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February 16, 2012 standard

Dear Loyal Readers:

One of the things that Dropout Nation prides itself upon is being a family-friendly site in every way. This includes ensuring that readers can visit the site without any form of trouble. But in the past few days, a hack of the site led to the installation of some nasty stuff. It has meant your editors — most-notably, I, the editor-in-chief — to spend countless hours cleaning off the site and the code the hackers baked into it. This included removing numerous images, uploading a fresh edition of the content management system that is the engine of this site, scanning every computer that comes in contact with the site’s back end, talking to the Web host, and combing through code. And a series of false starts announcing that it was all clear until the true source of the problems were clear.

The good news is that Dropout Nation is clean and ready for reading. Google and other search engines have cleared the site as well. New versions of the Podcast feeds will be up tonight. And a new site design will be unveiled on Saturday.

Until the feeds are back up, you can access all the Podcasts at the radio page.

But I am mortified that this has happened. In fact, terribly disgusted with the entire situation. I believe in holding everyone to a platinum standard — and this includes yours truly. And I get thoroughly incensed when anything involving my work doesn’t reach it, outright fails the grade, and worse, may cause inconvenience in the process. Even if the cause isn’t of my own doing.

So we have taken new measures to keep the site as hack-free (and damage-free) as possible. This includes going almost all plugin-free (save for one from Blubrry, the podcast distribution service that supports the Dropout Nation Podcast), and daily inspections of all code. For the moment, this site will also go image-free (save for the podcast logos and the banners for each category) in order to ensure that nothing stands between us supporting the reform of American public education.

As anyone who has built a site using a popular content management system can attest, these problems eventually come your way. Even if you do everything, from constant software updates to backing up databases (all of which Dropout Nation does consistently) it can happen. But Dropout Nation offers no excuses because it isn’t good enough. Each and every one of you who have been readers of this site for the past few years have come to expect better from us. It is because of your patronage that this site has had impact on the lives of so many families and children.

Thank you for reading Dropout Nation. Thank you for putting up with the issues this site has had this week. Thank you for returning and continuing to read this publication. And thank you for doing the most-important work we can all do: Helping every child succeed in school and in life.

November 24, 2011 standard

As we at Dropout Nation enjoy apple peach pie and football (including,and hopefully, a loss by the Cowboys), we are thankful to each and every one of you for reading, for listening, and, ultimately, for your work to help every child succeed in school and life. We thank God for all the blessings he has bestowed on our families and on everyone. And we hope your day is restful and you enjoy time with your families.

While you enjoy yourself, listen to this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on recognizing and rewarding high-quality teachers, check out this month’s Conversation podcast featuring former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, and read this week’s pieces on ending zip code education practices, the importance of morality in driving school reform, and the fiscal and intellectual fecklessness of the NEA and AFT. And read other Dropout Nation pieces from this month and last.

Thank you! And God bless.

October 11, 2011 standard

Then it’s probably a really bad idea. Which is what U.S. Sen. (and onetime school reformer) Lamar Alexander should admit to himself this after the nation’s largest teachers’ union tacitly endorsed his plan to dismantle the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions. Declared the union in a letter sent to Alexander last week: “We are pleased that your ESEA package addresses the current unworkable accountability system… we support your proposals regarding teacher quality.”

Why would the NEA, which has endorsed President Barack Obama in spite of sparring with the administration over its school reform plans, even back the Alexander plan? Because the plan achieves their goal of stemming the advance of school reform. As Dropout Nation pointed out last month, the Alexander plan merely goes a few steps further than the Obama Administration’s own effort to gut No Child’s accountability rules, doing away Adequate Yearly Progress provisions that have exposed the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia. It also offers a set of mealy-mouth college- and career-ready standards that simply avoid holding states accountable for the quality of education provided in all but a few of its traditional public schools. Poor and minority children in suburbia — and even white kids in those schools — will simply have to struggle in cultures of mediocrity that, as this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast notes, are failing against high-performing school systems throughout the rest of the world.

The essential willingness of Senate Republicans and their colleagues who control the House to walk arm and arm with the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers on reducing accountability is amazing. But not necessarily surprising. For those Republicans whose districts are in suburbia — where school systems have been revealed by No Child’s accountability rules to be just marginally better than urban dropout factories — there is plenty of pressure to pull back from reforms, many of which are backed by their gubernatorial and statehouse colleagues. The desire of movement conservatives to pull back from anything backed during the George W. Bush era — which they feel did little more than to expand federal power at the expense of what they consider to be conservative principles — means culling back federal education policy even at the cost of allowing states and districts to spend money freely without being accountable for results.

Meanwhile Senate Republicans and their congressional counterparts are being aided and abetted by some conservative reformers, especially American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, who have begun retreating on various aspects of school reform with “reform realism” proposals and arguments that the focus on addressing achievement gaps is wasteful. What is happening is the very conservative reformers who, at the beginning of the last decade, were the strongest supporters of pushing systemic reform, have essentially thrown up their hands.

Yet Senate Republicans, along with their backers, fail to consider these realities. For one, No Child and AYP have helped reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. The law, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans. Stepping back accountability at the federal level — especially when congressional leaders are unwilling to force states to adopt Common Core standards in reading and mathematics — means setting back reforms, especially the very school choice measures Republicans and conservatives proclaim they support.

Second: The Alexander plan fails to deal with the reality that accountability needs to be expanded, not scaled back. For example, the need to force the overhaul of ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, is still critical to the reform of American public education. Yet the Alexander plan (along with Duncan’s waiver plan and proposals from congressional Republicans and Senate Democrats) is silent on that issue. Certainly Duncan’s ed school reform proposals — which include requiring states and ed schools to provide more detailed reporting on the effectiveness of newly-minted teachers in improving student achievement during their first two years on the job — are helpful. But it isn’t enough. Forcing the overhaul of ed schools should be part of any No Child reauthorization.

Alexander’s plan also doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. If anything, abandoning AYP will set back efforts to address this symptom of the nation’s education crisis back even further because there will be no meaningful transparency in what schools are doing when it comes to student achievement. The Alexander plan, along with others, is also silent on the matter of expanding Parent Power — including requiring states to enact Parent Trigger laws in exchange for a smaller federal footprint. Essentially, the status quo in this area remains ante, denying families their rightful places as lead decision-makers in education.

And finally, the Alexander plan simply returns things back to the days when the federal government ladled out dollars with almost no accountability in return. It doesn’t embrace the best elements of Race to the Top — including its emphasis on forcing states to compete for federal money and show results. This is especially shameful because maintaining the program-based funding nature of Title I will do little to spur reform. Given that no Republican is proposing to cut out federal spending on education entirely, the plan is hardly conservative. If anything, the Alexander plan guarantees that many states will simply go back to spending federal money without any consideration of results, which will lead to an eventual backlash.

The good news is that much of this plan may not go anywhere, especially since Senate Democrats are in the minority and congressional Republicans are hardly moving at all on No Child’s reauthorization. There may be some other good news at least on the Senate side. Senate Democrats in control of the upper house are considering plans to make Race to the Top a permanent fixture of federal funding. Whether or not it will mean transforming at least part of the $12 billion devoted to Title 1 funding into competitive grants is an open question; but such a move would help move federal education policy away from simply doling out dollars to programs and demanding compliance instead of results.

But these days, when it comes to No Child, the plans being offered for its reauthorization merely declare that helping all children succeed in school and life is not in anyone’s thoughts. As I noted in last week’s piece on the need for Freedom Riders for school reform, it’s time for reformers to put pressure on congressional and Senate leaders to do better.

October 7, 2011 standard

Yesterday, New York Times’ Sam Dillon decided to tread the same ground your editor covered two years ago (and others have done since). And as one would expect, Diane Ravitch and other defenders of the very obsolete practices and low expectations thinking that have contributed to the nation’s education crisis, offered the report as an example of the nefariousness of the school reform movement. After all, according to their simple-minded, class envy-driven, anti-intellectual view, a wealthy entrepreneur can’t both have a healthy interest in improving the world in which he lives and an equally sensible self-interest in leaving his mark on it. You know, what all adults seek to do in life.

Yet Ravitch and her gang fail to consider the organizations that are subsidizing their own defense of the status quo (a point that Dillon manages to ignore in his piece). Start with the National Education Association, which devoted $248 million of union dues this past decade on political campaigns, making it the biggest player in American politics. The union has also spent millions on building and sustaining alliances that aid and abet its aims; this includes $1.9 million to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (which certifies ed schools) between the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 fiscal years, and $1.6 million to the Economic Policy Institute (which always seems to produce reports that neatly dovetail with NEA positions) within the past six years. There are also organizations allied with status quo thinking such as the Ford Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which command both dollars and vast memberships.

Then there’s the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Randi Weingarten (the subject of my profile this month in The American Spectator) is one of the foremost advocates on behalf of the status quo. From here appearances on shows such as The Colbert Report to profiles in Newsweek, Weingarten is the nation’s best-known union leader and most-prominent education traditionalist, almost as high-profile as Gates himself. And thanks to that profile and her position as head of the nation’s second-largest teachers union (including a foundation that is devoting millions to funding their own initiatives), she is just as influential as Gates (if not more so).

Essentially, both sides of the debate are basking in resources, financial and otherwise. and using them accordingly. One can say that status quo defenders control even more dollars; after all, they are in control of school districts and university schools of education, the institutions through which most of the $500 billion in taxpayer funds devoted to education flow. The NEA and the AFT, in particular, have long-influenced those dollars thanks to state laws and collective bargaining agreements that structure how dollars (in the form of teachers and their compensation packages) are directed to classrooms. Through their defense of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, they have created a teacher compensation system in which teachers are paid for simply lasting years instead of for improving student achievement, under which high-quality teachers aren’t rewarded for doing good-to-great work, that provide near-lifetime employment to the worst teachers, and perpetuate seniority-based assignment rules that, along with the lack of rigorous evaluations based on objective student achievement data, all but ensures that poor and minority children are taught by laggard teachers. They have been unwilling to embrace any real reform of teacher recruiting, training and compensation, allowing for the profession to become mired in mediocrity and failure at the expense of both good-to-great teachers who manage to emerge from the muck, and children who don’t get to choose who teaches them.

The NEA, the AFT and its allies also perpetuate practices and ideologies — including the Poverty Myth in Education — that have essentially allowed far too many educators to write off poor and minority children as being unworthy of a good education. They have consistently opposed any form of real school choice that allows children, no matter their station in life or their condition of birth, to escape dropout factories and failure mills. They have defended a system in which a child’s zip code determines the quality of their education — and can wreck their futures (and even land parents unwilling to accept this in the criminal justice system). And their unwillingness to address issues such as the crisis of low educational achievement among young males of all races — a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast – shows exactly where they stand on school reform.

I’m not going to say that education traditionalists don’t care about children. They think they do and I believe them. But what they defend, all in all, is a failed, negative and enslaving vision of American public education under which 150 children an hour drop out into poverty and prison. Worse, they defend the system by tying up taxpayer dollars in a status quo that was built for a different age in which education didn’t equal better quality of life, not for a time in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. One can understand supporting such a system back at the height of the industrial age. One can even understand their self-interest in protecting that which has given them comfortable livings and influence. But in 2011, at a time in which the economy demands a better-educated populace, continuing to support an outdated model of education is not only intellectually indefensible, but absolutely amoral and immoral, unjustifiable by any religion or worldview — and they do so in order to protect their privileges, their influence and their incomes. Weingarten and other status quo defenders cannot justify condemning the lives of millions of children.

And that is the difference between them and the school reformer that Gates is funding out of his own pocket. What school reformers have imperfectly, yet successfully, articulated is a vision of education that allows for every young man and woman to achieve their potential; that argues that schools and those who work within them are missionaries for social change that can help address and alleviate poverty; and offers a positive view of what can be done through providing a high-quality education to every child. It is a vision that offers solutions based on data and practice, and accepts that if a practice doesn’t work, it should be ditched for another.  And it uses the evidence that teacher quality and family engagement are greater determinants of academic success than socioeconomic background to advocate for remaking a profession into one that deserves the same respect as doctors, and giving parents the power they need to make great choices for the futures of their children.

This vision is winning the day not because of money; as with so many movements, school reformers were working the trenches, often with little money, before it attracted funding Gates and other big-named donors. The vision is winning because it is both a positive vision and one that has been better-advocated through strategic and tactical savvy. The NEA, the AFT and other defenders can develop new campaigns and protests, and raise ever more dollars, but none of that will hide the reality that what they offer is failure for children, failure for families, failure for communities and failure for a nation — all at a time in which falling down and dropping out is no longer a sustainable option.

Instead of conspiracy theories and class envy, education traditionalists need to take a look within.

September 28, 2011 standard

On this special Conversation with Editor RiShawn Biddle, Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality offers an opposing view on Dropout Nation‘s commentaries on the future of ed schools. While he defends the need for their existence, McKee also argues that their efforts in teacher training and education research are sorely in need of reform.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the Conversation podcast series and the overall Dropout Nation Podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

July 28, 2011 standard

One of the sad consequences of Diane Ravitch’s laughable attempt to become the Camille Paglia of education is that other university-based education researchers of the traditionalist mode want to do the same. After all, why toil anonymously writing tomes that will never be read — or trying to make the education research field less-incestuous and more-rigorous in methodology — when you can make a small name for yourself supposedly debunking the school reform movement? The latter is probably a lot more fun.

One such person is Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, who has devoted so much of his career attempting to prove that spending more money on education  leads to better results — including serving as an occasional witness for the equity and adequacy lawsuit crowd who have long sustained this theory. But in the past couple of years, Baker has managed to become one of those poor man’s Diane Ravitches, offering comfort to a legion of education traditionalists desperately looking for anyone to buttress their failed vision of American public education. And he’s gotten real good at engaging in name-calling when it comes to Bryan Hassel, Marguerite Roza, Eric Hanushek and other leading research lights in the school reform movement. (He also called your editor, with whom he has tangled on occasion, a hack, failing to realize that among reporters and editorialists, that term is more-often a badge of pride than insult.) To Baker’s lament, save for the occasional Education Next column, his targets generally ignore him. This should be no surprise. Ravitch is occasionally capable of coming up with something interesting (if not necessarily empirically-driven); Baker, on the other hand, couldn’t muster up provocative if it jumped on his desk, danced a jig, and kissed him on the nose.

So your editor wasn’t entirely shocked when Baker decided last week to ignore the entire substance of Dropout Nation‘s piece on the possibility of school reformers and Parent Power activists using the same legal tactics employed by the school funding crowd to advance school choice. Instead, he focused on the opening statement that there was no evidence that increased spending led to better student achievement.

Since I had more-important matters to which I must attend, didn’t notice the piece until it showed up on my incoming links log, and figured that Baker’s screed would be no more scintillating than his last attempt, I didn’t bother to immediately respond till now. Let’s say this: He disappoints on the name-calling (it was nothing new), and once again proved that he didn’t understand the difference between a media outlet (which Dropout Nation is) and a research publication. But then Baker attempted to cite research defending his ultimate point: That more money spent on education leads to higher levels of student achievement. And what he offers is, well, not all that compelling.

The first example he cites is a report written by Joydeep Roy, formerly of the Economic Policy Institute. Those of us who have covered the debate over graduation rates are quite familiar with Roy’s work, or lack thereof, on the subject and simply laugh when hearing it. His 2006 report, cowritten with EPI’s boss Larry Mishel, attempted to use federal education sampling data to weakly prove that graduation rates had not only not been in decline, but were actually been increasing, and that school reformers were wrong in their assertions.  Not only was Roy’s argument disproved by Nobel Laureate James Heckman in his own research on the issue, but it had long ago been demolished by the work of then-Urban Institute scholar Christopher Swanson (now with the research division of the firm that publishes Education Week), former Manhattan Institute scribe Jay P. Greene (now at the George W. Bush Center) and his protege, Marcus Winters, Schott Foundation’s Michael Holzman and Johns Hopkins’ Robert Balfanz, who used actual enrollment data to prove the point. Since then, neither EPI nor its most-prominent sponsor, the National Education Association, have made much hay about it.

As for Roy’s school finance study? If one doesn’t consider the political effects of other school reforms — most-notably, the moves Michigan made towards holding schools accountable for performance beginning with the passage of Public Act 25 in 1990, which brought accountability to the state’s traditional public school systems for the first time — then Roy’s hypothesis and evidence that Michigan’s overhaul of school funding and increased subsidies for districts serving mostly-poor students could be convincing. But Roy fails to measure the possible impacts of accountability on student achievement,something that he is capable of doing even within the time-period limitations of the study. As a result, the report is a very nice white paper that makes a  case for forcing states to finally behave responsibly and bear the full burden of funding schools, something for which Dropout Nation advocates. But it is not convincing evidence that increasing school funding leads to higher levels of student achievement.

One would think Baker could have found a better stalking horse for his debunking. In fact, the other studies he cites could have, in theory, been better for this purpose (although, one study, from MassINC, hardly offers the substantial evidence Baker claims, largely because it doesn’t account for efforts in bolstering accountability). Even his own handiwork would have probably sufficed. But the fact that he didn’t isn’t exactly shocking.

For one, Baker, like Ravitch, tends to engage in cherry-picking, citing the studies that best-favor his position and give no credence to those studies which offer a different narrative. Nothing wrong with that, to a certain extent, if you are a think tanker, a policy or grassroots advocate, or even an editorialist; after all, all three are primarily engaged in articulating solutions for issues and offering a worldview through which to frame them. But even then, they will admit there is another side to an argument and offer some level of nuance. But in the case of Baker, who is supposed to be engaged in university-based education research — an area in which solutions and opinion are supposed to be secondary to the goal of shining light on topics within education, and thus, supposed to be purer than thou — it means that he has moved away from being a researcher to being an advocate and pundit. Baker has essentially given up the role of being a pure researcher to being the very think tanker and advocate he generally despises. While Ravitch can pull such a trick off with ease largely because no one has ever considered her an empirical researcher in the first place, Baker is trying to play on both sides of the proverbial street and failing miserably.

Second, the reality is that research on school funding offers a far mixed view on the efficacy of spending more money than Baker is willing to admit. Even if one goes along with Baker and dismisses the legendary Hanushek’s famed meta-analysis of the issue, the research — including Harold Wenglinsky’s 1997 study on the use of school funding — articulates a different position: That isn’t so much the level of funding that matters. It is how the money is spent. And as Charlene Tow notes in her 2006 study of California’s school funding system, it can also depend on the source of the funding itself. This isn’t to say that higher spending in efforts that are focused on student achievement won’t yield positive effects, but that just increasing spending  in and of itself won’t work, especially if the districts receiving the funds are fiscally profligate.

All are points school reformers have been articulating in a convincing manner for the past three decades, whether Baker likes it or not. And in a time in which cash-strapped states are dealing with $137 billion in budget deficits for the next two fiscal years and must address $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs, simply focusing on increasing funding won’t work. And with so much money tied up by ineffective practices such as degree- and seniority-based compensation (including $8 billion a year dedicated to additional pay for teachers earning master’s degrees), it will take the systemic reform of K-12 in order to make school spending more effective in improving student achievement.

But Baker’s piece does hit on one of the biggest problems in education — and one of the reasons why debates over school reform can end up being so circular: Education research, including from those working in universities, is hardly an exemplar of any form of quality.

Let’s be clear: Education research at all levels is getting better and more-rigorous — and this is thanks to the data-driven efforts pioneered by Hanushek and William Sanders and advanced with the help of think tanks (to the annoyance of university researchers). But, as Forbes noted a decade in its report on the controversy surrounding the Success for All reading program, the education research field is often so incestuous that a supposed peer reviewer can also have a business relationship with the researcher presenting the data (and not recuse themselves in light of the conflict).  The interpretations by researchers can also be so agenda-driven that even if underlying data is solid, it becomes sullied by association. So peer review in education research is not as exacting as it is in more-rigorous social- and hard science fields. And as a result, criticisms of think tank research by university-based counterparts, especially from wanna-be Ravitches, end up seeming rather specious.