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January 20, 2015 standard

Your editor doesn’t have much to say about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address — outside of praising him for calling for criminal justice reform after the outcry over the state-sanctioned murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Oh, and that zinger about having no more campaigns to run because he won them both.

For one thing, your editor has already explained why his proposal to subsidize community college attendance for any student with a 2.5 grade-point-average — the most-important proposal his administration is pushing this year on the education policy front — will not help children from poor and minority households (as well as not pass congressional muster). There’s also the fact that the Obama Administration’s other proposals — including the consolidation of several tax credits geared toward promoting higher education attendance along with rolling back the tax benefits for 529 college saving plans and Coverdell education accounts — will also be opposed by congressional Republicans and even some Democrats) mindful of the affluent constituencies that benefit from them.

The fact that Obama knows that his education agenda won’t get passed means that he will likely focus more on preserving his legacy as School Reformer-in-Chief. So you can expect the administration to effectively kibosh efforts by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Senate counterpart Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and the president’s waiver gambit. You can also expect the president to use his executive authority — along with spending in the current omnibus spending law — to craft new rounds of Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grant competitions. Obama did this two years ago when he took $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds to develop another edition of Race to the Top targeted towards high school reform. And as I noted a few months ago, congressional Republicans have little leverage to stop him.

But there is plenty of action happening outside of Capitol Hill and the White House in the nation’s statehouses — and numerous opportunities to advance systemic reform. This will depend on how governors lead on this front. Which is why reformers must embrace strong gubernatorial leadership — and  call out weak leadership from chief executives too willing to retreat or take small-ball measures on behalf of our children.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal kicked off his second term last week by announcing a proposal to take over and restructure failure mills. As part of the plan, the Peach State would launch a school overhaul authority similar to the successful Recovery School District in Louisiana that would take over dropout factories that have failed for three years or longer, and in some cases, transform them into charters. Expect plenty of sparring over the plan from districts such as Atlanta and DeKalb County, which operate 23 of Georgia’s 78 worst-performing schools. As Deal noted last week in his State of the State Address, high-quality education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Deal is used to battling for reform — and winning. Two years ago, after the state supreme court ruled that the state’s charter school commission couldn’t authorize any schools, Deal successfully beat back traditional districts by convincing voters to approve a constitutional amendment giving the state’s charter school commission authority to oversee new schools. Within the last year, Deal has also battled against efforts by movement conservatives within the state to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. To beat back opponents of the standards such as Supt. Richard Woods, Deal’s allies on the state board have stood by Common Core (albeit with some tweaks) while the state legislature are proposing to make the chief school officer job a position the governor’s successor will appoint after the end of Wood’s tenure.

Up north in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is stepping up his efforts to advance reform with plans to finally eliminate restrictions on the number of charter schools allowed to operate as well as push for the launch of a voucher-like tax credit initiative. The charter school expansion will likely pass with little opposition from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is still licking his wounds from earlier battles with Cuomo over charters and control of state government, as well as needs the governor’s support to keep mayoral control over the Big Apple’s traditional district.

The tougher effort will be his plan to revamp the Empire State’s teacher evaluation regime, which has been criticized for using too little objective state test score growth data and letting too many laggard teachers off the hook for poor performance. This means a battle with the American Federation of Teachers’ state affiliate, NYSUT, which finds itself in an even weaker position, politically and otherwise, thanks to its failure last year to back Cuomo’s re-election bid along with its campaign with de Blasio to give Democrats full control of the state legislature. This isn’t the first time Cuomo has beat back the AFT unit on evaluations; two years ago, Cuomo overcame teachers’ union opposition to ensure that state test growth data would account for 20 percent of evaluations.

Deal and Cuomo aren’t the only reform-minded governors aggressively pushing systemic reform. From New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who continues to take on traditionalists on expanding school choice, overhauling failing districts such as Camden, and teacher evaluations), to Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, many governors have figured out that standing against the ancien regimes who have long controlled public education is critical to economic and social development as well as reducing long-term fiscal burdens.

But Deal and Cuomo have stood out for their steadfast commitment to the job. Even as onetime reform-oriented counterparts in statehouses such as Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam have either fully or partly retreated on critical aspects of transforming public education, Deal and Cuomo have continued their efforts even amid criticism from allies within their own respective parties, often risking their political fortunes. Unlike governors in 15 states, Deal and Cuomo don’t even appoint or approve appointments of chief state school officers. Yet they have emerged from those battles with victories that are helping more kids gain brighter futures.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s retreat on implementing Common Core haven’t helped children or his other reform efforts.

What both Deal and Cuomo have in common is a willingness to use their considerable reserves of political support to advance reform. They used their bully pulpits effectively, framing the need for transforming education in the context of the economic and fiscal challenges facing their respective states. They are both unwilling to be accommodating just to win compromise. And from their offices, they successfully worked with coalitions of reformers, business and civic organizations, and grassroots activists on the ground.

As your editor noted two years ago, such traits, typical of strong and effective leaders regardless of the issues they undertake on other issues, are especially important in reforming American public education. This is because traditionalists often strike for false collaboration that does little more than help them preserve the failed policies and practices from which they benefit at the expense of the futures of children. More importantly, strong leadership is as much about advancing a positive vision for the future that positions states and communities for changes in an increasingly knowledge-based economy as it about dealing with the challenges of the present.

Meanwhile strong reform-minded governors don’t play small ball — and don’t retreat on advancing systemic reform. This is because they realize that any step back on one aspect of reform will encourage traditionalists and others to fight even harder on others. Children don’t benefit when reform-minded governors and their allies give ground.

This is a lesson that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is starting to learn the hard way.

Two years ago, the freshman governor essentially rolled back a key aspect of predecessor Mitch Daniels’ school reform efforts when he agreed to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. Last month, as he began pulling together a new set of reforms on school funding and putting the state board of education fully under his control by removing traditionalist-oriented Supt. Glenda Ritz as its chair, Pence took another step backward by shutting down the Center for Education and Career Innovation, an agency he formed back in 2013 to help reformers on the state board overcome Ritz’s efforts to roll back moves made under Tony Bennett’s tenure as chief state school officer.

Opponents have not repaid Pence in kind. Earlier this week, Common Core opponents managed to convince State Sen. Mike Delph to introduce Senate Bill 501, which would require Indiana to revert districts and other school operators to the last set of academic standards the state crafted on its own nine years ago. Why? Because they are annoyed that the state board of education crafted reading and math standards that were similar yet slightly inferior to Common Core, and thus, are the standards in all but name. The Delph plan would go further by banning Ritz and the state board from seeking renewal of its No Child waiver –and, in their minds, keep the Obama Administration from supposedly meddling in state education policy.

Certainly your editor, no fan of the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit, doesn’t exactly mind this step since the Hoosier State would revert to No Child’s accountability provisions. But for the former congressman-turned-governor, the Delph plan may prove to be distraction from his other efforts on reform, weaken other reform efforts before the legislature, and embolden traditionalists to push for rolling back initiatives on other fronts. Given that Pence will likely run for a second term next year, along with his likely ambitions for the presidency, his weak stand on systemic reform isn’t doing him any favors, much less helping Hoosier children.

What Pence should do is what he should have done in the first place: Embrace the bold approach to advancing reform exemplified by counterparts Deal and Cuomo, as well as by Daniels. Incoming governors such as Greg Abbott in Texas and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island should do the same.

But strong reform-minded governors can’t do it alone. They need support from reformers who prominently back them and at the same time, hold them accountable for achieving results. This means reformers must work hard in the political arena, backing gubernatorial candidates regardless of party affiliation who are strong on transforming public education. It also means building coalitions of support — from chambers of commerce to churches and community groups, to the single parents, grandparents, and immigrant families more than ready to support their efforts. And once those candidates take office, reformers must continually encourage them to stay the course by supporting their efforts as well as criticizing them when they run astray.

There isn’t much that reformers can do on Capitol Hill to advance reform. But they can support strong reform-minded governors on the ground. And that time is now.

January 15, 2015 standard

You shouldn’t be surprised that American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute took aim at centrist and progressive Democratic reformers such as Stand For Children’s Jonah Edelman (along with others in the movement) today on the pages of National Review for their opposition to the efforts of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Senate counterpart Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its sensible accountability provisions. Nor should you be shocked that Hess and Petrilli use a “shopworn parlor trick”(as they would call it) that anyone who opposes the effort are engaging in race-baiting by arguing that rolling back the federal role in advancing systemic reform — including requiring states and districts to account for how they are improving achievement for children from poor and minority backgrounds — will hurt our most-vulnerable.

After all, both men have long ago for various reasons (including pressure from a new generation of movement conservative activists unconcerned with education issues as well as donors to their respective outfits) to serve as two-man Amen corner for Kline, Alexander and fellow congressional Republicans looking to scale back the much-needed federal role in advancing systemic reform. Petrilli, in particular, revealed his allegiances three years ago in a virtual Valentine praising Alexander’s plan for reauthorizing No Child even as Dropout Nation and others detailed how it would do little more than go back to the bald old days of the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act,when states spend federal money as freely as they so choose without any accountability. [The very fact that Hess and Petrilli stand against the federal government holding states to account for the subsidies they receive, an important principle of modern movement conservatism since the days of Reagan, shows that they are as much fair-weather ideological adherents as they are erstwhile reformers.]

Nor should you should be surprised that their critique actually neglected to make any case whatsoever for their argument that No Child and other federal efforts on matters such as ending the overuse of harsh school discipline have caused “very real harm”. This isn’t shocking because this is an argument they have made numerous times in various ways (and even, on occasion, either misusing data as well as drawing conclusions that don’t fit the evidence they use) that have been proven false by their colleagues (including yours truly).

Hess and Petrilli can’t argue that No Child hasn’t spurred an array of reforms that have helped more children, especially those black and brown, receive high-quality teaching and curricula. This includes a seven percentage point decline in the number of fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2013 (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) — and especially a 10 percentage point decline in the number of functionally-illiterate black fourth-graders. With a four percentage point increase in the number of fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels (along with those kids continuing scale score increases similar to those by struggling peers), they also can’t argue that No Child’s focus on stemming achieving gaps have short high-achieving children.

When you consider the three-fold increase in the percentage of high school seniors graduating after taking at least one Advanced Placement exam between 2003 and 2013, as well as the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, there is no way to argue that the aggressive federal role in advancing systemic reform hasn’t been on balance a net positive for children.

Hess and Petrilli also can’t prove their argument that No Child and other federal policies have led to schools being hamstrung by “stifling, rule-driven culture”. The nation’s high-quality public charter schools, including those operated by KIPP, Green Dot, MATCH, and Uncommon Schools, prove lie to that contention, as do the successful efforts of reformers such as former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and Boston’s Tom Payzant in overhauling traditional districts. They can’t even prove the corollary argument that they could proffer (and has been offered up by Petrilli) that curricula has been narrowed (and classes outside of reading, math, and science have been crowded out) because of the expansion of standardized testing by states and districts prompted only in part by No Child’s accountability provisions.

If anything, what Hess and Petrilli loathe to admit is that No Child and other federal policymaking over the last decade has essentially reaffirmed the role of states as the overseers of public education. No Child, for example, allows states to figure out their own ways to provide high-quality education, especially to poor and minority children as well as those in the nation’s special ed ghettos; if anything, as I noted two years ago, the very flexibility in the law is the key reason why its success was limited. The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative merely required states to compete for additional federal funding by implementing reforms such as overhauling teacher evaluations; that some were already making such moves even before the first round of the competitive grant effort began further exposes the fallacy of the Hess-Petrilli position.

Meanwhile Hess’ and Petrilli’s can’t even effectively argue against the contention of Edelman and other reformers that a strong federal role in education policymaking is key to holding states responsible for providing all children with high-quality education. This is because history and data have long ago proven that without strong federal action, state governments will rarely do the right thing by poor and minority children. Especially when it comes to black children and communities, who along with those from American Indian and Alaska Native backgrounds, have been historically condemned to the lowest expectations by American public education. As Ilya Somin of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out last year, the underlying reality is that without federal intervention, states would have continued policies such as slavery and state-sanctioned segregation within American public education.

When it comes to poor and minority children, Rick Hess has never shown much concern.

What Hess and Petrilli fail to acknowledge that the federal government actually serves an important role in spreading reform efforts initiated by governors and legislators in the few states that initially undertake them. It was the Reagan Administration, through its release of A Nation at Risk  in 1983, that coaxed other states to undertake the initial efforts at addressing teacher quality and curricula first undertaken by southern state governors and chambers of commerce. Without the passage of Improving America’s Schools Act in 1994 and No Child eight years later, the steps taken by Florida and Texas to launch accountability regimes would have never been implemented by other states.

Meanwhile Hess and Petrilli fail to admit this important reality: That the federal government is constitutionally charged with protecting the civil rights of everyone, especially children from poor and minority backgrounds who are often subjected to educational abuse and neglect by traditional districts and states. This includes addressing Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling, restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, and limits on accessing college-preparatory courses that prevent children and families from accessing high-quality education. It also includes stepping in to address how far too many districts and charters are meting out-of-school suspensions to black children at higher levels than white peers — and often for minor behavioral offenses for which white peers would only receive lower level penalties.

Addressing how black and poor children are often shortchanged educationally by districts (often with the blessing of states) is the main reason why the original Elementary and Secondary Act (along with other civil rights legislation) was passed 59 years ago. It is also why No Child, the latest version of ESEA, was passed 36 years later. For Hess and Petrilli to deny the federal government’s important role on the most-important long-term civil rights issue of this time is to demonstrate stunning depths of historical illiteracy, intellectually unseriousness, and moral ignorance.

But no one should be surprised that Hess and Petrilli, men who claim themselves to be school reformers, penned this jeremiad. After all, both men have shown long ago that they have little concern with building brighter futures for the poor and minority children who have been damaged the most by the nation’s education crisis (and its roots in the racialism that is the nation’s Original Sin).

These days, Hess takes the position that school reformers are overly concerned with addressing the needs of poor and minority children. He began arguing this four years ago when he declared that his fellow school reformers were gripped by an “achievement gap mania” because they dared to actually focus policy efforts on helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality education. Despite evidence supports this focus, along with that showing that stemming achievement gaps helps white kids from both poor households (especially in rural communities), Hess hasn’t changed his stance. In fact, he has doubled down on this thinking. Last year, he argued on the pages of NR that efforts to expand school choice does little more than allow poor and minority families to evade personal responsibility for properly raising their children. And as seen late last year in discussions over the role of school reformers in addressing matters such as the aftermath of Ferguson and the Eric Garner verdict, Hess’ lack of concern for poor and minority kids extends beyond discussions about systemic reform.

Meanwhile Petrilli has often been deliberately ignorant about the adverse consequences of policies he defends– including traditional school discipline, ability-tracking, and even the idea that only some kids merit college-preparatory learning — on the futures of poor and minority kids. This has often been driven by stubborn adherence to theories unsupported by data. For example, Petrilli’s argument against the Obama Administration’s effort to reduce use of harsh school discipline is driven by a belief that out-of-school suspensions are meted out more-often to minority children than white peers because of “pathologies” such as single motherhood and poverty. This in spite of three decades of evidence from researchers, including University of Pittsburgh’s John Wallace, that black children are more-likely than white peers to be given harsher penalties for even the most minor offenses.

Such sophistry would be less-disconcerting if it came from the likes of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch (whose myopia on race has been on display since chastised black parents in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community in The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools, for their efforts to hold schools and (mostly-white) teachers accountable for student achievement. But Hess and Petrilli are supposed to be reformers, who fully understand that helping poor and minority children succeed (along with their white and middle class peers) is at the heart of the movement’s mission. For them to accuse their peers of race-baiting because they have raised honest concerns about rolling back No Child and the federal role makes you wonder if they believe themselves to be reformers at all.

Perhaps Hess and Petrilli should deal seriously with the concerns raised by their fellow reformers instead of engaging in old-school sophistry.

December 15, 2014 standard

One of the key concerns Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman raised earlier this month in his piece on Cleveland’s failures to provide high-quality education was that the plan developed by Mayor Frank Jackson to expand the number of charter schools serving kids in the city was fatally flawed. Why? Because Ohio’s failures on the authorizing and oversight front meant that the charter schools throughout the state were doing an even worse job of improving student achievement that even the worst traditional public schools.

These issues were raised once again last week when Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes released its latest review on the subpar performance of Buckeye State charters. It is high time that reformers, both in Ohio and across the nation, force politicians and others to overhaul the monitoring of charter authorizers, take steps to shut down failing charters, and build the conditions for expanding high-quality charter schools that can help all children succeed.

Let’s start with one of the few bits of good news: Cleveland’s charters are actually performing well compared to traditional district schools. As CREDO reports, the average Cleveland charter school student attending school between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013 experienced two-hundreds of standard deviation gains (or 14 days of additional learning progress) in both reading and math over a traditional district counterpart. Given the Cleveland district’s woeful performance in improving student achievement, it makes sense for the district to proceed with its efforts to move away from the traditional district model.

But the success of Cleveland’s charters is the only good news to be found in CREDO’s latest study. The reality remains that Ohio’s reputation as the Wild West of charter school authorizing, as coined earlier this year by Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in an interview with the Plain Dealer, remains intact. And it is doing damage to the children attending the state’s woeful charters.

The average student attending a Buckeye State charter between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013 trailed behind a traditional public school peer by an average 14 days in reading and 43 days in math. This means that the average charter school is doing worse in improving student achievement for the children in their care than a mediocre traditional district. Even worse, charters in Ohio’s big cities are doing worse by kids than the already-woeful urban districts, In Dayton, where outfits such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are engaged in charter authorizing, the average charter student did no better than a traditional district counterpart in reading and fell behind in math by 7.2 days. Even worse in Columbus, the average charter school student made no progress in reading and fell behind a traditional district counterpart by 21.6 days (or more than a full month of school).

The woes of Ohio’s charters extend beyond big cities outside of Cleveland. The average charter school student in suburbia trailed behind a traditional district peer by 7.2 days in reading and 21.6 days in math, while a charter school student in a rural district trailed behind a traditional district peer by 36 days in reading and 100.8 days (or nearly more than half a school year) in math. While the Buckeye State’s charters focused on middle school did spectacularly for kids — with the average charter middle-schooler making 36 days of learning gains in reading and 43.2 days of gains in math, neither charters focused on elementary school kids or those working with high-schoolers improved student achievement for the average kid compared to traditional district counterparts.

When you break it down by both how well schools are improving performance over time (or growth) as well as on overall achievement, the numbers are just plain dismal. Forty-four percent of Ohio’s 147 charters surveyed by CREDO — that is, 65 of them — are doing abysmally in improving achievement over time as well as having less than half of students reaching the 50th percentile of absolute achievement statewide. These are schools that have been performing poorly for at least five years and likely longer than that. They should be closed. And yet, like failing districts such as Cleveland, remain open for business, damaging the futures of children.

Put simply, Ohio’s charters are performing atrociously. One can dare say the Buckeye State’s charter school sector performs worse than those in the rest of the country (including Louisiana, the latter of which where the average charter school student is making 50 more days of gains in reading and sixty-five more gains in numeracy than traditional district counterparts). Which is absolutely, positively shameful and unacceptable. We can’t help children, especially those from poor and minority households as well as to families in rural communities and suburbia, escape from woeful traditional district schools to charters and other providers who do even worse by them.

It isn’t just about Ohio’s children, of course. As your editor noted earlier this year — and has done so for the past three years — poor-performing charters do damage to efforts to expand the array of high-quality school choices our children need and deserve. It is bad enough that bad studies (such as one that CREDO issued a few years ago) and worse scandals involving charter school operators such as Family Urban Schools of Excellence (which earned infamy this year for financial mismanagement of the Jumoke charters in Connecticut) cast the movement in a bad light. The real damage of failing charter schools have even greater consequences for the expansion of choice everywhere. Those reformers who justify keeping such failure mills open by saying that they are better than unsafe traditional district counterparts are just making excuses — and that’s just as bad as the rhetoric offered up by traditionalists.

At the heart of the problem starts with Ohio’s charter school authorizers — including traditional districts — who have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Just 18 of the Buckeye State’s 355 charters were shut down in 2011-2012, according to CREDO’s data; a mere 93 were shut own between 2008-2009 and 2011-2012, while another 104 were opened in that same period. Considering the low quality of charters in the state, authorizers should focus on shutting down more charter schools than less.

One reason why authorizers are so unwilling to shut down failing charters: The money. In addition to collecting three percent of a charter’s per-pupil funding, authorizers can also provide services to charters and collect a fee for them. This doesn’t align with the standards for high-quality practice set out by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and others looking to improve the quality of charter school authorizing. Because authorizers have greater incentives to keep laggard charters around in spite of their woeful performance, they aren’t shutting them down.

But the problem doesn’t lie with authorizers alone. The fact that Ohio allows for 69 outfits (including districts along with nonprofits such as Fordham) to engage in authorizing means that there are too many players overseeing charters. In fact, nearly a third of the authorizers (20 altogether) are so lowest-performing that they aren’t being allowed to authorize new operations. [They are still allowed to oversee the existing charters.] In Cleveland alone, nine authorizers (including the traditional district) are in charge of charter school quality. This allows for charter school operators to engage in forum-shopping, hooking up with the authorizer most-likely to engage in shoddy oversight.

Meanwhile the Buckeye State’s education department doesn’t do a good job of weeding out the worst authorizers. While it is required to rank authorizers based on their performance and collect annual reports from them, state law doesn’t actually compel the agency to shut down the worst of the lot on an annual basis in order to improve quality in the long run. Even the rankings are useless: Thirty-nine of the authorizers are excluded from the annual quality rankings because they authorize dropout recovery charters and other specialized charters, or because of other exceptions.

Certainly the Buckeye State has taken some steps within the last year to address the low quality of charters and authorizers. But those steps aren’t enough. Gov. John Kasich should immediately push for the legislature to pass a law allowing for the immediate shutdown of the worst-performing charter authorizers as well as close down the worst 65 charters throughout the state. Putting an end to authorizing by traditional districts — which is akin to giving McDonald’s permission to decide whether a Wendy’s can open next door — should also be done. At the same time, Kasich should also propose the creation of a statewide charter school authorizing agency that can approve schools from existing high-quality charter school operators that can replace those that are being shut down; this will east the transition for those families who will be affected by those closures.

Reformers both in and outside Ohio must step up the pressure on politicians and authorizers alike. This includes shaming authorizers who don’t shut down failing schools quickly enough as well as those who are more-concerned about making money off failing operators at the expense of children. At the same time, reformers must address another reason why so many charters don’t make it: The lack of capacity, both operational as well as academic; this is important because we must continue to encourage families, community groups, and educators to launch charters alongside large-scale operators. There’s no reason why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation cannot launch as charter school fund that assists new start-ups in building the capacity they need to succeed for the long haul.

These steps don’t apply to Ohio alone. As the Center on Reinventing Public Education has exhaustively pointed out over the last month, Michigan is also struggling mightily on the charter school and authorizer quality front. In Detroit alone, the shoddiness of authorizing has led to a wide array of unconscionably low-quality choices for children and families who need high-quality education the most. Reformers must also put pressure on politicians and the Wolverine State’s charter school sector to shut down shoddy schools and authorizers; charter school players should follow the example of the California Charter Schools Association, which has continually called for the shutdown of failing charters. More importantly, we have to move away from the less-than-thoughtful idea espoused by hardcore school choice players such as Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas that we should just leave charters and choice players alone. Strong accountability is critical to sustaining the expansion of school choice, in building an infrastructure for choice that helps all families, and in moving away from a traditional district model that fails our children.

Ohio’s shoddy charter school oversight must come to an end. The Buckeye State’s children deserve better than this. As do all of our children in failing schools everywhere.

December 9, 2014 standard

As a child, my father taught me how protest, civil disobedience and labor unions were used so farmers would stop spraying our families with pesticides while they worked the fields. We had heroes: They included Cesar, Martin, and J.F.K.

I became a freshman in high school in the fall of 1988. I remember wondering why the next Martin or Cesar never showed up and if I’d ever see another compelling civil rights activist in my lifetime. Instead of taking messages to the streets, activists tried to take to the airwaves, but their messages were lost in an increasingly noisy, short attention-spanned, media industry that was undergoing its own radical transformation and on a public that grew weary of talk about race.

I have spent the past few days processing the New York City grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer for killing Eric Garner. I didn’t have a single coherent thought. Just anger and two rap lyrics from albums that were released my freshman year of high school. The first, from NWA: They have the authority to kill a minority. The second, from Chuck D and Public Enemy: Five O said, “Freeze” an’ I got numb Can I tell ‘em that I really never had a gun?

It wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talking about the relationship between minority communities and the criminal justice system when I was a kid. It was Chuck D and Ice Cube – 26 years ago. I grew up questioning a justice system that didn’t seem to work for black and brown communities. Chuck D and Ice Cube appeared prophetic when the Rodney King riots broke out just a few weeks before I graduated from high school.

Another institution that didn’t seem to work for us was our schools. My high school had 900 freshman — and only 330 seniors on the path to graduation. No one could say where the other 570 kids went; there was no high school with three times as many graduating seniors than freshmen. As we walked around campus listening to our Walkman radios, our eyes told us that most of us wouldn’t make it to graduation.

Beyond the obvious human rights implications, Eric Garner’s case matters because millions of people are watching to see whether the system works for them or is stacked against them. Every time we interact with our justice system, our public schools, our medical system, our churches and other public institutions, it either confirms or denies a narrative about our relationship with society.

Because if a society works against me and my loved ones, I behave differently. I stiffen. I resist. I despair. I resent. I protect.

We had Dr. King in the 1960s, Chuck D in the 1980s, and now Eric Garner in 2014. A good friend pointed out in disbelief that an unarmed man had to die on video in order to spur the latest call-to-action around civil rights. Why does an innocent man need to die for us to generate a sense of urgency? I also wonder if the Eric Garners of the world will be our leaders going forward exactly because social media is too difficult to ignore.

I need to stop waiting for the next Dr. King, and forget about finding the next Chuck D. This goes for you, too. Because we are the leaders — and the leaders are now us.

I kind of hoped that our society would mature to the point where some of our current racial issues would get resolved. Maybe this is because society began to work very well for me and it was easier not to talk race or civil rights. But we also made this mistake in education reform when we thought everything would work itself out if we just ran good schools. We are realizing in education that running good schools is not enough. We need to match and exceed the political will of those who steal the possible when it comes to children’s education. I think the same is true for civil rights. We just have to fight.

We have a chance to battle demons in 2014 that we brushed away in 1988. My friend Marc Porter Magee recently quoted Winston Churchill’s aphorism that “The United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all possible alternatives.” It sure is taking a long time to exhaust all the alternatives. I’m marking my calendar for 2040. We have a lot do between now and then.

November 14, 2014 standard

Your editor wasn’t surprised that Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman handed in his walking papers yesterday. For one, running a state education agency, especially in an age in which states are the lead players in overhauling public education, may actually be harder (especially given the lack of resources for the complex tasks) than operating a traditional district. As Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week notes, just 21 states have the same chief state school officer they had in place two years ago when he started covering his beat. [Even more have changed over since 2007, when Dropout Nation began what was then irregular publication.]

Secondly, in the case of Huffman, there was also the fact that Volunteer State Gov. Bill Haslam, often a fair weather reformer when it comes to such matters as expanding school choice, was likely to back off on implementing Common Core reading and math standards in order to assuage movement conservatives opposed to them. If Haslam is already willing to give up on this important aspect of systemic reform, he will likely back away from the teacher quality reforms and other efforts Huffman was overseeing.

This isn’t to say that the former Teach For America executive’s efforts were always the most-sensible for kids. Dropout Nation has been particularly critical of Tennessee’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets allowed by the Obama Administration as part of its successful No Child waiver plan. Sure, Huffman, Haslam and other officials may think they mean well by focusing solely on growth instead of also looking at overall proficiency. But the consequence of this is simply condemning poor and minority kids to low expectations as well as letting districts and schools off the hook for providing high-quality education for all kids. For that, Huffman should offer an apology to Volunteer State children for even codifying such thinking into policy.

Yet at the same time, Huffman has done plenty of good in continuing the much-needed overhaul of Tennessee’s public education system, often battling traditionalists (including districts and the National Education Association’s Volunteer State affiliate) opposed to any effort to provide kids with high-quality education.

Huffman’s successful implementation of a new teacher evaluation system, which uses objective test score growth data to measure 35 percent of teacher performance, has not been welcomed by either the NEA or by other traditionalists because it promises to shine an even harsher light on the low quality of teaching that persists in the state, especially in schools and districts serving Tennessee’s poor and minority children. Yet in implementing the evaluation system — and in successfully convincing the legislature to increase the frequency of evaluations for tenured teachers from every five years to annual — Huffman has helped foster a culture in which teachers can be recognized for success in improving student achievement or held accountable for failing to do so. At the same time, the moves also hold districts in the state accountable for doing the proper job of measuring teacher performance and weeding out those who don’t belong in classrooms. There’s still plenty to do on this front. But these are important steps that deserve recognition.

Huffman’s moves on teacher compensation have also been in important. By consolidating salary scales from 21 steps to four Huffman helped the Volunteer State admit decades of evidence that show that there is no correlation between seniority and ability to improve student achievement. In eliminating all but two salary increases for attaining graduate degrees, Huffman also helped the state admit the fact that there is also no correlation between degree attainment and teacher performance in the classroom. Both moves allow districts to offer performance-based bonuses and other pay increases tied to what teachers actually contribute to improving the futures of children. Add in his efforts to create new paths for teachers who want to take on more-challenging roles, yet don’t want to move into classrooms (including creation of coaching positions for teachers to help their peers implement Common Core), and Huffman’s efforts on the teacher quality front have been substantial.

Then there is Huffman’s willingness to serve as a strong messenger for advancing systemic reform — even against powerful opponents in the legislature as well as district superintendents such as Williamson County’s Mike Looney (who managed to get a state law passed effectively exempting his district from the state’s accountability system). That fact is one reason why 15 legislators — including Rep. Mike Sparks — issued a letter earlier this year calling for Haslam to force Huffman out of the job. As current and former counterparts such as former Indiana and Florida education chief Tony Bennett can attest, this is often be hard for any chief state school officer to do. There’s nothing wrong with being polarizing and divisive on behalf of our children. In fact, no one can fight for brighter futures for our children without taking stands that force men and women to make choices they would rather avoid. And for this being divisive and courageous, Huffman deserves praise.

Meanwhile Huffman has done something that chief state school officers, regardless of their party or policy orientation, should always do: Be honest and responsive. When Dropout Nation noted last year that Tennessee excluded high numbers of ELL students and kids in special ed ghettos from the latest edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (including a 27 percent exclusion rate for eighth-graders in special ed on NAEP’s reading exam, and an 18 percent exclusion rate of 14 percent of eighth-grade special ed kids from NAEP’s math exam), Huffman didn’t offer an excuse. Instead, he explained the Volunteer State’s long and sordid history of how it would engage in this form of test-cheating, discussed how the state cut such exclusion levels by half under his watch, and pledged that the state would continue to reduce NAEP cheating. This stands starkly in contrast to responses from other states with high NAEP exclusion levels, many of whom didn’t even bother to respond or came up with excuses for their misbehavior.

One can imagine how much more Huffman could have done if Haslam was more-willing to use his political capital to continue reform. Haslam did nothing earlier this year when the Volunteer State’s legislature passed a law barring the use of test score growth data from the state’s Value-Added data system (the oldest in the country) in licensing decisions. Haslam’s move last month to launch a review of Common Core also undercut Huffman’s efforts to advance systemic reform. Because Haslam has been far more concerned with being liked and getting re-elected (even though he had almost no credible competition among either Republicans or Democrats), he has done little more than weaken Huffman and the state board of education, who have actually shown far greater backbone in withstanding traditionalist and movement conservative opposition.

Huffman’s resignation, along with the likelihood of Haslam appointing a less hard-charging state schools chief, bodes badly for children (especially my nephew and niece — this is personal) in the state. Your editor expects Haslam to fold like a tabloid newspaper on Common Core implementation within the next year. There’s also little chance that Haslam will push hard on other reforms (including expanding school choice) or even strongly defend the efforts Huffman has already undertaken.

But this turn of events is not shocking. As Dropout Nation has continually pointed out, any notion among reformers that one party is better on advancing systemic reform than the other is a fallacy; especially in southern states such as Tennessee (where school districts are often the biggest employers in their communities, the most-powerful political players, and the breeding grounds for so many politicians), Republican domination of statewide politics does not any advancements in overhauling public education. [This, by the way, is why conservative reformers need to temper their exuberance over last week’s Election Day victories; as seen in the case of Haslam, as well as Florida’s Rick Scott, being a Republican or a conservative doesn’t translate into being a reformer.]

For reformers, Huffman’s resignation and Haslam’s waywardness on reform is another reminder that their efforts must be bipartisan. This means cultivating supporters in both parties to sustain reform efforts, as well as build up strong grassroots support in order to keep politicians honest.

The good news, however, is that Huffman can now go back to the national stage and advance systemic reform as he has done for most of his career. He has set a fine example of school leadership that his soon-to-be former colleagues, along with future state school chiefs, should follow.

November 6, 2014 standard

For Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the past few weeks have been far kinder to his re-election prospects — and the continuation of systemic reform in the Second City — than he probably deserves. Which means he must use this time to build a strong agenda for helping all kids succeed as well as address the city’s quality of life issues.

Tuesday’s victory by Republican Bruce Rauner over incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn in Illinois’ gubernatorial election may prove to be one of the best things to happen for Emanuel so far. This is because the private equity investor and school reform philanthropist’s agenda of tackling the Land of Lincoln’s virtually-insolvent pensions and expanding school choice dovetails nicely with Emanuel’s efforts to address the Second City’s own defined-benefit pension shortfalls and increase the number of charters serving children. One can easily expect Emanuel and Rauner to work closely on this front even as the two will likely spar for the role of leading politician in the state.

Three weeks earlier, the announcement by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis that she was stepping down temporarily as head of the American Federation of Teachers local after being treated for cancer essentially sidelined Emanuel’s most-potent foe. Lewis was preparing to mount what would have likely ended up being an unsuccessful challenge to Emanuel’s re-election, something that the mayor didn’t want to face (even though Lewis, contrary to a Chicago Sun-Times poll, was unlikely to win). Because Lewis will be sidelined through the election cycle — and won’t draw money and other support from a national AFT more desperate than ever for an electoral victory — Emanuel will end up with just two weak challengers, none of whom have the money or the ground game to beat the mayor next year.

Meanwhile the AFT local itself is itself in disarray amid Lewis’ temporary absence. One reason lies with the dissatisfaction among many rank-and-file members over Lewis’ move to force the union to back the mayoral challenge of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, over Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti. While the union’s delegates went with Lewis’ choice this week, rank-and-filers were particularly miffed last week when her underlings used the AFT local’s annual LEAD dinner to harass them into backing the little-known Garcia over Fioretti, who is backed by some labor-oriented progressives despite the embarrassment of his firm’s unpaid bills (as well as being accused by two ex-staffers for his city council campaigns of not paying them). Even worse, they had to listen to Garcia give a speech at the dinner, delaying their chance to listen to Gov. Quinn, who eventually gave the keynote address. The high-handed actions are another reminder that AFT leaders only listens to teachers when they say what the union tells them to say.

All of this is happening for Emanuel at just the right time. Since succeeding Richard M. Daley as Chicago’s mayor, the former congressman and onetime Obama Administration chief of staff has been beset by his predecessor’s failures on the quality of life and fiscal fronts.

Certainly concerns that Chicago’s crime levels are overblown. The city’s reported homicides declined by 41 percent between 1993 and 2012, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics; while far lower than the 79-percent decline experienced by the far-larger New York City and Los Angeles’ 72 percent decline, the Second City is still far safer now than it was two decades ago. Yet because of Emanuel’s and Daley’s unwillingness to adopt the aggressive data-driven crime reduction techniques undertaken in the Big Apple and in other cities, Chicago remains a less-safer place to live than the nation’s two-largest cities; Chicago’s reported homicides of 500 is 81 more than that reported in the Big Apple and 201 more than that experienced in the City of Angels.

Emanuel’s own failures on this front is one reason why his approval ratings on crime among blacks and whites declined from 45 percent in 2013 to 30 percent this year, according to the Chicago Tribune. And the revelations by Chicago that the police department had reclassified certain crimes in order to make stats look better (also known as fudging and cheating) have furthered the perception among Second City residents that the mayor isn’t handling the most-important job of his office very well.

Meanwhile Emanuel has had to deal with the Second City’s pension morass, which looms even larger as Baby Boomers working in city government are heading into retirement. This has forced the mayor to battle with public-sector unions — especially the Chicago AFT local — over addressing those woes. The teachers’ pension’s virtual insolvency is particularly problematic thanks to mismanagement by Daley (who successfully petitioned legislators in Springfield to grant the city a decade-long “holiday” from making contributions to the pension) and CTU (which controls eight of the 12 seats on the pension’s board). A Dropout Nation analysis of the pension’s insolvency shows that the result of the mismanagement and empty promises is that it is underfunded to the tune of $12.5 billion, or 30 percent higher than officially reported.

Emanuel’s efforts on the pension reform front are tied to that of the Land of Lincoln, whose own modest pension revamp in the form of Senate Bill 1 is being challenged in court by a cadre of public-sector unions that includes the AFT’s state affiliate as well as that of the National Education Association. There’s also CTU, which is working overtime to avoid any reform that involves cutting annuity payments to current and future retirees.

But there is one bright spot for Emanuel: His continuation of the reform of Chicago’s traditional district that began under predecessor Daley. Emanuel had suffered a public relations loss two years ago when Lewis and the CTU embarked on its two week-long strike. But for all of Lewis’ bluster, the reality was that the work stoppage achieved little in the way of blunting reform; Emanuel was able to extend the amount of hours schools are open and thus, the time it can require teachers to work in theory (which didn’t go down so well with the hardcore traditionalists within the union’s rank-and-file). The strike also helped Emanuel make a strong push to expand school choice through authorizing new charter schools — which aren’t subjected to collective bargaining agreements. Under Emanuel, Chicago authorized 30 new charters between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014. Given that the city’s charter schools have significantly improved student achievement in math and reading (according to last year’s report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes), the move also benefits kids academically as well.

The results, both under Emanuel and Daley, have been remarkable. Between 2005 and 2013, the city’s high school graduation rate increased from 39 percent to 66 percent. The percentage of Second City fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 60 percent to 49 percent between 2003 and 2013, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 13 percent to 21 percent in the same period. The district has also done better on helping eighth-graders gain the literacy they need for lifetime success, with the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increasing from 15 percent to 20 percent within the last decade.

Chicago still has ways to go before it can be considered a high-performing school operator; this includes improving achievement for young black men, at which it has done a poor job; the percentage of young black men in eighth grade reading Below Basic declined by a mere three percentage points (from 54 percent to 51 percent) between 2003 and 2013. The low levels of literacy contribute to the district’s overuse of harsh school discipline on black children (especially young black men). Ten-point-one percent of black students were suspended one or more times by Chicago Public Schools in 2011-2012 while a mere 3.3. percent of Latino schoolmates and 2 percent of white students, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education; note that Latino students make up 45 percent of the district’s population, while blacks account for 41 percent of kids in its schools (nine percent of students are white). But Emanuel’s efforts (as well as that of Daley before him) are helping more kids gain the teaching and curricula they deserve.

Given the lack of a strong opponent, the mayor’s strong alliances with the city’s private-sector unions and business community, and the fears among many of Chicago sliding back into the worst days of the 1980s (when it was known as Beirut by the Lake), Emanuel will likely win. But this doesn’t mean that he can sit on his laurels. In fact, what Emanuel must do is offer a strong vision for the Second City’s future, one in which streets are safer, its financial condition is far less dire, and in which all children (especially young black men) will have the knowledge they need to write stories of prosperity for themselves and their communities. This starts with the building upon the successes on the education front.

As Emanuel already knows, and as big-city mayors elsewhere have concluded over the past four decades, a city’s future economic growth and social vibrancy starts with schools at the center of the neighborhoods in which they are located. While Chicago’s reform efforts have been successful, they haven’t been aggressive enough. One step is to eliminate the city’s school zones, a Zip Code Education practice that not only restricts the ability of the Second City’s poor and minority families to provide  Emanuel should also rescind the district’s move last month to not open any new charters until 2015-2016 (a move done in anticipation of what was expected to be Lewis’ challenge for the mayor’s job), and go full bore on launching more high-quality charters. He should also foster the development of blended learning by outfits such as Rocketship Education, and DIY education efforts by families, churches, and community groups in the city. Especially given the move last year to shut down 50 half-empty traditional district schools, Emanuel must show that the city is going to provide families options they need and deserve. Moving the district away from overusing harsh school discipline and toward restorative justice models that actually teach kids the impact of their behaviors on peers (along with more-aggressive reading remediation for young black men) is also key.

Emanuel should also come together with Rauner, who will become Illinois governor in January, to build upon the teacher quality reforms Daley got passed by the state legislature three years ago. This should include embracing the spirit of Vergara v. California and enacting laws to increase the time it takes for teachers to gain tenure from four years to five and allow districts to extend the probationary period for newly-hired teachers if their performance isn’t up to snuff. [It would be great if Emanuel and Rauner worked to abolish near-lifetime employment altogether; but this is Illinois and that won’t go down well.] Teaming up with Rauner to enact a Parent Trigger law allowing Second City families to take over failing traditional district schools would also go a long way toward making parents lead decision-makers in education for their kids.

But as Dropout Nation noted last year in its commentary on Emanuel’s move to close 50 traditional district schools, high-quality education isn’t enough in Chicago, especially in the city’s most crime-ridden locales. Asking kids and their families to commute to schools and go to work in fear for their lives is just plain unacceptable. For this, Emanuel has absolutely no excuse. [As a native New Yorker, your editor is amazed that Emanuel, and before him, Daley, were allowed by Second City residents to get away with, well, murder; in New York City, they would have already lost their jobs.] Emanuel should rip a page from New York City by using the Broken Windows principles on crime-fighting that it used to great success, as well as hire more officers to patrol the streets. The mayor could also use the schools to help keep kids off the street; beyond extending the school day, the district should even launch night schools where high schoolers can attend instead of being on the streets.

Emanuel must also show good faith to the citizenry by dismissing Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who has been at the center of the scandal surrounding how the police department classifies crimes. Public confidence in crime-fighting must be earned, both through safer streets and honest data on crime-fighting.

Finally, Emanuel must ramp up his pension reform agenda. Your editor wouldn’t expect the mayor to do this until he wins re-election. But he must begin leveling with citizens on the true depths of the Second City’s fiscal morass. This includes requiring the city’s pensions — especially the teachers’ pension — to provide honest numbers based on the formula developed by Moody’s Investors Service as part of its effort to shed light on underfunded pensions. Emanuel must then team up with incoming Gov. Rauner on a pension-reform plan that includes moving mid-career and younger workers (including teachers) from the busted pensions to hybrid retirement plans that features a defined-contribution element into which they can save as much as they choose and a defined-benefit component with a guaranteed savings rate. Especially for Chicago’s younger teachers, as well as high-quality teachers of all seniority levels, such pension reform would allow them to gain retirements worthy of their hard work.

Emanuel now has an opportunity to use his likely second term to execute a vision of Chicago’s future worthy of children and their families. It is time for him to make this a reality.