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August 31, 2011 standard

School reform in L.A. Unified may be as burned out as Garfield High's famed auditorium. Photo courtesy of The Eastsider L.A.

When I wrote two years ago about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s plan to hand over 200 of its traditional public schools into charter school operators and grassroots groups, I noted that the proverbial rubber still had to meet the road. After all, L.A. Unified had stood so stubbornly against reform that even famed Garfield High School teacher Jaime Escalante was forced to flee the district’s employ. And the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels local is notorious for getting its way and keeping the status quo quite ante.

So it wasn’t that shocking when L.A. Unified’s board voted yesterday to essentially put the kibosh on that reform effort, giving the AFT first dibs on taking over those schools. This move, which came weeks after otherwise reform-minded Superintendent John Deasy rejected one group’s choice to run its school, simply proves that the district is better at talking about change than actually doing it. All but 11 of the 51 schools spun out by L.A. Unified in the past two years have been handed over to groups led by the AFT’s rank-and-file. Given that the AFT now controls the majority of seats on the district’s board after four years of control by a group backed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, this was also predictable.

But the move also proved the reality that L.A. Unified, in its current form, is nearly impervious to system reform. Because the district is spread across much of L.A. County, it is difficult for Villaraigosa or his counterparts to mount a sustained reform campaign — especially when the AFT has the financial wherewithal (and the benefit of having elections held during periods when citizens aren’t watching) to get its way. Former L.A. Unified board member Caprice Young learned this the hard way back in 2003 when she lost her bid for re-election after the AFT poured $740,000 (and plenty of rumor-mongering) into the campaign of Jon Lauritzen (who died four years later). And Villaraigosa learned this lesson in March when Bennett Kayser, a longtime AFT player, narrowly beat the mayor’s chosen candidate, Luis Sanchez (and helped the union regain control) in one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory

Beyond the board itself, L.A. Unified’s sclerotic  bureaucracy — most of whom are drawn from the district’s mediocre teaching corps — functions to keep things as is. Although the district has managed to follow through on some critical curriculum reforms and is pushing through with efforts to use Value-Added data in measuring school performance, the district still remains behind path-breaking districts such as New York City and D.C. Public Schools. What results is that reform-minded superintendents such as Deasy simply end up being wardens minding the proverbial asylum, but never really in charge.

This isn’t to say that reform can’t possibly happen. As is, the district is authorizing more new charter schools and is making some small gains in student achievement. But Deasy and Villaraigosa can’t get more done until the traditional district model is broken apart.

The first step should start with Villaraigosa proposing to California’s state legislature to break up the district into smaller districts, with the mayors in each one having sole control of the systems. While the conditions for reform at the state level aren’t exactly as good as they were under Arnold Schwarzenegger, the proposal would finally force Arnold’s successor (and predecessor), Jerry Brown, to finally take a public stand on systemic reform. For Villaraigosa, a former state assembly speaker who may have his eye on returning to Sacramento, this move would also have the added benefit of rallying centrist and liberal Democrat reformers desperate to toss Brown out of office to the mayor’s side.

If the state legislature and Brown give their blessing, the move would finally place full responsibility for education in the hands of the officials who should be most-concerned about the impact of schools on economies and communities. Villaraigosa and other mayors should then embrace the Hollywood Model of Education. This could include taking on the model of school governance successfully being used in New Orleans and being used by Michigan in reforming Detroit’s failing traditional district. It could even involve a modified form of the school spin-off plan L.A. Unified put into place a year ago. Anything would be better for L.A.’s kids than what the AFT and its allies controlling the district intend to wrought in the coming years.

August 22, 2011 standard

Today’s announcement that Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman has been sacked as superintendent isn’t surprising. Her tenure has been wracked with enmity from everyone in the City of Brotherly Love — especially after last year, when she blocked the release of salary data on district officials. The fact that Ackerman accepted a four percent raise in spite of the district’s perilous financial state proved that she didn’t have the best interests of students and taxpayers in mind. And with just 42 percent of the district’s 258 schools making Adequate Yearly Progress this year, she also wasn’t succeeding in her foremost job of turning around its teaching and curricula.

Ackerman walks away with a sweet $905,000 golden parachute. She also leaves behind the same kind of acrimony she has engendered during a failed stint in Washington, D.C., and more-successful effort in San Francisco. Some other district will her again. Her temporary replacement, current deputy superintendent and former NBA and University of Pennsylvania executive Leroy Nunery, couldn’t do much worse. But the real question is whether Pennsylvania state officials, who have controlled the district for the past decade, should try a different school reform. It is time for the state to follow the New Orleans model and get rid of the traditional district bureaucracy.

Since the state took over Philadelphia a decade ago, the district has gone through an array of overhauls, including the hand-off of school operations to outfits such as Edison Schools, and even the hard work of reformers such as Paul Vallas (who began Chicago’s successful school reform effort and has just finished up a successful stint overseeing the revamp of New Orleans’ school system). But the district still remains one giant dropout factory; just 65 percent of the city’s Class of 2010 were promoted from 8th grade to 12th grade versus 74 percent of students from the graduating class nine years ago, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data reported to the U.S. Department of Education. In short, Philly hasn’t improved under state control.

There are plenty of reasons why Philly continues its educational malpractice against children.One lies with the reality that none of the reforms have dealt with the bureaucracy at the heart of the district. Shuffling superintendents in and out of leadership isn’t a school reform strategy. Neither is contracting out school operations. The very fact that state education departments are simply not equipped to operate or directly oversee school districts is another; as seen across the river in New Jersey, where the state has taken over districts such as Jersey City with little success, taking over a district doesn’t matter if you don’t actually weed out incompetents from the highly talented.

Then there is is the fact that the district’s contract with the AFT local, along with state rules restricting robust teacher performance management, makes it difficult to address the low quality of instruction that is an underlying cause of Philadelphia’s problems. Student test data is “not among the recommended criteria” for evaluating teachers, essentially preventing the district from rewarding and keeping high-quality teachers and ditching those who can’t make it in the classroom. The AFT has also fought hard to keep its privileges. It successfully blocked the district from sheltering its Promise Academies from revere-seniority layoff rules that force it to send less-senior teachers onto the unemployment line regardless of their success in improving student achievement.

Pennsylvania state officials can’t continue this bungling. It needs to admit that the traditional district model is a failure and should implement a version of the Hollywood Model of Education championed by Dropout Nation. Pennsylvania should follow the example of Louisiana, which essentially transformed New Orleans’ traditional public schools into charters. This could include allowing groups of parents, along with charter management organizations and community nonprofits to take control of the schools. Requiring all the schools to create boards of directors with parents in majority control also makes sense and should be done. The state should also pass a new law allowing schools in Philadelphia, along with those in the rest of the state, to use student test score data in teacher evaluations; this should be part of an omnibus teacher quality reform law that includes addressing the state’s ed schools.

Ultimately, Pennsylvania can’t simply continue with the status quo in Philly. The state must embrace the Hollywood Model of Education and move toward a better way to provide high-quality education for all of the city’s children.

August 18, 2011 standard

When it comes to school reform-minded governors, once and future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber would not come to mind. During the eight years he served in Salem from 1995 to 2003, he was far-less aggressive on education than contemporaries such as Roy Barnes in Georgia, future President George W. Bush (then in Texas), and Dubya’s brother, Jeb. Nor did he offer much more when he successfully ran for a return to office last year. Even the move last year by the NEA’s Beaver State affiliate to endorse his rival in the Democratic primary had more to do with his proposal to fund schools based on performance — a novel concept that has been used unsuccessfully at the higher-ed level because it never involves disturbing existing funds — than with any pioneering efforts. Declared Oregonian columnist Steve Duin last year after reading one of Kitzhaber’s policy statements: “education reform isn’t part of his learning curve or his agenda.”

But this year, Kitzhaber may have actually set in motion what could be one of the most-important reform efforts that states should undertake: Reforming how states govern their K-12 schools and universities. Whether or not the effort is successful in the long run is a different story. But it does show reform-minded governors, including Chris Christie in New Jersey and even Mitch Daniels (now serving out his last years in Indiana), what they can and should do in order to sustain their reforms.

As Dropout Nation noted earlier this week, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative has definitely set in motion a series of reforms that have helped weaken the influence of teachers unions, push states (including those that never won federal money) to require the use of student performance data (including test score growth) in teacher evaluations, put more teachers under private sector-style performance management, and fostered the expansion of school choice. The effort, along with the school accountability measures enacted as part of the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, have also signaled the long-running shift of control of education from school districts (who were always mere tools of state governments) to the state level.

Yet states have not taken the opportunities given to them by Race to the Top and No Child to overhaul the byzantine structures of governance crafted a century ago by progressive reformers fearful of centralized power. Only 12 states allow for the governor to appoint chief state school officers, and only 33 governors have the power to appoint the majority or all of the members of state boards of education. In states such as California and Indiana, K-12 schools and universities are governed by an unwieldy array of boards, superintendents, university presidents, and bureaucracies, each competing to justify their existence. In many states, the teacher licensing agencies are separated from state departments of education, even though the functions should be under one roof; policymaking over matters such as setting cut scores on standardized tests end up being handled by different boards. And the shamble of results, especially when it comes to school reform, can be seen in muddied policies, turf-battles over policymaking, and stalled efforts on any sort of reform (including anything involving developing school data systems).

Reform-minded governors could use school reform as opportunities to reshape how schools are governed. But most have not. During his first campaign for Indiana governor, Daniels proposed to make the state education superintendent an appointed office, but never followed through on that plan; given the legacy of legendary predecessor Paul McNutt, who ramrodded a series to consolidations during the Great Depression (and Daniels’ own efforts on that front), it may not have even been possible. Earlier this year, Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire offered up a ham-fisted plan to combine all state education agencies into one mega-operation; that plan didn’t go anywhere. Meanwhile governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin have simply abdicated their responsibilities on the education front.

Until July, the most-successful move in that direction was by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who convinced the legislature to expand the powers of the state’s emergency financial managers taking over school districts such as Detroit; but that move is still just whittling around the edges of massive, often-incompetent bureaucracies. Still, too few governors have proven willing to use their political capital to battle for the needed overhauls of how schools are governed. And these are the kind of battles that must come — especially in states that won Race to the Top dollars — in order to sustain reform.

Turning symbolism into reality: Kitzhaber education adviser Ben Cannon. Photo courtesy of the Oregonian.

But now comes Kitzhaber, who managed to work with a Democrat-controlled senate and a house equally split between the two major parties to successfully pass a law creating a new board of education that will control all of the elementary, secondary and postsecondary system. Kitzhaber and his successors would be able to appoint every member of that agency. The new law also ends the election of state school superintendents, merging that role into the governor’s job. As a result, by 2014, Kitzhaber (or whoever succeeds him in the governor’s office) will also directly run the state’s public school and education finance systems.

Making the governor the chief state schools officer is certainly symbolic; the real work will be done by whoever Kitzhaber or his successor appoints as his second-in-command in charge of education. This is where the proverbial devil is in the details of policymaking and executing.

Kitzhaber will have to do more than just appoint teacher-turned-state legislator Ben Cannon (who has been a player in pushing through the governor’s reform agenda) as his education adviser. He will need to follow the step taken by Bill Haslam in Tennessee and appoint a strong, thoughtful, nationally-known school reformer to be the chief agitator for reform. This reformer, along with Cannon, will have to play good cop-bad cop in order to get things done. Kitzhaber will have to also keep his Spitzer-like reputation in check; he can’t afford to be an Oregon version of Adrian Fenty, behaving arrogantly when he should play nice; he should also continue to stare down the NEA in order to succeed. And Kitzhaber must address the state’s teacher quality issues. Two of the Beaver State’s ed schools have already been criticized by the National Council on Teacher Quality for their lackluster efforts in training aspiring teachers; the fact that NCTQ has had to filed open records requests just to get other ed schools in the state to cooperate with its national evaluation effort also doesn’t look good. Kitzhaber should put public pressure on the ed schools to cooperate fully, and shape up their offerings.

But the move in Oregon is symbolism with substance. It signals what should always be the case in every state: That governors should be responsible for the direction of education in their states. Given that the increasingly knowledge-based economy makes high-quality critical even for blue-collar jobs and long-term economic growth, governors should be actively working to overhaul schools. Every governor should look at Kitzhaber’s effort and launch their own campaigns to overhaul how their states govern schools. Given the waning influence of NEA and AFT affiliates in many states — and the budget-cutting tools states have at their disposal to reduce opposition from suburban districts — the time is now.

June 21, 2011 standard

Photo courtesy of Vice

Earlier this year, Detroit Public Schools made an important step towards moving away from the failed model of the traditional public school district when it announced that it would convert 41 of its failing traditional schools into charters.  But since then, as the district’s financial overlord, Robert Bobb, handed over his job over to former General Motors executive Roy Roberts, the district has unfortunately stepped away from that sensible effort, handing off just five schools to charter school operators. Meanwhile the district still plans to shut down 20 of its schools, scaling back from an earlier plan to shut down as many as 71 of them.

But now, with yesterday’s announcement by Roberts and Gov. Rick Snyder that the worst-performing of Detroit’s traditional schools will be taken over by a state agency similar to the Recovery School District in Louisiana that has spurred reform in post-Katrina era New Orleans, there is a possibility that the Motor City can become the next sterling example of how to overhaul the worst that American public education offers. But Roberts and Snyder will have to actually do more than simply do a few quick fixes. More importantly, they must also be aggressive — both in timeline and in efforts — in order for their move to be a success.

Under the Snyder-Roberts plan, a state-controlled agency run by Roberts in partnership with Eastern Michigan University will take over 45 of Detroit’s failure factories, and then begin their overhaul. Under the model, students would attend school for 212 days instead of the traditional 180-day calendar, while principals would be given authority to hire and fire teachers. If a school gets back into shape within five years, a school’s principal (after consulting with a parent’s advisory council) can choose to remain under state oversight, transfer back to the Detroit district or spin off and become a charter school.

The concept sounds good. There is even the possibility that this new agency could bring in high-quality charter school operators to launch new schools, a move that could help give families more high-quality school options. By moving these schools away from the management of the spectacularly failing Detroit district and from under the district’s collective bargaining agreement with its American Federation of Teachers local, there is an opportunity to actually undertake the kind of radical overhauls — including the use of value-added data in managing teacher performance and assignment — that will be needed to give Motown kids greater opportunities for high-quality education. In short, the new agency could actually replicate the success of the RSD in New Orleans.

But the plan, as currently envisioned, is incomplete. Given that far too many children in the Motor City are subjected to dropout factories and worse, that just one percent of failing schools are successfully overhauled within a decade, and the failed history of state takeovers of traditional schools, incomplete is not good enough.

For one, longer school years and school days are not school reform solutions in and of themselves; the district still needs to address such matters as the amount of time teachers actually spend teaching students. Given the dearth of high-quality school leadership within the Detroit system, simply handing management power to principals is also no panacea. The new agency could solve that problem by teaming up with school reform outfits such as The New Teacher Project and the Broad Foundation to develop a corps of top-flight school principals. But Snyder and Roberts haven’t announced whether or not they have moved in that direction.

Let’s not forget the matter of improving the quality of instruction in these schools; just moving laggard instructors from non-management by the Detroit district to the school level won’t actually lead to improving student achievement. Whether Eastern Michigan’s ed school can actually take on the challenge of improving the quality of instruction in those schools remains to be seen. There is also no reason why Detroit should wait until the 2012-2013 school year to begin transferring those schools. In fact, Detroit could make the first step today by creating a separate division of the traditional district that replicates what is going to happen by next year.

Then there is the matter of Parent Power. Giving school-level parent councils a consulting role in the operations of the school isn’t enough. If anything, each of the schools under the Snyder-Roberts plan should have a board of directors with parents holding lead roles in governance and operations. The plan should also allow some form of Parent Trigger, giving the majority of parents the ability to push for more-radical measures if school performance doesn’t improve in any meaningful way.

The move by Snyder and Roberts is certainly worth watching and considering. It is an important step away from a traditional district model that has helped foster the kind of mediocrity in instruction, curricula and leadership that are behind the nation’s education crisis.


June 7, 2011 standard

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Monday’s New York Times report on the procurement activities of the charter schools run by the Cosmos Foundation, an organization connected to the Turkey-based religious movement led by Fethullah Gulen hits upon the issues of financial management discussed yesterday on Dropout Nation in its analysis of the similar problems faced by charter schools and for-profits colleges. And as that analysis pointed out, it is critical for the movement to think and act critically on ensuring that those issues are addressed both on the operational, communications and advocacy fronts.

The  issues regarding Cosmos in many ways seem to be much ado about not much: It has a penchant for using the H1-B visa system, bringing over teachers from Turkey and other countries with low credentials; but given that the nation’s credentialing system for teachers is rather meaningless in terms of ensuring teacher quality, the critique doesn’t stand scrutiny. And while the questions surrounding Cosmos’ contracting practices (i.e. favoring Gulen-connected vendors over outsiders) deserve a deeper investigation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote the piece didn’t even do something as simple as look at Cosmos’ filings with the Internal Revenue Service, which would shed some light on its fiscal activities. Essentially, the piece argues that charters aren’t subjected to enough scrutiny, an line of argument that has some factual basis; but it only does a good job of offering smoke and whispers instead of strong, thoughtful investigative journalism.

Yet the story and the polemic attacks against charters that will be spurred from this is once again proof that it doesn’t take a well-researched study or report to actually spur backlash against a sector or movement. Again, as the for-profit college sector has learned with last year’s release of the Government Accountability Office’s spectacularly inaccurate and incredible report on the sector, in education, bad studies and thinly-reported stories last forever and do even more damage than the verifiable facts themselves. Add in the nativist sentiment that has resurged in the last six years (a particular matter given Cosmos’ connections to the Gulen movement) and you have even more problems.

Given this reality, along with the real issues of quality and financial management that charters do face, the fact that few people can accurately describe what a charter school is, and the willingness of status quo defenders to play fast-and-loose with everything, charter advocates must continually push for improving teacher and curriculum quality, and more-strongly police its own ranks. This may even include creating standards and procedures for contracting and procuring services — rules that can easily be picked up from the private sector, particularly in the healthcare field — that would assure taxpayers that there’s no funny business going on.

This is not just true for the charter school movement. As companies such as News Corp. move into the education arena, they will face the anti-intellectually-driven skepticism of education traditionalists, who have little knowledge of economics and even less willingness to tolerate outsiders coming onto their playground. (Education Sector Managing Director Bill Tucker makes this point in the comment section of yesterday’s report.) Corporate education providers will also have to make sure that the quality of what they offer is better than what education traditionalists will tout, as well as team up with reformers and grassroots activists to push the compelling vision of reforming American public education. They must: The long knives are already out.

Update: The Cosmos Foundation issued a response to the Times story.


June 6, 2011 standard

If you are a charter school operator or supporter, you should take a hard look at the two year-long effort by the Obama administration, Sen. Tom Harkin and organizations such as the Center for American Progress to crack down on the expansion of the for-profit college sector (a subject on which I have reported this month for Organization Trends). Why? Because many of the same issues of quality and financial management of government funding (including Pell Grants and federally-backed student loans) could also become an issue for public charter schools, which, like for-profits (and their nonprofit counterparts), are publicly-financed and yet managed by an array of nonprofit and corporate organizations.

Certainly the sectors are different. The charter school movement is still largely one in which the presence of the corporate sector is limited (and mostly to the role of donors and supporters), while the for-profit college sector is largely a corporate arena with publicly-traded corporations controlling 40 percent of those career-oriented colleges. Charters are also largely considered to be godsends for poor and minority communities scourged by the presence of failure factories; on the other hand, for-profits, which serve the aspiring collegians in those very communities, are considered predatory because of the nature of how they earn money (student loans and Pell Grants) and the reality that they account for 44 percent of defaults while only serving seven percent of all collegians. This is probably why the very groups backing charters (including the Obama administration and Center for American Progress) are, ironically, also the most-virulent foes of for-profits.

But both charter schools and for-profits are new, innovative entrants into their respective areas of American public education and higher education. And charters share similar vulnerabilities as for-profits on the quality and financial management fronts. Over the past few years, status-quo defenders — including Diane Ravitch — have touted out the report by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Options, arguing that it proves that charters are no better than traditional public schools. The fact that the CREDO study is flawed because it matches individual charter schools to groups of traditional public school students (along with the reality that the study is really a series of reports that shows the wide differences in charter school oversight in 15 states and the District of Columbia) has not stopped charter school opponents from using it as one of their most-forceful weapons in their rhetorical campaign. As the for-profit college sector has learned with last year’s release of the Government Accountability Office’s spectacularly inaccurate and incredible report on the sector, in education, bad studies last forever and do even more damage than the verifiable facts themselves.

While the objective data on charters is mostly favorable, it isn’t exactly all positive. While charter schools have proven to do a better job than their traditional counterparts in improving student achievement (including college attendance and completion), there are still far too many operators who are performing no better than traditional dropout factories and failure mills. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also pointed out earlier this year in its study of failing schools, few laggard charters are turned around and even fewer are shut down; this betrays the argument made by supporters that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down. And as exemplified today by a report released by the Cato Institute, the stakeholders who help support charters — including philanthropies — are not doing a good enough job of picking and supporting high-quality charter operators.

Meanwhile the charter school movement is littered with stories of operators that have woefully managed their financial operations, and ultimately, the taxpayer dollars with which they are trusted. While few have been as badly operated as the Flanner House Higher Learning Center in Indianapolis, which was shut down in 2006 after city officials uncovered evidence of inflated attendance records and financial mismanagement, there are still other charters struggling with lax financial controls and the kind of woeful back-office activities that are pervasive in traditional districts.

These realities, along with the fact that just 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, the continued opposition to charters among old-school civil rights groups such as the NAACP, and the demonstrable evidence that players on the status quo side are more than willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship, means that charters find themselves just as vulnerable to mudslinging as their peers in the for-profit sector. Add in the real issues of quality that charters do actually face, and all the sudden, a sector that currently finds favor in federal education policy can suddenly find itself to be whipping boys for politicians and activists. At least in the case of charters, the failures of traditional public education are on full display; but it’s even harder to shut down a school district than it is to close a lot of charters. And as proven in Indiana two years ago when the then-Democratic majority controlling the state House of Representatives attempted to starve funding for charters, the threats to the movement (and to school reform) are still real.

So the charter school movement must take some critical steps that for-profits hadn’t done until late in the game. It starts with pushing for laws at the state level that allow for academically- and financially-failing charters to be shut down more-quickly. The sector must also engage in more-stringent self-policing, publicly and privately shame laggards (and their authorizers) to either turn things around or shut their doors. The movement must also clearly highlight examples of high-quality charters — including KIPP and Green Dot — follow their models of success and develop new ones that bolster quality. Given that most nonprofits are terrible at financial management and human resources activities, the movement should look toward the private sector for models of better practices; this includes even embracing outsourcing of operations that really shouldn’t be handled by school administrators in the first place. And boosting funding from the philanthropic center — and weaning away from heavy dependence on taxpayer funding — could also be helpful.

The charter school movement must also step up its game on the public relations front. This goes beyond basic explanations of what charters do. It includes painting portraits of what charters are doing for their students — including testimonials from those who attend them. This means actually putting the kids and their teachers front and center in campaigns, traditional and viral, that make stronger cases for why charters (and school choice) means brighter futures for children, their families and the communities in which they live. This also means building stronger ties with communities and grassroots activists, a problem that continues to plague the entire school reform movement even as parents agitate for the same reforms the movement’s activists seek.

At this moment, the charter school movement doesn’t face the same challenges as for-profit colleges; the for-profit sector (along with the rest of higher education) continues to do a poor job on improving course quality. But the favor charters find now may not remain. So charters, along with the rest of the school reform movement, must get to work on addressing the real challenges facing their schools and beating back foes who want to relegate charters to the ashbin of history.