

But for more than 123,000 poor and minority children, Forstmann, who died today after a long fight with brain cancer, was the man who helped them escape the worst American public education offers. More of us should follow his example.

Starting in 1993, Forstmann teamed up with WalMart heir John Walton to start the Washington Scholarship Fund, offering scholarships that young men and women in the nation’s capital could use to avoid the failure mills of what was at the time the nation’s worst school district. By 1998, the two men realized that more children outside of the Beltway deserved opportunities to get high-quality teaching and curricula. So they formed the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which is now the nation’s largest privately-funded school choice philanthropy. By the 2011-2012 school year, CSF helped 25,389 children attend high-quality private schools, pulling those kids off the path to poverty and prison. In Philadelphia, 96 percent of CSF students graduated on time, one-third higher than the graduation rate for kids attending the city’s traditional public schools.

The work of CSF in expanding school choice and showing the importance of giving families the power to send their kids to high-quality schools can’t be overstated. Along with the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal Race to the Top effort, and the work of school choice activists such as Howard Fuller and John Norquist in Milwaukee, CSF’s work has helped lead to the expansion of publicly-funded voucher efforts in 13 states. Forstmann’s work has also helped build the groundwork for the Parent Power efforts that are now taking place today; Forstmann, along with Walton, realized that American public education cannot be reformed until families are given their rightful places as lead decision-makers in schools and the learning of their kids. And by being an active player in school reform, Forstmann helped set the standard for today’s philanthropists looking to help all children succeed in school and in life.

Theodore Forstmann’s place as a leading player on Wall Street is well-deserved — and so is his legacy in directly (and indirectly) helping millions of our kids get the education they deserve. He deserves our thanks.

November 9, 2010 standard

Joel Klein wasn’t exactly the natural choice for chancellor of New York City’s gargantuan and stupendously dysfunctional traditional public school system when he got the job in 2002. After all, the former U.S. Assistant Attorney General was better-known for his successful antitrust case against Microsoft in the 1990s than for any forays into education. As it turned out, the school district — which was taken over by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as one of the first major efforts to place school systems under mayoral control — needed someone who wasn’t fully ensconced in the  stale status quo of the traditional education establishment to set it on a course for the better.

Eight years later, as Klein steps down as head of the nation’s largest traditional public school system, one can say he has changed the district’s once-infamous culture of mediocrity, byzantine bureaucracy and shockingly banal corruption. Graduation rates for the district (based on eighth-grade enrollment) have increased from 56 percent for the Class of 2002 to 63 percent for the Class of 2008, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of federal and New York City data. Student achievement levels have progressed steadily even as New York State has revised its own state tests for greater rigor.  The district is still a work in progress; the city’s abysmally low graduation rates for black males (and the New York Post‘s report about the travails of Wayne Knowland (who graduated from Fannie Lou Hamer High School despite his functional illiteracy) shows that there is still more work to be done. But the city is still doing better for its kids than it did nearly a decade ago.

Meanwhile New York City has become the pioneer for concepts that are (sadly) still considered innovative for education. Its development of the ARIS system has given teachers and administrators a tool that can be used for identifying potential dropouts, improving instruction and fostering long-term connections between teachers and their students. The shutdown of the city’s worst dropout factories and their replacement with smaller high schools with new cultures and more-dynamic staff has also shown an alternative to the rather faulty model of school turnaround efforts being advocated by the Obama administration. And Klein’s relentless pursuit of teacher quality reform — including efforts to use student test data in evaluating newly-hired teachers (and keeping laggards from gaining near-lifetime employment through tenure), and the attempt last month to publicly release Value-Added performance data has helped galvanize school reformers and others around dealing with one of the most-crucial steps in stemming the nation’s dropout crisis.

But Klein’s tenure isn’t just notable for its results. It offers some lessons to school reformers everywhere: You can successfully overhaul a traditional school system — and take numerous tough steps — and still be amiable to allies and critics. Traditional districts can be top-notch authorizers of high-quality charter schools — and even play significant roles in fostering their development (and giving families escape hatches from the worst traditional public education offers). And he has proven that education should not be left to teachers, principals and traditional players alone. We will not revolutionize American public education until we create dynamic cultures that embrace the genius within all of our children.

Cathleen Black, who succeeds Klein as chancellor, will have to do as good a job as he has. She has no choice but to succeed. Our kids need her to follow upon Klein’s stellar work revamping the Big Apple’s school system.

Watch this Dropout Nation excerpt of Klein’s speech earlier this year about turning around New York City’s high schools

September 7, 2010 standard

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and D.C.’s embattled top honcho, Adrian Fenty, are often the first to come to mind when it comes to leading mayors on school reform. Yet neither one can claim the slow, steady (and often controversial) success of Chicago’s Richard M. Daley, who has announced today that he will not attempt to extend his 21-year reign as the Second City’s mayor. From his takeover of Chicago’s school district to spawning the careers of Paul Vallas and (now-U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan, Daley is arguably among the most-influential players in shaping the role city leaders in education — and in ending the dominance of defenders of traditional public education on the debate over reforming schools.

Education certainly wasn’t foremost on Daley’s mind back in 1989 when he won the top office his father (and namesake) controlled for two decades. The younger Daley, had parlayed his family ties into a state senate seat and tenure as Cook County’s State’s Attorney, had promised to bring sanity to Chitown’s government structure and improve quality of life in the city after a decade of bureaucratic ineptitude, political sparring and gang activity that made the city seem more like Beirut than the jewel of the American Midwest. Chicago’s dropout factories were, at best, an afterthought for Daley as he tore down public housing that served as feeding grounds for urban decay, brought down crime and revived Chicago neighborhoods in order to lure back middle class families.

But by 1995, Daley realized what colleagues such as John Norquist in Milwaukee understood instinctively: Cities cannot revive themselves until their school systems are given a thorough overhaul. A system that commits educational malpractice on its poorest students cannot be trusted by wealthier citizens (who can avail themselves of what they often mistakenly think are better options). So Daley took full control of Chicago Public Schools and, through the work of Vallas and successor Duncan, reform the district. In time, Chicago would become a hub of school reform, with the city fully embracing such innovations as charter schools while shutting down the city’s longstanding dropout factories.

The results can be seen in graduation rates that have increased from an abysmal 39 percent for the Class of 2005 to a (less-atrocious) 54 percent for its class of 2008. But Chicago, like other major cities, has plenty of ways to go before its traditional school district is providing every child a high-quality education. As the Consortium on Chicago School Research has pointed out, the city’s high school graduates struggle mightily when it comes to college completion; the city is still a long way from overcoming race-, ethnic- and gender-based achievement gaps. Daley has to own his failures as much as he must own his successes. At the same time, Daley’s successes — and continuing struggles — on the education front exemplify the need to address the systemic problems within American public education with strong reform. No one district alone can fully escape a system in which teachers are poorly trained, compensation rewards low quality, teachers and administrators are insulated from the consequences of their failures, and curricula is watered down to useless.

But the greater impact of Daley’s reign on the educational landscape comes not in graduationrates or in test scores, but in reshaping the conversation about what must be done to improve education for all children — especially in our biggest cities. Until Daley, Norquist and Boston’s Thomas Mennino began taking over districts and launching school voucher plans, few believed that mayors had any place at the table of educational decision-making. Most held on to the thinking (fostered by the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century), that schools are somehow apolitical organizations that should remain separate from city governance. But it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that education is as political as any other part of the public sector. More importantly, the traditional district model — with school boards beholden to locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, and superintendents who are either too cozy with unions and fellow bureaucrats or lack political backing for their work — has largely proven to be a failure for kids and cities alike. 

By expending his political capital on school reform, and insulating his CEOs from opponents of reform, Daley proved that mayoral control is one possible tool in reforming public education. More importantly, Daley has forced other mayors to take on education as key elements of their own political agendas. Without Daley, there is no Bloomberg, no Fenty, no Bart Peterson, and no systemic reform.

Daley will have an even greater impact on education thanks to the work of Vallas (whose work in fostering school reform in New Orleans may serve as a model for other cities to follow) and Duncan, who is shaking up American public education through such efforts as Race to the Top. Although the results of their work are incomplete, they are forcing the NEA, the AFT and other defenders of traditional public education practices to step back and at least consider that their tried-and-true formulas are little more than just failures in bottles.

There is no question that Daley probably overstayed his welcome as Chicago’s mayor. Even before his announcement, the chances of him winning another term were more than unlikely (even if a credible opponent has yet to emerge). But Daley has certainly done as much to reshape the conversation about American public education as he has left his mark on life in the Second City.

June 22, 2010 standard

Photo courtesy of PopTech

Steve Barr probably didn’t think he was taking a new, grassroots-centered approach to school reform when he started the Green Dot collection of charter schools back in 1999. A decade later, before stepping down as chairman of the charter school operator, Barr managed to rally the city’s Latino parents to revolt against the systemic incompetence of the Los Angeles Unified School District, took control of one of the district’s dropout factories, and formed a charter school in New York City in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers that broke with traditional union work rules. He also proved that the poorest Latino children — many of whose parents are immigrants legal and otherwise — can achieve academic success, even if the Heather Mac Donalds of the world choose to think otherwise.

Barr took some time during a drive from L.A. to San Francisco to offer his thoughts on school reform, working in the grassroots on improving education, and the disconnect between Beltway-based reformers and those who work on the ground. Read, think and consider.

What is the one surprising thing you have learned during your work starting up Green Dot? How did that affect your own approach to school reform and civil rights?

The most surprising is a daily surprise. You have to challenge all preconceptions. People don’t like to talk about it, but [those preconceptions] come down to race and politics. I have yet to meet a group of people who don’t care about the conditions of education. What’s surprising to me is no matter where you from, who you are, is how intensively interested people who are about education because they love their own kids. But if you listen to people, they think that only certain people care about education. They say “you only succeed because you get only these kind of children or they have these kind of parents.

What people don’t realize is how bizarre that statement is. There are only one or two percent of people out there who don’t care about kids. But that’s not most people. Out of the 8,000 kids we have [at Green Dot], only a dozen of them are white.

When I started Green Dot, I didn’t have kids. I wasn’t married. I wasn’t even close to being married. Now that I have kids and I’m married, I get it more. I get why [Green Dot’s parents and others] are intensely interested in education. Every day, I find it reassuring that people care about improving education. It gives me hope.

Is there a disconnect between school reformers inside the Beltway and community activists – and why does it exist (if it does)?

I think it is hard to stay connected in Washington. This is why I’m loathe to go to Washington. It’s a company town. It is also an incredibly segregated town. Once you are there, it is hard to stay connected. It is also an elite class of folks. It doesn’t mean you can’t work with folks. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any good work done. It’s just that it is hard to make the connection between them and what is done out here.

How can school reformers and grassroots activists work together to improving education for poor Latino and black children?

If you truly want to improve education for the urban poor, you have to truly immerse themselves in their communities. You have to approach it with an open mind. When we open a school, we do a lot of outreach. When I go into an African-American church, I have to realize that they have been lied to by people for a lot of years. It means I have to come back there again and again and build trust. The first time, it may not go well. But that’s the work. You have to understand where people come from. Over time, you build trust with them. They will become reformers as well.

March 30, 2010 standard

Jaime Escalante exemplified what teaching should be and how any highly-effective teacher who cares about the lives of children can help kids succeed in school and life. His career showed how one man can make a difference, even when bureaucratic incompetence and even his one’s own colleagues won’t give support. And he is one reason why each of us must do better to improve the quality of education for every child, wherever they are, whoever they be, no matter their color or status at birth.

Watch this quick documentary from the Futures Channel and take his lessons to heart.

Rest In Peace, Mr. Escalante. Hope his family and friends finds peace in this time. And God Bless.