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August 21, 2015 standard

Before your editor tears apart the problematic thinking behind the latest version of the Center for Education Reform’s so-called Parent Power Index, let’s give the organization credit for at least providing a measure of which states are expanding opportunities for high-quality education. At the very least, reformers and Parent Power activists should be disturbed that only Indiana earned CER’s top rank, and that only four other states — Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and Utah — have (along with the District of Columbia) earned a B rating for addressing school choice, teacher quality reforms, and data transparency. Sure, CER doesn’t factor in matters such as transportation and other infrastructural issues that can make choice more illusory than real. But for shedding that light alone, CER deserves some praise.

At the same time, the praise for CER should only be faint. Why? Because the outfit, like so many Beltway-oriented reformers, is clinging to a limited notion of the role families should play in education decision-making at a time when parents are demanding to be lead decisionmakers in how schools and operators serve their children. For all of CER’s talk about Parent Power, it doesn’t understand that it means more than just choosing schools.

The biggest oversight of CER’s reform comes in its failure to rank states on how they have passed and implemented Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over failing schools as well as gives them the ability to negotiate with districts on how those schools will be overhauled. The outfit could have easily looked at the laws on the books; after all, only seven states have Parent Trigger laws in place. It could have also talked to Parent Power activists on the ground — from Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union to Parent Revolution’s Gabe Rose — about the efficacy of the provisions in each state. Rating states on this aspect of Parent Power alone would have been quite revealing about how far we have to go to provide families real decisionmaking power in education.

Another oversight comes in the failure to rank states on whether families have strong roles in shaping education decisions within the school systems that serve their children. Given that both traditional districts and charter schools are public schools and serve the vast majority of school-aged children, ranking them on such matters as whether parents have seats on oversight boards for individual schools is important to ask. Even ranking states on the number of education lawsuits filed by families to challenge the array of near-lifetime job protections and teacher dismissal policies that harm children would have been good to determine.

I can imagine CER President Kara Kerwin and the outfit’s founder, Jeanne Allen, asking why this should have been considered. Here’s the answer: Because Parent Power isn’t just about school choice.

This is clear in Anaheim, Calif., where families of children attending Palm Lane Elementary are using the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law to take over the seize control of the failure mill from the traditional district there. The families, with help from former California Sen. Gloria Romero, filed suit in April after the Anaheim City School District rejected their Parent Trigger petition. Last month, Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks concluded that the district’s process for vetting the Palm Lane petition was “unreasonable, unfair, and incomplete” and gave families the green-light to proceed with the takeover. [The Anaheim district has filed an appeal.] The efforts of the Palm Lane parents, along with those in Adelanto, Calif., and in Los Angeles (where parents have either successfully taken over schools or forced districts to negotiate over much-needed reforms) show the desire families have to take the lead in shaping curricula and instruction for their kids.

This is also clear in New Orleans, La., where families are as frustrated as they are pleased by the expansion of school choice and overhaul of public education that has happened in the decade since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly those families are happy that the reforms have improved student achievement. But the reality that many kids must travel as long as two hours away from home in order to attend school (often on inefficient public transit) has also put a strain on the Crescent City’s poorest families, who, like middle-class households, want high-quality schools within their own neighborhoods. The fact that the reforms — including the shutdown of tdistrict schools that were as much community institutions as they were failure mills — were implemented without the input of families is also upsetting. What they want and deserve is real decisionmaking that goes beyond simply choosing between mediocre and high-quality schools.

Meanwhile the push for families as real decisionmakers in education can be seen in New York City, where Mona Davids and the New York City Parents Union has pushed for families to have real power in education. This includes the Vergara suit it filed last year to abolish New York State’s teacher dismissal and reverse-seniority layoff rules, as well as taking advantage of Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio’s poor relations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Senate Republicans by pushing for mayoral control to be extended for only another year. The parents union, along with the parent empowerment efforts of StudentsFirst’s New York affiliate (which is helping families in the Big Apple’s traditional district fight for school libraries as well as lobby for teacher quality and other reforms), is actively helping families do more than just have a voice.

What is clear from all three situations is that families aren’t simply satisfied with passive roles in education decisionmaking. Especially for families from poor and minority households, the ones whose children have been afflicted the most by the nation’s education crisis and who have often been shunted aside in school decisions, they are no longer interested in just hoping that school operators, be they traditional districts or charters, will do the best by their kin. Certainly expanding choice is important. But for these families, it isn’t enough. they want to play more-prominent roles in shaping the curricula, instruction, and school cultures in which their children will be immersed for nearly all of their youth.

For Black, Latino, and American Indian families, in particular, being lead decisionmakers in education allows them to transform cultures in existing schools in order to provide both high-quality education and environments in which their cultures are respected. For their children, the ability to see peers and other adults who look like them striving and succeeding is a key to building their self-esteem, especially as they will be adults in economic and social circles in which being black is wrongly-considered inferior. This need for cultures that reaffirm the self-worth of poor and minority children (and ultimately, allow for them and their communities gain the knowledge needed to determine their own destinies) is why historically black colleges and universities, along with other minority-serving higher ed institutions, still exist. It is also why charters such as Cesar Chavez in Washington, D.C., have emerged within the past two decades.

This is more than just a narrow vision of the role of families as merely being able to move their kids out of failure mills and dropout factories. This is an ethos that embraces the concept of families choosing the very structure of education for the children they love, as well as the ability to advance and sustain reforms directly within their communities and the contexts in which they live. For many of these families, this starts with taking over the traditional district school within their own neighborhoods — and that means being able to utilize Parent Trigger laws that allow them to do so.

Even if school choice fully flourishes, families are going to want real choices in their own communities. As Center for Reinventing Public Education noted in its series of reports on school choice in Detroit, New Orleans and other cities, the lack of robust transportation options (along with the lack of data infrastructure needed for shopping for schools) can often make choice illusory. Single-parent households, in particular, have to also think about childcare, especially since they must pick up their kids from school and daycare. It just makes sense for families to take charge of neighborhood schools from central bureaucracies and teachers’ union affiliates distant from their concerns for their children, or at the very least, use Parent Trigger laws to become lead decision-makers in the school with the district paying heed.

Then there is this other reality: That systemic reform, and ultimately, the mission of building brighter futures for all children, cannot be sustained without mothers and fathers in the lead. As the last three decades of school reform has shown, the most-successful efforts have been — and continue to be — done by parents and others who didn’t know much about education, but were spurred to take action by moral, social, and economic concerns for the futures of their children. From Virginia Walden Ford’s work in D.C., to those of Samuel in Connecticut, to the Parent Trigger actions of families throughout the country, it is these impromptu leaders who have done the work of jump-starting and sustaining reform that Beltway and operator-oriented reformers, often more-concerned about policy and management than with rallying critical support from people on the ground, almost never do.

This empowerment goes beyond overhauling American public education. When families know that they can transform public education for their children, then they will take on the other challenges outside of schoolhouse doors that also damage their futures. They can take on criminal justice reform, battle for general government reform, even take on the other legacies of state-sanctioned racialism that still affect them and their kin.

If it makes sense for families to be lead decisionmakers in education, it also makes sense to measure states and even districts by how they empower those parents to transform education within their own communities, starting with schools in their backyards. To implicitly say otherwise, as CER has done in its latest index is unfitting of the school reform movement’s ultimate goal of providing every child the capacity to shape their own futures.

But at least CER tries to embrace the name (if not its true meaning). As I have noted ad nauseam over the past few years, this myopia on Parent Power is a problem among nearly all Beltway and institution-oriented reform players. And this is a moral and intellectual problem that the movement must finally address.

March 9, 2015 standard

Sun Tzu once wrote that attacking an enemy’s strategy is of “supreme importance” in any war. This is a lesson school reformers should be doing in their efforts to sustain their efforts – and it must include fully embracing parents as lead decision-makers in education.

This is something I have strongly reflected upon over the past two weeks, especially after watching charter school operators such as Achievement First fail miserably in their efforts to provide parents with opportunities to choose the best educational opportunities for children. I also thought about this last week after listening to RiShawn Biddle on the Dropout Nation Podcast on how reformers must expand their social networks, as well as reading the Storify put together by Chris Stewart of Education Post that challenged the belief gap among traditionalists.

What I have concluded is that reformers must do better. Because right now they are not doing nearly all that well right now.

I know this from last month, when I attended a New Haven school district meeting that focused on discussing Achievement First’s school proposal. The plan, called Elm Street Imagine, would have provided much-needed academic opportunity for children and parents in Connecticut’s third-largest district, and at the same time, offered an opportunity for districts and charters to partner together effectively in providing great schools to our most-marginalized populations.

But as you know from listening to last week’s Podcast, it didn’t happen that way.

What I encountered instead was a school board meeting where the majority of attendees were New Haven’s mostly-white teachers, most of whom don’t even live in the city, who fought the Achievement First plan. What I saw was the New Haven local of the American Federation of Teachers, whose rank-and-file membership is 77-percent white, fighting against helping the district’s black and Latino children get the education they need for college of a trade.

What I saw were people whose minds were plagued by the belief gap, the soft bigotry of low expectations, arguing against the needs of the people who live in this urban community. What happened was that the war between teachers’ unions and school reformers was rearing its ugly head – and would be the focus of the school board meeting instead of doing what was best for children and parents, most of whom are low-income and people of color.

What I didn’t see was Achievement First working with families in such a way that they could stand up for its plan, so that the parents can take ownership and make the case to New Haven’s school board and superintendent. Achievement First’s Dacia Toll deserves praise for standing up to the AFT and to those teachers. But she needed parents and the community to take the lead for her and her plan.

This was disappointing because charter schools and other innovations are part of the solution for addressing our country’s education crisis. If all was well within traditional school districts, parents wouldn’t be clamoring for charters. But selling innovation and choice isn’t enough. This is a lesson that school choice advocates and school reformers, in general, have not yet learned.

Since I began my work, I have seen school reformers use “moments in time” strategies featuring kids and parents in matching t-shirts marching on statehouses during legislative sessions. But the yellow t-shirt brigades are no substitute for sustained advocacy, especially in galvanizing marginalized communities for the hard and daily work that we need for children.

Most of the families I know sleep in the t-shirts after the rallies have ended, and enjoy the food and music they got at the events. But they go back to business as usual because they already know that the t-shirts don’t stand a chance against the teachers’ unions and other traditionalists who have the loudest voices.

The parents know that teacher’ unions and administrators have statutory access to children and parents through classrooms, open houses, and the rest of the activities that make up public education. The parents know that reformers will more often than not lose because they continue to underestimate the access that NEA and AFT locals have to families day to day.

The parents also know that administrators, teachers’ unions and many in their rank-and-file don’t care about building lasting relationships with parents and children. They know they don’t need to, either, because the unions and their members have majority access to our children and families. And they can win either through persuasion or intimidation against their children.

This matters because the belief gap among many teachers affects the self-esteem and academic performance of our children of color. Parents are ready to fight for their children against these low expectations and they are willing to fight for school choice as well as Parent Trigger laws. But we cannot fight this battle without the help of school reformers – and reformers can’t sustain their efforts without us.

Yet movement’s strategies are not effectively reaching marginalized communities — nor is the mindset of some reformers toward families and people of color all that helpful either. Without execution of powerful advocacy, our kids will continue to be trapped in classrooms where they are taught by teachers that don’t believe that our children can achieve greatness.

It is time for reformers to effectively partner with parents and communities, to go beyond the yellow t-shirts, and affect sustainable change. This means empowering families within their own communities alongside responsive public policy.

March 4, 2015 standard

You can never trust the recommendations from any group who has American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on its board, much less takes money from the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. This is even more true when the group is recommending “accountability” for public charter schools, the bane of the AFT’s existence, especially when the mismanagement of its Big Apple local in managing a running such a school (which Weingarten helped launch during her tenure running the unit) is the source of its most-recent embarrassment.

These are just two of the many reasons why your editor has few good words for the so-called Charter School Accountability Agenda launched yesterday by Center for Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest (and even fewer for the shoddy poll it released). While a couple of the recommendations offered by the two groups offer have some merit, the entire exercise merely serves as a front for the AFT’s effort (and that of other traditionalists) to oppose the expansion of school choice and advancement of systemic reform our children need and deserve.

Certainly the charter school movement needs to be concerned about bad operators whose financial and academic malfeasance (along with mere incompetence in improving student achievement) can cast the entire sector and the school reform movement as whole in a bad light. This includes shutting down authorizers who are allowing failing charter operators and their schools to remain in business long after it is clear that they’re not making the grade. So on this front, Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest don’t have it absolutely wrong. The demand from the groups that charter school operators provide financial disclosure to families and taxpayers deserve serious consideration and support.

The problem is that the rest of their recommendations all have to do with serving the interest of their patron, AFT, to restrict the expansion of choice and deny high-quality schools to children, especially those from poor and minority households who need it most.

Popular Democracy’s and In the Public Interest’s demand that states require impact analysis on how the opening of new charters will affect traditional district schools is absurd. Essentially what the groups are arguing is that charters shouldn’t be allowed to open unless districts can keep their monopolies on education within their communities. As it is in most states, districts are in charge of deciding whether charters can open at all, which is akin to allowing McDonald’s to decide whether a Five Guys can open next door. But the problem goes beyond competition. By arguing against the expansion of charters and other forms of choice, Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest are essentially saying that families, especially those in the poorest communities they proclaim concern, shouldn’t be able to be lead decision-makers in education, especially on behalf of the kids they love.

This is especially important because many charters are operating in big-city distrricts where children are served by failure mills and dropout factories. As researchers such as Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, and Rand Corp., have determined in their studies, charters do better than traditional districts in improving student achievement as well as in helping kids graduate from high school and move on to higher education. This is borne out in data from the Knowledge is Power Program, whose schools serve mostly poor and minority children; 44 percent of its alumni have completed higher education, five times greater than the average completion rate for kids from low-income backgrounds. This isn’t to say that all charters are serving all children properly. But restrictions on their expansion won’t lead to higher-quality traditional district schools at all.

Then there’s Popular Democracy’s and In the Public Interest’s demand that states safeguard districts from losing per-pupil funding when charters open. It is also ridiculous. Why should any district be entitled to receive dollars for kids they are no longer serving? More importantly, by allowing districts to receive same levels of funding regardless of the number of kids they are serving, states would simply be aiding and abetting educational malpractice and neglect. If anything, the threat of losing the dollars can help spur failing districts to undertake much-needed overhauls. And if those districts cannot shape up, they deserve to lose kids and ultimately shut down.

The argument made by the two outfits is especially silly when you keep in mind that the districts whose revenue they are defending have spent decades subjecting poor and minority children to educational abuse and neglect. This includes districts such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Baltimore — operations in which AFT locals are the exclusive bargaining agents for teachers (most of whom were never around when the union was given that role) — whose failures have been chronicled by Dropout Nation since it first began publication. These districts are not only failing to provide kids with high-quality education, their inability to manage their financial affairs (even with plenty of additional funding) makes them questionable as going concerns. Even if charters no longer existed these districts would not do well financially or economically.

The silliest of the demands made by Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest? That charters should condemn as many kids to special ed ghettos as traditional districts. As Dropout Nation has noted over the past few years, the reason why charters tend to serve fewer numbers of kids in special ed is because they are less-likely to overlabel struggling students. This is important because in traditional districts, children condemned to special ed ghettos are often put there based on rather subjective diagnoses that can often mistaken real learning issues such a illiteracy for developmental delays, mental retardation, and other cognitive issues.

By focusing on those learning issues — and ditching the beliefs of so many adults in traditional districts that poor and minority kids, along with young white men, are destined to be special ed cases — charters are keeping kids from falling onto the path to dropping out into poverty and prison. All things considered, Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest should be applauding charters, not asking them to take on the failed practices that allow districts to ignore children they don’t think are deserving of high-quality education.

But none of this sophistry is shocking. As I mentioned at the beginning, Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest are AFT vassals. In the Public Interest, a unit of the Partnership for Working Families, collected $25,000 from the union in 2013-2104. Popular Democracy, which is staffed by ex-executives of Make the Road New York and whose board includes veterans of the now-defunct ACORN, is particularly tied to AFT’s hip. Not only did its Action Fund collect $60,000 in AFT largesse, Weingarten also serves on its board. These ties explain why AFT issued a press release yesterday lauding their claptrap.

After the failure of its UFT Charter School, AFT President Randi Weingarten and UFT boss Michael Mulgrew (touring a New York City middle school) shouldn’t be allowed near any school operation.

Considering how charters, including those run by outfits such as Green Dot (which serve Latino children) have demonstrably benefited children from poor, minority, and immigrant households as well as the communities in which they live, both groups are betraying their proclaimed concern for both. But in light of their co-opting by the union, no one can possibly expect either to deal honestly on any issues related to systemic reform. Calling Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest progressive groups is an insult to those in school reform who are truly progressive as well as to Webster’s dictionary.

But the greatest scorn should be heaped upon AFT itself for its blatant and abject hypocrisy. For all its demands for charter school operators to be held accountable, AFT has a long record of avoiding any such checks for its own charter school operation.

Just last week, its New York City local, United Federation of Teachers, partially shut down its charter school after a decade of shoddy performance. This is a school, by the way, that Randi Weingarten (who led the initiative while serving as head of the AFT unit) harrumphed would prove that the failed practices it defends can work. By the time UFT announced that the charter would stop serving kids in elementary- and middle-school grades, the school met just one of 38 goals set for it by the State University of New York, which authorized the school and allowed it to stay open for two years in spite of its failures. The school also was rated a failure mill by the New York City Department of Education, according to the Big Apple edition of Chalkbeat.

As NY 1 anchor and Daily News columnist Errol Louis detailed yesterday, the failures of UFT’s charter lie squarely with the union itself. On UFT’s watch, the school burned through five principals within its first decade of existence — including a union flunkie put into the job by Weingarten when she ran the local. The fact that an AFT unit was running the show didn’t stop the kinds of clashes between management and teachers typical in a traditional district.

Meanwhile UFT took no advantage of the opportunities offered by the charter school model to take different approaches to building school cultures — especially when it came to kids condemned to special ed ghettos. UFT Charter meted out-of-school suspensions to 17.8 percent of special ed students in 2011-2012 and in-school suspensions to another 20 percent of them, according to data submitted by the school to the U.S. Department of Education. This is higher than the out-of-school and in-school suspension rates of  1.5 percent and 6.5 percent for kids in regular classrooms.

Even worse, UFT charter meted out corporal punishment to 4.4 percent of special ed students. Given that special ed kids accounted for just nine percent of UFT Charter’s students (which, by the way, is lower than the 13.1 percent average for Big Apple charters and 16.5 percent for the traditional district), the damage meted out by the school and the union to the special ed kids who were enrolled in its schools is just plain inexcusable.

Yet UFT did all it can to avoid accountability. Back in 2013, it managed to keep the charter open in part by moving the school into one of the traditional district’s half-empty school buildings; essentially, if not for the city’s practice of allowing charters to share space with its traditional schools (a practice the AFT local opposes when it comes to other schools), SUNY would have likely condemned the school to closure. Three years earlier, UFT successfully lobbied SUNY to allow the school to stay open. But the school was such as failure mill that SUNY only gave it a three-year extension.

By demanding accountability for other charter operators while evading such scrutiny for its own operation, AFT and its local essentially declare that they could care less about anything related to holding anyone accountable. The fact that the union couldn’t successfully run a charter demonstrates that the policies and practices it defends don’t work for children in any kind of school. In light of AFT’s failure in New York City, methinks the union is opposed to charters in part because it has had no success in running one. [Again, not shocking: There are plenty of traditionalists opposing reform because they have failed so miserably at operating schools. Projection, I guess.]

Once again, AFT has demonstrated in dollar and deed that providing children with high-quality education — including those in a school it is operating — is not of the foremost concern. Neither the views of the union nor those of its vassals deserve much consideration in any discussion about anything regarding education.

December 26, 2014 standard

This week, a 69-year-old great-grandmother, Lynda Faye Wilson, and I represented ourselves during oral arguments before a Connecticut state court judge to oppose an effort by the Gov. Dan Malloy to dismiss a lawsuit we filed earlier this year. And during that hearing, we confirmed why all families – especially those who are people of color who will always be judged by the color of their skin as well as the content of their character – must access high-quality data and knowledge in order to aggressively advocate for our children so they can get the high-quality education they need.

One of the most-amazing aspects of American public education is that families are compelled by state laws to send their children to school regardless of quality, yet they are denied their reciprocal rights as families and citizens to shape education decision-making. This is especially true when it comes to state boards of education, which are often influenced by affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, who use their campaign dollars and political pull to make sure that governors and state officials do not represent families properly.

So parents and caregivers such as Lynda and I (along with another mother, Sh’Keia Dickerson) must work zealously – including in courts of law – to make sure that all families are represented. This is what we began doing in September, when we filed suit against Malloy and the state to seek the removal of Erin D. Benham, president of the AFT’s Meriden Federation of Teachers and executive board member of the AFT’s Nutmeg State affiliate, from the state board of education due to ethics violations by Malloy as well as Benham’s conflict of interest as a leader in a teachers’ union. And Malloy, who appointed Benham to the board earlier this year after the state legislature ended its session, has fought to dismiss our suit ever since.

The latest step began on Monday at 9:30 a.m. with a straightforward hearing. That morning, an official from the state attorney general’s office, on behalf of the governor, began explaining to the judge why Benham, a teachers’ union leader who doesn’t represent families, should be allowed to sit on the state board like any other “Average Joe”. From where the governor sits, neither Ms. Wilson nor I offered a sensible argument against Ms. Benham’s appointment, and in fact, were wrong in alleging that our civil and constitutional rights were violated by the appointment of what the lawyer tried to call a humble educator. In our minds, our we wondered how could anyone call a teachers’ union leader with millions of dollars (as well as other political influence) at her disposal an Average Joe. But we didn’t worry. Because we had spent months talking to legal experts as well as gathering evidence. So we were well-prepared to counter-argue.

After Gov. Malloy’s legal representative finished his oral argument, I stood up and presented or case. We laid out the statutory language that outlines the appointment process to Connecticut’s board of education while the legislature was in and out of session – to the shock of the assistant attorney general. It is a look I have seen on the faces of teachers, school leaders, legislators, and even my fellow school reformers before. This was the look of shock that a mother, an Average Jane like I, a black woman, could speak for herself, do so eloquently, and with the knowledge that in their minds should belong to them alone.

Then I laid out the details of our lawsuit. I presented evidence that Benham’s appointment by Malloy was a clear conflict of interest because she was an AFT local president, a leader in a union that contributed $10,000 to his re-election campaign through a donation to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee and $250,000 to his campaign through the Connecticut Forward Super-PAC.

Furthermore, we as parents allege an AFT leader cannot be an impartial member on the state board of education because of the union’s well-publicized opposition to the Connecticut’s Parent Empowerment law, the nation’s second Parent Trigger law. Over the past four year, AFT and NEA opposition has led the state to refuse to enforce the law. This has left more than 100,000 children trapped in low-performing schools. AFT Connecticut’s efforts to quash the Parent Trigger law was exposed three years ago when Dropout Nation revealed its presentation on how it took action to first “Kill”, then “Diffuse” the law at a national AFT conference. The revelation was so embarrassing to AFT’s national leadership that its president, Randi Weingarten, came to Connecticut to apologize to me and to politicians who backed its passage.

After our presentation, the assistant attorney general was given a chance to provide rebuttal. But instead he proceeded to tell the judge that he was not aware that Benham was an interim appointment. Why wasn’t he aware? He said it was because “the parents” didn’t tell him. Throughout his rebuttal, he confirmed that he no longer viewed us as mere bystanders and that he could no longer downplay our presence as a mere nuisance.

When parents have access to high-quality information and resources, we can challenge efforts by politicians and others to protect the few at the expense of the rest of us. When families of color and those from low-income households have access to high-quality data, they can disprove the notions of so many that communities of color and low income are unable to work aggressively on behalf of our children. Well-informed parents are powerful – and no one should underestimate them. School reformers should especially be ready to join common cause with Parent Power activists to help all of our children get the best they deserve.

But it isn’t just about data alone. The fact that we parents, who were well-educated enough to navigate the world around us proves how important it is for all of our children to be provided high-quality education. When our children are highly-educated, they can go far as adults in ensuring that future generations of children can grow up safe and well-educated.

When families have high-quality data, they can be champions for all children. We should work to empower every parent and caregiver.

October 28, 2014 standard

Back in 1977, when I was nine years old, my mom stood in the lobby of the Stanford University Medical Center and told her doctor to “go to hell”. Of course, that’s the nicest way I could put it; the language she used was decidedly saltier. While my mother’s words were uncouth — and as a child, left me shocked — the point she was making to her oncologist was bloody well spot-on.

At the time, physicians would evaluate a patient and come up with the best course of treatment. Any questions other than “how long will I live?” or “what will radiation do to me?” would generally be met with a paternalistic “Mrs. Lammé, you need not concern yourself with trying to understand other options. I have chosen the optimum treatment plan for you.”

That did not sit well with my mother. She didn’t want the paternalism of those physicians. So my mother found an oncologist at a different hospital who was willing to treat her as a partner in her health, rather than a bystander. All my mother wanted was a doctor that would treat her as an equal, help to educate her on the available treatment options, and realize that she was well suited to make decisions about the best choices for her own life. It was from this experience that I learned that knowledge is power.

More than 30 years later, as a public school parent who happens to work in education reform, I am reminded of this old adage. The idea that more and better information is the key to making informed decisions remains a reality. As the Data Quality Campaign points out today in its new brief, Empowering Parents and Communities through Quality Public Reporting, is no other place that this is crucial than in American public education.

Making education data available for public consumption is a relatively new concept. This is why the No Child Left Behind Act’s focus on making school performance transparent was a major step in the right direction. As Data Quality Campaign correctly notes, policymakers realized that shining a light on student achievement, especially for poor and minority children, would help in holding states and districts accountable. But while No Child was an important step forward in making data “publicly available”, it and other efforts didn’t necessarily lead to data that is “easy to understand.

As a society, we have made the promise to provide a quality education to every kid. But, are all kids receiving the same promise? The whole point of No Child’s data reporting requirements was to ensure that all parties – from teachers to administrators to elected officials to policy-makers to parents – had full and complete information that would allow them to make the best decisions for kids when it came to education.

When I served on the School Site Council of my son’s elementary school, we delved deeply into the data that was not generally available prior to No Child. As a Title I school with more than 20 languages spoken and over 70 percent of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, it was critical for us to be able to ascertain how different segments of the campus population were performing. We utilized this data to readjust applicable purchases of materials, teaching staff, and other matters. But we did not just look at a report and make our decisions. I actually had to get trained on what the data meant and how it could be interpreted.

As a software engineer for nearly two decades before I joined the School Site Council. I worked on taking complex data sets in different industries and distilling them into information that was easy to understand and use to take action. But even I needed training to comprehend much of the data that I was required to understand when deliberating how the school should focus its efforts.

Transparent and easily understandable data enables state education authorities, schools districts and individual school sites to identify schools and student populations that are struggling and may need additional interventions or resources, by utilizing data comparability. But, this data has to be understandable and useful. Unfortunately many states aren’t doing well on both counts.

As pointed out in the Data Quality Campaign brief, some states are fully recognizing that data needs to be easy to understand, and presented differently for various audiences. One of the states they highlight is Illinois. The state’s board of education recognized that even though its report card was in compliance with the law, its presentation was an impediment to easy comprehension. So in 2011, the Land of Lincoln’s P-20 council got to work. It convened 60 focus groups – including parents, teachers, and school leaders – to make sure that the new report cards would be useful to everyone.

The state recognized that even though they produced a report card that was far better than previously existed, it was important that they continue to evaluate the report card in future years and adjust it to continually meet the goal of relevance to those who have a stake in public education.

I do not claim to be an expert when it comes to education policy. But I am an expert on what motivates my son. I know what my expectations are regarding what he learns and the environment in which that learning is provided.

If my wife and I are to be better partners to our son’s teachers, if we are to make better decisions regarding his education, we need to know what is going on with his school, especially compared to other schools. We don’t want to just be told what will happen to our son. We want to be provided the options and the information so that we can make the best decisions possible on his behalf. States should follow the lead of Illinois and Ohio and others who have made a good faith effort to recognize that a successful education experience comes from data transparency that promotes true partnership, not paternalism.

September 10, 2014 standard

If you want to know why Gov. Andrew Cuomo should move to push for expanding school choice, both in New York City and throughout the rest of the Empire State, all you have to do is look at the latest results from last year’s battery of standardized tests. There’s no way anyone in New York State can morally or intellectually justify trapping our children, especially those from poor and minority households, in the worst public education offers.

Plenty has already been said about the Families for Excellent Schools’ report determining that not a single black or Latino child in 90 Big Apple’s schools passed any of the state’s tests. There’s also Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s brief today on the low levels of reading proficiency for black and Latino kids in the city’s traditional district None of this should be a surprise. The school reform efforts of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors were successful in reducing the percentage of kids mired in functional illiteracy. But as with Houston and San Diego, both of which have been successful in addressing basic literacy, New York City is struggling in this latest stage of reform, one in which how well kids are prepared for success in higher education and careers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy is far more critical.

Meanwhile districts in the rest of the Empire State, many of which have avoided even the most-basic efforts at systemic reform, are doing even worse in improving achievement for the children in their care.

In Buffalo, just 14 percent of eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels (called Levels 3 and 4) on this year’s state tests. Even worse, 54 percent of the district’s eighth-graders were functionally illiterate, reading only at Level 1 (or Below Basic) on the exam. Particularly for black and Latino kids who make up the vast majority of Buffalo’s student population, sitting in one of the district’s classrooms means falling behind; just seven percent of black kids in third-through-eighth grade, along with eight percent of their Latino peers, read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Put bluntly: Just 667 black and Latino kids out of 9,734 read at or above grade level. For young men of all backgrounds, Buffalo’s schools are also a gateway to economic and social abyss; a mere nine percent of young men of all backgrounds — that’s 628 out of 7,129 young men — read proficiently on the tests, versus an almost as abysmal 14 percent of their young women peers.

Another faltering district is Rochester, the subject of Holzman’s This is Dropout Nation analysis last month. A mere six percent of eighth-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 70 percent were functionally illiterate. Put bluntly, almost none of Flower City’s eighth-graders will likely achieve success in higher education and in career once they leave high school in four years. Just four percent of black and Latino third-through-eighth-graders — a mere 427 out of 11,095 black and Latino kids — read at Proficient and Advanced levels. And just four percent of the district’s young men — a mere 293 out of 6,640– read at or above grade level versus a just as atrocious seven percent of young women peers.

But it isn’t just big city districts doing poorly. Consider the notoriously-inept Roosevelt Union Free district in Nassau County near the Big Apple. Just 12 percent of the district’s eight-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 48 percent — that is one in two –read at Level 1 or Below Basic proficiency. Only 11 percent of Roosevelt’s black third-through-eighth graders — or just 112 out of 1,136 kids — read at or above grade level. Meanwhile a mere seven percent of young men in the district (that’s 49 out of 665 of them) read at Proficient and Advanced levels, versus 13 percent of young women in third-through-eighth grade.

When only a handful of children are reading well enough to succeed in school and in life, it is more than a tragedy. It is an economic and social calamity that weakens not only the Empire State, but the nation as a whole. Certainly this calls for systemic reforms, especially in how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers, as well as in furthering the implementation of Common Core’s reading and math standards. For the latter, as well as for honest reporting on how poorly districts are providing education to our kids, Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King deserve high praise. And the Vergara suits filed by the New York City Parents Union and Partnership for Educational Justice (both of whom are now fighting each other over who will lead the charge on revamping tenure and teacher dismissal laws) are also critical to this transformation.

At the same time, children cannot wait for Albany to knock districts and ed schools into getting their acts together.   Especially since politically, they are often unwilling to do so. Our kids deserve better than the worst. And this is where expanding school choice comes in.

Education Commissioner John King and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have an opportunity to help our children in New York escape failure mills that doom their futures. Photo courtesy of the Times Union.

One key step the Empire State could take is allowing for intra-district choice, allowing kids to transfer from failing districts to better-performing traditional school operators. King already took a key step toward this last year when he allowed kids attending two failing Buffalo high school, Lafayette and East, to transfer to programs provided by operated by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Making that a reality for all kids in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse would both help kids gain high-quality education as well as end Zip Code Education policies that trap our most-vulnerable kids in schools unfit for their lives.

Expanding the array of high-quality charter schools would also help. New York State has already increased its cap on charter school expansion from 200 to 460 as part of its successful bid for funding through the federal Race to the Top competition. Ditching the cap altogether would certainly help kids in parts of New York City such as Queens where the lack of options leaves kids trapped in shoddy traditional district schools. It will even help kids in aging suburban communities such as Roosevelt that are performing as badly as many urban districts, but are hidden in pain sight. Adding another university as a high-quality charter authorizer would also help; there’s no reason why the City University of New York system or Bard College (the latter of which is operating traditional public schools focused on helping kids attain college-prep learning) couldn’t do the job.

Meanwhile the state should also launch a voucher initiative (along with a voucher-like tax credit effort) that will allow poor and minority kids to escape failing districts and attend higher-quality Catholic and parochial schools. This will be harder for Cuomo to do, largely because the state’s legislative leadership (especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) are often more-concerned with doing the bidding of the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State and Big Apple units as well as obeying suburban districts. This is where reformers on the ground must come in. As Dropout Nation noted last year (and as New York’s Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability detailed in a report it released on expanding choice), advocates can launch a suit along the lines of the successful school funding lawsuit against the state led by the now-defunct Campaign for Fiscal Equity that could force the state to launch voucher programs targeting failure clusters that trap kids into despair.

All these efforts are merely steps toward what truly needs to be done in New York: Putting the state in full charge of financing public education as it is constitutionally and morally required to do. The Empire State provides just 40 percent of the $59 billion spent in 2012 on education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, below the 45 percent national average. As a result, districts can often justify resisting efforts to expand choice (both within their boundaries and even operations, as well as within the state as a whole) by perpetuating the Myth of Local Control. If the state took over full funding and then voucherized those dollars so they follow the child, families can then choose high-quality schools that fit what their kids need.

The Empire State cannot continue to live up to its motto of excelsior so long as generations of children are being condemned to the abyss. Expanding choice, along with implementing other critical reforms, is key to helping our kids escape academic prisons and avoid the ones run by the state’s criminal justice system in adulthood.