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March 4, 2014 standard

There is nothing surprising about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision last week to rescind a deal struck last year to let the Success chain of charter schools to move three of its schools into traditional district buildings. Dropout Nation tried last year to give de Blasio the benefit of the doubt over his anti-charter school sentiments. But since moving into Gracie Mansion this past January, de Blasio’s moves — including a proposal to divert $210 million in funds slated for charter school construction projects, and the implementation of a formal ban on allowing co-locations — has all but proven that the mayor intends of putting the kibosh on the expansion of school choice throughout the city.

Certainly de Blasio’s decision, which damages the educational prospects of 7,000 children attending the three schools, belies his proclamations that he wants to build brighter futures for all Big Apple kids. At the same time, charter school advocates and other reformers have to do more than bemoan and protest de Blasio’s move. They must move boldly and decisively to build the political and financial support needed to advance systemic reform in spite of the mayor’s opposition. This includes moving away from space-sharing deals between charters and traditional district schools and toward more-sustainable approaches for obtaining the buildings they need to serve children in their care.

The move to rescind Success’ space-sharing agreement with the city came amid de Blasio’s move to review predecessor Bloomberg’s move last year to allow 17 charters (along with 32 traditional district schools) to share space in half-empty school buildings. The mayor and his chancellor, Carmen Fariña, decided to keep agreements with 14 of the charters in place (including five of the eight schools Success planned on opening and moving into the buildings). But the administration moved to rescind a deal with Success for three schools. Why? Supposedly because Success’ co-location plans for the three schools scored poorly in four categories used to judge the space-sharing arrangements — including whether the schools (which would have served less than 250 children) could provide what the city considers to be needed support services for them, and whether the city would have had to spend too much on construction (and thus, use dollars de Blasio is designating for his Pre-K initiative) to accommodate the charters.

Given the subjectivity of de Blasio’s criteria for judging the already-approved space sharing arrangements, it’s a shock than any of the 17 schools were approved at all. But then, that’s the point. By subjecting the plans to another review, de Blasio is making clear that he will use any tool at his disposal to put an end to charter school expansion. The fact that de Blasio took aim at Success, one of the city’s  biggest charter operators in the city and one of the most politically-vocal to boot, is a way for the mayor to put a chilling effect on any opposition to his plans from others in the charter school movement. Small charter operators who lack the fundraising and political means to challenge de Blasio, are now in the unenviable position of having their most-influential opponent also be chief executive of their landlord.

But the political is also the personal. In targeting Success, de Blasio also deals a blow to Moskowitz, a sharp-elbowed rival of the mayor dating back to the days when both sat on the Big Apple’s city council (and the education committee Moskowitz chaired). Since June, when de Blasio called out Moskowitz by name as one of the charter school operators he thought shouldn’t “get free rent” in city school buildings, the two have gone at each other publicly; de Blasio is likely still miffed over the move by Success and other charters last October to organize a rally calling him out for opposing choice for poor and minority children he claims to want to help. Sure, de Blasio couldn’t outright rescind all eight of the space sharing deals already struck with Success. But in tossing out three schools, the mayor has made it clear that he will work diligently to toss big-named charters out of traditional district buildings. More importantly, he has also signaled that this is the first step towards evicting all charters by the end of his tenure.

But reformers can’t just be fixated on de Blasio’s latest decision. The fact that several city council members chided the mayor for keeping arrangements in place with 14 of the 17 charters reviewed should also be troubling. Why? Because mayoral control of traditional districts also means that city legislators will also play their parts in structuring education policy and school operations. With de Blasio lacking unquestioned support from all sides for his education agenda, the council will play an even more-prominent role in education decision-making than it did during Bloomberg’s tenure. This plays well into the hands of the AFT affiliate, whose ground game has always been stronger than that of reformers. After losing court battles it lodge with the help of the NAACP’s New York State affiliate to stop Bloomberg’s space-sharing arrangements with charters, the AFT has spent plenty (including $450,726 last year through its super-PAC on 34 council races) to gain support within the city council. One can imagine AFT local boss Michael Mulgrew, currently in a (so far successful) battle with with AFT Empire State boss Richard Iannuzzi over control of the state affiliate, will quietly push council members to pass a bill that will end existing charter co-locations within the next year.

Yet charter school operators and advocates in the Big Apple can’t just worry about the politics. The moves by de Blasio serve to remind them of the reality that charter schools cannot continue to be dependent on space sharing arrangements with traditional districts.

Sure, the arrangements have been necessary in order to expand high-quality school options for children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds in Harlem and the rest of the city still served poorly by the (slowly improving) traditional district. After all, unlike their colleagues in other cities such as Indianapolis and New Orleans, charter school operators in New York struggle mightily to find affordable real estate that can serve students properly. Given that charters are public schools (and, thus, are as entitled as traditional districts to using taxpayer-funded buildings), and the reality that many schools in Manhattan and the Bronx operate at less than full capacity, it just makes sense for charters and traditional district schools to share space.

But as de Blasio’s move has shown, such arrangements can expose charters to the kind of arbitrary and capricious decision-making that makes it difficult for operators to provide high-quality teaching and curricula to the children they serve. It can also be damaging to efforts to expand choice overall, creating skittishness among families, who count on schools to be stable places in which their kids will learn. More importantly, by counting on the Big Apple to provide space, charter school operators aren’t working diligently as their counterparts in other cities on developing funding sources (including dedicated state dollars for capital expenditures and donations from philanthropists) they can count on for constructing buildings they control.

Once again, it is important for charter school advocates and other reformers in the New York City to once again make the case for systemic reform — and look to other approaches to transforming education in big cities — regardless of who occupies City Hall. This includes working hard in the grassroots, especially with community groups, immigrant households and single-parent families in the city who benefit the most from charter school expansion, to put pressure on de Blasio and city council members to attend to their concerns. Groups such as the New York branch of StudentsFirst should be organizing voter registration drive right now. Passing a Parent Trigger law at the state level, which would allow families to take control of school buildings and launch their own charters (as well as work with existing operators, if they so choose) should also be on the agenda.

At the same time, Big Apple reformers must work with charter school operators to embark on a capital campaign to acquire existing buildings, construct new schools (when possible), and ultimately, move out of traditional district spaces. One can easily imagine the Walton Family Foundation teaming up with outfits such as Building Hope, an organization working throughout the country on charter school building efforts, to embark on developing a school campus in South Ozone Park where several charters can share space. Lobbying Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders to provide dedicated funding to charters for their capital activities — or even create a fund that lends money to charters for construction activities — also makes sense.

Charter advocates within the city should also embrace online learning options as a way to deal with space issues. In an age in which virtual learning is possible and can be provided with high quality, especially in New York City (where broadband is plentiful), there is no reason why charter school operators continue to think about education as being something provided only in buildings.

Mayor de Blasio’s move against charter schools offers reformers opportunities to sustain reform. Now it is time for them to embrace it.

January 17, 2014 standard

Two years ago, your editor reminded reformers — especially school choice activists within the movement — about the need to learn from the lessons of scandals that rocked Florida’s McKay voucher program as well as controversies affecting charter schools and the for-profit college sector. Because vouchers and voucher-like tax credits, like charters, and other forms of choice, are relatively new aspects of American public education, they were vulnerable to the same charges of low academic quality and fiscal mismanagement leveled by traditionalists opposed to expanding options. Requiring private schools accepting children using vouchers to participate in state testing regimes — something already done by schools run by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches — would be a key step towards assuring taxpayers that children were receiving the high-quality education they deserve, provide families with the data on school performance they need to make smart decisions, and ultimately, help reformers make the case for expanding school options for all kids.

Since then, Indiana has embraced the approach suggested by Dropout Nation in its launch of the nation’s largest school voucher program while Louisiana has also made participation in state testing a key part of its expanded choice regime. And this week, in the release of a new report on improving accountability for school choice, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has smartly embraced this approach. Yet the very idea of school choice programs (and the private schools who take taxpayer dollars) being subjected to the same levels of accountability we demand of traditional districts is anathema to some school choice purists — most-notably Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute’s school reform team, University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene, the otherwise-sensible Robert Enlow and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and Matthew Ladner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Their arguments against accountability not only fail to stand up to intellectual and moral scrutiny, but actually give traditionalists reasons for opposing further expansion of choice altogether. School choice cannot expand or succeed without strong accountability measures that can help children attain high-quality options that help them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success.

Fordham’s report, which was written by Adam Emerson, the think tank’s now-former point man on school choice, comes amid last month’s report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that D.C.’s Opportunity voucher program and its operator, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, couldn’t verify if schools looking to serve voucher students were eligible to participate in the program, as well didn’t provide families with timely and up-to-date information on private schools so that they could at least shop for options. Those revelations cast an unfortunate pall over the program’s overall success in helping kids in the nation’s capital escape failing traditional district schools, and that of other programs across the nation. So one wouldn’t think Fordham’s recommendations would be considered all that controversial.

Requiring students receiving vouchers to take state tests is the norm for voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana and required by voucher programs serving Milwaukee and Cleveland, two of the oldest in the nation. As Greene’s University of Arkansas colleague, Patrick Wolf, determined in a 2012 study of Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program, this move, along with other accountability measures and the choice program’s effort to expand high-quality options, helped children participating in the program achieve “significantly higher levels of reading gains than their carefully matched peers in MPS after four years”. Same is true of Fordham’s recommendation that states publicly disclose the results so that families and taxpayers can know exactly how kids are learning. Such a step will help families make smart decisions about school options based on how well children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — are being served.

Meanwhile the think tank’s recommendation that states rank schools serving children receiving vouchers on the quality of their outcomes (and ultimately, weed out those operators failing children) should hardly be cause for controversy. It is nothing more than an extension of efforts within the school reform movement to weed out (and shut down) failing traditional public schools that harm the futures of children, as well as efforts among charter school advocates within the movement to weed out similarly laggard operators. Identifying faltering private schools and barring them from accepting children receiving vouchers wouldn’t lead to them being shut down; after all, they can still continue to peddle their services. But keeping them from receiving taxpayer funding for shoddy instruction and curricula would do plenty for all children.

Yet purists among school choice activists within the movement are aghast that Fordham would even offer such recommendations. Why? For one, there’s the belief that accountability will somehow stifle diversity and innovation in curricula and instruction in private schools. This is a view similar to those offered by opponents of Common Core reading and math standards, a group that includes Cato’s education crew and the Friedman Foundation. As Cato’s Bedrick declares, requiring private schools serving children receiving vouchers to participate in state testing will “make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to the needs of individual children”.

School choice can help all kids succeed. But not without accountability measures to weed out faltering schools and data that families can use to make smarter decisions.

But this argument doesn’t hold up. For one, Bedrick and his allies can’t offer any evidence that test participation requirements by existing voucher regimes are stifling diversity and innovation. Why? Because it isn’t so. Catholic schools, which participate in state tests, continue to provide high-quality religious-based teaching and curricula throughout the nation, especially to poor and minority children in the nation’s big cities. If anything, testing requirements along with other accountability measures, actually help children in voucher programs attain high-quality education without stifling diversity. This is clear from Wolf’s study of the accountability measures developed for Milwaukee’s voucher program, and clear so far from Indiana’s own voucher initiative.

As for innovation?  Certainly there is the amazing work of the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii in developing culturally-based education for the Native Hawaiian children it serves. But as your editor noted two years ago in a commentary on Common Core, there’s not much of it going on, especially among private schools, in the first place. This lack of innovation cannot be blamed on voucher and tax credit programs; after all, a mere 245,854 children are served by the programs, according to the Alliance for School Choice. Nor is lack of innovation necessarily a bad thing; after all, novel developments in curricula and instruction don’t necessarily lead to improvements in student achievement. But for school choice purists such as Bedrick to argue that requiring private schools serving voucher students to take state tests somehow stifles non-existent innovation is intellectual hogwash. The fact that private schools don’t have to participate in school choice programs at all if testing and other accountability requirements bother them also makes the argument offered by Bedrick and his allies completely specious.

If anything, this requirement, along with other accountability measures for school choice programs, can advance innovation by providing much-needed data on school performance that can be used by school operators to figure out what works and areas of need to help all kids succeed. A private school headmaster, for example, could use state test data along with other data gleaned from diagnostic assessments a school may already use to restructure how teachers are working in classrooms. Entrepreneurial teachers and school leaders, both in private as well as in traditional public and charter settings, can also use the data to launch new schools that serve particular groups of children served by voucher programs.

But this disdain for Fordham’s recommendations among school choice purists isn’t shocking. From their perspective, accountability should be something done by families choosing schools, in short, voting with their feet. Enlow, in particular, argues that families can already make smart decisions without any kind of accountability or school performance data in place for their use. How? Citing data from Friedman Foundation’s recent study on how families in school choice programs make decisions, Enlow essentially declares that families could simply use metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for accountability.

Yet Enlow and his allies know all too well that these input measures are insufficient for use by families for evaluating school options, much less for any form of accountability. Why? Because they don’t show the most-important outcome: How schools are improving student achievement and preparing kids for lifelong success in adulthood. Three decades of research has long ago shown that here is no correlation between smaller class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement. The fact that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing also makes it insufficient for judging the ability of schools to improve achievement. As for the percentage of students accepted and attending college? This tells families nothing because what really matters is the percentage of kids who actually graduate in three-to-six years; a school can do a poor job of preparing kids for higher ed completion and still send high numbers of kids to college.

Meanwhile Enlow fails to admit is the underlying reason why families judge schools by these measures: Because they don’t have high-quality data on school performance — including test score growth data and even data on how teachers improve student achievement — that they need for better decision-making. Certainly families can make smart decisions if they are provided comprehensive-yet-simple data on school performance. But this cannot be achieved without objective measures of how well schools are serving children. State testing regimes (including analysis of student test data through Value-Added Measurement) are the most-objective and best way to measure school, teacher, and student achievement. Given the high stakes for the futures of children that come with school decisions, Enlow and his allies are being irresponsible in advocating for the continued use of shoddy information that is useless for families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who need school choice and high-quality data the most.

But it isn’t just about families. What Enlow, Bedrick, Ladner, and Forster fail to acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Sure, three decades of research clearly shows that expanding school choice improves student achievement. But as I noted two years ago, school choice isn’t an unqualified success. When choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of expanding school choice, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. Especially given that choice programs are relatively new players in American public education, and thus vulnerable to attacks from traditionalists, choice activists, along with the rest of the reform movement, should do all they can to ensure that the initiatives are working to the benefit of the kids, families, and taxpayers they serve.

More importantly, strong accountability is at the heart of the school reform movement itself. The school reform movement has long ago showed that it isn’t enough for taxpayers and families to trust traditional districts. Demanding that all school operators provide high-quality instruction and curricula to our children is critical to stemming an education crisis that condemns far too many kids to the abyss. We cannot demand accountability for traditional districts and not for choice programs. It is simply intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for school choice purists to tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly. It also makes taking such a stance makes school choice purists no different than traditionalists who make the same arguments to defend failing traditional district schools.

Reformers shouldn’t have to save the expansion of school choice from true-believers more-concerned with dogmatically defending their favored reform than with implementing the kind of accountability necessary for ensuring children are being properly served — and ultimately, the futures of children for whom they say they are concerned. Bedrick, Enlow, Ladner, Forster and other school choice purists should stop arguing against Fordham’s sensible recommendations, and should work on developing new accountability measures that can bolster support for expanding school choice all kids deserve.

October 8, 2013 standard

A myth that remains widely-held in American public education is that families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, are not motivated to play active and powerful roles in education for their children.  Especially for traditionalists, this perception that lackadaisical and unmotivated parents are a reason behind low student achievement allows them to excuse the systemic problems that are behind the nation’s education crisis.

Yet as seen today in New York City, where 17,500 parents and other family members of children attending charter schools held a march to put mayoral aspirant Bill de Blasio on notice that they will not tolerate his declarations that he would effectively kibosh the expansion of school choice, the myth of unmotivated families is pure bunk. As you would expect, Michael Mulgrew, the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, is sniffing at the event, claiming that is merely a front for charter school operators such as Success Academies, the outfit run by former New York City councilwoman Evan Moskowitz. Your editor would expect nothing less from him. But Mulgrew has a conveniently short memory. Two years ago, families and charter school operators held protests against the AFT and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after the two teamed up on a lawsuit against to stop Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s practice of allowing charters to share space with traditional district schools in half-empty spaces. The battles between the NAACP and charter school parents in particular, would be particularly embarrassing to traditionalists after incidents such as NAACP official Hazel Dukes accused charter school parents were “doing the business of slave masters”.

Meanwhile there are other Parent Power efforts happening throughout the city and the nation. Some, such as an event held in August by the New York branch of StudentsFirst, are being held by school reform outfits who realize the need for families to play their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education for their kids. Others such as those held by the New York City Parents Union are efforts arising from families who have become reformers because, to use the old phrase about former liberals who became conservatives, their children have been proverbially robbed of high-quality teaching and curricula. Meanwhile across the country in California, families such as those who sent their kids to the former Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto have seized control of failing schools thanks to the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law, and began the hard work of transforming failure mills into cultures of genius. And in other states, emerging Parent Power groups — from those pushing for the end of school residency laws and other Zip Code Education policies that have made parents criminals for daring to provide their kids with high-quality schools, to those expressing wrongheaded opposition to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia — are showing that reform is possible when families stand up for their kids.

What is clear from these experiences is that families can be lead decision-makers in education when they are provided the data and knowledge needed to help their children, as well as the ability to choose high-quality opportunities or even overhaul the failing schools within their neighborhoods. The experience of the charter school and Parent Power movements — and before that, of the Catholic diocesan schools that were the main alternatives to traditional public education in the last century — has proven that choice and power  are both amazing motivators; families will do all they can for their kids if given knowledge and options. Especially as families realize that the two other myths American public education has perpetuated over the past two centuries — that a child can be sent to any teacher or to any school and they will get a high-quality education — isn’t so, and that the quality of instruction can vary not from school to school and, more importantly, even from classroom to classroom.

Families of children attending the former Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., took power — and began the overhaul of the failing school.

It is also clear that American public education does plenty to make it difficult for parents to do so.

As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” Certainly some of this has to do with the negative experiences these parents have had with schools — especially those failure mills that they once attended and to which their children now go. But it is also reflective of the reality that we have far too many teachers and school leaders who look down on poor urban parents who may not be capable of helping their kids because of their own learning issues; who are hostile to those families who want to take an active role in shaping the education their kids receive in school; and would rather keep those families servile.

But it isn’t just a problem for urban families alone. The penchant for many teachers and administrators to treat families as nuisances and afterthoughts is as strong in suburbia — where parents supposedly have the clout to force change — as it is in big-city districts. From inconveniently-scheduled parent-teacher conferences, to the lack of meaningful communication about student progress until it is far too late to help kids succeed, to the lack of information for black and Latino families on their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life (including  Advanced Placement courses and dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education), districts also act, both deliberately and otherwise, to disengage families from taking action for their children.

Meanwhile mothers and fathers lack access to high-quality data that is both comprehensive and yet simple to understand in order to make smart decisions. School data remains a black box of sorts, driven by compliance as well as the interests of districts and teachers’ unions to hide evidence of the failures of American public education rather than by the need to give parents information they need to make smart choices.  Organizations such as GreatSchools.org and the Education Consumers Foundation are helping to make school data more transparent and easy to use; the efforts of the Data Quality Campaign are working to improve the quality of state and district data systems. But much remains to be done on overhauling how data is collected and provided. And even when the data is available, state laws, the opposition of teachers unions to releasing data, and now, the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability measures (which provided data that has helped advance reforms in the last decade) have made it harder for families to get the data they need.

Families also need a wide array of high-quality opportunities both within and outside of their communities. But the fact is that only 42 states allow for the existence of charter schools; even in those states, the fact that traditional districts are given the authority to decide whether charters can exist, an approach akin to allowing McDonald’s to decide if a Wendy’s can open next door, means that choice is often restricted, especially in suburbia. The fact that only 10 states have school voucher programs, 11 states have voucher-like tax credits, and only seven states have Parent Trigger laws on the books, also limits the ability of families to take power in education. Particularly for the families of the 38 percent of black students and 33 percent of Latino students forced by Zip Code Education policies (and systemic decay within districts) to attend dropout factories, there are few options to escape failure.

Meanwhile families must also know what their children need to know in order to succeed in adulthood. They need to know what a child should know by third grade. They must understand that kindergartners should know by the end of the school year that numbers represent quantities. And they need to know 40 percent of all students will come into kindergarten with some form of reading deficiency no matter what families do or don’t do on the literacy front — and that schools should be equipped to help provide kids with intensive reading remediation instead of putting them into special education ghettos that condemn their futures. But districts do little to inform families even when parents dare to ask. [By the wayThis reality is why Dropout Nation helps families through its Five Questions Every Parent Should Ask podcast series as well as the new collection of podcasts on Common Core standards.]

But as today’s demonstration has shown — and as it can be seen throughout the nation — families are willing to beat back against those barriers when provided the tools to do so. In fact, most families are willing to take on the responsibility of transforming education if informed and empowered. This is where the school reform movement must step up. It starts by expanding all forms of school choice as well as advancing the passage of Parent Trigger laws that give families the ability to change the direction of the lives of their kids and the communities in which they live. It continues by providing families with high-quality data (including information on teacher performance) that they can use to make smart decisions; this includes ending the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit and building upon the sensible approach to accountability brought to bear on American public education 11 years ago through the passage of No Child itself. It also means building up online and physical libraries of information that families can use in order to know what to expect from teachers, school leaders, and others who serve their children. And it means standing up with families and with others in the grassroots at all times.

What happened in New York City today was another reminder that families will stand up for the children they love. As with so many other failed theories and practices in American public education, the myth of unmotivated parents should be tossed into history’s ashbin.

Photo courtesy of Richard Barth of the Knowledge is Power Program.

August 23, 2013 standard

As you know by now, education Dropout Nation eschews the pursuit among school reformers of the one silver bullet for overhauling American public education. This is because the nation’s education crisis is so complex that it requires a wide array of solutions all applied at once. Simply arguing that, say, teacher quality reforms are the answer (or worse, that ending near-lifetime employment through tenure is the answer) is counterproductive to the ultimate goal of helping all children succeed in school and in life.

But there will always be those camps within the school reform movement who insist on proclaiming there is just one answer. Take some advocates among the school choice segment of the movement of a conservative and libertarian mode, including Greg Forster of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation and Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute’s infamously less-thoughtful education policy team. These days, many of them have allied themselves with the crew of movement conservatives and hardcore progressives within traditionalist ranks in opposing the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. Why? From their perspective, Common Core will weaken the expansion of choice, both by restricting the ability of charter, private, and others in developing curricula on their own. Not only would this lead to a lack of innovation in curricula, it would also restrict the choices of families, who may want to choose schools for reasons other than quality of curricula. At the heart of such thinking is the rather simplistic notion that choice is the best and most-effective solution for advancing systemic reform. Such thinking is no different than that of the curricula-as-silver bullet types who have also been called out by your editor for faulty thinking.

Typical is the argument from comes Forster, the otherwise-sensible school choice advocate whose opposition to Common Core (like that of Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas) has bordered on the senseless. Earlier this month, in a commentary on Greene’s eponymous blog about former Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett’s resignation as Florida’s Education Commissioner after revelations that he had revamped rules governing the Hoosier State’s A-to-F grading system, Forster declared that Common Core supporters were “putting the cart before the horse” by advocating for implementing Common Core instead of focusing just on expanding choice. Why? Because from where Forster sits, expanding choice allows for “people to try whatever makes sense to them, and see what works” instead of the “One Best Way” he thinks Common Core represents. From where Forster sits, Common Core fails his sniff test because he feels it wasn’t developed in “the open, free interaction of civil society” where state and federal governments play a minimal role (or “as a servant of our civilization”). Declares Forster: “A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance.” Forster would elaborate further on these points this week when he criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for not mentioning school choice expansion in a speech that was largely focused on advancing Common Core implementation.

The fact that Forster ignores the fact that allowing teachers and districts to “try whatever makes sense to them” by developing their own curricula is one of the reasons why we have an education crisis makes your editor wonder if he is actually thinking things through. But this isn’t shocking. As with so many other Common Core foes, Forster seems to act as if an absence of common standards will somehow yield better results for our children. But after 140 years of American public education operating without standardized curricula and standards — and freelancing as it goes along — this is clearly not so. This is especially true when one remembers that far too many teachers lack the subject-matter competency needed to provide high-quality instruction (and that the university schools of education do a poor job in recruiting and training them). Expecting laggard teachers to somehow develop high-quality curricula without any kind of North Star is just intellectually fallacious.

Forster’s contention that Common Core didn’t emerge from interplay within civil society is off-base. After all, while the standards were developed by governors and state education superintendents through their lobbying outfits, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the help of mathematicians, reading gurus, and others, the fact is that Common Core is the natural evolution of three decades of work on developing standards as well as a logical response to the concerns of the private and public sectors in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society. Many of the elements of Common Core come from the stronger aspects of standards developed by states such as Massachusetts and Indiana (both of which saw fit to replace those standards with that of Common Core), while other aspects such as close reading have been developed within civil society and have been the gold standards for decades.

Forster also forgets that in a civil society, governments have a proper role of regulating aspects of economy and society charged to it by the citizenry. This is especially the case when one looks at American public education. All state constitutions charge state governments with the role of overseeing and providing education in one form or another. Developing and implementing curricula standards — or in the case of Common Core, implementing standards developed by a national committee — is an appropriate role for any state government to undertake because that is the job the citizens have entrusted to it. This isn’t to say that states overseeing curricula standards is anything close to ideal. But we should expect states to live up to their constitutional responsibilities and, more importantly, moral obligations to children. Expecting state governments to take seriously their regulatory roles in education is especially important if the school reform movement is to achieve its goals, including helping all children succeed and moving away from the traditional (government-run) district model that restricts the expansion of choice.

Meanwhile Forster’s argument assumes that there is plenty of innovation in curricula going on. As I noted last year in my commentary on the moral importance of implementing Common Core, the standards wouldn’t stifle innovation in curricula because there is little of it going on. Certainly there is some amazing work by Native communities on developing culturally based education (including language immersion efforts by Native Hawaiian charter schools), as well as by teachers, schools, and others on the margins. But the reality is that much of the work out there, especially in the nation’s private schools, isn’t all that innovative. If anything, Common Core can actually spur innovation curricula development because there are now commonly agreed-upon content areas around which a variety of curriculum developers can rally. Because Common Core is also flexible, focusing on mastering knowledge and skills instead of on textbooks, it also allows for districts, other school operators, families, and communities of minorities historically disdained by American public education to spur the development of their own curricula. For American Indian tribes for example, Common Core even allows them to incorporate their own languages and cultures into the curricula their children are provided. This is already being done in New Mexico, where the National Indian Education Association is working with school operators, the Pueblo of Jimenez tribe, and the Campaign for High School Equity to incorporate Native culture into Common Core implementation. Such a benefit is one Forster should welcome.

But the biggest problem with Forster’s argument and that of fellow school choice advocates opposed to Common Core lies in Forster’s implicit argument that choice on its own will spur the development of high-quality standards. This thinking ignores reality that the success of expanding school choice depends on the implementation of high-quality standards as well as other reforms and vice versa. Once again, you can’t transform a complex system with just one solution.

Certainly Forster is right in arguing that choice can spur and aid in advancing high-quality standards. But Forster fails to consider a few inconvenient facts. For one, consumer feedback isn’t the only driving force behind such advancements. As seen in the growth of the tech sector and the improvements in safety in the automotive industry, quality is as much driven by efforts by industry players, government regulations, media coverage, and the actions of the technically knowledgeable. This isn’t to say that the demands of families for high-quality education can’t foster growth in the number of high-quality options. It’s just that the evidence has long ago demonstrated that choice alone has never been and never will be the sole driving force in advancing high-quality standards.

The fact that families naturally balance their concerns about the rather high-stakes matter of curricula quality with other matters that are important in choosing schools, also makes choice not nearly as efficient a driver in advancing comprehensive standards as Forster and his fellow-travelers make it out to be. This isn’t exactly surprising. For many families, especially poor households and single mothers, such matters as whether a school is conveniently located next to local preschools can wreak havoc on work schedules, especially if they are the sole breadwinners. If anything, implementing high-quality standards will actually allow for families to concern themselves with other aspects of schools the same way safety improvements in the automotive sector have allowed car buyers to think about features such as whether seats are upholstered in leather or cloth than about whether the vehicle is safe.

There’s also the fact that in the private sector, consumers often have at their disposal information sources at their disposal — from publications such as Consumer Reports to crowd-sourcing sites such as Angie’s List to the product reviews of outlets such as Engadget – that provide comprehensive data on what signifies high-quality in a product, and at the same time, simple enough for laymen to understand. Even with the success of standards-and-accountability advocates, school data system activists, and school choice supporters in getting states to develop data systems, far too many of them provide too little in the way of comprehensive-yet-simple information families need in distinguishing between a high-quality school and a failure mill, the first (and most-important) step in making smart choices. Choice cannot help spur development of standards if there is little in the way of high-quality data on the non-observable qualitative aspects of performance.

Meanwhile Forster and his colleagues ignore the pernicious consequences of existing low-quality curricula standards on the futures of children. This is especially important to consider because curricula standard provide families with much-needed benchmarks for determining how well or poorly schools are doing in improving student achievement. As a result of low-quality standards, families cannot pick a district or school for their child with the confidence that any of them will do the job of providing high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures. Given that only one out of every five families can avail themselves of school choice, the lack of high-quality standards within American public education combine with Zip Code Education policies such as school zones and restrictions on the growth of charter schools to frustrate their efforts to provide their children with schools fit for their potential. In fact, the lack of high-quality standards and restrictions on expanding choice are two of the reasons why a mere 13 percent of high school students overall (and a mere seven percent of black students, along with six percent of Latino peers) took strong, comprehensive college-preparatory coursework, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

[By the way: The fact that Forster consistently skips around the reality that choice remains limited for most children and families in this country makes one wonder about his own intellectual honesty. Not that Forster doesn't have a right to skip around it if he so chooses. But the question posed by some traditionalists and reformers about how to help those families and children without access to school choice, as much as it is used as an excuse to oppose expanding options, is still an important one. And no choice advocate can fail to engage it in a sensible manner. Telling families to wait for high-quality education until school choice is expanded will not work.]

The impact of low-quality standards doesn’t just fall heavily on children in the form of shoddy curricula. It also makes it harder to expand school choice. One of the reasons why charter schools and vouchers have begun to flourish is because of their role in the education marketplace as high-quality alternatives to traditional district schools. In fact, it is the very efforts by standards-and-accountability advocates to develop high-quality standards — along with the standards for district and school quality put in place by No Child’s accountability provisions — which has helped drive the successful expansion of charters and other forms of choice. But school choice can’t continue to be touted as a way to provide children with high-quality education if quality isn’t embraced. The fact that between 900 and 1,300 charters throughout the nation are among the nation’s failure mills, along with the reality that only a fifth of low-performing charters identified in 2003-2004 were shut down five years later, plays straight into the arguments of traditionalists who will engage in any form of intellectual charlatanism to defend their failed thinking. The recognition of such consequences is why the National Association of Charter School Authorizers launched a campaign last year to shut down failing charters (and hold its own members responsible for their own failures). And it is also why school choice advocates can’t continue to push for expanding charters, vouchers, and tax credit programs — all of which involve using actual or potential tax dollars — and then keep opposing the implementation of standards that are sensible regulation of school and operator quality.

The reality is that high-quality standards is critical to expanding school choice and vice versa. The very history of the school reform movement has long ago proven that one cannot happen without the other. Common Core implementation, in particular, can actually help expand the array of high-quality choices for families For one, Common Core implementation will further expose the educational neglect and malpractice endemic within traditional districts, whose problems in providing comprehensive college-preparatory curricula will be further exposed for all to see; this, in turn, will offer school choice advocates additional data for use in expanding choice, especially for the vast majority of families still burdened by Zip Code Education policies. Because Common Core implementation can also lead to the development of high-quality curricula, it will also allow families to choose schools fit for their kids in ways other than academics by providing them with the confidence that their kids will be provided with knowledge they need and deserve.

In an age in which what a child knows is even more critical to their economic and social success than ever, we cannot continue the social mobility that has helped America bend the arc of economic and social history toward progress, unless we provide children and families with high-quality standards and expansive school choice. We need to provide our kids with the curricula and standards that, along with high-quality teaching, helps make this happen. You can’t transform American public education without both.

August 14, 2013 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle comes back from a Parent Power conference and talks about the seven key steps mothers and fathers need to take power in education for their children. From remembering that Parent Power is about fighting for everyone’s children, to understanding how to take their rightful place at the table of education decision-making, embracing these steps can help every parent transform American public education.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrryZune Marketplace, Stitcher, and PodBean.

July 29, 2013 standard

There is plenty going on these days with Parent Power activists within the school reform movement. And the work of families on behalf of the children they love offers more reasons why the rest of the school reform movement must fully join common cause with them.

Last week, the Connecticut Parent’s Union held a press conference at Hartford’s federal court house calling attention to the federal lawsuit it helped file against the Nutmeg State on behalf of Marie Menard, a grandmother who was charged with the laughable crime of stealing education. While that suit was dismissed, Menard’s case, along with that of Bridgeport mother Tanya McDowell (who is serving five years in prison for stealing education), led to last month’s passage of House Bill 6677, which now ensures that other poor and minority families seeking high-quality education will no longer have to face felony charges for doing what is right for their children. The Connecticut Parents Union has advocated for such a bill for the past two years.

Through its work, and that of its president, Gwen Samuel — including bringing attention to the plight of families such as that of Hamlet and Olesia Garcia of Philadelpha (who are being charged by the Montgomery County District Attorney with violating Pennsylvania’s Zip Code Education law), — Connecticut Parents Union continually advocates for expanding choice and providing parents with the tools they need to build brighter futures for our sons and daughters that they love. But that work extends beyond those issues. Last year, it brought attention to concerns from families in Waterbury about a gun range opened up near a school. It’s annual ‘This the Season to Be Reading event, which provides books to families and children in the Nutmeg State, played an even more important role after the massacre last December of more than 20 children and teachers in Newtown. Teddy bears were given to kids who attended the school along with letters of sympathy.

In Adelanto, Calif., parents of children who attend Desert Trails Elementary School are prepping up this week for the new school year. But this time, they won’t have to worry about sparring with the traditional district which has long run the school into the ground. This year, families control the governance of the school, with a charter school operator reporting to them on its overhaul. Desert Trails joins 24th Street Elementary in Los Angeles as the first schools families have taken full control of the schools serving their children through the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law.

Families in other parts of the state haven’t gone nearly as far. But as seen with parents of children attending Weigand Elementary School in the South Central section of L.A. (which ousted the school’s principal and demanded L.A. Unified put a better school leader in place), they have used the Parent Trigger law to equalize their positions at the education decision-making table and force changes that are not to the desire of either district bureaucrats or affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

Meanwhile Parent Power activists in other parts of the country are working to become lead decision-makers in education. This includes Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which successfully advocated for the launch of a new school voucher program; and Black Alliance for Educational Options, which helped gain passage of school choice legislation in Alabama, as well as supported the move by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to fund the Bayou State’s voucher program out of the state budget after the state supreme court’s wrongheaded ruling that it was unconstitutional to use the school funding formula to fund the program.

Then there is the work of other Parent Power activists such as Buffalo ReformEd, which continually pushes to reform the failing traditional district as well as inform families and others about such matters as how the district’s machinations with the AFT local there led New York State officials to withhold federal school improvement grant money for the overhaul of two of its worst high schools. Other Parent Power groups are just beginning to emerge, encouraged by the work of groups in other parts of the country.

Lets be clear: Not all of their efforts are ones with which Dropout Nation finds favor. The Texas Parents Union’s advocacy for House Bill 5, which essentially rolled back the array of reforms implemented over the past three decades, is wrongheaded because it will lead to the shortchanging of all children (including those from poor and minority backgrounds).

But part of the problem lies in part with the school reform movement’s own failure to build stronger ties with parents, especially those in the middle class. Nor have Parent Power activists and their allies succeeded everywhere. From Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s effort to convince state senators to vote down a proposed Parent Trigger law for the second straight year, to stillborn takeover efforts such as that by families who children attend Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn. (which is the subject of another suit by the Connecticut Parents Union), the reality remains that traditionalists, politicians, and even some reformers who should know better will do anything to oppose any effort by parents to do best by their children.

At the same time, the fact that so many families recognize that they should be active in structuring how schools serve their children is something that should be celebrated.

For one, Parent Power activists are working each day to end the disdain among traditionalists, including teachers’ union affiliates, and school officials, towards families whom they think are incapable of making smart decisions. This inherent distrust of families (especially Irish Catholic immigrant households of the 1840s, and black, Latino, and other minority and immigrant families of the last century), has always been at the heart of the traditional structure of American public education. As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III illustrated in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, teachers unions, school boards, superintendents and administrators considered parents and the groups that represented them to be little more than tools for their co-opting. When earlier generations of families rebelled against such condescension, traditionalists would do all they can to beat them down. The most-infamous example happened in 1968, when the AFT’s New York City local, with the help of Big Apple and New York State officials, squashed the efforts of the mostly-black families overseeing the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board to fire 13 teachers (along with administrators).

What these education traditionalists fail to realize — or admit — is that many families are no longer willing to accept this bargain. Poor and middle-class urban families long ago recognized that education is critical to revitalizing communities and helping their kids be prepared for successful futures in an increasingly knowledge-based economic future — and have long-concluded that traditional public education practices such as zoned schooling and ability tracking no longer work (if they ever did in the first place). Thanks to data on student, school, and teacher achievement unleashed as a result of developments such as Value-Added Assessment and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

More importantly, families are recognizing that the “experts” really don’t know what they are doing. The very practices championed by traditionalists — from near-lifetime employment for teachers regardless of their ability to help kids succeed, to the overuse of the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (especially among young black men, whose reading deficiencies are often diagnosed as being special ed problems) — are the underlying reason why schools fail to improve student achievement.These realities, along with the understanding that American public education spends $599 billion (as of 2011) abysmally, resulting in long-term pension and retired teacher healthcare burdens also weighs on their thoughts (and pocketbooks).

This isn’t to say that families fully understand all that is wrong with American public education; middle class families in suburbia, for example, still don’t full recognize the extent of the mediocrity plaguing suburban schools while poor and middle class urban households are far more aware of the extent of systemic education failure. What it does mean is that more families are demanding their rightful positions at the adult table of education as lead decision-makers, and are unwilling to go back to the little table and obediently go along with whatever their counterparts working in education demand. They want to be able to not only choose schools for their schools and not be restricted by Zip Code Education practices.

Even more, they want to actually what and how their children learn. This is why Parent Trigger laws are such important tools in advancing reform and engaging families. When families can take over and overhaul failing schools in their own neighborhoods (or merely force district bureaucracies to accept thwm as lead partners) they can take the steps needed to transform climates of failure into cultures of genius for our kids, expand the definition of choice beyond merely escaping failure, and rebuild the communities at which schools are the center.

This is already being seen in Adelanto, where two district board members were ousted last year after the district’s tactics in opposing the Desert Trails takeover (and that of NEA local officials) led citizens to challenge their incumbency. While not every Parent Trigger effort will lead to successful advocacy, Parent Power efforts can spur political action that benefits all children. More importantly, such advocacy helps even those families not engaged at such a level to become smarter in their school choices. This is because families no longer just defer to the advice of teachers and school leaders. And this is also a threat to traditionalists, who still.adhere to the myth of their own expertise even when it has proven long ago that it isn’t worth much.

For reformers, Parent Power offers opportunities for transforming American public education. But only if the movement is wiling to embrace it.

Far too many Beltway and institution-oriented reformers, more-interested in advancing their preferred solutions, disdain Parent Trigger laws as either encouraging divisiveness between families who may disagree over a school takeover, think parents aren’t knowledgeable enough to undertake school turnarounds (or make smart choices), and argue that the school choice approaches they favor are more useful.

As your editor has previously said, the first position ignores the reality that families deal amicably after other types of intra-community conflicts, while the second view fails to consider that families can figure out how to set up governance if they have high-quality information and are given advice by reformers in a respectful manner. And as I have noted in previous pieces, even when choice does fully flourish, families and communities will still want high-quality schools in their own neighorhoods; they should be able to overhaul the existing schools which, for better or worse, have long been part of the fabric of community life.

But the need for reformers to embrace Parent Power extends beyond supporting Parent Trigger laws. The school reform movement has long succeeded in spite of its small numbers, working with politicians in congressional corridors, statehouses, and city halls to pass laws that have helped more kids write their own stories. But small coalitions are not enough to sustain those efforts.

As seen this year in Texas with the passage of H.R. 5 and the Obama Administration’s move to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions (as well as with the pushback on implementation of Common Core reading and math standards), gains can be wiped out unless robust grassroots support, especially from families, is there to give political leaders cover. More importantly, when families aren’t being informed in simple yet sophisticated ways, they will sit on the sidelines or worse, support opponents of reform.

Reformers must also embrace Parent Power because it is the morally and intellectually honest thing to do. After all, these are the mothers and fathers of the boys and girls they love. More importantly, they are charged by the Creator and by society with nurturing, disciplining, and preparing their children to be good, knowledgeable, and productive adults. It is absolutely immoral and unacceptable to tell these families that they shouldn’t do everything they can to help their kids succeed — and absolutely repugnant to keep these families from exercising power on their children’s behalf.

School reformers have an opportunity to fully embrace Parent Power. And it starts with three steps.

The first? We must be ready to actively listen to families and engage them where they live. Green Dot and Future is Now Schools founder Steve Barr often makes the point that reformers going into urban communities must be willing to listen to community leaders and parents, who have been disappointed by earlier groups of outsiders. This active listening is also true for families regardless of their backgrounds. Once parents know that someone is listenng, they are willing to be allies.

The second step lies in providng families with high quality information — especially on how districts and adults working within them are helpingnkids get the knowledge they need — that is simple yet sophisticated and comprehensive. Useful data that can be used by families in making decisions leads to parents knowing better amd doing more.

Finally, reformers must do more than just praise Parent Power activists. After all, may of these groups are small and still need resources to sustain their efforts. They will also need assistance in building the internal capacity, including eveloping financial operations and controls. This is opportunity for both the nation’s biggest philanthropies working in reform as well as for individuals who want to provide the kind of funding and support usually done by venture capitalists in the private sector.

School reform cannot sustain be sustained for our children without the help of the mothers and fathers who love them. It is time to fully bring families into the fold.