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July 22, 2014 standard

Back in 2011, your editor wrote a series of pieces on how school reformers — especially charter school operators and school choice activists — must learn from the issues of financial mismanagement and low academic quality that plagued the for-profit higher education sector. Three years later, scandals involving charters in Hartford and Chicago have once again served as reminders of how the bad behavior of operators can end up casting the entire sector (and the school reform movement as whole) in a bad light.

Once again, reformers need to take stronger measures to force out charter operators and authorizers responsible for letting such lapses to happen in the first place. Or else charter schools will face the same regulatory pressures that are now buffeting for-profits.

The latest reminder of the importance of good conduct came last week when federal investigations issued subpoenas to Hartford’s Family Urban Schools of Excellence, the former operator of the Jumoke collection of charters, amid allegations of shoddy hiring practices and financial mismanagement. The federal investigation came after a month of revelations by the Hartford Courant that the charter school operator’s founder, Michael Sharpe, had falsified his academic credentials, lived in a building owned by Jumoke, and overseen the hiring of a school staffer whose felony conviction landed him on a sex offender registry. There is a chance that the Jumoke schools, which have been successful in improving the achievement of the poor and minority kids in its care, could end up being shut down.

The federal probe into FUSE came a month after another charter school operator, Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, settled civil fraud charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to charges of financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and nepotism. The agency alleged that UNO deceived bondholders about its financial condition even as it faced sanctions by Illinois state officials for handing out contracts to firms owned by the brothers of Juan Rangel, the onetime Second City powerbroker who ran the chain, as well as placing three of his relatives on its payroll. For the Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers local, the UNO scandal has offered it an opportunity to renew its opposition to efforts by mayors Richard Daley the younger and Rahm Emanuel to expand school choice.

Certainly both FUSE and UNO are rare examples of financial and operational malfeasance within a charter school sector that has served children well. Just as importantly, school reformers and charter school operators have condemned both for their bad acts. Both ConnCAN and the Nutmeg State branch of the Northeast Charter Schools Network issued their condemnations of FUSE this past weekend.

Yet these scandals come amid other episodes of fiscal mismanagement by charter school operators. The most-notable: The scandal that enveloped American Indian Charter Schools after a California state audit revealed that its former boss, Ben Chavis, had allegedly embezzled $3.8 million from the school during its tenure. Thanks to Chavis’ alleged malfeasance, the failure of American Indian to develop strong financial controls, and the poor oversight by its board, the schools the charter school chain operates (all of which have done well in improving achievement for the kids in its care) are under the threat of being shut down. Only a state court ruling has kept the traditional district that oversees the schools — which are its competitors in the education space — from closing them down altogether.

American Indian’s situation, along with that of FUSE and UNO, prove this reality: That criminal allegations like bad studies on charter school performance, last forever and do even more damage that good news can’t always overcome. Especially when you consider that  school choice sector is a new part of an American public education dominated by traditional districts, the fact that only 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, and that traditionalists are willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship, charter schools are vulnerable to mudslinging.

It isn’t just about rhetoric. After three decades, the charter school sector (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. A study of 521 kids attending charter schools released this month by a team led by University of California, Los Angeles researcher Mitchell Wong determined that high-quality charters can help keep kids from engaging in gang activity and drug abuse. Rand Corp. determined in its 2009 study that students attending high-quality charters are seven-to-15 percent more likely to graduate than their traditional public school peers.

But charter schools aren’t an unqualified success. Far too many charters perform no better than traditional district failure mills. Three years ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in its study of failed schools that few laggard charters are ever turned around, and even fewer are shut down; this betrays the claim made by reformers that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down. There are cities such as Detroit where charter schools are often performing as badly as the Motor City district’s appallingly bad operations. Add in the admittedly sparse episodes of mismanagement and fraud by charter school operators, and it is clear that reformers can’t just simply declare success and go home.

At the heart of the problem is the that charter school authorizers — including traditional districts — have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools, for example, are allowed to involve themselves in overseeing schools even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. [The fact that traditional districts are allowed to oversee charters in the first place, which is akin to McDonald's having the power to watch over a Wendy's, is especially ridiculous.] But as seen in Fordham’s own woeful experience as a charter authorizing, oversight efforts by independent outfits is no guarantee of high quality.

This is because charter authorizers can often derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they are also a vendor. Only Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington State restrict authorizers from overseeing charter operators and offering them services without a separate contract in place. Lax oversight from states is also a problem. Only Hawaii and Washington State (along with the District of Columbia) meet the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ requirements for holding authorizers accountable for their work in overseeing schools; note that Washington State has only gotten legalized charters in the past few years.

Even when charter authorizers try to hold schools accountable, they can be hamstrung by state laws that allow for charters to go for as long as a decade without their academic, financial, and operational performance being subjected to formal review, and, if necessary, be shut down. In Michigan, for example, a charter authorizer can allow school operators to go for as long as seven years without any formal review. In fact, few states require charter authorizers to conduct high-stakes reviews of school operators every five years.

The good news is that key players such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers are pushing states and reformers to pass laws that will lead to the shutdown of shoddy charter authorizers (and ultimately, shut down laggard charters). But that work has been complicated by opposition from choice activists — especially outfits such as the Center for Education Reform — out of concern that stronger accountability could lead to fewer charters and options. This shouldn’t be shocking. One of the problems these days in the school reform movement is many school choice activists — both out of genuine concern over restricting choice and because their own finances are dependent on a growing school choice sector — have become as opposed as traditionalists to the kind of accountability measures needed to transform American public education.

What the charter school sector (along with choice activists and other reformers) must acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that charters (along with other forms of choice) will operate effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. When charter oversight is faulty, when choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of systemic reform, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. And ultimately, it is intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for charter operators and choice activists to demand accountability for traditional districts and then tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly.

So charter players and the rest of the school reform movement must take critical steps to ensure that charters are operating properly. This includes pushing for laws at the state level that force authorizers to be more-effective in overseeing charter operators or leave the sector, as well as legislation to allow for academically- and financially-failing charters to be shut down quickly. This includes only granting charters five-year contracts. Getting districts out of the business of charter authorizing — a move undertaken by D.C. a few years ago — is also critical to improving quality.

Meanwhile the sector must also engage in more-stringent self-policing, publicly and privately shame laggard charters and authorizers to either turn things around or shut their doors. The charter school sector must embrace better approaches to financial and operational management. Given that most nonprofits are terrible at their own activities, the movement should look toward the private sector for models of better practices; this includes even embracing outsourcing of functions that school operators shouldn’t be handling on their own in the first place. It also involves crafting standards and procedures for contracting and procuring services — rules that can easily be picked up from the private sector, particularly in the healthcare field — that would assure taxpayers that charters are operating properly.

Finally, reformers must step up on public relations. This includes painting portraits of what charters are doing for their students, putting kids and their teachers front and center in campaigns, traditional and viral, and touting high-quality examples of charters that are successfully building brighter futures for kids, families, and communities. As I also mentioned three years ago, charter school operators and authorizers must also build stronger ties with communities, grassroots activists, and Parent Power groups in order to blunt opposition, especially when bad actors in the sector behave, well, badly.

The FUSE and UNO scandals offer an opportunity for the charter school sector, choice activists, and the rest of the school reform movement to address challenges can hinder the expansion of high-quality opportunities our children need. Either they take the chance now — or wait until it’s too late.


Featured photo: Michael Sharpe, former chief executive officer of FUSE, before he resigned as head of the charter school operator.

July 16, 2014 standard

Reformers took plenty of pleasure earlier this last week when Indiana Inspector General David Thomas announced that his office cleared former Supt. Tony Bennett of alleged corruption involving his move two years ago to amend the state’s A-to-F grading system, and which affected the ratings of 13 schools (including one whose founder was a donor to Bennett’s re-election campaign). In many ways, it is understandable. Yet reformers must still remember that the clearing of Bennett’s name on corruption charges does not excuse the bad decisions he made which led to this fiasco in the first place.

As you may remember, Bennett, who had moved on from the Hoosier State’s chief school officer job to become Florida’s superintendent, was forced to resign from that job after revelations of the move by Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco (based on e-mails likely leaked to him by Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett for the job) led to calls for his head from both traditionalists and opponents of Common Core reading and math standards such as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute. The validity of Bennett’s decision (if not the lack of transparency involved) was vindicated a month later when a Hoosier State legislative team concluded that he made “plausible” adjustments that were geared to address concerns from school operators that the new grading system didn’t measure school performance in a fair and accurate manner. But traditionalists and Common Core foes still continued to accuse Bennett of behaving in a corrupt manner, while some reformers such as Ann Hyslop of the New America Foundation still thought that Bennett engaged in “grade inflation” for a select number of schools.

Yet as Thomas has noted, there was no evidence that Bennett amended the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. In fact, the investigation validated the statements by Bennett and his allies that the move was done to deal with the variations for 165 schools with a nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format, as well the state legislature’s own report. Bennett only ended up being fined $5,000 for asking state education department staffers to compile lists of key donors (as well as their decision to store that list on the agency’s computers). Certainly Bennett shouldn’t be excused for this bad judgment. But this is hardly evidence of corrupt behavior.

In light of this latest clearing of Bennett’s name, you can understand why reformers are calling out traditionalists, Common Core foes, and their more-skeptical fellow-travelers for beating up on him. American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess bemoaned in his Education Week column about how they engaged in the kind of “politics of personal destruction” that is beyond the pale of political battles, especially those involving systemic reform. Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Mike Petrilli went further, demanding on Twitter that Hyslop and Carey walk back their critiques of Bennett’s conduct.

Both men are right, at least on this: Traditionalists and Common Core foes who insinuated that the grade-letter change was driven by corrupt motivations — including the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch, Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute (who called for Bennett’s resignation from his now-former post as Florida’s education commissioner), and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin — should apologize for rushing to judgment. What they did was intellectually unacceptable and morally wrong. All of us should follow the Golden Rule, and one aspect of that is to not make accusations before all facts are in evidence. I don’t expect any of these folks to apologize. Particularly for Common Core foes such as Stergios, taking out Bennett was a victory for their cause of opposing the standards. [Let's not even bother with the once-respectable Ravitch.] May God rest all of their souls.

Pioneer Institute boss Jim Stergios is among a rogues’ gallery of folks who should’ve been less willing to pillory Bennett on false charges of corruption.

Meanwhile Hyslop should have been a little more circumspect in calling Bennett’s move grade inflation. Sure, Hyslop was right to critique the lack of transparency surrounding Bennett’s decision to amend the grades. [More later] Hyslop was have also been on high ground to criticize how Bennett and his staff addressed the issues inherent within the A-to-F grading approach the state was implementing, and that he championed. But Hyslop should have also been more circumspect in her judgment until all the evidence came out. [Editor's Note: Hyslop tells us that she eventually wrote in a New America piece published that the reasons behind Bennett's move was "plausible" but it was still a decision that weakened public confidence in accountability.]

There are two other people who should also be called out for their conduct. The first is LoBianco, whose reporting led to the sliming of Bennett’s character. As I noted last year, his reporting incomplete and lacking in strong analysis. He failed to provide good journalism by not noting that Bennett was dealing with questions among traditional district bureaucrats and charter school operators about the validity of the A-to-F grading system since February 2012, when a dry run by Bennett’s staff showed wide swings in performance. LoBianco also did a shoddy job of reporting. He should have gone beyond the e-mails leaked to him by Ritz and asked current and former state education department staffers about the technical issues surrounding implementation of A-to-F grading. Finally, by failing to address the political motivations behind the e-mails being supplied to him — including Ritz’s battles with reformers over her attempts to roll back Bennett’s efforts — LoBianco didn’t act like a reporter shining light on complex issues.He, in effect, became little more than a political arms dealer, at best, and in the minds of some, a Mike Sitrick-like attack flack working for Ritz while on the payroll of an objective media outlet.

Then there’s Ritz, who started the entire character jihad against Bennett (and against Hoosier State reformers) in the first place. By leaking those e-mails to LoBianco instead of providing the information to the public in a more-honest fashion, Ritz behaved not as a public servant, but as a vengeful politician who only has her own self-interest in mind. By starting this act of character assassination against Bennett, Ritz essentially showed her own bad character. The good news, if one can call it that, is that Ritz is now paying her own price for engaging in politics of personal destruction. Her battles with both the reform-minded state board of education and the otherwise-useless Gov. Mike Pence has essentially weakened her ability to advance her agenda; her decision to spend $100,000 of state money to renovate her office — money that Bennett had redirected during his tenure to focus on improving student achievement — has also shown that she has no interest in helping all kids succeed. Hopefully, Ritz will lose office in two years.

Yet reformers cannot act as if Bennett was blameless. While Bennett clearly didn’t engage in bad behavior, he made the kind of bad judgments that weakens the efforts of reformers to transform public education for all children. And as a moral movement, we cannot dismiss or excuse it.

Bennett amended the grades in order to deal with problems with implementation of the A-to-F grading system as well as to avoid the likely public backlash that would come with it. Bennett’s faulty decision was also driven by another problem in his leadership: The loss of critical staff needed to address the information technology and other technical aspects of implementing the A-to-F grading system. As the Hoosier State General Assembly’s report pointed out, the Indiana State Department of Education lost three key staffers within a year of initial implementation. That brain drain, along with the apparent lack of information technology manpower within the agency, led to a series of snafus (including the aforementioned failure to eliminate the cap on student achievement growth that could count against the grades) that,along with Bennett’s aggressive deadline to put the accountability system in place by October 2012 and the underlying complexity of the accountability itself, led to Bennett’s hasty decision.

What Bennett should have done is slow down implementation. Certainly that would have been hard for him to do. After all, aggressively putting reforms in place is critical to making them stick. But in light of the loss of talent, Bennett should have announced that the agency wouldn’t release the results until November of 2012 in order to work out the kinks of implementation. Just as importantly, he should have made all of his decision-making — especially on the grade change — transparent and public, with full explanations for his decisions, and a willingness to take the heat for doing the job of properly informing all.

But by continuing on a needlessly aggressive path of implementation, Bennett sowed the seeds for another bad decision that he probably rues to this day. By not making his decision-making transparent and public, Bennett gave his opponents the ability to paint his actions in an even worse light than they deserved.

The consequences ended up being politically grave. Not only did he end up allowing his opponents to damage his reputation, he also  jeopardized systemic reform efforts in Indiana, Florida and the rest of the nation. Bennett’s decision to not be transparent about the grade changes had hampered efforts to provide high-quality data that families, policymakers, researchers, and others can use to make smart decisions. As is, A-to-F grading wasn’t exactly ready for prime time. But Bennett’s decision and the controversy arising from it has raised even more questions about its validity as well as that of other accountability systems, playing into the hands of traditionalists and districts who want the status quo to remain ante.

Particularly on Common Core implementation, Bennett’s decision gave foes of the standards a tool to force him out of public office, and, in the process, get rid of another prominent supporter for high-quality standards that can help all kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, get the college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve. Bennett’s presence in advocating for Common Core would have been especially helpful in Indiana, where legislators moved this year to kibosh their implementation.

Reformers have to remember that one bad decision can have so many devastating consequences. They must also remember that while the behavior of Ritz and others is deplorable, it is also coin of the realm. Education will always be subject to political gamesmanship. So conduct becoming is the best weapon against such machinations, especially since reformers are going to be the first to call out the bad decisions of traditionalists. If Bennett was transparent in his decision-making in the first place, opponents wouldn’t have no weapon to use.

Ultimately, reformers must remember that like born-again Christians, we have publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. Because of our public declaration, and our dedication to the movement’s moral mission, we cannot engage in the same type of behavior and excuse-making as traditionalists who excuse policies and practices that condemn the futures of our children. This means that we cannot excuse Bennett’s bad decision-making even as we rightfully criticize traditionalists and Common Core foes for their wrongful rush to judgment.

Your editor hopes that Bennett returns to the public stage, has learned from his mistakes, and once again take his well-deserved place as one of the nation’s foremost reform-minded state education leaders. Bennett certainly deserves criticism for how he handled the grade change. But we will all make mistakes and deserve second chances. Now, more than ever, we need bold champions for the systemic reforms our children need. And as a movement, reformers need to learn the lessons from this fiasco even as we properly celebrate Bennett’s vindication.

May 31, 2014 standard

As your editor mentioned yesterday in the piece on Karen Lewis’ six-figure compensation, Chicago is in the midst of a battle over reforming its virtually-insolvent teachers’ pension. While Lewis and the AFT local, the Chicago Teachers Union, proposes to float a $5 billion pension obligation bond and levy a so-called LaSalle Street tax on commodities trading transactions on the two exchanges located in town, Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to offer a set of reforms that are similar to the modest changes put in place by Illinois earlier this year to address its woeful pension deficits. Emanuel would likely push to restrict cost-of-living increases to three percent on the first $25,000 in annuity payments (or up to an additional $750 in cost-of-living hikes).

As seen last month with the state legislature’s passage of a plan to shore up the Second City’s pensions for police officers and firefighters, any plan Emanuel finally proposes will end up being approved. As Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, can attest, getting your way is what happens when you’re the mayor of Illinois’ largest city. But the bigger question is whether Emanuel will offer a plan that effectively addresses both the pension’s insolvency and also provides teachers (especially high-quality instructors and younger teachers who are the least likely to stay around long enough to collect annuities) suitable retirement savings options. This starts with dealing accurately and honestly with the real level of insolvency. As the most-recent comprehensive annual financial report released this month by the teachers’ pension makes clear, Emanuel will need to force it into being truly transparent.

Thanks in part to a 26 percent increase in the number of teachers retiring and collecting annuities, the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund officially reports an underfunding of $9.6 billion as of 2013, the latest year available. That’s 16 percent higher (or $1.6 billion more) than the officially-reported level of insolvency for the previous fiscal year.

But these are just the officially reported numbers — and understated at that. For one, thanks to smoothing and other actuarial tricks ostensibly used to insulate Chicago’s budget from shocks, the number doesn’t include the unrecognized gains and losses from investments the fund has experienced. If the Chicago pension fully recognized the $2.2 billion in investment losses over the past years, it would have had to officially report an insolvency of $12 billion, 24 percent higher than what it actually stated.

Then there is the fact that CTPF still assumes a rate of return on investments of 7.75 percent, far higher than the 5.2 percent five-year return rate experienced in the market (according to Wilshire Associates) and the 4.6 percent average return the pension itself has achieved over the past five years. Because of the inflated rates of return, the Chicago pension is overstating how much its investments can generate over the long haul to address the insolvency, and ultimately, how much it has available to cover annuities.

To get to the bottom of CTPF’s insolvency, Dropout Nation uses a version of a technique developed by Moody’s Investors Service, which assumes a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of a return on investments. [Moody's bases its rate of return on the performance of a bond index, which can range between four and six percent.] Just analyzing the officially-reported insolvency, Dropout Nation concludes that the Chicago teachers’ pension is underfunded to the tune of $12.5 billion, 30 percent higher than the pension states.

Based on a 17-year amortization schedule, Second City taxpayers would have to spend an extra $735 million a year just to pay down the insolvency; that’s six times greater than the $120 million the city currently paid into the pension. Thanks to a so-called pension holiday granted by the state, Chicago has skipped on making full payments into the pension as it should be doing for the past 18 years; it was supposed to pay $196 million in 2013 and must contribute $613 million this year, and $684 million in 2015.

But this number is also based just on the officially-reported insolvency, not on what would have been reported if the Chicago pension actually accounted for all of its investment gains and losses the moment they occurred (as it should be doing). Accounting for the all the investment losses, Dropout Nation concludes that the pension’s underfunding for 2013 was $15.5 billion. That’s 30 percent more than the $12.5 billion the pension would have had to report if it accounted for its losses and gains on time, and 61 percent higher than the officially-reported insolvency for last year. Based on a 17 year amortization schedule, Chicago taxpayers would have to pay an extra $910 million a year just to pay down the insolvency; that’s nearly eight times greater than what the city contributed to the pension last year.

Let’s be clear about this: These numbers don’t include the unfunded retired teacher healthcare obligations that CTPF bears on behalf of the city. The pension reports an official unfunded actuarial accrued liability of $2.3 billion for 2013, a 23 percent decline over the previous year. The good news is that the pension assumes a realistic 4.5 percent rate of return for its investments dedicated to covering retiree health costs. But when adds the healthcare underfunding to the uncovered pension liabilities, the Chicago pension has an insolvency of $12.8 billion to $15.8 billion that Emanuel must ultimately address.

The problem will get worse because more Chicago teachers are heading into retirement. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of annuitants increased by 42 percent (from 19,266 to 27,440), while annuity payouts increased by a two-fold (from $594 million to $1.2 billion). Based on the pace of increases in annuitants in that nine-year period, CalSTRS will likely add 1,583 new annuitants (excluding deaths and other removals) to its rolls every year for at least the next decade before retirements slow down. Considering that 2,129 teachers and other school employees retired in 2013, even that average number pace is understating matters. Based on the pace of increases in average annuity payouts, the pension will also face annual increases of 4.3 percent per retiree, further increasing its insolvency.

Emanuel will have to take numerous steps to address the CTPF’s financial straits for the long haul. Restricting cost-of-living increases is a start. But the city must make full contributions to the pension as it should have been doing in the first place. The mayor must level with taxpayers — and increase contributions to $1 billion a year just to get the pension onto the path to solvency. At the same time, Emanuel must address the governance of the pension itself. One reason why it is in such dire straits is because it is effectively a division of the AFT’s Chicago local, which controls all but four seats on its 12-member board; currently, it is even further under the union’s control because Jay Rehak, the AFT honcho who presides of the board is now serving as its acting executive director. Any pension reform plan Emanuel offers must effectively put the pension under the city’s budget office, with the mayor assuming full control and responsibility for its solvency as it should be.

Emanuel must then ensure that any pension reform plan he offers doesn’t give younger teachers (and high-quality instructors, in particular) the shaft. This is particularly important because the district he controls needs to hold onto all the good and great talent it needs to continue its overhaul and improve student achievement. As with other pensions, CTPF is a particularly bad deal for high-quality new teachers, whose attrition rates are likely even higher, both because of the lack of support they get from school leaders and districts as well as because of their own desires to utilize their talents beyond classroom instruction. For these teachers, the pension doesn’t allow them to actually attain full retirement benefits unless they remain in classrooms.

So Emanuel must offer a new retirement option for younger teachers so that they can reap the full rewards of their work. This would feature a defined-contribution account toward which teachers can contribute as much of their income to retirement as they see fit (with a five percent match from the city), as well as a cash-balanced plan that guarantees an annual savings rate. Such a move, by the way, would also help the pension (and ultimately, taxpayers) by reducing the number of new annuitants that will add to its insolvency. Sure, Lewis will oppose any plan that resembles what your editor is describing. But Emanuel should then turn the tables on her rhetorically, pointing out how his plan is addressing both the city’s irresponsibility and that of the AFT local in managing the pension.

But none of Emanuel’s efforts to address the Chicago teachers’ pension’s insolvency will matter if he doesn’t get accurate numbers. And this means he must force the pension — and the AFT local — to be honest in the first place.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.


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












Jefferson County








L.A. Unified




San Diego




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






Jefferson County




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










Jefferson County








L.A. Unified


San Diego


Source: U.S. Department of Education

Eighth Grade NAEP Reading 2013 ELL Exclusion Rate




D.C. Public Schools




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.