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December 19, 2013 standard

There was plenty of news about the need for systemic reform that could be gleaned from yesterday’s release of 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress data for 21 big-city districts. The data clearly shows that districts aren’t doing enough to help more kids reach proficient and advanced levels of literacy and numeracy, a goal that is more-important than ever in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. But one thing must be kept in mind when analyzing the results: That districts, like states, can game results by excluding significant numbers of children condemned to special education ghettos and English Language Learner programs. After all, these students are the canaries in the proverbial coal mine of education because they, along with poor and minority children, are the ones served worst by American public education, and whose results, in turn, can expose how poorly districts are doing in providing high-quality teaching and comprehensive curricula.

To help shed light on the worst offenders, Dropout Nation has taken a look at exclusion rate data from the reading portion of NAEP 2013. The focus on reading is important because when kids can’t read, they won’t do well in mastering their other subjects, as well as because literacy is the area of greatest struggle for districts in general. This time around, the focus was on districts that excluded more than the 15 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders condemned to special ed and ELL ghettos (that is, included fewer than 85 percent) allowed on NAEP’s testing guidelines. Based on the analysis, it is clear that some big-city districts are clearly gaming the system, which raises questions about the legitimacy of their performance.

Among the worst offenders this year: Baltimore City, whose performance on this year’s NAEP — including a five percent decline in the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2011 and 2013 — seemingly validated the tenure of former schools boss (and now, candidate to become New York City chancellor) Andres Alonso. The district excluded a whopping 77 percent of fourth-graders condemned to special ed ghettos, by far the highest levels in that category; that rate is nearly five ties the 16 percent national average for excluding fourth-graders in special ed. Baltimore City also excluded 60 percent of fourth-grade ELL students, seven times the national average, and more than any other district. Baltimore also excluded 74 percent of eighth-graders in special ed, also the highest exclusion level of all districts participating in NAEP’s urban testing; this rate is five times the national average.

Does former Baltimore schools boss Andres Alonso deserve to become New York City chancellor? Not based on Baltimore’s high exclusion rates.

The high exclusion levels partly explain why Maryland’s exclusion rates — which have come under national scrutiny last month after Dropout Nation‘s analysis — were so high this year. Alonso and his former staffers should be questioned harshly by reformers and traditionalists alike for what can only be called test cheating.

Another offender this year is Jefferson County, Kentucky, the countywide district that serves Louisville, the Bluegrass State’s most-populous city. Jefferson County excluded 34 percent of fourth-grade ELL students, the second-highest levels of exclusion in that category after Baltimore. Jefferson County also excluded the second-highest level of eighth-grade special ed students after Baltimore, with 32 percent of those students left out of the test, double the 15 percent national average. Its exclusion rate of 29 percent of fourth-graders condemned to special ed is the fourth-highest in that category, nearly double the 16 percent national average.

Then there’s Dallas Independent School District. It excluded 36 percent of fourth-graders in special ed ghettos from NAEP; it also excluded 30 percent of fourth-graders in ELL ghettos. These high levels of exclusions may explain why Dallas managed to reduce the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic by three percentage points between 2011 and 2013. Dallas also excluded 26 percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos; it did only exclude eight percent of eighth-graders in ELL programs.

Reformers should ask Houston Supt. Terry Grier why he excluded so many kids from NAEP reading this year.

The Texas district wasn’t the only one with high exclusion rates. The Houston Independent School District, whose woeful performance on NAEP this year (including a five percentage point increase in the number of functionally illiterate fourth-graders) has been an embarrassment both to Superintendent Terry Grier and the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation (which awarded the district the Broad Prize this year for being the most-improved big city district), is also on the list of bad actors. Houston excluded 34 percent of fourth-graders in special ed and 30 percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos. Without the exclusions, Houston’s performance on NAEP would have likely been even worse.

These data points once again raise questions about whether Houston deserves plaudits from reformers — including the Broad Prize board of star-studded judges — for its efforts; those reformers, in particular, should demand the Broad Foundation to develop a more-thoughtful approach to awarding the prize (if not stop handing it out altogether).

Meanwhile in the Lone Star State capital of Austin, the district serving the city excluded 19 percent of fourth-graders in special ed from NAEP reading, and kept another 20 percent of eight-graders in special ed from taking the exam. The high levels of exclusions by Austin, along with Dallas and Houston, explain why the Lone Star State’s exclusion rates were so high on this year’s edition of the federal exam of student achievement. These facts, along with the state’s woeful performance on NAEP overall this year, should lead state legislators, who pushed to weaken accountability this year through the passage of House Bill 5, to reverse course. It is clear that district leaders are heeding the message of state leaders that systemic reform — and providing high-quality education to poor and minority kids — isn’t worth doing.

And let’s not forget good old Detroit, which continues to struggle academically in part because of the struggles faced by the district’s past emergency managers, Robert Bobb and Roy Roberts, to make headway on overhauling teaching and curricula. Bobb, in particular, found himself challenged by the district’s notoriously inept board on this front. Detroit excluded 33 percent of fourth-graders in special ed from NAEP reading, and kept another 32 percent of eighth-grader in special ed from taking the exam. These numbers, along with Detroit’s performance on NAEP this year, are reminders that it is time to shut down the traditional district and move to better models of providing education to Motown’s children.

Fourth Grade NAEP Reading 2013 Special Ed Exclusion Rate

 

DISTRICT

EXCLUSION %

Baltimore

77

Dallas

36

Houston

34

Detroit

33

Jefferson County

29

Fresno

24

Austin

19

Cleveland

19

L.A. Unified

19

Philadelphia

19

San Diego

19

Milwaukee

18

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Overall, 12 districts excluded more than 15 percent of fourth-graders in special ed ghettos. Another three districts excluded more than 15 percent of fourth-graders in ELL ghettos.

Fourth Grade NAEP Reading 2013 ELL Exclusion Rate

 

DISTRICT

EXCLUSION %

Baltimore

60

Jefferson County

34

Dallas

30

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Nine districts excluded more than 15 percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos. One district on the list: San Diego Unified, which was among the four finalists for this year’s Broad Prize; it excluded 16 percent of its eighth-graders in special ed ghettos along with another 19 percent of fourth-graders in special ed, from NAEP reading this year. Along with Houston and a number of other districts on this year’s dishonor roll, San Diego should be excluded from Broad Prize consideration until it get its act together. Just two districts, D.C. Public Schools and Miami-Dade, excluded more than 15 percent of eighth-graders in ELL ghettos.

Eighth Grade NAEP Reading 2013 Special Ed Exclusion Rate

 

DISTRICT

EXCLUSION %

Baltimore

74

Fresno

33

Detroit

32

Jefferson County

32

Houston

30

Dallas

26

Austin

20

L.A. Unified

18

San Diego

16

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Eighth Grade NAEP Reading 2013 ELL Exclusion Rate

 

DISTRICT

EXCLUSION %

D.C. Public Schools

23

Miami-Dade

18

Source: U.S. Department of Education

There were definitely some districts that behaved honorably on NAEP this year. New York City, for example, excluded just four percent of fourth-graders in special ed, seven percent of fourth-graders in ELL ghettos, three percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos, and eight percent of eighth graders in ELL programs. Albuquerque also fewer than 10 percent of kids in special ed and ELL ghettos; it excluded only four percent of fourth-graders in special ed, one percent of fourth-graders in ELL ghettos, seven percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos, and eight percent of eighth graders in ELL programs. Florida’s Hillsborough County district excluded only four percent of fourth-graders in special ed, one percent of fourth-graders in ELL ghettos, seven percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos, and eight percent of eighth graders in ELL programs. Atlanta, which is still emerging from the test-cheating scandal that embroiled it for the past few years, excluded just eight percent of fourth-graders in special ed and 10 percent of eight-graders in special ed.

But the bad news remains that far too many districts, like far too many states, are excluding the performance of their most-vulnerable children from being measured. When that happens, those districts are admitting in deed that they are doing poorly by these children. More importantly, these districts are also admitting that they are engaging in another form of test fraud. Reformers must call out these districts and their school leaders harshly for their educational abuse of children in their care.

October 25, 2013 standard

Over the past two years, Dropout Nation has been among the few publications and school reformers pointing out the folly of the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability measures. From detailing how the initiative overall would weaken the goals of forcing states and districts to take responsibility for how they educate poor and minority kids as well as incapacitate the decade of strong reform efforts which the law’s accountability provisions helped usher, to pointing out the administration’s shoddy policymaking practices (including granting waivers to states in spite of questions raised by those reviewing the proposals about whether the promises made would be fulfilled), it has long ago been clear to DN‘s editors that the gambit should have never been undertaken. And this publication’s warnings about the Obama Administration’s gambit have come to fruition over the past three months as it has begun threatening to end waivers for states such as Oregon and Oklahoma over their failures to implement promised reforms.

So it is nice to see the letter released this week by 13 groups, including StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform and Educators for Excellence calling out the Obama Administration for shoddy implementation of the waiver gambit and demanding that it “uphold its responsibility to monitor waiver implementation”. At the same time, it would have been better if these groups, along with other reform outfits — especially those aligned with centrist Democrats who initially cheered on the administration’s gambit — held the administration’s feet to the fire two years ago when Dropout Nation and a few others were chiding the entire effort in the first place. What these reformers should do now is call upon the Obama Administration to call off the waiver gambit, fully embrace the approach to accountability put in place under No Child, and begin negotiating with congressional leaders on a reauthorization of the law as it should have done a long time ago.

The problems of the Obama Administration’s No Child waivers were apparent even before U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan formally announced the effort two years ago. The plan to let states to focus on just the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps) effectively allowed districts not under watch (including suburban districts whose failures in serving poor and minority kids was exposed by No Child) off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. The overall plan to eviscerate AYP also took away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families from being the lead decision-makers reformers need them to be in order for overhauls to gain traction, while eliminating data that researchers and policymakers need to see how districts are progressing in improving student achievement.

But the problems with the waivers became even more apparent last year after the administration granted waivers during the first two rounds of the gambit. Duncan and other U.S. Department of Education officials ignored concerns raised by the peer review panel charged by the administration with vetting the waiver proposals. The administration granted waivers to states such as New York, New Mexico, and Oklahoma failed to consult with American Indian tribes on waiver plans as required by the administration’s own rules for the waiver process, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and under treaties between tribes and states themselves. The administration also failed to fully address other concerns: For example, it granted Georgia a waiver in spite of concerns that it didn’t include graduation rate data for poor and minority kids into its proposed accountability system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, which effectively meant that “a school could earn a high CCRPI with low graduation rates for some subgroups”.

Meanwhile other concerns about the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit kept creeping up. The administration effectively allowed many of the states granted waivers to game graduation rates, providing inaccurate information on the performance of districts and other school operators in helping kids stay on the path to lifelong success. Indiana, Louisiana, and South Dakota, for example, were allowed to count General Education Development certificates in their graduation rate calculations, in spite of decades of evidence that has long-ago showed that GEDs are not what comedian Chris Rock once called good enough diplomas, and that the ex-dropouts who gain GEDs fare as badly as dropouts who never go back for such shoddy credentials The administration also allowed graduation rates to account for fewer than a third of performance on the respective accountability indexes of waiver states — and in the case of Kentucky, just 14 percent of performance — essentially allowing dropout factories, ostensibly, the focus of the waiver gambit, to slip under the radar.

There was the fact that the Obama Administration boldly, in fact, proudly, granted waivers to states which hadn’t fully put their proposed reforms in place. Connecticut, for example, was granted a waiver even though the teacher evaluation program it had told the administration it would put in place is only in pilot form, with only eight-to-ten districts participating in it. Meanwhile Ohio was granted a waiver even though it has not formally put a accountability system in place, a key condition set by the administration for being allowed to evade No Child’s AYP approach to holding school operators accountable. New York State was granted a waiver even though it has been widely known that the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State affiliate and Big Apple local were battling fiercely against implementation by New York City and other districts.

Then there was Virginia, which was granted a waiver in June 2012 by the Obama Administration in spite of its longstanding unwillingness to embrace systemic reform as well as address the low quality of teaching and curricula provided to poor and minority children. The administration’s decision led to its embarrassment two months later when Watchdog VA‘s revelation that it allowed the Old Dominion to set Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that only require districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students (and 65 percent of Latino peers) are proficient in math by 2016-2017. Thanks to outrage from groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Virginia branch, which laudably pushed back against those low expectations, the administration had to force the state to revise its targets. But the administration approved efforts by other states, including Tennessee and Michigan, to define proficiency down for poor and minority children.

Certainly many of the Obama Administration’s goals for the waiver gambit — including spurring reforms that will help kids achieve success in higher education and in career — are laudable. But the administration did not need to eviscerate No Child in order to accomplish them. In fact, the administration could have accomplished nearly all of its goals by working within the framework set by No Child, as well as by working with congressional leaders, either on fully reauthorizing No Child or passing add-on legislation. But because the administration has decided to conduct its policymaking in a reckless manner drive more by the desire of Obama and Duncan to leave their mark on federal education policy, they failed to build thoughtfully on No Child’s solid, sensible, and comprehensive approach to accountability. The consequences — from allowing states to render poor and minority kids invisible altogether through such subterfuges as lumping all of subgroups into a so-called super subgroup category, to ignoring the failures of suburban districts to improve education for all children, to intolerable incoherence in federal education policy — were clear from the beginning.

Even worse, other consequences are also emerging from the gambit that are essentially weakening systemic reform on the ground. From the move by Texas to pass House Bill 5, which derailed three decades of successful reforms undertaken in the Lone Star State, to the decision last month by California Gov. Jerry Brown to ditch all but a few of its battery of tests (and ditch accountability altogether), the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit has effectively signaled to traditionalists and others that it is perfectly okay to return to the bad old days before No Child when futures of poor and minority children were allowed to be cast into the economic and social abyss. And because the Obama Administration has followed up on its waiver gambit with other senseless decisions — including Duncan’s move this past June to allow waiver states a one-year moratorium from fully implementing teacher evaluation systems they promised to put into place in order to allay opposition from teachers’ unions and others to the use of exams aligned with Common Core reading and math standards — the waiver gambit has also made it harder for reform-minded politicians to push ahead on transforming education for kids. This can be seen in New York State where Education Commissioner John King is battling both Common Core foes and the AFT’s Empire State affiliate over all aspects of implementing standards and teacher evaluations.

 

This all could have been avoided if reformers, especially centrist Democrats who initially championed the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit, pushed against either the effort overall or the worst aspects of it. This includes conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who have supported plans from House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander that propose to do exactly what the Obama waiver gambit has accomplished. Certainly a few reformers, notably those of a civil rights orientation, have battled strongly against the waiver gambit; this includes Alliance for Excellent Education, which has rallied organizations, along with congressional leaders such as Rep. George Miller (who helped craft No Child) to beat back against the administration’s efforts to allow states to game graduation rates. This is also true for those who helped put No Child into place such as Sandy Kress and Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor as secretary of education. But other reformers have sat on the sidelines, cowardly silent about the problems of the waiver gambit, inexcusably failing to remember that education policymaking is about clear communication in action of the expectations we have for our society to ensure that every child is provided high-quality education.

This lack of strong leadership within the movement is inexcusable and unacceptable. By not holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on the waivers, reformers have ceded plenty of moral and intellectual high ground, essentially promoting the very soft bigotry of low expectations that they declare they oppose. In standing by the administration instead of calling it out for shoddy policymaking, reformers have also given traditionalists ammunition in battling against other reforms they support. In the process, they have made it harder for themselves and for the new generation of reformers who are now emerging from Parent Power and grassroots communities. Their inaction has also set back three decades of strong reforms for children.

It may not yet be too late for reformers to push against the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit — and reverse the damage that it has wrought. But time is running out.

October 7, 2013 standard

One of the problems with some in the school reform movement is that they form cults of personality around school leaders and others without fully considering whether they should even be worthy of such high regard. Just because a superintendent or principal talks the proverbial talk doesn’t necessarily mean they take the actions to match. The latest example of this thoughtlessness can be seen in New York City, where reformers are touting speculation that Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio may appoint former Baltimore chief executive officer Andres Alonso as chancellor of the traditional district if he wins next month’s general election. For reformers inside and out of the Big Apple set on edge by de Blasio’s declarations that he may effectively kibosh the expansion of charter schools if he wins office, the news about Alonso (who now holds a professorship at Harvard University’s ed school after his six-year tenure as Baltimore’s district boss) is beyond pleasing to their ears.

Your editor generally ignores rumors and alleged short lists of candidates. After all, those lists are usually little more than the hopes and dreams of campaign staffers and fundraisers, not real names actually being considered by contenders. But let’s say Alonso is truly under consideration. Your editor wonders why would de Blasio choose Alonso over anyone else? I also ask why would reformers tout him? Because Alonso has not demonstrated why the movement (or any mayor) should give him such confidence. Sure, he is a protégé of former chancellor Joel Klein, and certainly, he has engaged in high-profile efforts to address the low educational attainment among young men of all races that is the most-pernicious symptom of the nation’s education crisis. But Alonso isn’t necessarily the results-oriented school leader the Big Apple and its children need to build on the last decade of successful reform.

Alonso did achieve some success while serving as Baltimore schools chief. He successfully pushed the American Federation of Teachers’ local to agree on including student performance data in teacher evaluations, reduced the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that help put far too many kids on the path to dropping out (and fail to address the illiteracy and academic struggles that lead kids to act out in the first place), and launched an intra-district school choice effort for middle- and high school students. Alonso also proved to be the rare school leader willing to publicly expose test-cheating by three schools and hold principals accountable for the fraud; he fired two principals last year after evidence of test fraud was revealed schools over the objection of the American Federation of School Administrators affiliate. And through the Fair Student Funding weighted student finance effort, which put 80 percent of the district’s budget into the hands of principals on the ground, Alonso managed to slowly move the district away from dome of the worst aspects of the traditional district model.

As a result of Alonso’s work, Baltimore’s five-year promoting power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) increased from 70 percent for the Class of 2007 to 80 percent for the Class of 2011, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. The percentage of Baltimore fourth-graders performing Below Basic in math (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) declined from 36 percent to 32 percent between 2009 and 2011. And out of school suspensions declined by 27 percent between 2006 and 2009 (the most recent years available), based on DN analysis of federal civil rights data.

Yet Alonso didn’t accomplish nearly enough to keep B’More’s children, especially young black men, off the path to economic and social despair.

The percentage of Baltimore fourth-graders reading Below Basic increased from 58 percent to 60 percent in between 2009 and 2011. For all of Alonso’s high-profile efforts to address the district’s struggles with educating young men — including an initiative funded by hedge fund billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations — Alonso accomplished little. The percentage of young men in fourth grade who read Below Basic increased from 62 percent to 66 percent in the same period (the percentage of functionally illiterate female peers increased from 55 percent to 56 percent in the same period); 69 percent of young black men in fourth-grade eligible for subsidized school lunch read Below Basic in 20011, a two percentage point increase over 2009. Not only did Baltimore retain its place as the seventh-worst big city district (among those participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment) in literacy for young black men in fourth-grade (after Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, D.C. Public Schools, Fresno, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles), it did even worse that Motown, which reduced fourth-grade illiteracy by three percentage points during the same period.

Under Alonso, Baltimore only managed to bring down the number of eighth-grade young black men reading Below Basic declined by two percentage points between 2009 and 2011, a level of decline lower than that for six other cities, including Detroit (which decreased the percentage of eighth-grade young men who were functionally illiterate by 10 percentage points). The percentage of young black eighth-grade men from college educated homes who read Below Basic proficiency increased by three percentage points (from 46 percent to 49 percent) in that period. Literacy levels weren’t much better for young black women; the percentage of young black women from college-educated homes mired in illiteracy increased by one percentage point (from 39 percent to 40 percent) in that same period.

Certainly the lack of progress isn’t all Alonso’s fault. As Dropout Nation noted earlier this year after Alonso resigned as Baltimore superintendent, it is difficult for any traditional district chief executive to overhaul operations. Big city district bosses wear out their welcome after three or four years largely because they lack the political constituencies within districts to sustain their tenures. In the case of Alonso, his longer-than-usual tenure in Baltimore was due to the structure of the district’s board which, because Maryland’s governor and the city’s mayor appoint all but one of the board seats, is more akin to the mayoral control arrangement that has made overhauls of New York City, Boston, Chicago go more successfully than to that of traditional districts, whose boards are elected, and thus, are under the influence of AFT and National Education Association affiliates. But with the board under pressure to weaken Alonso’s hand in order to keep up appearances, and the dysfunctional city government taking back control of the district (even as it struggles to handle basic quality-of-life issues such as increasing levels of crime), Alonso likely did as much as he could given the hand he was given.

At the same time, however, Alonso made plenty of mistakes of his own. Particularly in the area of improving education for young black and other men in Baltimore’s care, Alonso’s penchant for flashy projects such as an effort to use art in addressing the effects of low-quality education on young black men came at the expense of failing to provide them with intensive reading remediation and improvements in quality of literacy instruction. The series of interventions rolled out by Baltimore to address literacy — including use of the Fountas and Pinnell guided reading program sold by textbook publisher Heinemann — aren’t helping kids build up their comprehension (and become proficient and advanced in their literacy) because they are not given the challenging books and lessons focused on central concepts of their reading that they need. Alonso could have easily took steps to provide Baltimore’s children to be identified and provided with comprehensive reading instruction in order for them to get up to speed. This never happened under his watch. As a result, more of B’More’s children struggle with literacy. And for that, Alonso cannot escape blame.

These results should be more than enough for reformers to be a little more circumspect about championing Alonso for the Big Apple’s top school chieftain spot. But irrational exuberance has been at times a problem for the movement. As seen last month with the kudos given to the Houston Independent School District for winning its second Broad Prize (and the criticism of folks such as Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners and I, for daring to say that the movement shouldn’t celebrate districts for just doing their job), reformers are sometimes searching so hard for examples of success that they forget their mission: Transforming American public education so that all children can write their own stories. It is unacceptable for reformers to simply congratulate districts and other school operators for succeeding in improving graduation rates and basic literacy when society and the economy is demanding that our children gain the high-level knowledge needed for success in higher education (from traditional college to apprenticeships in high-paying blue-collar professions) and career. It is even less acceptable for the movement to tout school leaders whose past and current districts haven’t even achieved those basic levels.

While Alonso may be a favored son of the movement, he shouldn’t be the choice to lead New York City’s schools at a time when it must also undertake much-needed reforms in order to build upon the imperfect success of the last decade. Whoever becomes Big Apple mayor should take a pass on him at least for now. And school reformers must be smarter in who they choose to champion.

September 19, 2013 standard

 

Amid revelations last year of the scandal enveloping the Los Angeles Unified School District over the long careers of criminally abusive teachers such as former Miramonte Elementary School instructor Mark Berndt — and news about how difficult it was for districts to remove such laggards from classrooms — California legislators had a chance to do right by our children. This could have been done by passing Senate Bill 1530, which would have allowed districts to remove teachers accused as well as convicted) of criminally abusing children. But four state assembly members, at the urging of the National Education Association’s and American Federation of Teachers’ Golden State affiliates, successfully blocked its passage by not voting for the bill. [Two others were at least honest enough to publicly vote against it.] Meanwhile Gov. Jerry Brown took no action to back the bill or to get legislators to do the right thing. The public outrage was so fierce that one of the gang of four, Betsy Butler, lost her seat that November to former Santa Monica mayor Richard Bloom.

So the state legislature had another opportunity to do the right thing for kids by passing a law making it easier for districts to remove criminally abusive teachers. In fact, the legislature could have easily took the language from SB 1530 and passed it in another bill. But this being California, and the legislature being beholden to the NEA’s and AFT’s affiliates, they didn’t do anything of the sort.  Instead, Golden State legislators passed Assembly Bill 375, which will actually make it even harder for districts to remove alleged and convicted child abusers who find their ways into positions of trust in our schools. [Butler's successor, Bloom, by the way, voted for the bill in August, but didn't offer any vote when the final version was approved last week.] Gov. Brown, whose miserable failures on this and nearly every other aspect of education policy has been chronicled by this publication, especially in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on education leadership, has an opportunity to finally do the right thing for kids by vetoing this bill. He should take it up with gusto.

Under AB 375, which was sponsored by Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Joan Buchanan (who voted against passage of SB 1530), the process for removing criminally abusive teachers would last just seven months instead of as long as seven years under the lengthy current process. But as a favor to NEA and AFT affiliates, AB 375 only allows a district to provide the testimony of four abused children (and five witnesses altogether) who can testify on behalf of the district against a teacher.[Accused teachers can only provide testimony from five witnesses as well.] While supporters of the bill argue that limiting witness testimony will help speed up the process, it actually works against due process both for children in schools (who are the victims and for who the district is essentially representing in removal proceedings) and even for alleged perpetrators themselves. More importantly, because the administrative law judge has plenty of leeway under the bill to extend the proceedings beyond the seven-month period for the nebulous “good cause” (instead of for “extraordinary circumstances” as required under SB 1530), it could still take years before a district successfully removes a criminally abusive teacher from the classroom. Which would end up giving districts no incentive to do the right thing by children in their care.

Meanwhile AB 375 further stifles districts from preventing them to amend a dismissal complaint in order to include new charges and evidence of abuse that often come out after a teacher’s acts become publicly known. This means that a district that learns of even more-heinous criminal behavior  during the period the teacher had served cannot bring up information that is relevant to the case itself. There’s also the fact that the rules governing who can sit on the three-member panel used to hear cases still requires that one person is a teacher who works in the same subject area and grade as the criminally abusive teacher; as Bill Lucia, the president of school reform group EdVoice points out in a letter to Brown this week calling for the veto, this rule means that an English teacher can’t sit on a case involving criminal abuse by a kindergarten teacher even though subject matter has nothing to do with cases involving alleged and proven criminal (and moral) misbehavior.

These problems alone should lead Brown to veto AB 375. At the same time, there are three other reasons why he shouldn’t sign this bill. The first: The bill essentially makes a mockery of the California constitution’s own promise that the state will provide children with schools that are “safe, secure and peaceful” because it doesn’t fulfill it. Constitutions are not merely laws, but covenants between governments and the people who live within states, and the promises within them should be honored properly. The second reason: It would be immoral for Brown to do anything but veto it. For far too long, the state, along with NEA and AFT affiliates, have backed state laws that effectively make it almost impossible for districts to fulfill their moral obligation to remove those teachers who have engaged in criminal neglect and abuse of children in their care. Allowing AB 375 to come into law would be morally repulsive, intellectually dishonest, and abhorrent violation of one’s obligation to their fellow men, women, and children.

The third reason: It is an opportunity for Brown to prove that he and his fellow Democrats who control state government aren’t so beholden to the NEA and AFT that they will do anything they demand. For all of Brown’s pretensions of being independent, the governor and his allies, including Supt. Tom Torlakson, have proven all too willing to do traditionalist bidding. This was clearly displayed last week when Brown announced that he would sign Assembly Bill 484, which would eviscerate all but four of the Golden State’s tests (and thus, effectively ending accountability in the state that is needed to help all children get high-quality teaching and comprehensive curricula). And after the move this past April at the state Democratic Party convention to condemn fellow Democrats in the party who are at the vanguard of reforming American public education, the California branch of the Democratic National Committee has proven to be nothing more than a collection of cowards willing to ignore their moral and political obligation to kids in exchange for the coffers of teachers’ union bosses and their allies in traditional districts.

Gov. Brown has one more chance this year to do the right thing by California’s children. Vetoing AB 375 would be that good thing.

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

September 11, 2013 standard

There will be plenty of questions among school reformers, both nationwide and in New York City, about whether either Democratic nominee for Mayor Bill de Blasio or Republican rival Joseph Lhota will continue the legacy of strong systemic reform that has been the hallmark of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years at City Hall. But before one can come to any conclusions one way or another, consider what happened after the mayoral race in Washington, D.C., three years. A look at what has happened to reform in D.C. since that election should help reformers keep in mind that advancing systemic reform isn’t necessarily dependent on whose holding the top municipal office.

As many of you remember, there were fears among reformers, including yours truly, that the overhaul of D.C. Public Schools launched by then-mayor Adrian Fenty with the help of Michelle Rhee would fall apart after Fenty lost the Democratic primary that year to rival Vincent Gray. For good reason. Gray had the backing of the American Federation of Teachers and its Beltway local, which spent $1 million to back his successful ouster of Fenty from the John Wilson Building and become the next mayor. These concerns were elevated weeks later when Rhee stepped down as chancellor of the traditional district, and led to alarm after Gray announced that his transition committee on education would include Nathan Saunders, then the president of the AFT affiliate.

But three years later, one can safely say that Gray has not only stayed on the path Fenty had set for systemic reform, but even sustained it. Certainly the district is nowhere near where it should be in improving student achievement. But it is no longer the superfund site of American public education. The presence of a vibrant coalition of school reform advocates, which began developing at the turn of the 20th century with the efforts of proto-Parent Power activist Virginia Walden Ford and bolstered by the efforts of then-city councilman Kevin Chavous and Mayor Anthony Williams to expand school choice, is one reason why Gray has had to stay on course. The presence of Rhee’s protégé and successor as chancellor, Kaya Henderson, overseeing the district, along with the roles being played on the ground by organizations such as the Grassroots Education Project, media outlets such as the Washington Post, established leaders such as United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax, and black and white families demanding high-quality education have long ago set a reform agenda that Gray cannot oppose — especially as his administration remains under the cloud of scandal related to his maiden campaign for top city office. That the Obama Administration, along with the national media, is keeping a watchful eye on D.C. affairs on the school reform front, also ensures that Gray toes the line.

But perhaps the biggest reason why Gray has stayed the course on systemic reform lies with the fact that voters three years ago didn’t elect him to put a kibosh on reform in the first place. In fact, it was the support for Rhee (who, despite her Churchillian manner and the racial politics that are always a reality in urban affairs) that led Gray to beat Fenty by a much-closer margin than one watching D.C. politics could have imagined. Most voters had enough with Fenty’s tenure, which was littered with spats with the city council, incidents of alleged cronyism, a high-profile snub of Dorothy Height, a doyenne of the city’s black political elite, and a high-profile jailbreak from the city’s juvenile detention center that left whatever reputation he still had as an effective city manager in tatters. Fenty even managed to bruise the egos of the very school reformers who were keeping his campaign afloat by failing to appear at a debate sponsored by the Young Education Professionals of D.C. But just because they were ready to give Fenty the heave-ho doesn’t mean that they wanted his school reform agenda to disappear with him.

Adrian Fenty’s unsuccessful re-election campaign for D.C. mayor is a reminder that big-city leaders must both be reformers and attend to other city concerns.

The fact that school reform wasn’t the reason why either Gray won or Fenty lost shouldn’t have been a surprise for either D.C.’s reformers or traditionalists — and it shouldn’t be a surprise for their respective colleague in either New York City or the nation. Mayoral control may increasingly become the normal form of governance in America’s big cities. It will likely become the norm even in counties throughout the southern states, including in Maryland — home to Dropout Nation — where county chief executives such as Rushern Baker of Prince George’s County are successfully pushing for at least partial control of woeful traditional districts. But for most big-city residents, the role of mayors as school reformers-in-chief is still rather novel and recent, especially since most districts in this country are still run by independent school boards. More importantly, education is just one of many concerns on their minds. Mayors must also master the other aspects of their job: Keeping crime low; attending to quality of life issues; efficiently managing city government; and artfully keeping opponents (and sometimes, even allies) divided or placated.

Fenty’s loss three years ago has long ago proven that reform-minded mayors who fail in addressing the more-immediate quality-of-life issues on the minds of residents — or worse, prove to be arrogant and incompetent at the same time — will lose their jobs. Same with Bart Peterson’s unsuccessful campaign for re-election as Indianapolis mayor after his success in becoming the nation’s first mayor to authorize charter schools was overmatched by his failures to stem rising crime, clamp down on vagrancy and vandalism, and unwillingness to face down Democrat allies on the city-county council more-concerned with graft and race-baiting than with sensible fiscal management. For those who aspire to be municipal chief executives, two things are clear: Proclaiming themselves to be reform-minded mayors can only be done after they address the concerns that will often be more-immediate on the minds of voters. And reformers, in turn, must continually make the case for systemic reform — and look to other approaches to transforming education in big cities — regardless of who occupies City Hall.

This is particularly true in the case of the New York City mayor’s race. Big Apple reformers and their traditionalists rivals spent plenty of time listening to the sloganeering and promises of candidates such as de Blasio, Lhota, and disgraced congressman-turned-even more disgraced candidate Anthony Weiner at various events throughout the city. Reformers were brought to fears — and traditionalists to cheers — in July after the American Federation of Teachers’ local, the United Federation of Teachers, gave its endorsement (and rallied its members to support) William Thompson, a former city comptroller who had also served as president of the city Department of Education’s notoriously-inept board before Bloomberg successfully took over the district in 2001.

What both sides failed to consider is a much-bigger issue on the minds of New York City residents: The use of stop-and-frisk police procedures that had become a much-controversial (and not necessarily all that successful) aspect of Bloomberg’s crime-fighting. de Blasio successfully played upon the complaints of the Big Apple’s black and Latino communities over the use of stop-and-frisk by declaring throughout his campaign that he opposed it and would put it to an end; the fact that de Blasio is married to an African-American woman and has a son who could easily be targeted by police with the tactic, gave him a credibility that his Democrat rivals — including Thompson (a longtime supporter of stop-and-frisk) didn’t have. Reformers didn’t give stop-and-frisk much thought. But they should have. They could have at least noted how the use of the tactic exemplifies how suspensions and expulsions are overused by traditional and charter schools in the city at the expense of young black men, or even noting the connections between improving student achievement and continuing the success of Bloomberg and predecessor Rudolph Giuliani in stemming crime (and keeping New York from experiencing the bad old days of the 1970s and early 1980s).

Meanwhile voters weren’t likely worried about either de Blasio’s or Lhota’s positions on continuing Bloomberg’s systemic reforms. Why? Because it doesn’t weigh nearly as heavily on their minds as stop-and-frisk (and their general exhaustion with Bloomberg’s 12 years in office). More importantly, it is also likely that they don’t expect either man to stray far from Bloomberg’s direction in the first place. Certainly de Blasio’s declaration that he would essentially end Bloomberg’s practice of allowing charters to share space with traditional district schools in half-empty buildings is disconcerting to any sensible reformer. But it is unlikely that any of the contenders would hand back control of the district to an independent school board if they took office because it is something no Big Apple mayor would do; save for the disgraceful tenures of John V. Lindsay and Abraham Beame (the latter having had to essentially place the city into state receivership in the form of a financial control board), past New York City mayors — including the late Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Bloomberg — are renowned for their constant pursuit of accumulating power (and zealously defending it against governors, legislators, and unions). Neither de Blasio nor rival Lhota, no matter which one wins, will be any different.

Joe Lhota. Photo courtesy of the Daily News.

No matter who wins, they would have a hard time straying from Bloomberg’s course. For one, there is the very presence of Bloomberg, who will use his considerable fortune and public stature to preserve his legacy. There’s also New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a strong supporter of mayoral control who has made clear he would put failing districts throughout the state under such arrangements (if not put them out of business altogether) — Education Commissioner John King, and Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch (who has deep pockets of her own to keep reform on the right path). Meanwhile the vibrant coterie of school reformers in the Big Apple — including the likes of Harlem Children’s Zone boss Geoffrey Canada, former chancellor (and News Corp. executive) Joel Klein, Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies, as well as StudentsFirst’s New York City affiliate and the editorial pages of the Daily News and New York Post — will also make life for anyone who wins the right to sleep in Gracie Mansion to stray far from advancing reform. This, by the way, doesn’t even factor in the presence of several of the nation’s biggest institutional players in school reform, including Teach For America (where one of de Blasio’s former staffers now serves), TNTP, and the KIPP chain of charter schools. Based on the results of yesterday’s Democratic primary — with AFT-backed Thompson coming in far behind de Blasio (with 26 percent of the vote versus de Blasio’s 40 percent) — one can easily say that traditionalists have even less traction in the Big Apple than school reformers.

This isn’t to say that either de Blasio or Lhota will do well in following Bloomberg’s stead, or won’t diverge in some ways from the incumbent’s approach. Or if either man has the chops to be mayor in the first place. After all, New York City has long alternated between strong, competent mayors (La Guardia, Koch, and Giuliani), and weak, feckless incompetents (William O’Dwyer, Lindsay, and David Dinkins). The fact that the Big Apple has had two highly-regarded mayors in a row (and that three of the last four have done well by the city) is a trend that may or may not continue. Both men have emerged from what is likely the most-lackluster field of mayoral aspirants since 1973, before your editor was born. Lhota’s tenure as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gives him a stronger standing on the competence front that de Blasio (who currently occupies the largely-ceremonial Public Advocate job) lacks, it doesn’t mean that either man can run the city.

It will be interesting to see what will the victor do after Election Day to keep the well-regarded Dennis Walcott as chancellor, or, if they don’t, who will be placed in Walcott’s stead. Reformers will have to lobby hard to ensure that the victor chooses a chancellor who will be the equal to Walcott or Klein — and not be another Cathy Black (whose brief tenure as Klein’s successor and Walcott’s predecessor was one of Bloomberg’s worst decisions on the education front). Reformers also must volunteer themselves to help the eventual winner in his transition just to make sure that reform remains on the right path. Most-importantly, the movement must continue to bring new voices and supporters into the fold, especially in the grassroots among families and community leaders who want better lives for the children they love. The failure to build a more-robust base of grassroots support, especially in your editor’s home borough of Queens (where charter schools have not gained traction in spite of the need for high-quality schools in New York’s most-populous and suburban-like area) has been one of the shortcomings of both Bloomberg and the movement. Bodies on the ground lead to sustained reforms for the long haul.

Meanwhile the very failure of the AFT affiliate and its president, Michael Mulgrew, to muster enough support for Thompson points to another reality: That teachers’ union clout is weakened once they must attempt to wield it in city-wide elections in which quality-of-life concerns (and the general skepticism of residents mindful of how woeful traditional schools were before mayoral control) trump their efforts to defend declining influence. This is especially true when one considers that the AFT’s decision to back Thompson ran counter to the moves by other unions such as the Service Employees International Union’s Big Apple affiliate to support de Blasio’s candidacy; the coffers and bodies of the city’s largest union put bodies dwarfed those of the AFT. The fact that the AFT chose the wrong candidate to back in the Democratic primary will make it difficult for it to win de Blasio over to his side on most matters because he owes them nothing. Particularly for Mulgrew, who has been criticized by some within the AFT’s rank-and-file for backing Thompson, de Blasio’s victory will serve as a reminder of Mulgrew’s fecklessness to both Baby Boomers within AFT ranks and younger, more reform-minded colleagues. But as Mike Antonucci pointed out today, the failure of the AFT’s endorsement to garner any success at the polls is also a sign that the continued intransigence of the union against reform may actually make its endorsements a badge of dishonor for any candidate for high office.

In any case, this week’s primary results serve as another reminder that as important as it is to transform American public education, it isn’t the only concern. Reformers must keep this in mind. They must continue to build networks to sustain reform regardless of who wins office, and find ways to tie immediate concerns with the long-term need to help all children succeed.

Photo of Bill de Blasio and his family courtesy of the Daily News.

February 21, 2013 standard

One supposes there is something of value in the latest edition of MetLife’s annual survey of the nation’s teaching and school leadership corps. I guess. Your editor has to agree with Education Week scribe Steve Sawchuk’s assertion that the survey tends to be more of a Rorschach Test for your positions on transforming American public education than a reliable indicator of what is going on in districts and school operations. I am personally skeptical of MetLife survey in large part because the conclusions reached by its authors tend to ignore their own results.

There is the fact that 82 percent of teachers surveyed are either “very” or “somewhat satisfied” with their jobs; this a point that the authors fail to note even as they proclaim that teacher satisfaction continues to decline. But even if satisfaction is a rather loaded term. For most of us, that can depend on the environment in which we work, the ability to do meaningful activities that achieve ultimate goals, the level of autonomy given to get work done, the amount of ridiculousness with which you must deal with either from colleagues, supervisors, or clients, and how much of the demands you are facing you feel don’t make sense (even if from the perspective of customers and leaders, it most-certainly does). When it comes to the nation’s four million teachers, this can be even more varied. A teacher working in the woeful districts in Detroit or Indianapolis, for example, will have a different view of their own satisfaction than a teacher working in a reform-minded district such as New York City, or even an instructor working in suburbia; there are also different reasons for the dissatisfaction based on the years a teacher has worked in a district (and how comfortable they have gotten with not being subjected to any kind of performance management).

There’s also the differences be a newly-hired teacher, a longtime veteran heading into retirement, or even a mid-career teacher . For the latter two, in particular, the changes to the profession brought upon by systemic reform — including the use of objective student performance data in teacher evaluations — can be quite a cause for dissatisfaction, even if the changes being wrought are beneficial both for kids and their younger colleagues. Even the teachers’ own quality of work makes a difference in deciding whether they are or aren’t satisfied. High-quality teachers may not always be very satisfied with their work product, while laggards often are; laggards also tend to be the biggest screamers in teachers’ lounges, so that matters too. The reality is that the teaching profession is changing — and must change — in order to help all students get a high-quality education. Which means that those in the profession and aspiring teachers coming into it must have the talent necessary to deal with the sophisticated, hard work it always was (as well as becoming). And not every teacher currently working in the profession will want to adjust to these realities.

Meanwhile the survey’s revelation that 97 percent of teachers give high ratings to their colleagues is rather meaningless largely because most instructors are solo practitioners who work in silos, and therefore can’t really provide good judgement on how well their colleagues do in classrooms. Considering that many teachers also lack the subject-matter competency, strong knowledge of instructional method, and entrepreneurial self-starter ability needed to be high-quality professionals — a fault largely attributable to the failures of the nation’s university schools of education — one has to greet that particular survey result with skepticism. This is also true for the results of principal’s perceptions of teacher quality; as Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha made clear in his special report on school leadership, far too many principals see themselves more as colleagues of teachers with higher job titles than as school leaders charged with smartly ascertaining the quality of their staffs. Given that far too many principals also lack the strong training needed to properly manage teacher performance (or their entire buildings), along with the reality that most still don’t have enough authority to actually make hiring and firing decisions, you can’t give much credence to the survey results on that front.

All that said, the MetLife survey does offer some decent data on the reality facing principals that their roles as school leaders are changing. And for reformers, the results point to the need to overhaul how we train school leaders at all levels — as well as abandon the traditional district model — in order to build cultures of genius that help all of our children succeed.

The fact that 53 percent of principals surveyed admit that evaluating teacher quality is either challenging or very challenging (as well as the statement by 46 percent of their colleagues that such decisions aren’t all that challenging to them) points to two realities. The first? That far too many of our school leaders don’t always know how to use objective data (including student surveys and Value-Added test score growth evidence) to make smart decisions in staffing decisions. The second: The fact that most districts still don’t provide principals with the tools to make such decisions. Certainly the opposition of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates in using objective data in teacher evaluations is part of the problem. So is the fact that many states are still struggling to develop data systems that allow for such data to be useful in making staffing decisions. But save for the likes of New York City, most districts have not invested in data systems or information technology infrastructures on their own in order to equip their school leaders to overcome those obstacles. And the fact that most teacher performance management and hiring decisions remain the province of central office bureaucrats (along with practices such as seniority-based assignment rules) all but ensures that school leaders can’t either make such decisions or develop the skills needed to make smart decisions in the first place. Of course, the fact that central district bureaucracies often tend to be places where laggards have failed upward also means that staffing and leadership decisions are often in the hands of folks who shouldn’t be checking coats at Ruth’s Chris.

That 97 percent of principals surveyed admit that “strong operational skills” are critical to success in their jobs (along with the admission by 69 percent of those surveyed that the responsibilities of school leaders is different than what they were five years ago) is a clear sign that more are realizing that the concept of principals as lead teachers is an outdated concept, especially when other sectors outside of education have long-ago realized that specialization in management and leadership are critical skills that are often not connected to making an organization successfully do its business. Certainly it is good for school leaders — and all leaders in every field — to understand the mission and activities of the organizations they run (as well as know about the complications of successful execution on the ground). At the same time, the days of the principal teacher are long gone because the work of operating schools is complicated. The role will become even more complex, especially as more districts either embrace (or are forced to accept) the Hollywood Model of Education in which traditional schools essentially become charters, solo operations not tied to central bureaucracies. For districts and schools, the principal should be overseeing the work of a curricula or instructional director, who can be a high-quality teacher with strong leadership and management skills, yet not exactly interested in the overall management of a school. That curricula or instructional director, in turn, can manage the performance of teachers in classrooms, and be held accountable by a principal for what does or doesn’t happen in improving student achievement.

The realization that operational skills are critical should matter to reformers because the movement hasn’t done much to develop programs to help them do so. As I mentioned last month in a piece on information technology infrastructure, reformers have spent so much time on “cage-busting leadership” mantras (as well as on the much-needed revamp of teacher training) that they have neglected the need to train school leaders on the basics of management. If school leaders cannot manage the operational basics correctly, their ability to build cultures of genius will be severely compromised; after all, it is hard for a teacher to take a principal or superintendent seriously on instructional and curricula matters (much less listen to chatter about busting cages) when their bosses can’t even get the e-mail servers running properly.

Meanwhile the fact that only 49 percent of principals surveyed say that they engaged in some kind of mentoring with another school leader indicates the lack of strong professional development for school leaders. Given the low quality of many of our school leaders, this lack of interaction may actually be a good thing in some sense. At the same time, the fact that so many principals don’t even get to learn from high-quality colleagues means that we aren’t developing good-and-great leaders who can help our children succeed. While the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation and Education Pioneers has much-admirable work on developing a new generation of school leaders (and bringing talent outside of education into the sector), we need more organizations to focus on the important work on helping those leaders hone their talents. We’re not talking about the crap-work that is traditional professional development; we’re talking about borrowing from other successful models for leadership development outside of education and putting them to work in this sector.

Certainly the MetLife survey isn’t nearly as valuable as it could be. Yet it at least offers reformers some ideas as to what to focus on in terms of recruiting, training, and equipping school leaders in order to build brighter futures for our kids.