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December 24, 2010 standard

What to read while celebrating the holidays (besides your favorite education news site):

Shameless Self-Promotion (Jay Mathews Department): In his column today, the renowned Washington Post education columnist and I discuss what  aspects on which education reporters and school reformers should focus. Jay argues for focusing on what happens in classrooms; you know where I stand. Read, consider and take action.

Why Teacher Quality Matters, Florida Division: At RedefinEd, Doug Tuthill recalls one of his studies on the relationship between Florida’s school ratings system and teacher quality. As the Los Angeles Times showed in its series this year, and what has been determined by CALDER in its own study released last month, Tuthill learned that there were greater variations between teachers within schools than across schools. Which furthers the point that there is a critical need to reform how teachers are recruited, trained and compensated. Principals must also have power to shape their teaching staffs to improve student achievement, a problem that the reform efforts at a school in Los Angeles, Edwin Markham Middle School, demonstrates to the max. Tuthill also notes that part of the problem in Florida in improving teacher quality in schools lies with the state’s class size laws, which require principals to bring is as many teachers as needed to keep student-teacher ratios low. Chances are that other state laws, along with collective bargaining agreements — which often reserve control of staffing to central districts and allow for seniority-bumping of younger teachers — are also part of the problem.

The Democratic Party Divide Over School Reform, California Department: The Sacramento Bee has finally noticed a topic of discussion here at this site and in my American Spectator columns: The growing divide between centrist and progressive Democrat school reformers and the affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. The piece offers a short, but comprehensive primer on what once-and-future governor Jerry Brown faces when he returns to office in two weeks. Given that Brown will also have to cut education spending in order to deal with the state’s virtual insolvency (and his own work co-founding two charter schools during his tenure as Oakland mayor), expect him to end up more on the side of school reformers than on the side of the teachers unions who helped get him elected.

Diane Ravitch Still Can’t Find Her Brain: Part XIX: The man who helped write the No Child Left Behind Act into reality, Sandy Kress, gives the one-esteemed education historian the business for failing to get the facts right on the impact of the law on student achievement. Meanwhile Andrew Blumenfeld of Students for Education Reform analyzes Ravitch’s appearance with Pedro Noguera and other status quo defenders on campus and calls out the university for hosting a teachers “union rally”. Enough said.

While you are enjoying your holiday, listen to this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on the economic gifts that come with education, and check out the This is Dropout Nation and Education As a Civil Right collections on school reform. And enjoy some Aretha for Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all! And thanks for reading, linking and participating!

August 18, 2010 standard

The Los Angeles Times isn’t exactly one of my favorite newspapers. Although the editorial page is much-improved, its news coverage of California and L.A. issues often pales in comparison to that of the rival Daily News and the Orange County Register. Occasionally (and especially on coverage of the hometown industry, entertainment), it even gets outclassed by the other Times and by the local business news weekly.

But this week, the Times managed to put together a report on teacher quality — and the lack of it — in L.A. Unified schools that deserves both a Pulitzer and an award for great advocacy. While teachers union bosses, defenders of the status quo and others debate the piece and its analysis of student test score data, here are two reasons why education reporters and school reform advocates should look to the Times report as their guide for their future work:

Data Shows the Reality: As Dropout Nation readers know so well, a major point of this site is to use data in order to fully dissect the problems within American public education. This is for good reason: Information reveals what the eyes often cannot see.

All high schools seem alike until one looks at such numbers as test score growth data and Promoting Power rates; that’s when you can tell the difference between a great school and a dropout factory. And as much as one may think you can tell a high-quality teacher just by watching them in a classroom, the reality is that you can’t. Not even the otherwise esteemable Jay Mathews is that perceptive.

Yet education reporters such as Mathews seem stuck in the belief that the best way to report on education and its impacts on society is in the classrooms. This isn’t so. The real causes and consequences of academic failure — and reasons behind the fruits of academic success — are seen not in schools, but in teacher education sessions at ed schools, during state legislative sessions, on unemployment lines and in prisons. It is also seen in data — from graduation rates to employment statistics. Without the data being the guide, reporting will often be a shallow collection of talking heads shooting off their mouths.

The Denver Post offered a fantastic example of using data in education coverage some years ago when it analyzed Denver’s graduation and promoting power rates. The Indianapolis Star has done the same — including my own string of series late in the decade and the work of Andy Gammill and Mark Nichols on suspension and expulsion. Although there have been some wonderful reporting done by education reporters in the past couple of years, few of them have risen to the level of those reports. Until the L.A. Times took it up a notch.

The Times did a great job in using data. Not only were Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith unafraid to approach the student test score data, they sought out expertise (in the form of Rand Corp. economist Richard Buddin) to help them make sense of it. They let the data serve as the guide to finding their subjects instead of just approaching teachers, smiling faces and classrooms of chaos. As someone who has done his share of data-driven reporting and opinion, I say they deserve two rounds of beers (and a few awards) for their great work. And I am more than happy to buy them the brew.

Education reporting has to get away from observing classrooms. Its reporters must no longer be afraid of wading into data analysis. The Times report is a sterling example of what should be done. We need more of this. Pronto.

Afflicting the comfortable: Folks such as Rick Hess and Alexander Russo take issue with the Times piece because it dares to actually name those teachers who are performing poorly and doing great work. At first, one can certainly understand the discomfort; after all, the teachers being shamed (including fifth-grade teacher John Smith, who took the brunt of the scrutiny) are folks who have thought they were doing great work and were never told by their district that this wasn’t so.

But let’s face facts: For one, the Times didn’t name every teacher evaluated in its study; just those it interviewed for the piece. The public can’t access the data unless they happen to be the L.A. Unified teachers evaluated for the project (although as commenter Tom Hoffman notes, the Times will make this a reality in its follow-up which will come tomorrow. And it should).

 Then we must remember that many of these teachers have likely been backers of the AFT’s longstanding opposition to the use of student test data in evaluating the teachers, the very reason why they never were told in the first place. More importantly, let’s not forget that teaching is a comfortable, well-compensated profession: They gain near-lifetime employment (through tenure) just after three years on the job; in L.A., a 20-year veteran makes more than $70,000 a year (more than the $63,859 earned by the average L.A. county family); their defined-benefit pensions are one of the reasons why California state government is essentially insolvent; their unions are the single most-influential force in education policy.

Journalism and advocacy are both about afflicting the comfortable on behalf of the afflicted. These poor-performing teachers are the comfortable. Worse, they are comfortable at the expense of the futures of young boys and girls, many of whom will never enjoy the kind of middle-class salaries and strong job protections their teachers receive. Meanwhile the high-quality teachers who are actually doing well — who deserve comfort — never get the full recognition (or the wide range of compensation and career opportunities) they so richly deserve.

Those who declare that the Times’ analysis was akin to a job evaluation are full of it. It isn’t. L.A. Unified doesn’t even use the data in its official evaluations (and until recently, couldn’t do so under state law). In any case, it isn’t any different than revealing salary data; as the soon-to-be husband of a former state government worker whose salary was exposed by the paper for which he had worked, I had to balance my own discomfort with the reality that government employees work for taxpayers — and thus, deserve to know what they are being paid.

Given that parents need to know about the quality of the teachers instructing their children (and should be able to choose high-quality teachers or reject those who are of low quality), revealing this information is not dangerous; as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would say, it’s the right thing to do. For far too long, poor-performing teachers have lurked in the shadows, aided and abetted by teachers unions, administrators and colleagues who instinctively (if not quantitatively) knew better and did nothing. On the other side, we have good-to-great teachers who are forced by their colleagues to remain quiet about their achievements (or in the case of the John Taylor Gattos and Jaime Escalantes, forced out of the profession because of jealousy within the ranks). The Times did what every news outlet is supposed to do. Hess and others shouldn’t be afraid to do it either.

[By the way: Gven that value-added analysis has stood up to three decades of scrutiny, it is appropriate to use it for analysis of the kind the Times has conducted (and for use in actually evaluating teachers). The arguments made by Hess and opponents of teacher quality reform against such uses are mere hogwash; for the latter, it’s the pursuit of perfection at the expense of the good of improving education for children, largely because that goal is of secondary importance to them.]

The Times report isn’t exactly advocacy in either the inside-the-Beltway or grassroots sense. The best of journalism — including editorials and opinions — never does that anyway because reporters (and to a lesser extent, editorialists) must steer an objective, even-handed course. What the Times does do through its reporting is advocate strongly for an open, honest discussion about how we evaluate teachers, why we must move toward a system that uses value-added assessment and student test data (the best, most-objective data available), and what we must do to achieve an important component of the overall goal of improving education for all children. Only those who oppose any reform of American public education — or lack the stomach for such honest conversations — disagree with this.

School reformers, unlike reporters, don’t have any obligations to be even-handed. Judicious and thoughtful? Definitely. Sticking to the debate instead of name-calling? Definitely. But far too often, especially among Beltway reformers, the tendency is to couch conclusions and defenses of their views in starchy, academic, far-too-careful language; it is an important reason why the Beltway types struggle to converse with the very parents and community members who they need to help sustain their reforms (grassroots activists lack such timidity).  Those who proclaim they want to overhaul American public education should be as bold in their work — even embracing the steps the Times took — instead of shying timidly into the night.

March 19, 2010 standard

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

What’s happening today in the dropout nation:

  1. As Stephen Sawchuk reported Wednesday in Education Week, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers were none too pleased with the Obama administration’s effort to transform Title I funding from formula-based funding to competitive grants similar to the Race to the Top reform effort. But don’t think it’s just all about the money. The NEA and the AFT (along with local school districts) have already been the beneficiaries of $100 billion in federal stimulus dollars (along with the prospect of more billions in the 2010-2011 fiscal year budget courtesy of another possible stimulus being pitched around Congress). What it is really about is that the NEA and AFT are slowly being relegated to side players in education decision-making. Even though the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions within the No Child Left Behind Act that the unions oppose are being ditched, the two unions are facing the reality that the traditional system of teachers compensation — degree- and seniority-based pay scales, near-lifetime employment through tenure and pensions that pay out as much as $2 million to a teacher over the course of her retirement — is being relegated to history’s ash-bin. No Child, along with Race to the Top (and various efforts by school districts and states to right-size their finances), will likely further spur this transformation.
  2. Meanwhile in Central Falls, R.I., one of the 93 teachers at the local high school fired by the district last month after refusing to support a school turnaround plan decided to hang Obama in effigy, according to USA Today. Why? Because of Obama’s own support for the district in this imbroglio. This teacher has a right to free speech. He also deserves our scorn.
  3. At Gotham Schools, Matthew Levey argues that teacher quality is just side of the school reform equation. Revamping the curricula taught in New York City’s schools (and other school systems throughout the nation) is also critical to improving how children learn. Writes Levey: “The content we want our kids to learn is the fraternal twin of teacher quality, and it is high time we stopped treating it like a redheaded stepchild.” I agree with his point, but doesn’t the Common Core standards effort (along with the entire history of the standards and accountability movement) undermine his argument?
  4. The Brookings Institution calls for a new federal program to recruit, train and bring teachers to the poorest school systems. All nice and all. But don’t we already have AmeriCorps? Don’t we have Teach for America, which started out as an offshoot of AmeriCorps? Didn’t Martin Haberman start a similar program five decades ago that became the National Teacher Corps? My my my, Brookings, offering old ideas yet again. And, save for TFA (which is fully in the nonprofit sector), the concept has never really worked.
  5. And the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsay Burke takes aim at Obama and Duncan for watering down some of the oft-sabotaged school choice provision within No Child, which allowed for poor students to leave the worst schools for better schools within their district (if available). From where I sit, the provision was often not used because traditional school districts almost never informed parents in time to exercise their choice. Sadly, even when available, the school districts were often so atrocious that there were no high quality schools from which parents can choose. The better solution should have been to allow for vouchers. But Obama isn’t going to ever go there.

Check out this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on improving teacher quality, along with this week’s report on low high school promotion rates for boys within Kansas City, K.S.’s school district. And read my report in The American Spectator on efforts by the AFT and NEA to start their own charter schools (and take control of existing traditional schools). Apparently, one AFT effort in New York City isn’t going so hot.

By the way: Next week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, which will focus more on improving urban and rural schools, will hit the Internet this weekend.

March 10, 2010 standard

We need more black men like Roy Jones of Call Me MISTER to work with young black men and keep them on the path to graduation and college completion. Let's make it happen.

What’s on the minds of the dropout nation today:

  1. Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System is certainly getting heavy play. Honestly, the book is just a step above bargain bin material from my perspective. Others feel the same way:  Cato Institute education czar Andrew Coulson notes that Ravitch offers little in the way of cogent policy analysis. She can’t comment on charter schools or vouchers because she’s education historian, not a policy analyst or a researcher of any kind. Declares he: “They should never have been given credence in the first place.” Although I will state that Coulson’s argument is a bit faulty (based on his theory, most school reformers also wouldn’t qualify), he is right to state clearly what should be known by now: Ravitch is the Evan Bayh of education policy.
  2. Orestes Brownson is even more dismissive of Ravitch than Coulson or I would be. He also gives school reformers some grief: “One wishes, in vain, that education reformers would take their noses out of the test score tables and draft curriculae and talk about whether parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit… or not.” Understandable point, although I would argue that it isn’t exactly an either or. Parents should have the right to send their children to any high-quality educational options. At the same time, letting parents send children to failing schools is as much neglectful (and, dare I say, abusive) as physical abuse. There is a reasonable balance between anything goes and absolute restriction. Common core standards, from my perspective, seems unnecessary. Why? Because the National Assessment of Educational Progress already does a fine job of setting the bar for where states should be in terms of standards.
  3. For a masterful historian on education, one need not go to Ravitch. There is Jeffrey Mirel, whose treatise on the failings of the comprehensive high school system should be widely read by those interested in why high schools need reform (and why ability tracking should be abandoned altogether). His book on the history of Detroit’s public schools system should also be read. One need not agree with all of his conclusions in order to appreciate his scholarship.
  4. As Dropout Nation readers know, long-term pension and retiree health benefits and the evidence that seniority doesn’t equal quality are the two main forces that may lead to the end of traditional teachers compensation. Another reason why: The civil rights movement, which is now beginning to fully understand the consequences of seniority-based job protections (and the damage of “last hired-first fired” policies) to low-income students. As reported last month by the Los Angeles Times, the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the L.A. Unified School District for laying off its young teachers (and by proxy, being contractually unable to replace them with experienced teachers who don’t want to teach in schools serving poor children). At Samuel Gompers Middle School, the principal there recruited a highly-talented team of young teachers just to see them laid off; the school now depends on a rotating team of lower-quality substitutes. If the ACLU succeeds, this will result in a shock to every urban school system in the nation. And the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers will find themselves even more on the defensive.
  5. In Tupelo, Miss., a group called 150 Men is teaming up with the local school district to mentor 150 young black male dropouts and get them back into school, according to WTVA. It is part of a larger effort by the district to get more black churches and fraternities to take the achievement gap and the dropout crisis as seriously as they took the fight against segregation five decades ago.
  6. John Fensterwald notes that a few parent groups are asking state officials about the use of the Parent Trigger and open enrollment rules that can now be used by parents to either restructure failing schools their children attend or move them to better-performing schools in the area  (whether in their home district or outside of it). The two promising moves can help improve the quality of education for the poorest children. But as Fensterwald points out, the state hasn’t given thorough guidance on the use of either one. By the way, check out the Dropout Nation Podcast on Parent Trigger for more perspective.
  7. The Common Core Standards initiative being headed up by the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers has unveiled its math and English standards for comment. Feel free to leave your comments. Checker Finn has already offered his.

Check out this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on next steps for Race to the Top. And read this week’s report on the possible impact of the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights efforts.

March 7, 2010 standard

Charters are on her mind -- and in more ways than one.

The dropout nation in the news today:

  1. For the past three decades, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers has regarded the charter school movement as the worst of the elements in the overall school reform movement. From efforts to restrict establishment of charters in statehouses and school boards to efforts to use preliminary National Assessment of Educational Progress results to sway federal education policy, the nation’s two primary teachers unions have failed miserably in attempts to stall the growth of charters. But over the past couple of years, the NEA and AFT have focused on organizing teaching staffs within these schools. Why? Read more in my latest Labor Watch report and drop by Dropout Nation for more commentary on the strategies and the likelihood of success in their organizing efforts.
  2. As I noted last week in The American Spectator, the closing of Catholic schools in Baltimore should prompt alarm among school reformers interested in expanding the availability of high-quality educational options for the most-under-served children. This doesn’t just apply in Baltimore. As the New York Post reports today, parents and children attending two New York Archdiocese schools slated for closure are none too happy about this prospect. Certainly the traditional model of financing and operating Catholic schools is uneconomic; some closing may need to happen. But figuring out ways to support these choices should figure into the minds of all reformers.
  3. This week’s Headshaker comes courtesy of Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, who echoes complaints from Diane Ravitch and others that teacher quality reform efforts (along with the outlier that is the firing of 93 teachers at the high school in Central Falls, R.I.) are signs that reformers are becoming bloodthirsty and overly blame-gaming. Her position: Parents and children need to take responsibility for their own academic failures. The fact that children already bear the brunt of poor academic instruction in the long run through poverty, chronic unemployment and incarceration fails to figure into her thinking. So does the reality that teachers have long been insulated from performance management thanks to a lack of strong human capital management by districts, bans on the use of student test scores in evaluating teacher performance and state laws that make teacher dismissals expensive, cumbersome and difficult to undertake. And the fact that teachers are protected by unions that use their war chests and lobbying heft to influence education policy also doesn’t figure into her discussion. Oh, and she uses too many anecdotes instead of facts.
  4. In Detroit, several foundations are looking to launch 70 new charter schools, according to the Detroit Free Press. If these charters do the job, this could mean more opportunities for high-quality education for the Motor City’s poorly-served children. It also comes for Detroit Public Schools at the least-opportune time: It is attempting to bolster its declining enrollment. (HT for the latter link to Steve Moore, who Dropout Nation readers should also follow on Twitter, along with yours truly.)

Check out today’s Dropout Nation report on the U.S. Department of Education’s renewed civil rights enforcement efforts and what this could mean for school equity/advocacy tort lawyers, states and districts. Also listen to today’s Dropout Nation Podcast on what President Obama and Arne Duncan should do in expanding Race to the Top.


Helpling with homework and attending the PTA is no longer the only part parents must play in their children's academic lives. They must also help in shaping their curricula -- and must have the tools and support to do so. (Photo courtesy of

What’s happening today in the dropout nation:

  1. The Dallas Morning News takes a look at the school district’s dropout factories — many of which are home to largely black and Latino students — and dissects why turning around their performance is so difficult. One reason that can easily be mentioned: The lack of community leadership, especially from black and Latino leaders. EducationNews’ Jimmy Kilpatrick (hat tip to him) rightly asks this question of the city’s (and the nation’s) black political leaders (and it goes for Latino and white leaders as well): “Where is the… outrage?
  2. Speaking of the lack of leadership on school reform among the nation’s black politicians, Jennifer Medina profiles New York State Sen.  Bill Perkins, who has proven to be the biggest foe against the expansion (and existence) of charter schools in Empire Land. Sadly, he ignores the benefits charters are bringing to students who live in his Harlem-centered district. Lovely. As Harlem Children’s Zone boss Geoffrey Canada points out, Perkins’ problem seems to be that most of the operators of charters are from outside the community. Well, Mr. Perkins, how about demanding more from the black leaders and middle class residents in your own community instead of piling on people who are willing to help children who aren’t their own by birth. Really. When you ask that question and demand more, then come back with your criticisms. Or as Twitter participant Clifton Whitley writes: “why doesn’t he protest failing public schools?”
  3. Another area in which “leaders” are failing to take the lead: Saving the urban private and parochial schools — including Catholic schools — that have served many a poor urban child well over the past few decades. I look further at the need for school reformers — especially centrist Democrats — to embrace vouchers alongside charter schools in order to expand choice and high quality instruction for the poorest children in my latest report for The American Spectator. Also, check out my report from December about the efforts by the Archdiocese of Washington to maintain its mission of educating poor and middle class families, Catholic and (more often) non-Catholic alike.
  4. Michael Shaughnessy interviews Rick Hess about the fostering “greenfield” approaches to education reform that move away from traditional school district systems and the underlying infrastructure (teachers unions, best practices) that come with it. Interesting read.
  5. The Journal: Technological Horizons in Education reviews the Obama administration’s plans for the use of technology in education.We know what Tom Vander Ark thinks. I’m still thinking this through: The report is correct in arguing that American public education is in need of an overhaul to fit the needs of the 21st century. I’m all for expanded use of technology in schools in innovative ways, but I also think that technology is no more a lone silver bullet that charters, vouchers or shutting down poor performing schools. Ultimately, it comes down to great teaching and active engagement of children in learning. What are your thoughts?
  6. In Kentucky, the state lower house passed a bill that would require students to stay in school until age 18. This is all well and good. Perhaps the legislature will also get around to passing a law allowing for the authorization of charter schools, which could help improve the quality of education for students.
  7. Off the beaten track: Math can be found in interesting places. Even in one of my five all-time favorite books (along with Anne of Windy Poplars, Parliament of Whores, A Tale of a Tub, and Homicide: Life in the Killing Streets), Alice in Wonderland, according to the New York Times.

Check out the Dropout Nation Podcast this evening; it will be on the next steps President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should take with Race to the Top and school reform. Also, read the report this week on the alarming dropout and lack of on-track graduation among male students in Chicago’s public schools (and elsewhere).

And now, for your Sunday pleasure, one of my favorite songs, Come Fly With Me in live form by Sinatra himself: